"I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life;
to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived." ~Henry David Thoreau

Friday, July 31, 2015

Compassion Over Contempt

A while back, I saw a depiction of a man yelling at God, telling Him about all the horrible things happening in the world. Human suffering, war, natural disasters, etc. He says to God "Why have you just sat back and done nothing while people on earth are so broken?" And God says to Him "I haven't done nothing. I sent people like you to help others."
You can interpret that one of two ways. Either God is a lazy jerk who expects humans to do all the work, or He is a wise God who expects humans to lift each other's burdens. I choose to believe the latter.
I've spent an average of one day a week since last September at therapy with Devin. He goes to a children's trauma center here in Salt Lake that caters exclusively to children who have been through hell. A lot of the kids have been taken out of abusive homes, some have been in bad situations in the foster system, some have parents who are drug addicts and have gone to prison, some are sexual victims, some have been abandoned, and many have experienced the death of a parent or sibling. I remember back in August when Devin "qualified" to be treated there and it felt surreal that our family was now a statistic in the books. We belonged with all of the other people we saw come in and out of that place.
In the first two months after Garrett died, Devin was all but mute. He had turned completely inward and he actually exhibited most of the signs of severe autism. Of course he was not autistic, but it felt very much the same. Those first few weeks of therapy were terrible and I would leave every day in tears, feeling like I had lost not only Garrett, but Devin as well. But through the miracle work of his therapist (who soon became a cherished friend), the old Devin began reemerging fragment by fragment. We still have a long way to go, but we have come far since this time last year.
Because I spend so much time at the center with him, I have the chance to observe many people coming in and out of that place. A few weeks ago I sat in the waiting room with two women who must have been in their late fifties or early sixties. They had three tiny children with them, and I gathered that the kids were siblings. All of them looked frazzled and tired and shaken. I couldn't help but hear what the ladies were saying to each other and I soon put the pieces together that they were the children's grandmothers. I looked at the kids who were about five, three, and one. The oldest child's eyes had a hollow look to them and he acted a lot like Devin acted when Garrett died. I sat there and watched this group and wondered where the children's parents were. Had they been killed? Did they run away and abandon the kids? Had they been sent to prison? whatever the circumstance, I could tell by looking at these people that their world had been shattered.
I came across something similar today. As I sat in the waiting room, in walked a man who had three little boys in tow. One was a baby in his arms, and the others were preschoolers. Two of the kids were in their pajamas, the man hadn't shaved in days, and he looked like he hadn't slept in at least as long. He had a big diaper bag on his shoulder and he was sweet and patient with the boys, but he was exhausted and he too had that broken look about him. He sat with the fussy baby on his lap and he tried to soothe the boy and I could only imagine what was happening in his mind. I wondered where the children's mother was, and whom I could only infer was, the man's wife. I silently wondered what had happened in their world to get them in waiting room.
And then I thought back to a woman and a four year old boy who walked through those doors on a day last September. The mother had lost her youngest son in a drowning accident only weeks before. The little boy witnessed the death of his best friend. Both of them were plagued with nightmares out of a horror movie and the mother and son were disconnected from everything around them. The boy didn't talk, didn't make eye contact, and never smiled. He startled at loud noises and was scared of his own shadow. He hid under a chair in the waiting room and was terrified when the therapist came out to meet him.
As I think about the massive amount of human suffering that walks in and out of those doors every day, I can't help but think about the therapists, staff, and volunteers who work there and welcome the broken hearted in with open arms. I think about Devin's therapist who has one of the most kind, compassionate, and empathetic souls of anyone I've ever met. People who go into that profession will never be wealthy and will probably never drive fancy cars or have the money to go on extravagant vacations. They do what they do because they take responsibility to help alleviate the suffering of others. THEY are the ones God sent here in His stead. It pains my heart to go there each week and be surrounded by broken people like us. But it also helps heal my heart when I am surrounded by people who work there, who love us, and who are cheering our family on.
Devin had a good session today, but as soon as we got in the car to go home he asked to listen to "From Where You Are" by Lifehouse. Give the song a listen and you'll know right away why it's a Garrett song. When Devin asked for it, I hesitated because I knew it would make him sad. But I also know I'm supposed to follow his lead with his grief. I turned the song on, and he immediately turned somber and he started to cry. Then he wanted the song on repeat and we listened to it for the twenty minute drive home. It was oh so painful, glancing in the rear view mirror to see his face red and swollen and covered in tears. I sobbed as I drove, and my heart felt like it would burst. Why, why, WHY does my child have to endure this? Why do my other children and my husband and myself have to endure this? Why did God do this to our family? Why doesn't He come in and take the pain away or turn back the clock? Why doesn't He FIX THIS??!! Why is this our life?! Why don't I have my Garrett?! Why doesn't Devin have his soul mate?!
As I drove, I didn't get an answer to my plea. But I did think of that Dad in the waiting room, all disheveled and shattered, and I thought that the only thing I have control over in this life is how I treat people. How I make people feel. How I can help alleviate their suffering. I can't turn back time and change what happened to my family, but I can learn from this how to better help other people. I can be kind and smile at strangers. I can be patient rather than react when I'm met with a rude person at the store. I can stop and think that maybe something happened to them to make them that way. I can practice compassion rather than contempt. I can work a little harder to be God's instrument, and to make the sun shine just a little brighter in the life of another.

