Okay, So I Lied and I’m Not Making Anymore Promises

Something strange happened to me this week. I was thinking about this overwhelming desire I have to declare myself all better. All cried out. All finished grieving. This desire is so overwhelming that I keep mentioning it in these blog posts, as if everyone reading is waiting with bated breath for me to make this declaration. I’m like a little puppy when I see someone who knows how sad I’ve been and how my dad’s big one-year-since-death anniversary just passed, I kind-of jump around wagging my tail, waiting for a pat on the head, hoping for a “Good girl!” because I followed directions and did what I was supposed to do and now I get a treat. Not a single person in my life has ever said, “Okay Anna, you’re all done. It’s time to move on.” And yet, I assume that is what everyone is thinking. It’s as if I’ve been deaf to what I’m really hearing which is “Take all the time you need.” So, the strange thing that happened is I began to believe you. And boy does it feel good.

After my last post, a sweet friend of mine shared an article featuring two authors who had written books about how they dealt with loss (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/weekinreview/27grief.html?_r=1. One of the authors, Meghan O’Rourke, said the following:

In those first months, I quickly came to feel almost embarrassed by my sorrow. Most people are uncomfortable around loss. Friends talk to you about “getting through it” and “moving on” and “healing.” We shy away from talking about death, not out of cold-heartedness, but out of fear. No one wants to say the wrong thing; and death is scary. I think this is part of why there are so many memoirs and movies about loss: they create a public space where we can talk safely about grief.

I was so grateful for this insight because, to be perfectly honest, I can’t quite explain why I wanted to share my journey via this blog, but I can tell you that I absolutely believe there is a need to create more space in our society to talk about loss, to support those in mourning, and to honor and remember those who have passed. I also appreciated receiving affirmation that death is scary. I think I told you that one of my first stops after losing my dad was the bookstore. So many of the stories written for children about death and dying emphasize how death is a natural part of life. I latched on to that, thinking that if I could incorporate that concept into my understanding of life and pass that on to my children, we’d all be better prepared for facing our next loss. God forbid. See? Even as I begin to accept that death is a part of a life, and let’s face it, it is, I fear the loss of another loved one. Death is a scary part of life.

Death really doesn’t make sense when you think about it. How could someone I saw several times a week just disappear, never to be seen again? Yet, that’s how it happens. It’s not like my dad and I made an agreement to stop seeing each other. Or, like one of us moved somewhere far away. I had no choice in the matter. One day he was here, in my doorway, talking, breathing, living, and laughing. And that night he died. Now there are no more opportunities to say the things we put off saying to each other. This is what we signed up for though, we may not like it, but death is just as much a part of the cycle of life as birth. And the pain I’ve felt, like my heart had literally broken open, like I couldn’t breathe, like I couldn’t imagine how any of us would go on, all of it, is just as much a part of my emotional range as joy. My pain has turned to emptiness and my disbelief has turned to sadness and as these changes occur, I begin to understand that death makes just as much sense as life. Death is part of life.

When I hear people talk about living life to its fullest I picture myself in the sunshine with wide open arms, a smile on my face, hair blowing in the wind, all but floating my way across a field of wildflowers to a pot of gold, or something. I picture my children and I laughing together and playing together. I picture my husband and I holding hands, walking along the Red Cedar River on MSU’s campus. I never get an image representing the other end of the spectrum. I have never considered what it would mean to live life to its fullest when I’m sad. I never get a picture of myself stomping out of a room, slamming doors, and screaming in anger. I don’t see myself falling apart. Grieving is teaching me that living life to its fullest means living every little bit of life. It means being free to feel every little thing from utter despair to boredom to sheer delight. I don’t get to skip over the sad stuff. None of us do.

I love that I get to live life to its fullest. It is true that I would not appreciate the happiness in my life if I had never known sadness. I love a good cry. I love a good laugh, as long as I don’t wet my pants. I’m finally listening to you. I’m finally listening to me. I think I get it. I’ll take my time, I’ll move through the ups and the downs, I’ll breathe into the waves, and I’ll begin to fill the empty holes in my heart with great memories of my dad. I’m not making another promise about what I will or will not write about the next time I write. I cannot predict how long it will take before a visit to my parents’ house doesn’t end in tears. I don’t want to predict it. I don’t even want to know. I just want to feel my way through, as I go. Wherever I go.

