We Put Up The Tree (or…life is unpredictable when you’re grieving)

We lugged the Christmas decorations out of the basement this weekend, after my kids assured me we were the very last people who hadn’t put up a tree. Since the accident I’ve been something of a bah-humbug about Christmas fluffery, but I’m not going to take it away from Jana and Michael. We turned on our favorite music, and the kids dove happily into the boxes. 

Last year we didn’t put up Samuel’s stocking. I let the kids decide, and my ever-logical Jana thought it was silly to hang it since “he doesn’t need it, he’s dead.” (Michael took an opportunistic approach. He suggested we include Samuel’s stocking and buy presents as normal, but then he would open it all for his brother, and play with it too. We said no to that.)

When I asked this year, they both wanted it over the fireplace with the others. I was excited. We could fill it with little notes of love, or ideas of kind things we could do for others. Maybe we could buy gifts for Angel Tree or things to use in next year’s Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. We could write out memories of Samuel. An empty stocking is an opportunity for so many meaningful things!

Then Michael changed his mind. He paced the room, distressed. He didn’t want Samuel’s stocking out because it would remind him that Samuel had died, and then he would be sad. 

OK, no stocking for Samuel.

He deteriorated further as we decorated the tree. He didn’t want to include Samuel’s ornaments, although the rest of us felt it important. He broke down crying. He said he missed Samuel, but he didn’t want to remember his brother’s death, and he didn’t want Christmas to be sad. He admitted he was afraid of dying too. And all of this was going to ruin Christmas.

I sat on the floor and held him, tears running down his face. 

“Mommy?” His voice was small. “If we hadn’t adopted Samuel, he wouldn’t have died, right?”

Oh how my heart hurts. 

How do I answer that question?

The doorbell rang, unusual for a Sunday morning when we’re normally at church. A sweet friend noticed we weren’t there and left early to visit us. I wiped the tears off my cheeks and invited her in, thankful for her gesture. We talked while the kids and I worked on the tree. 

After she left, Michael’s interest bottomed out. He ran off to distract himself with something happier. Jana got scratched by the cat and didn’t want to decorate anymore. She disappeared to her room with the dog. Jeremy’s head started to hurt and he felt nauseous, so he excused himself to lay down, hoping to ward off the potential migraine. The CD ended. I stood in the living room, boxes scattered about the floor, alone except for the grumpy cat. I stared at the half-finished tree. 

Things don’t always go the way we plan. 

It’s worse since Samuel died. We get grumpy or tired, or knocked flat by a wave of grief, and things fall apart. But on the other hand, it’s better. Because compared to Samuel, what’s the big deal if our Christmas tree decorating family time is a flop? 

I reheated my coffee and finished the tree by myself. I might not care, but I can shoulder the task because it’s important to my family. I wouldn’t have chosen these lessons of life and death for my kids, but God has allowed it. They are learning what death looks like in this world. They also need reassurance that it’s OK to keep living. Grief and joy can coexist. 

I kept a few things out, just in case Jana decided to contribute a little more in the next day or two. I left most of the other decorations in their boxes. The kids won’t miss them, and I don’t want the extra hassle. We have enough.

We keep going, one moment at a time.

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. 

The First Day of School

I limped through the first day of school, but I made it.

I watched my kids walk into the building with their friends. Samuel would have run up the sidewalk, partially hidden by a too-big backpack… No, stop. I don’t want to go there today.

I cried, but not as much as I expected. Half-way through the tears I numbed over. 

Then I realized I forgot to take the obligatory back-to-school photo, and the tears started again. I have mixed feelings about documenting our family milestones with photos these days. I want to celebrate important events for my living children, but each picture has a sad, empty spot in it. Two kids, smiling with backpacks, missing the third. Oh, Samuel. 

I feel guilty for forgetting the picture. I feel guilty for my conflicted feelings about taking pictures. I feel guilty for taking one without Samuel in it.

Nothing is easy anymore.

Another School Year

School starts soon. I took last years papers down from the bulletin board to make room for the influx of new information coming next week. I took down Samuel’s kindergarten schedule.

There won’t be a 1st grade schedule to replace it.

I hold it, stare at it, wipe the tears from my face so they don’t drip on it. It’s his first and his last school schedule. I don’t want to mess it up with wet spots.

It’s not fair he’s been robbed of so much life.

My other kids are watching music videos on youtube in the kitchen. It happens all the time, some music in the background of my life that seems at odds with my experience.

And on that day when my strength is fading, the end draws near and my time has come. Still my soul will sing your praise unending, 10,000 years and then forevermore.

I want to be moved by the music, but I am not. I don’t grieve as one who has no hope, but I am certainly grieving as one who isn’t sure. I want to be settled, to feel comfort and know that Samuel is singing and dancing for Jesus. He would love that. He’s so cute he’d draw a crowd, even in heaven.

Meanwhile, back on earth, we’re organizing backpacks, writing names in composition notebooks, and digging out lunch boxes. The kids and I have decided which teacher Samuel would have had this year. I can’t decide if discussions like that help me, or if they add to my sorrow by giving me made-up scenarios to grieve. In reality, he was never going to have a 1st grade teacher. I just didn’t know.

Back-to-school is as hard as any holiday. Like a birthday, it’s a milestone of forward progress and expectations. This year it is happiness for my living children undercut by the pain of watching time go by without Samuel.

