The Gift of Strangers

A member of one of the crafting sites I follow asked our group for gift ideas. She wanted to make something for the parents whose son had passed away a month ago. Suggestions quickly started trickling in. A nice coffee cup with his obituary picture, a fruity scented candle, the ever so coveted toilet paper and paper goods, and so on and so on.


Everyone had their heart in the right place, and I made sure to include that in my reply which in part read something like this:
“NO, NO, NO, this isn’t a welcome to the neighborhood, or here make your house smell pretty and yay, I’ll never use a real plate again (oh and remember the toilet paper fiasco of 2020)” type of event. I have a hard enough time looking at my sons’ pictures every day. I do not want to drink from a coffee cup bearing his funeral image.”

YUP, I opened a huge can of worms! instead of replying to the original poster, members started responding to me. Some shared my sentiments, while others thought I was way off base. It escalated to a debate of what’s an appropriate gift and at what stage of grief is it appropriate? Soon, there were just three of us communicating. We agreed to go off the site…well admin told us to…and then there we were, three grieving moms, finding their way to each other. What had started as a stringent debate about crafts turned into moms trying to find direction and comfort in each other.

We discovered that we are all in different stages of our journey. One mom ( whom I’ll call Julie) had lost her only child, a daughter, only 2 months ago while the other mom (whom I’ll call Mary) was eleven years into her journey. I, fall in the middle…finding my way through yet still stumbling along the way. Julie was newly shattered. She found it hard to get out of bed, eat, get dressed, or even communicate with others. She just wanted to stay in bed and cry. She found herself self medicating and sleeping the days and nights away. Mary shared her own journey and how she also was in that same dark place many years ago. She assured Julie that life would eventually get more manageable and confessed that during her darkest times, she didn’t want to live anymore. She told us how her family had her hospitalized twice for fear that she would go to any means necessary to end her pain. She confessed to us that those steps had actually saved her life.

We wrote about the nights and days following our children’s deaths ( uugg I hate that word). The noise from all the visitors during those first few days deafened us and the silence, once they stopped coming, was even more painful in itself. I shared how I still have my sons ashes, wondering if I will ever be brave enough to “set him free.” Julie lamented how she wished she would have not put her baby in the ground and how lonely her daughter must feel after everyone stopped visiting. She shared the guilt of not being there every day and how she no longer talks to her sister who confessed to her that it’s too difficult to visit her niece at the gravesite. She regretted screaming at her, ” YOU THINK IT’S TO HARD FOR YOU?? !! I pray you DO feel my pain one day!!” Oh, that pesky stage of grief…anger. I know it well.


It took Mary 9 years to find the perfect spot to finally put her son’s ashes to rest. She said she chickened out 3 times but once she let him go, she felt freedom herself. This selfless act allowed her to finally come to terms with his passing. She finally understood the undeniable depth of her strength and bravery …something she never thought she had even though she constantly heard “You are so Brave and Strong” She also explained how she was finally able to go through the infamous “box”. Grieving parents/people often have a box or drawer where they keep all the cards and keepsakes from the funeral or the days surrounding it. Some go through it immediately trying to find comfort in the words of friends and family, while others like me, struggle to find the courage to open it years later.


When it was my time to share, I felt like I was talking to long lost friends. I was able to share feelings that I am hesitant to share with others for fear of being judged or categorized as “The crazy lady who lost her son.” I told them that when they put my son in the back of the hearse, I climbed into the back of it and laid beside him, my arm draped over his coffin. I could hear the gasps and wails of mourners surrounding the Hearst. They were watching me and I didn’t care. I KNEW that this would be the last time I could spend time with him. Or would it be? I caught myself whispering, “I’ll see you in a couple of days”….with the intent of following through. I confessed how I sat on the bathroom floor with the bottle of anxiety pills the Dr. prescribed to me. I told them the only reason I didn’t take the pills was because there was no cup or bottled water upstairs and my legs were too weak to carry me downstairs. Mary told me that it was Joey, saving my life.

I shared my blog with them (they will be reading this) and told them that the reason I write is so no one forgets, especially me. There are moments when I suddenly realize I haven’t cried in a long time and the guilt is unbearable. It is then that I go back and re-read my posts and allow the painful memories to resurface. I make sure to step into the shower or close the closet door so Scott doesn’t have to hear the excruciating sounds coming out of my mouth. After a few minutes of weeping, I start to feel to a lightness…a type of unexplainable calm. It’s not because I cried it out, but rather because reliving the pain means I haven’t forgotten. Julie lamented and said she just wants to forget. Mary tells her “You will never forget. You just teach yourself how to cope and you become stronger than your pain. You learn not to out run it but simply learn how to walk beside it.” I tell her, “One day, I want to be as strong and brave as you.”