Becoming Gandalf

There's a monster inside of me that I fight on an hourly basis. It's the monster of jealousy at all the parents out there who haven't lost a child or dealt with another sort of catastrophic loss that flips your world upside down and robs you of the ability to be a "good" parent. A happy parent. An excited parent. An enthusiastic parent.
I fight this jealous feeling every time I'm at the grocery store and I see a little boy in the baby seat of the shopping cart. I fight jealously when I see pictures of complete families, because it means they have all of their children. I fight jealousy of people who don't have to visit a cemetery to have all of their children in one place. I fight this terrible, green monster every time I think about the kind of mom I used to be, the kind of mom I still LONG to be, but the kind of mom that died when my child died.
I don't want to walk around all day with this aching pit, deep in my stomach. It's the feeling of incompleteness; the feeling that something huge is always missing. While walking around a little town in South Dakota this week, we passed by one of those old-timey western photo studios and for half a second, I thought it would be fun to go inside and have our pictures taken. Cody could be a gun fighter, I could be a saloon girl, etc. And then that pang hit me square between the eyes and suddenly the thought of having a family photo taken was repulsive because all of our family wasn't there. Maybe I should have pushed past those feelings and had the pictures done for the sake of my living children. And maybe one day we'll have that picture taken, but I couldn't do it on that day.
I used to be the worst critic of the kind of mother I was. I wasn't patient enough. I did too much laundry and not enough Candy Land playing. I got mad too much. I didn't act silly enough. The list goes on and on, and it's only through hindsight that I can see how good a job I was actually doing. I think my kids always knew how much I loved them and how they were my number one accomplishment and priority in life. At least I really hope they've always known that. I did my absolute best that I knew how to do, in my Old Life. And in this New Life, I'm doing my absolute best as well. Most days it sure as hell doesn't feel like enough, but I have no other option than to hope and pray that it suffices.
This evening I walked in on Devin using the potty and he was sobbing. His eyes were bloodshot and he was crying in those deep, gut wrenching, heaving sobs. It startled me and I asked what was wrong, and he told me between breaths that he missed Garrett so much. I sat on the bathroom floor as he sat on the commode and my heart felt like it would break in half. I cried with him, but felt utterly helpless. After the initial feeling of despair, I was once again overcome with that Green Eyed Monster and I was desperately jealous of the mother who doesn't sit with her little boy in the bathroom as he hysterically cries that he wants his dead brother back.
And right then I wanted to be That Mother. I wanted to go in the kitchen and be jolly as I pull out the makings for homemade cookies, oblivious to the heartache of people like the Real Me. But instead, I sat there and consoled my Devin as he asked for the one thing I can never give him. He doesn't want cookies or Pinterest birthdays or a mom who volunteers for every field trip. He wants his best friend, his soul mate, his brother, and his Old Life back.
It was then that something inside my head, sprang to the forefront of my consciousness and said "It's easy to be that kind of mom when things are going well. But what you're doing for your family right now is not only a million times harder than throwing the perfect party or smiling all the time. It will also be more rewarding in the end. You have been given a huge responsibility to get your family through this, and that's a responsibility that isn't given to a lot of parents. Screw all those parents who have it easier than you. Screw the mom you USED to be. The kind of mom you're growing into is much, much deeper than many parents will ever have the opportunity to become."
I was vacuuming the van as these thoughts came to me, and I wanted to scream. I wanted to raise my fist to the Universe and say "I don't give a F*** about growing or changing or becoming more!! I want my Old Life back!! I don't want this shitty responsibility!! You can take this learning experience and shove it!!"
But the reality is, THIS is my reality. I don't have the choice to go back to the old me that didn't know how the hell of this last year feels like. The only choice I have is to fight with every ounce of strength I have, to take my family through this and come out on the other side as unscathed as possible. Shortly after Garrett died, my sister in law told me that she had a small glimpse of what our family could be like when all this is "over". The only way she could describe it is from that part in The Lord Of The Rings when Gandalf the Grey dies, and then comes back resurrected as Gandalf the White; stronger, wiser, brighter, and far more powerful than he was before. She said that's how she envisions our family one day. That little glimpse has helped carry me through some of my hardest days.
I would give anything to go back to my Old Life. But since that isn't an option, maybe becoming like Gandalf the White isn't such a terrible aspiration. Maybe.

