Monday, July 27, 2015

What a Wonderful World

Today Alexander started band camp. Those kids work so hard, giving up a large portion of their summer break. It makes me proud. There was a day, in doubt and fear, that I worried he would not grow up. Today, as I watched him walking away from me, his back so straight, shoulders slightly hunched at teenage boys do, fiery curls over his ears and in soft flame along the nape of his neck, a sweetness drew from my heart and I found myself whispering searing white thanks for gift of him. In this moment he is blissfully unconscious of the danger he faced, not thinking about that, not remembering the pain or the fear. The medications he takes every morning and shots he gives himself every night are far from his mind. He is starting his senior year. There is music to play and grades to achieve, money to be earned and money to spend, a future to contemplate and plans to make. Nobody has time for sickness. Between himself and his late oldest brother, he has never known a world without shots, pills, tests, doctors and hospitals. This is his normal and we give thanks for it; every single bit of it. He is straight and strong and pointed directly forward, his warrior's heart taking absolutely for granted that he is triumphant and will continue to be so. The victor writes the history. In this moment, all is well with my soul. The heart of a boy, the emerging shadow of a man walks away from me on a summer day into a bright and promising beginning. Thank God. Thank God.

I am in the first of four days off today. There is school work and house work to do, a husband who loves me fiercely and a home we cherish together. The world beyond us is a chaotic place over which we have little control and life has taught us that it will seep in and around the barriers we erect to protect this sanctuary we have built, requiring effort in defense of it. It is a good marriage, 13 years of romantic, passionate love on most days and furious, stubborn loyalty when the fickleness of romance frays at the edges. We are the Fellowship of the Ring, Dances with Wolves, Les Miserables....stories which in the writing and the telling spur me to depths of emotion that strike me as sacred. The most compelling stories in my heart are those painted with the human experience, those that aren't neat or tidy or wrapped up in pretty bows at the end, those pure in the telling and untainted by polish, unglazed, not taken by bitterness, sarcasm or scathing, distancing wit. I seek out and savor the stories that do not erase the tragedies and sorrows, but instead give each struggle its due, exposing the vulnerability, the precariousness of the normality on which we base our lives and the blissful assumption so many live beneath that all will continue to be well, with then the ultimate surrender to the sacredness of inner strength when that gossamer veil is torn away. Those are the stories that touch the core of my heart. On days like today, I see that in the story of my life and I am softened and quieted inside.

I love the human spirit. Perhaps that is the root of my calling in being a nurse. It is the one job I can think of in which I see it every single day; not the prettified version of truth, but the awful and bloody, the painful and torn, the iron exposed, the transformational growth. I see it in my sons. My mother. My husband. Myself. I see it in the world all around me. What a wonderful world.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Gone is Gone

It has finally happened. One of my ducklings has flown the nest. He isn't far away. In fact, he is less than ten miles, in a house right around the corner from my mother's. It doesn't matter. He may as well have moved to the moon. That is how far it feels right now.

Tomorrow marks two weeks since his official departure. It is sinking in. He isn't at camp. He isn't on a school trip. He didn't go spend the night (or a few) with a friend. He is gone. Out. Moved. Launched. Jettisoned. He won't be back for any significant amount of time if things go as hoped. Maybe a dinner here, a holiday there, split between his father and I. The little bit of him I had simply because he slept under the same roof is now widened into under the same sky, in a different zip code. My heart has gone still. Where has he gone? Not physically but mentally. Spiritually. Emotionally.

I am not sure really what I am feeling. I am worrying a great deal. Tallying up unanswered text messages. Noting responses to things I post on Facebook (or lack thereof). I keep stumbling into mental questions like "What is Nick's work schedule this week?" and realizing I not only do not know, I do not have a NEED to know. Stillness. I sit, waiting, feeling the softness of his absence settling down around me like drifting feathers. It feels like that scene in a movie when the young woman watches the young man drive away, leaving settling dust, the fade of his engine and a heavy silence, the taste of Did That Really Happen lingering lonely on the tongue.

