Little Things

Final day of school before Thanksgiving break. I picked up the kids as usual. A year ago this would have been the last day Samuel went to school. I tried to remember picking him up. Was he excited, bouncy, happy about a class party or waving goodbye to his classmates? Did he ask me to carry his backpack, or argue with his brother? Did I notice the expressions on his face, or really listen to his chatter?

I can’t remember.

Another loss.

I didn’t know I’d want to cherish the details later. I didn’t know it would be important. 

 

Healing, One Year Later

Last Sunday afternoon Jana ran in her first 5K. She’s been training with some other girls from school for two months. After she finished she proudly held up a sign that declared, “I run like a girl, try to keep up!”

As I watched her, I couldn’t help but reflect on her condition this time last year. She had a fractured skull and multiple facial fractures. She was surgically given a synthetic orbital socket since hers was crushed beyond repair. Her facial injuries bled internally, with the blood pooling on the lining of her brain. Her concussion was so severe that a week into it she was still too dizzy to stand up and could not move her feet in a coordinated way to walk. Small changes in the accident could have left her with permanent, disabling brain damage, or she could have died.

This week she looks like every other 4th grader, except for a small scar on her cheek. Even her TBI is 95% healed.

I marvel at her recovery.

We have many reasons to be thankful.

Like Stars

Yesterday I was beyond discouraged. I had high, almost desperate expectations for something important, and it ended in disaster. I was angry and hurt. I felt unfairly criticized and misunderstood. My impulse was to run away in hopelessness and quit.

Later I stood in a long line to pick the kids up at school, hands stuffed in my pockets, staring at the floor. I always feel heavy in the school lobby, watching the kindergarteners trip over their shoes and backpacks as they are led down the hall. No matter how busy, Samuel’s absence echoes loudly, and the place feels empty. Two moms next to me chatted about the anxiety they felt dropping their little ones off at preschool every day. “It tears my heart out to drive away each morning, knowing I won’t see him for four hours! I want to see everything he does, hear every cute thing he says. It’s so hard!” 

Their loss is legitimate, but weighed down by failure, loneliness, and grief, I couldn’t muster any sympathy. I stared harder at the floor, willing myself to make it through. A friend walked up and touched my arm to get my attention. “Deep in thought? I think of you all the time. Can I give you a hug?”

And then I didn’t mind so much that I was crying in a room full of people. 

In the evening some friends stopped by. They sat on the rug, giving kisses to the dog. They acknowledged the approaching anniversary of Samuel’s death, and showed us a picture they had made of Samuel to hang near the children’s classrooms at church. 

Grief and trauma drain me, and I find myself unable to remember that people care. If I’m not reminded, the darkness in my head and heart take over. The picture for church is precious, but yesterday, it mostly mattered that they showed up. For a while the darkness gets lighter.

Even a small kindness is a gift. I am thankful and humbled by every one. Maybe they stand out brighter because the darkness of child loss is so dark, the way stars shine clear on the deepest nights. People say grief is a lonely road, and in many ways they are right. We have to process our own unique losses. But that shouldn’t be an excuse not to get involved. Friends can’t fix grief, but they are desperately needed. There is an enormous difference between lonely grieving and grieving while surrounded by kindness. 

Looming

We are 10 days away from the first anniversary of our car accident. In those initial months I remember thinking I could never survive a year feeling the way I did. Yet here we are, limping and broken, weary and angry, and it is November again. I vacillate from feeling relieved we’ve made it this far, to feeling guilty because I’ve been alive this whole time and Samuel hasn’t, and then to despair that this anniversary isn’t an ending, but the first milestone of the rest of our lives. 

The kids are either particularly tired, or they are feeling anniversary reminders too. Jana struggles to get out of bed in the mornings. She has become entrenched in feeling that life isn’t fair, and focuses that on her brother. He got more presents on his birthday than she did (9 months ago), he gets to do everything fun, he has more friends, and NONE OF IT IS FAIR. Her frequent dips into this mood are accompanied by a helpless attitude and plenty of tears. 

Just like the accident. We all felt helpless and the kid’s injuries were definitely not fair.

Michael has become a champion of irritability and stubbornness. This morning he complained about his waffle, needing syrup. The syrup was on the table in front of him, but he wanted me to put it on for him. He insisted he couldn’t see any syrup, and that I was punishing him by forcing him to eat a disgusting breakfast. He accused me of plotting his death by starvation (have I mentioned his tendency toward the dramatic?). He nibbled on a corner of his plain waffle instead of putting the syrup on by himself. He resisted getting in the car to go to school, and pretended to be unable to take off his backpack and unable to fasten his seatbelt. He covered his ears and repeated on a loop, in a grumpy and raspy voice, that the music we were listening to was terrible. 

