I’ve been distracted, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Wait, I should explain, considering the distraction is this horrible virus that has altered our world in a way that was inconceivable four months ago. The deaths, the panic, the ridiculous hoarding of toilet paper, the sheer volume of information we are being pummeled with every waking second. And so much of it is bad info which only causes more panic.
And look, I’m digressing, just like I’ve been doing all week. All month, really.
Because normally, as soon as I wake up on March first, the emotional–and physical, to be honest–countdown begins. My chest starts to hurt, and the pain grows with each day, for fifteen long turns of the calendar, until we reach… today.
Four years ago today, my son left this world. He was thirteen years old.
That moment in 2016 changed my world forever. I was meandering along this path called life, generally pretty content. I hadn’t experienced anything truly horrible as of yet in my forty-plus years. Yeah, losing my grandparents was sad. My classmate in college who died from leukemia was shocking and terrible. The recession, when I lost my job and was unemployed for over a year was challenging. My mother’s breast cancer was scary, but she made it through and is cancer-free now.
None of that prepared me for the mind-numbing, heartbreaking, breath-stealing, utterly painful experience of my child dying.
Even right now, four years later, typing these words, I can feel my heart clenching. There are tears stinging my eyes. My breath is stuttering. It is still very much a physical sensation as well as an emotional one.
It’s a mental challenge, too. When something like this happens, you have to figure out a whole bunch of things that would otherwise never, ever occur to you.
I still vividly remember walking through a room full of coffins on display at the funeral home. Literally, it’s a show room. For coffins. There were even signs indicating a few of them were discounted. “30% off” and “Clearance.” Sure, it was tasteful, but still, coffins for sale.
I also remember selecting his grave marker, and then deciding what to write on it. At the time, we were making the decision based on what we thought he’d like, when in reality, whatever you have noted on that stone is for the living. Everything about the process is for the living, but when you’re making those decisions, all you’re thinking about is the dead.
We went with, “We love you.”
And then there’s the irrational fear of someone else in my life dying. I say it’s irrational because the reality is, we are all going to die at some point. And even if it’s done properly, after living a long, fulfilled, generally happy life, and the end is not painful; it will still hurt those who are alive and forced to carry on without that person. So yeah, it’s irrational, but my traumatized mind doesn’t care.
There’s also the guilt. Guilt for carrying on with life, guilt for letting it happen, guilt for not seeing it coming so therefore we could have changed the outcome.
And then there’s the ache for everyone else whose life was affected by my son’s death. My daughter, first and foremost.
A little over a year ago, I had a random conversation with an acquaintance about the fact that my daughter goes to a very small, parochial school. This person said to me, “Are you sure that’s a good idea? How will she be prepared for the ‘real world’ when she graduates?”
This person didn’t know about my son, and I wasn’t interested in filling her in on my personal life, so I didn’t say what I wanted to, which was, “Oh, trust me, my daughter has experienced more ‘real world’ than a child her age should ever have to. I’m reasonably certain going to a small school is not going to damage her further.”
In fact, we deliberately enrolled her, the very next week after my son’s death. It was a knee-jerk reaction. We were trying to shield her from having to face her brother’s death over and over again every single day, which is what we felt would have happened had she gone to the same middle school that he had attended.
Four years later, my daughter, the younger sibling who is now an only child, has flourished in ways I am grateful for more than I can possibly express, and much of the credit goes to that very small school in which she is still enrolled.
So, back to the distraction. While it kept me from obsessing over this day for the last fourteen, it’s here now, and I have to deal with it.
This morning, as soon as I woke, I brewed a pot of coffee, filled my travel mug, and headed out for a visit. If you’ve never spent time in a cemetery (and I consider you one of the lucky ones), it’s an incredibly serene place, especially early on a sunny Sunday morning.
There was no one else around, which is admittedly how I like it when I visit. No one else needs to listen to me rambling to my dead son or sobbing while standing over said dead son’s grave.
The place where his ashes are buried is located next to a lake, and his gravesite is on the bank of this tiny stream that meanders its way into that larger body of water. There’s a huge oak tree nearby and an arched, wooden bridge over the stream. Twenty-foot tall arborvitaes separate this section from the main cemetery, lending a sense of intimacy. I like to wander along the path that follows the stream to the lake. It gives me a sense of peace that I honestly don’t feel while I’m standing there staring at my son’s name carved into a chunk of stone. Being near his grave forces the sadness to the forefront, gets the tears out, while the walk provides me with the calm that allows me to tuck the sadness back into its place in my heart, so that I can return to life, to living. To being with my family.
To appreciating the time we have together.