Okay, that really isn't honest. He has left a LOT of markers he was here. In fact, he left half his room, which he swears he intends to come get as of a week ago last Saturday. No, nevermind. This past Monday. Oh. Wait. No. So so busy... Maybe on Wednesday. I reminded him he has two paychecks waiting for him here and then wonder, if money isn't a lure to get him to come home, what will be? Is he gone forever? Is he eating? Is he working enough to pay his expenses? Is he lonely? Making good choices? Falling prey to bad influences? Did he buy toilet paper? Should I ask? If the answer is "no", do I want to even know that and what it would say about my parenting? Are dudes in biker gangs picking on him and his sensible Honda Accord? Are his roommates stealing his underwear and putting them in the freezer? Is he eating ice cream out of a freezer with dirty underwear in it?! To judge by Facebook, he is spending a LOT of time watching that Neil DeGrasse fellow and this new expedition to Pluto. Oh sure. Out discovering new planets without me, that crazy, ungrateful wretch. How could he? Bet he can't wait to move THERE too! Hmph.

I wonder if he is spending his time tallying up all my failures as a mother ,the way I am myself, all the things I hoped we would do, all the books I should have read, hugs I should have given, one-more-kisses goodnight. Is he laying tearfully, resentfully in bed recalling the moments of bad temper and desperate punishments? The boring way I can't play video games or watch cartoons like his father can (Thank goodness I got rid of HER!)? Will my non-geekness and foofy girliness mean we won't ever be friends now that he has a choice on whether to spend time with me? Is he going to be okay? What is he doing, anyway?? To the concerned reader, yes. I realize this is neurotic as hell.

I looked forward to this time from the beginning. I could not wait to watch my children fly. I saw it as the ultimate reward of good mothering - a child that can survive without you is, after all, the ultimate, most basic goal. Somehow I assumed I would get to watch them survive without me, like a fly on the wall, a benevolent observer, hands half-way outstretched just in case of a fall. Turns out gone is gone. There is no watching, no wings, no poised-to-rescue. Just lots of worrying and hoping, praying and worrying some more while you try to figure out how to straddle the line between fond, loving, you-can-do-this, I-am-letting-go communication and neurotic, crazed, I-bet-he-won't-even-come-home-at-Christmas-now nagging on "why don't you call" and "are you taking your vitamins and using a condoms EVERY SINGLE TIME!?"

Here's the thing....the gut deep, honest truth. I have always hated the pressure of the "enjoy every minute, they grow so fast!" missives that the wise and older generations anxiously press upon you from the second they are born. Barf in your hair? Savor it honey, it goes away so fast!  Tantrum on the floor of Kroger? These days are fleeting! Take mental pictures!  Poop smeared on the bedroom wall? This phase won't last forever! Cherish it! Teenaged outbursts, filthy hair and scary things under the bed you don't really want to know about? That is precious, precious time honey  The sentiment never resonated with me and I never understood it, which lead to circles within circles of what-kind-of-a-mother-are-you-anyway levels of guilt. For all those who ever said it to me, I hated you in that moment. Loathed. Resented. That statement of "They grow so fast, better cherish it" came laden with lots of guilty push-back for me and a stifled retort of "Oh yeah! Want to stand in line at Wal-Mart with them the day before Thanksgiving? No? Then get away from me! Pfft. Cherish indeed. Jerk."

And now......suddenly.....finally.....I get it.

Turns gone. That silence? That is the sound of all the things you didn't get around to doing, the things you could not afford to give or that life didn't allow for. It has a flavor, a bitter is the essence of your ideals regarding the perfect life you wanted to provide, calculated almost subconsciously in the millisecond moment when your arms tucked in and around their slick, newborn body and their blurred, sweet eyes met yours for the first time. That was it, Sheri. That was your only shot. Your turn is over and the opportunity to go back and do it the way you hoped to is gone. The gone. You sought to mold him, to provide him with a good life and an unyielding, unending, painfully honest love. Instead, you discover that is exactly what he did for you. I am convinced he taught me more than I did him. I am absolutely positive I am a better person for the experience and awash in gratitude for the time I did get. And I am knocked backward by how hard this is. I think I fully expected it to pale in comparison to Joseph's death. They are different, two complete and separate modes of mourning and both are very, very painful.

Like so many things....the fantasy of it is so incredibly different from the reality. I am missing my boy. I am that Mom after all.

Saturday, May 2, 2015


I finished my Bachelor of Science in Nursing a couple of weeks ago. It felt like a personal triumph, given how hard I fought every step of that process. I was my own worst enemy, building up dread, creating internal chaos, fostering procrastination that ultimately lead to the worst kind of motivation - panic. But it is done now. In a sense I have arrived. A four year degree was never, ever in the realm of my consideration. I had told myself long ago I was not of the caliber of person who earns such a thing. I was wrong. Not the first time.

