It is finally cold. I turned on the furnace for the first time this season when I got up this morning. Last night was the first holiday party. My fingers are cold and typing is a little bit difficult.
I have so much to look forward to right now. Travels and trips, new skills and new friends. Family coming for Thanksgiving and Christmas with my local family later. I love this time of year and fear it. So much happened to change my life forever at this time of year. I have managed to make those changes as good as it is possible for them to be, but it doesn't erase the painful memories of the catalyst for all of these changes. Yet these memories, in spite of their pain, are sacred to me. They were the last ones I got with you.
Ten years ago today you came home from the hospital for the very last time. I lived in a tiny, somewhat crappy apartment and was as poor as poor could be, struggling to get through working part time, going back and forth from the hospital, caring for three little boys under the age of 13. You didn't see any of that though. You saw home, and home was wherever we all were. You vowed to make your brothers breakfast every single day. That is how happy you were to return. We cuddled a lot. You helped make Thanksgiving dinner. You asked if you could help, so I gave you rolls and a brush and a bowl of melted butter and you carefully basted every inch of them, top, bottom and sides. You spent the day with that soft little smile on your face, the one that reminds me of my Grandpa Reichmuth. You would go rest and then return, your body unable to keep up with the desires of your heart, so you just did the best you could and truly seemed to enjoy the punctuation points that your exceptional effort resulted in. It is a lesson I have personally yet to learn. You didn't waste time bemoaning what you could not do. You did what you could and took your satisfaction where life presented it.
When it came time to eat our dinner, you looked about at the plenty your life was affording you and you were so happy. You had the turkey leg you had been craving. I didn't think that day about what made you so anxious to be home and involved. I just savored you, a temporary calm having descended on the family. We didn't know the countdown had already started. We just didn't know. I wonder from time to time what I would have done differently if I had known. That particular day, Thanksgiving of 2006, I can honestly answer "nothing". You weren't safe to go to Thanksgiving Day celebrations with all our family. We made the most of it in that small apartment and counted our blessings where they lay. I am grateful that on that day I didn't waste time railing against what Fate had wrought on us. It was the beginning of my beginning combined with the beginning of your end. That is something I don't like to think about very much. The idea that this is what it took for my selfish heart to crack is a dark, dark place to stare into.
People sometimes ask me how I do the holidays now, having lost a child and having watched you dying one labored breath at a time throughout the holiday season. I never quite know how to answer that. I guess it comes down to just a few key things.
1. Your last days started at this time of year and ended just when 2006 ended and 2007 began. Those are sacred memories. Horrible things happened then, but they broke down walls. It was raw and it was real. There is something very authentic in the memories of that time frame, when life took away any possibility of pretending we live forever, when all the platitudes of "everything will be okay" were wiped away for the falsehoods they always were. I faced the demon of your mortality nose to nose, toe to toe. We lost the fight, but when I look back now I see strength and spirit against an unbeatable foe, not just in myself but in you, your father and your brothers. One doesn't have to win to be remembered as a hero.
2. Life is both happy and sad. I never knew those things can coexist until this time ten years ago, when I started my first painful lessons. Their coexistence feels authentic to me now, but infuriated me then. I do not feel disloyal anymore for being happy and I do not feel guilty for the times when I am sad. I don't struggle with the idea that it is the holiday season and therefore I should be happy happy happy. Believing that would mean happiness is a right, a given, something that was denied me while being provided to others - and I know now it is not. It is something to be held on to while it is there. The fact that it will always leave eventually makes the flip side equally true - that it will always return if we let it. And so as I sit through many moments like this one, where I think of you and wonder and hurt and regret and yearn, I see with increasing clarity the happiness in those memories. Suffering does not have to only mean pain and being happy doesn't mean I am forgetting you, your journey or your absence. You came home for Thanksgiving. You grew weaker every day from that point forward. But we were happy at the beginning of the end. That seems beautifully ironic now.
3. I do believe I will see you again. I believe that with every fiber of my soul, down to the rocky core of who I am. I did not know my own faith until I had to wrestle with wondering where you are now and my faith is now nothing like what I thought it was supposed to be. It is so free from dogma! My inner compass of right and wrong is strong and sure and yet so sweet and so gentle. I love my faith. My belief that you are still in existence somewhere just beyond the veil fuels me. I truly know that the world was robbed when you died. By being what I feel to be a good person, I feel I am giving into the world a bit of who you were and what you had to offer. That, in turn, will allow me to face you without shame when I do see you again. I will not have wasted my life in sorrow and pain. They are heavy burdens but they can be shouldered. Once I let go of the idea that it is unfair that I should have to carry them, they became more manageable. Everyone has burdens to carry. Mine is my own...how lucky I am that mine involves carrying you. I would carry you forever and always, to the end of existence if need be. I hold you right here and you help me be who I wanted to be all along but could not shore up beneath until you.
4. The world is a sorrowful place. Nobody is as happy as the Christmas commercials and movies tell us. My gentle sorrow makes room for others' sorrow and that is important work to me. Everyone needs permission and space for their sorrow and to realize that it can be a mutual burden. That everyone has it. It is such an illusion that anyone has ever had everything together and a perfect life. It is more honest to realize nobody does. Not one person. How much lighter sadness is when room is made for it to exist. It actually calms that inner demon and the sweetness of connecting beside our sorrow seems like a true, if unlikely, doorway into the ultimate emotion.....gratitude.
This is why I don't fight that sorrow being here, inside me and visible too. There is always a temptation with the death of a child to let it become the ultimate in loss. While it is certainly a source of intense, long-lasting, at times unfathomable pain, it isn't the only pain out there. I would even go so far as to say there really aren't categories of pain. Mine can't be greater than yours because I can't feel yours like you do. As it turns out, pain can unite us and it is in that unification that we can access the kind of Christmas sweetness we aspire to feel. I don't want to have more pain than others. I just want to bear up underneath mine in a manner that feels authentic to who I now am.
We all want to reach out to the soup kitchens and poor children at Christmas time and we absolutely should do that. I believe Mother Teresa referenced though that the true poor among us are the emotionally poor. That is a kind of poverty that is usually ignored or overlooked and everyone suffers from it at one point or another. The great thing is that it is everywhere, in that it is easy to access and impact if we just open ourselves to doing so. It can be done right in our own homes, places of work, churches and communities. I truly believe that one to one, person to person, is the source of healing from great pain and that it doesn't come from looking for others to fill us up. Rather, it comes to us softly as we seek to impact others in meaningful ways, ways that are meaningful to the receiver. Beautifully, that can be done in just a moment's hesitation.
My soul has been raw for a long time Joseph. I hope it never hardens up again. Yes, it hurts, but as I remember you I realize it is a gift. I love you. I miss you. I'll be home one day and I hope when that day comes, it is obvious my work was well done, not just for my own sake, but for that of all I have the small power to impact and for all that I know you wanted to do and did not get to.
I want to see you in the snow on Christmas morning....love and happiness surrounding you...as you throw your arms up to the sky...I keep these moments by and by.