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

Well, tomorrow it will have been one year since you left us. In some ways it seems like the year passed by quickly, and yet at the same time it feels like an eternity since I saw you last. It’s funny how time does that. Since you died on a Thursday, today seems more like the anniversary of your death. It’s dreary outside. The snow is melting, leaving patches of ice and puddles of muddy water in its place. It’s been rainy. The air holds the promise of Spring, but it still looks and feels like winter outside. We’ve changed things up a bit. James and Dan go to Milford Music together for guitar and piano on Tuesdays now. I’m so thankful for that. It would be hellish to spend the entire day comparing the similarities of March 11th last year to March 11th this year. I can see myself recalling your image in the door around 5:30 as you hustle James out the door to his lesson. I could torture myself, again, remembering our last hug. I might even go downstairs to run on the treadmill, trying to recreate the whoosh of energy that came over me around 8:30 p.m., the time I feel sure that you died. I may have even drug the kids out of bed late at night to ride to your house in the rain, to find mom in the backyard with you. Our lives were so drastically changed that night. Her life with you by her side ended in just an instant. So, wow, despite the changes we’ve made in an effort not to spend every Thursday night in the same routine, remembering the details of the night you died, everything that happened a year ago is still so fresh in my head.

I’m scared Dad. I feel like I’ve been living in a protective shelter this year. I’m wrapped in a bubble that says I’m grieving and I’m fragile, so be gentle with me because I might break at any minute. What happens when the bubble pops? Do I really have a breaking point? Or will I rise to the occasion? I never thought I’d lose you or Mom before you had the chance to watch my children grow. But now I know that death does not discriminate. It touches all of us at one time in some way or another. It hit me hard this time. I’m much more sensitive to the fact that it will hit me again. Sometimes I even catch myself holding my breath, fearful of what lies ahead.

Throughout this year, the unpredictability of how I will feel from one minute to the next has been a challenge for me. Other than that, it is feeling so vulnerable that troubles me. I feel so raw, so exposed sometimes. I am learning that I can be strong and vulnerable at the same time. Who knew? I am learning to accept whatever it is I feel as it passes through me. I don’t hold on so tightly anymore, Dad. I am learning to let things go.

I’m sure you’ve heard that we’re having a Memorial Service for you on Saturday. From what I understand, it can get very busy over there on the Other Side. I wanted to make sure to mention the service now so that you can attend. Will you give us a sign that you are there with us? Let me know what it is and I will look out for it. I’m hoping we can have the service on the beach. I know you’ve always had a thing for powerful women so I’m sure you’re all cozy with Mother Nature now. Maybe you can pull a few strings and get us some sunshine?

I still think about how much I would have loved to say good-bye to you, Dad. I know in my head that you left us knowing you were loved and I know you are feeling our pain as we miss you. My heart still aches for that one last anything though. A hug, a cup of coffee at my table, a holiday together. I know you live on in our hearts and I know you can watch my children grow, but how can I be sure they will know you?

I’ve been listening to your music a lot lately. I am so grateful for your voice, Dad. Couldn’t you have thrown in an “Anna” every once in a while though? We have some of your recording sessions on CD now. Mom copied them for us. I’m beginning to label them with things like “Dad’s laugh” and “Dad breathing.” Maybe that is morbid in some way, but I just don’t want to forget those sounds. Your voice is part of me now, Dad. Thank you for leaving behind the tools I’ll need to make sure my children know you. They say the funniest things like, “Papaw is already dead! Why do we have to have a party for him?” That was Alexander. All the way to school the other day he and Sophia talked about how dead you are. Last night I heard Alexander saying to James, “we all miss Papaw, especially Mommy.” I hope I’m not traumatizing them with my tears!