As I work at my job, doing what some might consider demeaning labor but which, on the better days, I find to be a personal joy, I consider how far I have come. Nursing is dirty work. We smell, touch, feel, clean, treat the most basic and degraded of human conditions. We see people at their lowest and most vulnerable points. Eyes look to me daily, watching for a twitch of my brow, a purse of my lips, a wrinkle of nose...anything that might indicate to them any information. Am I disgusted? Do I mind? Is this normal? Are they going to be okay? Have I seen this before? One of the greatest privileges is handing people back their dignity, providing as much independence as possible, celebrating as things we all take for granted every day when we are healthy slowly become reacquired through the journey to wellness. It almost always is truly two steps forward, one step back. It is that step back where I am needed the most.

I get so much more than I give, on my better days. It can, at times, be hard to keep perspective. So much more goes into nursing than simply providing comfort and concern. It is a scientific profession with a unique, holistic basis. Family drama and intense anxiety go hand in hand with the hospital experience. I deplore conflict, yet witness a great deal of it in my profession.  Doling out hope versus reality versus probability versus acceptance is a tricky dance. I have learned not everybody wants the truth. Not everybody wants comforting. I suspect at times the act of comforting can imply in and of itself the presence of illness and the potential for death, triggering hostility in some patients toward the medical staff. Not everyone reacts with grace or gratitude to pillow fluffing, endless questions, invasion of their space, their privacy and their sense of control. My experiences with Joseph have left me with unique insight, insight so deep that I sometimes get baffled at death denial in our society. It is painful to me. It is something I have learned to recognize in myself and draw back from, to let the patient lead the way. Not everyone wants the truth. That is hard, as a nurse, to be part of. I am a "value truth, give them choices" kind of person. But to accept choices requires one to recognize there are decisions to be made. My saddest days on the floor are the days when a family cannot face where life has brought their loved one. We all die, but so many never, ever consider this fact. As a culture our uniform coping with life's end is deny, deny, deny. Then when it happens, shock. Anger. Blame. Reproach. Fear.

I'd love to change the language of death in our society. I'd love to help people have more days at home, fewer days in the hospital. I'd love to be a voice of change, not just for my patients here, but for the population. That is what gets my juices flowing. Joseph didn't die the way that he wanted to, nor did he die how we would have chosen had choices been presented to us. Perhaps that could have been different, perhaps not. I do not reproach myself and I do not reproach his medical team. I just wish it could have been different. Better.

I am thankful to Joseph for sharing the experience of dying with me. I am thankful to him for burning out of me very distinct parts of my personality and thought processes that made me not a very good person, that his death was the launching pad for a person I actually like and who continues to grow, change and alter herself. I am grateful to him. He may have been quite helpless in his illness and his death, but somehow his very presence seized a power that is more than anything I ever created within myself. This power created something new and different within me. I feel a deep and humble responsibility - to Joseph, to my patients and to myself.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Roll Away the Stone

They have been saying 
all our plans are empty
They have been saying
Where is their God now?

They have been saying 
No one will remember
They have been saying
Power rules the world

They have been saying
No one hears the singing
They have been saying
All our strength is gone

They have been saying
All of us are dying
They have been saying
All of us are dead.

Roll away the stone...

For someone whose faith took a huge hit when Joseph died, this day has come to mean so much to me, deeply, spiritually, quietly. I really don't celebrate Easter the way that most traditionally do.Once upon a time, there were elaborate baskets and hidden treasures, fancy clothing and crowded church services, family pictures and feasting. As I went through my divorce, losing the house, going bankrupt, my faith started to die along with my marriage. Alexander's brain tumor, my father's sudden death and Joseph's suffering and departure pushed me further and further away from the God I had been raised with. I never really could hear His voice, but I was comforted in the idea of Him, once upon a time. It was a great loss to me and I was angry. Angry at how life was turning out, angry that I was not deemed "Good enough" for the endless blessings I perceived in others around me...jealous, angry and devastated. I was fractured and the faith I thought I had was leaking out of the cracks.

I am not sure when things finally began to change for me. I picked up a book called The Shack, a book that spoke of God and finally, finally FINALLY didn't pretend I needed to be happy or less than angry or less that bitter. That book acknowledged my internal rage and sense of abandonment. It put God into person in a way that I could read about, somehow finding the fragile tendrils of my need swaying in all that brokenness. I held on bitterly. I needed it and knew I needed it, but I was not happy about that. I didn't want a relationship nor did I want a conversation. God sat quietly with me. I didn't have to look at Him. We didn't have to talk. He let me know he was in the room and I let him know I would not pretend he wasn't. That was as far as it went.

I won't pretend it is a whole lot further than that now. I reach out a hand sometimes and touch his presence. I talk to him once in a while. He talks to me frequently.