Social media turns into a danger zone, with photo after photo of the anticipated day. I can’t do it. Each picture taunts me, highlighting the gap between normal childhood and our agony. This is our first year to start school without Samuel, and it seems someone should realize how hard it is and say something to us.

We go to school to drop off our supplies, meet the new teachers, and help the kids find their desks. In the hallway I see Samuel’s kindergarten teacher from last year. She has suffered too. She’s taught two of my kids. She knew and loved Samuel before he was her student. We talk for a few minutes, both feeling disbelief that he isn’t here. I am thankful at least one person knows this is a painful time.

Mother’s Day

There are many people on my mind today.

I’m happy for the woman whose 2 year old is now 6 months post-transplant with Samuel’s heart.  I’m happy her child can run and play now without turning blue.  I wish I knew her name.

I imagine it’s a joyful day for Esther, who has one of Samuel’s kidneys.  She was on dialysis for 7 years, and wrote to tell us how thankful she was for a second chance at life with her daughter.

I think about Samuel’s birth mom.  Does she still grieve every day or has she tried to push it away so she can survive?

I think of friends (including Jeremy) who have lost their moms, friends who hurt because they are not moms, and friends who have broken hearts because they (we) love children who have left us.

I celebrate with a friend who will soon be going to China to adopt a little boy that waits for her.

And I’m thankful for my own mother and all of her love.

It’s a complicated day.

A Story About Samuel and Christmas

Four years ago our Christmas was stripped of all the extras.  We were in a large desert city in northern China, far away from Western influences, almost in Mongolia.  There were no Christmas trees, no holiday lights, no church service with kids dressed like wise men and sheep.  We ate at a restaurant on Christmas Eve that had a techno version of “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” playing on a loop.  We still taunt each other with that song.  Otherwise there was nothing. 

IMG_3851

Our first five minutes

We arrived on Dec. 23rd, got off a plane and drove to a hotel.  As we walked into the lobby with our suitcases, a little boy was waiting for us.  He cried, but let me hold him.  He was sweet, probably not sure what to do with us, the funny-looking people whose English sounded like gibberish to him.  He quickly made friends with Jana and Michael, and they played games with the telephone in the hotel room.  He was wearing a hat and race car tennis shoes, and he wouldn’t let us take them off.  So of course, he slept in his shoes.  The next day, Christmas Eve, I held him on my lap in the back seat of a taxi, and drove to some government offices. After a multitude of fingerprints and signatures on papers we couldn’t even read, he was ours.  Our son.  Didi, little brother.  We had been praying for that moment so hard.  He was the gift we had been waiting for.  Our perfect Christmas gift in a city that didn’t know about Christmas.

DSC02112

Brown smog on Christmas Day

I thought a lot about Christmas that year, looking out the hotel window onto that sprawling city.  Three million people, living their lives, with no thought about Jesus.  It occurred to me that even though it didn’t “feel” like Christmas, that year might have been closer to the heart of Christmas that my normal experience of holiday joy.  That huge city, all those people, needing God, and they didn’t even know it.  That’s why He came, right?  Not so we could bake cookies and give gifts, not even so we could have family time, light candles and sing about angels.  But because the world is lost and dark and we need Him.

As we got to know that little boy in those first few days, I reflected on the hardships he had already faced.  The first day of his life, wrapped in a blanket on the steps of an orphanage, his mother weeping with a broken heart as she walked away in the darkness.  The months in a crib among many cribs, without a mother or father.  Moving to a foster home.  More disruption as he left the foster family he had grown to love, and met us.  He was too little to understand the changes or why they were happening.  We named him Samuel, which means “God has heard.”  We wanted him to know that in spite of the tragedies he had been through, God was there.  God heard his cries when he was hungry, or scared, or lonely, even when no one else heard.  God loved him, and had never left him.  God was with him.

Four years later it’s Christmas again, but Samuel is gone.  I can’t wrap my mind around it, but it’s crushing me regardless.  And I don’t want to celebrate Christmas.  I’m left standing, broken and empty-handed, while everyone else’s life rushes past me in a blur.  The lights and laughing and gift-buying of the season are hollow and empty.  “Merry Christmas,” everyone says.  It isn’t merry.  I just want my baby back with me.  But as much as I hate it, I wonder if we might be close to the heart of Christmas again this year.  Samuel gets to spend Christmas IN the arms of Jesus.  That should make me happy, but it doesn’t, not really.  I confess my short-sightedness and lack of faith, and I’d rather have Samuel in MY arms.

But isn’t this why Jesus came?  Because our world is broken, and we desperately need a Savior.  He came for cities that have never heard, for orphans crying alone. He came for broken mothers, for mourning families, for uncertain friends.  We sin, we hurt others, we get hurt, we grieve, we are confused.  We try to make our own way, and we try to hold on to the earthly things we treasure, but it’s not enough.  God tells me that what I should treasure most is Him, and that somehow at the end of it all, He will be enough. When pain seems out of place at Christmas, maybe it’s because we’ve distorted the day.  We don’t rejoice at Christmas because everything is happy.  The joy of Christmas is because we find God, right in the middle of us, in the middle of our pain and sin.  He came to be a light in the darkness, and to bring victory over death.  Heaven is possible because Jesus came to us.  Hope and peace are possible because He came to us.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”  Immanuel, God with us.  Christmas is God with us. 

DSC02243

Also Read

Shattered

Fighting for Control

Like Stars