Someone asked me if I was okay yesterday. It took me two hours to answer because I didn’t know what to say (the question came via text so I could take my time, even Mom is texting now!). I am okay Dad. I guess I’m holding on to the possibility that I’m not okay, just in case I crack or something… But the truth is, I am okay. I am okay and I am a wreck. I know you are with me and I miss you desperately. I want to celebrate making it to this milestone because everyone said the first year without you would be the hardest, but I dread it too because the hard part is all I know now and I’m afraid of what’s to come. I know you know this, Dad, but I have to say it: If I’m okay and if I move forward, like I feel myself being pulled to do, it doesn’t mean I love you any less or I miss you any less. I think I can let my grief go, gradually, without letting you go. I can hear you now. You’re nodding your head with your sweet loving smile and you’re saying, “Far out, Anna. That is far out.”

Well, I better go pack the car now. And, well, pack my bag?!

Take care Dad! I will look forward to having you with us on Saturday.

I love you!
xoxo Love,

Blog Therapy

My son, Alexander the Great, aka Thunderball and, more recently, Big Deal is five years-old today! I cannot believe it has been five years since this little love entered our lives. It seems as if we have been together forever. Yesterday he pulled out a picture of my dad and held it up to my mom. “I wish Papaw was here,” he said. As I struggle with my dad’s absence, especially on special days, it warms my heart to hear my kids express their feelings about their loss. I wish Papaw was here too, little buddy.

Alexander is the kind of kid who will say something endearing, like “I wish Papaw was here” in one breath and ten minutes later say something equally moving, like “I want to cut my sister’s head off.” He can say just about anything with his winning smile and sparkly blue eyes to back him. He is a bubbling, brewing, never ending life force. Everything he does is done with intensity. While Alexander’s fierce spirit can be frustrating to parent at times, he provides a great example of how to live life in the moment and to its fullest.

Alexander seems to have been on a mission since the day he was born. His birth was followed by the most difficult days of my life (and his, although he doesn’t remember them). I had an uneventful pregnancy and we worked together on a pretty quick birth. He was in a hurry, at about a week early. Looking back, it must have been divine timing that triggered his arrival. My little buddy was in trouble. He was so stained with meconium when he arrived that my midwives and his doctors thought he might have been in it for hours. He was purple. I didn’t notice his weak cry or his purple body because I was just so happy to have him here. We hadn’t decided on a name and as he was rushed to the NICU my husband, Dan, asked if we should name him Henry, which was our top contender. Henry didn’t seem right at the time. I thought we had plenty of time to pick out a name for our little bundle of joy. I thought we needed some time to stare into his little face to figure out what to call him.

My nurse told me that normally in situations like ours we would swing by the NICU and take our baby back to our room with us. A bit of a panic had begun to set in. I really wanted to nurse my baby. I knew from all my reading and my experience with my firstborn that if I didn’t nurse him right away and hold him for hours close to my skin, an acceptable bond would never form. Right? I began to fear that my child was destined to grow up detached and unable to love. I didn’t remember a chapter in any of my books about this type of scenario. If one existed I most likely skipped it thinking, and silently praying, we wouldn’t need to worry about any of that.

My nurse wrapped me in warm blankets after the best shower ever and Dan came to take me back to the NICU. I couldn’t wait to see my baby. When Dan returned he told me that he had named our little guy Alexander. This name was an early contender so it wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it was a far cry from Henry. What shocked me was what Dan said when he told me he had named our child: “He needed a strong name. He is fighting for his life.”

When we arrived in the NICU it was clear that Alexander was in serious danger. He was hooked up to a ventilator and there were many doctors and nurses gathered around, working hard to help him. As I approached the crowd, people moved aside to let me through. I was the mother. Someone handed me a few photos that had been taken of Alexander. A nurse came to me and said, “Do you want to baptize your baby? We can help you with that.” Pardon my French, but seriously, what the fuck? I couldn’t believe this was happening. I couldn’t even begin to reconcile that a day earlier I had been looking ahead to pure postpartum bliss, bringing a new brother home to my son, and enjoying long lazy days of sleepy cuddles with my family, and now I was faced with a choice about whether or not to baptize my new son in the NICU while he fought for his life.