Easter has become for me the most personal, intense, sorrowful, hopeful holiday. It is on my inside. Not on my outside. I have rolled away the stone.

The above are the lyrics to my favorite Easter hymn, by Tom Conry. The choir at church sang it for Joseph's funeral and it has come to have deep emotion and meaning attached. It is the very sound of my hope and my faith.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

I Will Never Be The Same

As I head into the end of Alexander's junior year, as I revisit Joseph's short time with me, as I look into the impenetrable future, wondering what will happen to Nick, I begin to assimilate the idea of a future that belongs to me.

I was a stressed, guilty, discontented young mother. I found toddlers and preschoolers to be maddening little tyrants. When I was little, I played alone. I read. I listened to music. I imagined and dreamed and danced. I enjoyed my imagination, uninterrupted, creative and full. I loved silence that let me hear myself. Three little boys in quick succession meant next to none of those things and my inability to feed my own soul lead to a lot of distress for me. I didn't know it would be like that. I didn't realize I would struggle. I dreamed of them, caressed my growing baby bumps for each individual boy, felt them move and wondered who they would be with a kind of incredulity reserved for the purely miraculous and magical. The first time I held Joseph, he overwhelmed me with a devastating love. They took my very soul with their perfection, their little shining heads, their endless craving for me - my time, my touch, my presence, my food, my skin, my attention. I was so unworthy of it. I loved with a mightiness that overwhelmed me and fell again and again on the rocks of my guilt for all the times I strained away and struggled.

I wanted so much for them and yet I was so flawed. I could provide so little. They got hurt. Guilt. They got tired. Guilt. They banged on the bathroom door. Round and round I would go, lost in fascination and love, then devastated by my separateness and my internal drive to maintain that. Other mothers seemed to come to it so naturally, to savor a world that revolved around and around that unrelenting need. I fantasized about escape from that broken cycle of intensity, love, then guilt, then pain. I contemplated running away. I fantasied about staying overnight in a hospital with good book. I daydreamed actively about the day they finally grew up, stretched out their wings and took flight. I just knew I would be great at letting them go. The perfect mom, finally able to satisfy a need in them with grace and wisdom, launching them into the air, shielding my eyes and watching the beauty of them fly off to their individual purpose. No emotional clinging here; no staking them to me with my inability to accept life as it moved on. No Sir, not I.  It was something I never doubted. That part, I would do right and they would love me for it and ultimately we would all get our happily ever after.

Then Alex got a brain tumor. And my father died with so many unresolved things between us. And then Joseph got sick. And got better. And got worse. And then the unthinkable, the part you never, ever imagine other than in flashes of horror when you hear it happened to someone else....then Joseph died. The very universe exploded. No part of me remained. I sucked in my breath and I never exhaled.

Nick has left school and is lost at this time, a typical example of a typical family in these typical times. I am overwhelmed with worry, with guilt, with frustration and with resentment. Plans are made and discarded, agreements earnestly agreed upon as the sky falls and casually tossed aside when the clouds clear, with every inaction seeming to dare me into causing conflict I do not want. I search the Internet, I search my soul and I wonder if I have the internal energy for another battle I ultimately don't have the power to win. Failure to launch. Apparently it is rampant these days, with kids as old as their 30s. Who knew. The only thing I am certain of is that I am not in it for that kind of time frame. My daydreams now are of a two bedroom cottage too small for boomerangs.

Alex gets closer to his senior year and my "take off the leash and let them fly" mantra burned up somewhere in the fire of Joseph's death. I'm sad. I'm anxious. I feel what might be a kind of PTSD, the loss of Joseph mangling the impending graduation of my youngest. Its funny. No part of me wants to hold him back. But I feel a deep, guttural hurt inside.... grief that he may go, fear that he may not.

As I mature into my maturity, I find myself drawn to things I would not have been before. Carefree hairstyles. Bohemian colors and textures. I want that little cottage with its overgrown garden of flowers and whispering trees on the land. I want to drink a beer at 11 AM. I have spent half my life avoiding the sun and cigarette smoke, gloating that I will look young for a long, long time. I feel the positive freedom of rebellion to report that I am getting a tan this summer. I just decided today. Not by chance on vacation, but by intent. I want to be a tanned person for once in my life. I want to wear hats or kerchiefs in my hair. I want bare feet; I want a dog. I feel as if something has cut loose inside me, like a pent up, fought-against snort that dissolves into a giggle fit in the middle of church, one in which nobody but me understands and may seem like insanity to some, downright rude and wrong to others, and to fellow kindred spirits, the start of something with the potential to get hilariously out of hand. I want to be sacrilegious to the things I "should" do, "should" want, "should" be. I want to taste the freedom of giving in to the whims that are mine alone.