You already are,” she typed back. “You’re still here”

Finding Joy Through My Journey

The last of our grandkids and their parents had just left, leaving behind them a trail of Legos, coloring books, and soccer balls. There were sticky spots on the floor from spilled juice boxes, pieces of yellow cheese stuck to the bottom of my shoe, and of course the ever so tiny fingerprints all over my newly cleaned stainless steel appliances. “I need to have the housekeeper start coming on Fridays, instead of Wednesdays,” I said out loud to my husband. He was already busy loading the dishwasher and feeding the dogs pieces of leftover tri-tip. I grabbed the toy tub, and a wet rag, and started to tackle the mess. Who knew that 3 little kids could reek so much havoc and craziness but still manage to fill my heart (broken and all) with such immense joy. Thoughts of the laughter-filled afternoon replayed in my mind. Watching Hayden wobble around as he tried to master the art of walking,… Aubri giving me a ‘Glam girl’ makeover …watching Ares dancing to, of all things, Gangnam style for the umpteenth time. Whose life would not be 100 percent content and filled with the utmost joy and happiness having this abundance of love?! Whose sadness would not be magically erased by one simple wet slobbery kiss or an “I love you, Abuelita. I want to stay with you forever and ever.” Whose??? Mine

Not that long ago, I concluded that no matter what wondrous things come my way, I will always be sad. I will always have a void in my heart. This is not a pity party nor I’m not saying this for anyone to feel sorry for me. I stopped feeling sorry for myself a long time ago. I just painfully and simply accepted the fact that this is the happiest I will ever get. My life and my home can be overflowing with leftover craft glitter, ferocious plastic dinosaurs, and endless amounts of fruit roll-ups yet, I will always be sad and my heart will forever be broken. After you’ve lost a child there simply is no way of putting yourself back together, and bottom line, you will never be 100% happy.

This does not mean though, that I don’t find joy in the marvelous things happening around me. I watched my beautiful daughter walk down the aisle and witnessed her hold her newborn baby boy for the very first time. I was there when my son received the keys to his new home and been present for all of my grandchildren’s greatest accomplishments. I have traveled to beautiful foreign countries and visited some breathtaking islands. My husband has fulfilled my every desire and I lack for nothing tangible. But, as amazing and wonderful as these experiences have been, they will never fill the void, they will never fulfill me, they will never be enough. No matter how incredible all this has been, I will always wonder how much better they would have been if Joey would have been a part of them.

Would he have been the life of the party at his sister’s wedding? Would he have helped her pick up the pieces of her broken heart? How much fun would he have had on our family trip to Hawaii or Aubris’ birthday party at Disneyland??! How proud would he have been of his little brother becoming a homeowner? Would he be teaching his niece and nephews how to throw a ball or enlightening them with his quirky sense of humor? Would I have ever had the opportunity to dance at his wedding or watch as he held his newborn child? Would I have had the delight to clean his children’s fingerprints off of my appliances? I will never know. Thus, this is where my sadness lies. 

So, with that, I have tried to adjust to this new life I never wanted. I have fought many battles and I have come out victorious… never unscathed but victorious nonetheless. Through all of these lessons, one of the most powerful things I learned is that the secret to finding happiness is accepting where I am in life and making the most of it.

MY LONG LOST FRIEND

I didn’t think I would run into her anytime soon.  I was sure that with the current state of our country, her family dynamics, plus having to balance work from home, would keep her life busy.  I stopped giving her much thought and like a lot of things in my life, she slipped into the back of my memory bank.  I compare it to that old raggedy pair of favorite sweats you keep tucked away.  You love them, but know they have seen better days.  Still, you keep them because they are a part of you and your past. Every once in awhile, you will pull them out from the back of the drawer and slip them on.  “Well, hello old friend.”

At one time, she was all I could think of.  I worried and agonized so much over her day and night that all other aspects of my life took a back seat to the pain she was experiencing. But, as time passed,  normalcy gave way and other more important and timely things  took precedence. And if I was to be perfectly honest, lately  I hadn’t thought of her much. I knew she was moving on. Her social media posts were happier, funnier, more upbeat than usual.  There were pictures of her smiling, laughing over a glass of wine, taking trips, enjoying her family life!!  I naively assumed she didn’t need to be coddled or soothed like in the past. I thought that this was an answer to prayer. After all, I had prayed day and night that she would become a stronger more resilient human being. It seemed like her sadness had finally dissipated. She would once again be whole.