Looking For Oregon

We've been en route to South Dakota for the last few days, and made it here last night. Today we went to Mt. Rushmore, one of the most beautiful and American places in America. I watched families walking around, taking pictures, and enjoying the summer. I saw them smiling. My family walked around and took lots of pictures and we smiled a little. The kids smiled, but I didn't very much. It's very hard to smile anymore, even when something is funny or touching. It's as if my cheeks muscles don't work like they used to. It's as if my cheek muscles have atrophied from lack of use.
This time last year we were finalizing funeral plans for our three year old son. Those words should never go together to form a sentence, but a year ago it was our reality, and it will be our reality for the rest of our lives. We picked out a casket, burial clothes, made a program of speakers and musical numbers, and I worked tirelessly on a twenty-five minute video of that little boy's life. That's what we were doing exactly a year ago, and it's hard to think of anything but those horrible days.
As we have driven through one of the most beautiful parts of the country, I find myself continually looking for the Northwest Coast. A week after we buried Garrett, our family took off for a vacation to Oregon. It was a trip we'd been planning for months, and when Garrett died, we knew we still needed to make the trip for the sake of our living children. They needed to have some fun and their cousins were good at distracting them. At the time, I hated everything about the trip. I hated that we made the exact same trip three years earlier when Garrett was a tiny baby. I hated staying in the same hotels and walking along the same beaches. I hated seeing park benches where I nursed him. I hated that around every corner, there was something to drive the knife a little deeper into my heart. Above all, I hated that my littlest boy was not there, and that we would never again take a vacation as a complete family.
We are in South Dakota, home to the glorious Black Hills. The Oregon Coast is more than a thousand miles away, and yet it's where my heart longs to be right now. As I've spent the day in a very sad place, trying desperately to make my cheek muscles work to smile at my happy and adventurous children, it's dawned on me that I feel an insatiable homesickness for Oregon. Today in a gift shop there was a display of magnets from all fifty U.S. states. My hand didn't go straight to a South Dakota magnet, though I love collecting magnets from places we've been. No, my hand reached for the Oregon one. I paid for it and walked around the rest of the day with it in my pocket. Every once in a while I would reached into my pocket and squeeze the magnet and run it through my hands.
All day long as I've felt this homesickness for a place I've never called home, and a place in which I felt miserable last August, I've wondered why Oregon has made my heart ache so much recently. Last year, I spent most of our vacation in bed or walking alone along the beach. Sometimes I'd curl up on the couch in the beach house and write and my eyes were full of tears during every waking hour. My heart was truly broken and my life felt destroyed. So why on earth am I now feeling such a deep emotional pull toward that place?
Tonight at dinner I realized that because it was so soon after Garrett's death, I felt him so near me. There were times on that trip when I felt as though my heart would stop beating at any moment. I would sit on the beach and cry out in anguish and suddenly, I would feel something that was almost tangible. Looking back on it, I believe it was Garrett comforting me. Maybe he was sitting right there on that beach with me. Maybe I could feel him in the misty ocean breeze. And because it had only been a few weeks since his death, I could still remember what he smelled like and it hadn't been that long since I felt his warm skin or heard his laugh.
And even though it broke my heart to revisit the places we'd spent together when he was a baby, they were shared places, nonetheless. I had Garrett memories of those places.
And here in this cozy little cabin in the Black Hills of Custer County, I have nothing. Our family is in a place that was never shared with Garrett. Yes, we are moving on a making new memories, but that's the worst thing about it. It feels like we are leaving him behind and it's enough to make the tears spill from my eyes like hydrants. Right now I want to be curled up in that house in Lincoln City, hearing the waves crash against the shore, crying and listening to music that makes me think of my Baby. I want to be that close in time to him. I don't want to be a year out from his death, because it means it has been THAT long since I've held him or heard his voice. Even though last summer was a miserable time, part of me wants to go back to that misery because at least I felt him and hadn't forgotten the Little Things yet. I'm starting to forget Things, and it scares the ever living shit out of me.
But whether I'm in South Dakota or Oregon or on the other side of the world...my reality remains the same. I am here without my youngest son, and I feel broken.

Monday, July 6, 2015

4th of July

In my old life, I had my Nikon strap around my neck everywhere we went.  If the kids were playing in the backyard, I'd be snapping pictures.  If we went for a family walk, I'd be following behind everyone photographing all the candid moments.

The very last thing I saw through my lens before Garrett drowned, was him standing at the picnic table eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; the last food I ever made for him.

After that, it was a long time before I looked through that lens again.  It hurt far too much to do it, and it felt like I was looking at his ghost every time I did.  The joy I once felt at documenting our family, was gone.

This weekend we went to Idaho to celebrate the 4th of July.  I decided to spend time getting to know my Nikon D5000 again.  It felt kind of good to stand on the sidelines and take pictures of the life happening in front of me.  I smiled a little as I watched the kids having a great time with their cousins.  I will never see life through the same lens again.  That life is gone.  But hopefully and maybe, there is still a lens worth looking through.