I probably won't get a dog.

I changed irrevocably when Joseph died. The Next Big Thing is here again, already, and I find myself, instead of cowering from and fearing the changes, racing toward them, laughing like reuniting friends, almost with a kind of frantic relief. I find in the heartache an unexpected well of opportunity. I will be my own salvation. Once again, I am not who I thought I would be.

Anyone up for a beer?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Hello, Old Friend

Hello, Blog of Mine. Your pages smell dusty. Your binding is dull. It would seem I have neglected you for some time now. Since ultimately you are me, I don't really need to catch you up on what is going on in life. A new job. A new specialty in my nursing practice. A new turn in motherhood as boys turn into men and mothering turns more to guiding and praying than managing and doing. I am uncomfortable in my own skin these days. I feel like I am struggling against the weight of expectations that are dissonant and tuneless. Chaotic noise. I don't really understand the place my career has lead me right now. I don't really understand what to do with near-grown young men who are so obviously not ready to be adults and yet who must start making headway in that direction. I don't know how to make myself continue to work at school when down to my core I feel repelled from it. This last I attribute to stubbornness, I admit. I am weary of being in school. I'd like to start living without deadlines of that sort.

Tomorrow marks eight years since the day that Joseph left us. It seems unfair now when I think of him, as both of his brothers have now passed the age he was when he died. He no longer feels exactly like my oldest in my mind, because I have no frame of reference for who he would be now. Nick and Alex stumble along like most people their age, making the typical mistakes and struggling against the typical trials of early adulthood and causing the typical exasperations and worries in their parents. Joseph didn't have the chance to make any real mistakes. Oh sure, he made the usual mistakes that come up to age 13, or maybe just to age 11. After all, once he was diagnosed and entered treatment, his life was never normal again. His worst sin after that was arguing with Alex over who was worse off, himself with his leukemia or Alex with his brain tumor. Why anyone would want to win this particular joust is beyond me, but take up their banners they would and go head to head over the issue. Something was to be won there, but I am not sure what. That and abusing his nurses. He was a little shit to them. Sorry guys.

This year I approach it more like a childhood fear I have outgrown, a monster in the closet that has lost its roar, who I know now to be more sad than scary, whose fangs are dull and lifeless, no bite left in them, no curve to those claws. I stand quietly by this monster, called Grief by some, Time by others and put my arm around its tattered shoulders and face the direction that Joseph has gone. If he were on a journey he would be far from here by now. Eight years is a long time to live without your child. I try to envision where he is and rolling green hills fill my mind, his lanky, tall body straight and healthy, a dog at his side, his face to the sun and a path stretching before him that beckons with the sound of laughter, cool streams, the neat stitch of agriculture along the land and somehow the scent of the sea on the breeze as a promise just ahead, luring the spirit onward toward the endless life of the ocean he loved. It is as clear to my mind as the living room before me, the colors bright and shaded with hope.  I will go there someday, I whisper to myself. I too will walk those hills and follow that breeze to the shore. And there, I will find him, tall and sure, his smile and his voice and his hands as familiar to me as the day he was born. The Wisdom of the Ages will embrace us and the meaning of these struggles will be clear or cease to matter, wrapping us in forgiveness, love, reunion and hope. These things I ponder. These things give me peace.

Eight years later Joseph, I still struggle to bid you farewell. I am still not used to life without you and when I look upon your pictures, I still feel the cutting ache of bafflement that I have not seen you in so long. Your face remains so familiar to me. The loss of you does not age. I remember the way you move your hands, the way your eyes smile before your mouth, the way your voice lowers into your throat when you are earnestly talking about something. I remember how you would say "Love Mama" in a childish voice and wrap yourself up against me. I remember so much. I remember you. Do you remember when we were talking about death together and you told me you believed Heaven to be the place where "If someone really wanted a puppy in life and never got one, when they got there, they would get a puppy"? I hope you know I really REALLY want you to have that puppy. I hope it was there running circles around your ankles the moment you arrived. I hope you know how hard I try to honor your memory, to be some of the goodness you embodied and that the world was deprived of in your loss. I hope you know I love you. That I have found purpose. That I have found joy. That I am living and breathing and carrying on and you are with me every step of the way. I remember you Joseph. I remember you and I will never, ever forget.