So, there I was, minding my own business at Vons. My brain was somewhat muddled.  I walked aimlessly up and down the aisles wondering what apocalypse I had wandered in to.  The empty toilet paper shelves, the missing pasta, the lack of water.  I watched as people’s shopping carts were close to toppling over due to the amount of non-perishables they kept piling on.  I must admit…the insanity started to pull me in.  I began to panic. What if my family was suddenly without?  I hurried around a corner, my mind racing trying to figure out what I needed to start grabbing. Just then, as I raced by the produce isle narrowly missing another flustered shopper, I ran straight into her!  I froze! I tried desperately to turn my cart around, divert my gaze, to pretend I was REALLY interested in the price of kiwi, but it was too late. There was no turning back, no running away. I just stood there, unable to move and it really didn’t matter anymore.  She saw me, but most importantly I saw her.

There was an audible gasp and my eyes locked on hers.  I stood there facing her, not saying a word.  I wanted to say I was sorry…to forgive me for not thinking of her, but I couldn’t get any words out.  I wanted to sit and talk to her and tell her I was proud of how far she had come.   How I was too scared to tell her because I was afraid of the real truth and that she would tell me it was all a farce…a well-played misinterpretation of her life and that in actuality, she was in a deeper darker place than before.

She just stared back at me, not saying a thing but reading my every thought. She had this look of anger, bitterness, deep sadness. She looked like a frail, beaten down old lady.  I saw the dark circles under her eyes.  They seemed sullen and the wrinkles around her face were more intense than ever.  Her hair seemed thinner and grayer than I remembered.  Her shoulders were slumped over. She looked defeated. She was someone I hardly recognized.

My head dropped.  I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. A huge lump formed in my throat. I didn’t know what to say. I just started to cry, my head hanging low, and I didn’t care. The crowd around us seemed to have disappeared and an eerie silence filled my head. She just stood there and watched me as tears rolled down my face.  She knew I was hurting; she knew I was in pain, but she didn’t care.  She wanted me to feel her agony. She wanted me to feel that burning, gnawing feeling in the pit in of my stomach.  You know the one. That horrible nausea that alerts you to the “something is wrong” emotion.  Just like the gut feeling I had the day Joey died. She had this grasp on me and I felt she didn’t want me to walk away, ever so oblivious to the pain that, no matter how hard she tries; she can never get rid of. 

I don’t know how long I stood there. With no tissues in sight, I started using the cuff of my t-shirt collar to dry my tears and snot. The young produce guy stood by me and asked me if I needed help finding something. I mumbled some idiotic remark under my breath. I think I scared him, so he just nodded and walked away.  I, though, just stood there. I felt guilty just walking away and honestly,  I didn’t want to walk away.  I knew that by turning my back to her, it would only intensify the guilt I felt, and the bitterness she clung on to. I mustered my strength and squashed any embarrassment I may have felt. I decided right there and then  that she needed to hear the truth.  She needed to know that even though she only crossed my mind on rare occasions, I still loved her and prayed for her.  Nothing in this world, other than husband, my children and grandchildren, meant more to me than she did.  She needed to know that it was okay for her to laugh. She didn’t need to feel guilty if the tears didn’t come as often or if a day went by without her recalling her worst nightmare.  I needed to tell her that moving into this new phase of grief was good and that it would NEVER diminish the love she had for him.  It was a new part of this journey and I was honored to be a part of it with her.

So, as I stood there, looking in the mirror that gleamed with mist from the vegetable wash, I looked at my reflection and I mustered a smile.  With the Iceberg and Endive lettuces as my captive audience, I finally gave myself permission to not be held captive by my grieving self.  I told her….ME…that it was perfectly OK to have a “normal” day or two, in my “abnormal” world.

Joey would be happy and so very proud of me….tears, snot and all.

 

WHEN TOMORROW COMES

When tomorrow morning comes, and I wake up, I will be grateful I survived another year without him. I will take a deep breath and do the same thing I have done for the past 3 years. I will roll over in bed to stare into the green light from our security camera that sits on the top corner of our bedroom. Four grief filled years ago today, that camera gave me strength to wake up another day.