When Dan and I went back to my new room, without our baby, surrounded by cries from other newborns and people celebrating their own healthy births, we began the game of wait and see. My most vivid memory of that time was Dan spooning me on my hospital bed as we sobbed, in complete shock and disbelief. Within hours of his birth Alexander was moved to Mott Children’s Hospital as a candidate for ECMO, a heart and lung bypass machine. Dan followed the ambulance. I was discharged a little later and my mom and sister took me to Mott. We stopped at Jimmy John’s for a sandwich. I couldn’t believe that I had just had a baby not even 12 hours earlier and I was walking around Ann Arbor so freely and without my baby. Not what I had imagined.

We loved seeing all the wires and machines disappear as he got better. He stayed in a drug induced coma until we left Mott. Words cannot describe my joy when I saw his little blue eyes open for the very first time.

Fortunately, Alexander made a turn in the right direction once he settled in at Mott. They had said he would get worse again, but he never did. Nobody could say for sure what had happened, but they knew he had severe meconium aspiration and pneumonia. There was no sign of meconium during labor. At one point Dan was told that Alexander had about an 85% chance to live. After a few days they sent us back to St. Joe’s Hospital in Ypsilanti where Alexander was born. And we held our little Alexander the Great for the first time.

All the doctors and nurses remembered him from his birthday, or had heard what had happened, and were so happy to see him back doing so well. A few people told me they were there that night and were scared for him. I’m not sure whether it was a miracle, modern medicine, or the strength of a tiny fighter, that got Alexander through. Maybe fighting for his life made him who he is today. Maybe who he is, allowed him to fight. The only thing I know for sure is that he is here and has blessed us in some way each and every day of his little life.

The question is, why share this story now? Through my life I have thought that when faced with a challenge, if I could just muscle through it and keep going, it’s all good. Once Alexander came home and Dan went back to work and we resumed our lives, there was no looking back. All is well that ends well, right? What I’ve learned since losing my dad so unexpectedly is that new trauma triggers old trauma. When my niece was born, she and my sister were also in danger. When I got off the elevator in the NICU at Mott to visit them for the first time, my body seized. I couldn’t breathe. All the feelings and emotions associated with Alexander’s stay there came flooding back. I all but collapsed in my mom’s arms when I made it to my sister’s room. And again, when my dad died, and we didn’t know how at first, all these little seeds of grief, tucked safely away in my heart and soul, sprouted all over again. Not all at once, but over time. I have been told that this will happen again and again. Until we fully process a traumatic event, bits and pieces of it can and will creep back into our lives, maybe to haunt us or maybe to help us.

So moving on is great. Trekking through the halls of the Med Inn to see my baby boy the day after he was born and pumping breast milk to store in the refrigerator in the NICU showed that I was strong. No nodding off in the baby’s nursery while he nursed peacefully for me. No herbal baths to soothe my healing body. We rocked him in whatever chair we could pull into our little area of the hospital whenever it was possible and watched him closely when we weren’t supposed to bother him. I moved on, I laughed, I looked forward to visits from big brother so we could all be together, and I poured love into my baby. Oh, and guess what, all that crap about needing to do X, Y, and Z to make a baby thrive, well, I wouldn’t suggest that anyone ignore any of it, but there are exceptions to the rules. During one of my freaking out episodes while Alexander was in the NICU and I wanted so desperately to nurse him (in order to ensure full attachment…), a nurse said, “Time is on your side. Let us do what we need to do to get him out of here and when you get him home you can do whatever you want.” And she was right. Despite what I had read in books, there was much to be said for following my own instinct whenever I had the opportunity. There is also a lot to be said for going with the flow when things don’t go as planned.

Even though I was able to go on and Alexander continues to thrive, something in all of this was never resolved for me. Something was left unfinished. I’m not sure what exactly. Maybe engaging in a little Blog Therapy is all I needed to reconcile all that has happened previously with all that is now. Getting it all out there can be extremely valuable. There is no rush to figure it all out right now because time is on my side.

While I wait to see how it all unfolds, I will celebrate my sweet boy and all that he is now. As I move along my path, I think I will allow the wisdom of Alexander to guide me. Alexander reminds me to live in the moment. To be present in all the joy and pain of motherhood, and in every other aspect of my life. The beauty of life is in what is.

Thank you for standing by as I work my way through this story.

Happy Birthday Alexander! Your mama loves you!