Again, same feelings as the accident. Out of control, helpless, and angry. 

This season is filled with reminders of Samuel’s death. Pumpkin pie and the smell of turkey are entrenched in my mind as part of our last day as a whole family. A commercial for the Thanksgiving parade felt like a punch in the stomach. The thought of taking the kids to a park on these sunny fall afternoons fills me with deep sadness. It’s how we spent our last few hours with Samuel. Thanksgiving was warm, and we let the kids run off their lunch at a playground. Samuel was the first to climb to the top of the rope tower. I was impressed by his agility and wondered how I was going to teach him a tiny bit of risk aversion so he wouldn’t break his neck, jumping off the top of the swing set or trying to get a toy off the roof of the house. 

I am still haunted by the unexpectedness of the accident, and struggle with the contrast between Thanksgiving and the trauma of the following day. One day we were expressing gratitude, playing outside in the sunshine, pleasantly stuffed from too much dessert. One morning we were excited about our plans, chatting and reading as we drove along. One moment we were safe and naive. Confusion, pain and fear came out of nowhere. Blood, strange hands trying to untangle us from the car, emergency rooms, bare white hospital walls, brain probes, doctors with tears in their eyes. Samuel was gone. Even now it’s hard to understand.

People have asked me how I’m doing, and I am not sure how to answer. I have more energy than I did 6 months ago, which makes it easier to act normal when I’m around other people. I’m guessing it looks to others that I’m doing much better. I’ve regained the ability to distract myself, so I can numb my thoughts in a book or conversation. I’ve entered the “grief comes in waves” phase. In many ways it’s better than constant grief, which was relentless for months and left me struggling through the most basic responsibilities of my day. But the waves are unpredictable, and being knocked down by random triggers is disorienting. Really, the sadness is always there, covered by a thin layer of distraction that takes constant effort to maintain. I’m aware of it steadily draining me, even though I can sometimes keep from feeling it. 

Time moves on. Some days I dread it’s progression, wanting time to stop or go back to happier days when all three kids sat around the dinner table. But right now I appreciate the constant forward motion. However hard the coming holidays are, time will move us beyond them. In 7 weeks Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years will be over. Others will join me in post-holiday gloom, the it’s-going-to-be-a-long-cold-winter feeling that bites at you with the January wind. And I’ll feel more at harmony with the world around me.

Bitter, no Sweet

When Jana turned one, I was surprised by how fast she had changed. After years of waiting to have children, and months of pregnancy anticipating a baby, the time flew and suddenly I didn’t have a baby anymore. I knew she would grow up. Still, the baby-period went by so fast, and it was over. On her first birthday I realized that raising children is a process of grieving their growing up while celebrating their successes and all that they become at the same time.

I’ve tried to look at Samuel’s death in the same way. After all, if he had lived, there would have come a day when he would have grown too big to be tucked in at night, when the firetrucks and toy cars would have stayed untouched on the shelf for months. I would have given away his 4T clothes this summer because they didn’t fit anymore, and put special kindergarten papers in a box for safe keeping in the basement. These things that bring grief would have happened anyway. 

I can’t make it work. He left these things unfinished, and I can’t let them go as if they were completed and used to their fullest, in their proper time.  The bittersweet part of growing up is stollen. Only the bitter is left.

Every year for halloween our school has a costume parade for kindergarteners and 1st graders. Parents line the hallways, while the kids try their best to contain their excitement and walk composed, two full laps around the school. It is over in a few minutes, but the kids love it. Samuel walked with the kindergarteners last year, in an ugly penguin costume that he adored. He was most proud of having a tail, shy that everyone was watching, and hyper at the very thought of all the candy that he would own by the end of the day. After the parade I helped with the halloween party in his class, making trips across the hall to help in Michael’s 1st grade party too. 

As Jana and Michael are now in 4th and 2nd grade, this was my first year not having a kid in the parade. I watched the 1st grade parents going into school as I dropped my kids off yesterday morning, and cried at the loss. Samuel’s loss, missing all the things that a kid should experience in 1st grade. My loss, not having him, being excluded from the parade, my family now being older than it is supposed to be. I reminded myself that if the accident hadn’t happened, this would have been my last little-kid parade anyway. Jana and Michael have outgrown it, and Samuel would have outgrown it too. 

The loss for Jana and Michael is bittersweet. They don’t get to parade with the little kids, but they are now old enough to manage their own costumes. They have gained independence, cleverness, and blossoming confidence and personalities. 

Samuel’s loss, no matter how I try to frame it in my mind, is just bitter.