When everyone left our home on the night Joey died, I went upstairs and crumbled onto the bedroom floor. My husband laid beside me trying his best, yet failing miserably, to comfort me. There was just no comfort to be had. When he finally got me into bed, he desperately fought to stay awake. He was afraid that in my dark state of mind, I would take one or five extra pills to take the immense pain away. I assured him I would be OK. I convinced him that I only felt like dying but that I would never follow through. He was so exhausted. He closed his eyes “for just a minute” and quickly fell asleep. I, though, just laid in bed gasping for breath. I felt as if I was suffocating. I could not breathe…I could not move…I could not feel…. I did not feel human. It felt like those night terrors most of us have experienced. You try desperately to wake up, but you can’t. You scream and no sound comes out. Then, just when you finally exhale a sigh of relief knowing it was just a dream, the terror drags you back in. The nightmare continues.

I needed to get control of myself. I was not of sound mind. I felt like I was in a house of mirrors with no way out. If I did not squash the thoughts of despair, I KNEW, without a doubt, I would not wake up in the morning. I knew I had lied to my husband. I was not OK. I just wanted to die along with my first born.

As I laid in the darkness of our bedroom, I began to stare into that green light from our security camera. It was almost as if something or someone was drawing me to it. I muffled my cries into the palm of my hand in order not to wake my husband. I quietly started begging God. “Please God! Bring him back…Joey, PLEASE come back! Don’t leave me! Oh honey, please let me know you’re OK ! I NEED to know you’re OK or I can’t do this!” Then, as soon as the last words left my mouth, the green light that, by the way is hardwired and I had never seen blink in the 8 years that we had it, started blinking. I began to feel a strange sense of peace came over me and I started to count those blinks. One…Two…Three… I got all the way to 16, and then it stopped blinking. I glanced over at the other camera light in our hallway, thinking there may be a glitch in the system. Nothing. That hallway light never flickered once. I waited for a few seconds just to be sure. Then, as I was reaching over to wake my husband from his sleep to let him know about the light, it started blinking again. Once again, I started counting. Once again it stopped at 16. I laid there, almost paralyzed. Could it be? Was it my grief playing mind games with me? Was it that far fetched thinking that God or Joey heard my cries of despair?? How can I deny this ‘coincidence’? Joey was born on the 16th and left me on the 16th. God lent him to me for only 32 years. Two sets of 16 blinks. 32 blinks for 32 years. I let out a sigh of relief, closed my eyes and fell asleep.

So, when tomorrow morning comes, and my body wakes from its slumber, I will thank God for helping me make it through one more year. I will then turn on my back and gaze into the green light. I will close my eyes and I will lie as still as I can . A huge sigh will escape my body and my breathing will begin slow. The peace and quiet of the room will engulf me. I will place my right palm over my heart, and I will begin to feel the beats radiating through my hand. I will hear each beat echoing in my head. One…two…three… I will count each one until I hit 32. At the precise moment of the 32nd heart beat fading away, I will open my eyes and quickly remove my hand from my chest. There is no need to keep it there any longer. My heart stopped beating when his did.

Are You Really Gone??

I was just slapped on the face by life.  Now I sit here, in dire disbelief, feeling the sting of it.  Not the sting of the slap, but the sting of life…the unbearable sting of death.  You see, a few minutes ago, it dawned on me again…you’re gone.

My life is a go, go, go.  Well, actually due to recent events, it’s at a standstill. It is my mind that keeps going, going, going.    These are crazy times we are living in and all that is happening in our world, the never-ending doom and gloom headlines, the daily life stressors, friends, family, etc., I sometimes  feel as if I carrying the world on my shoulders.  Everything seems to want to take priority and little things consume my thoughts.  And then there are times like today when out of nowhere, my world comes crashing to a halt and hits me like a cold bucket of water.  You’re gone.

Your sister and baby Hayden just moved into their own place.  As we were going through this box of “Why did you pack this, Alix?” “I don’t know, but I may need it later” I ran across a memory stick.  I was going to trash it, along with the 50 some pens she had hoarded, thinking it may be some unwelcomed memories of a time she would rather forget.  Instead, I stuck it in my pocket.    Once I got home, I threw on the kitchen counter not really giving it a second thought.  My muscles were aching from moving boxes and all I wanted to do was take a shower and climb into bed.  That key was the last thing on my mind.

The following morning, I went to grab it and was just about to  throw it in our junk drawer, ( the one where unwanted items go to die but you can’t trash them just in case you may need that one single Las Vegas dice or that little mermaid pen that’s out of ink ).  For some reason, I had second thoughts.  I left it right where it had landed the day before.  For the next couple days, that memory stick was gently pushed from one end of the counter to the other.  It just didn’t seem right to throw it in the drawer of doom. Ehh, I would get to it eventually.  Finally, as I was getting ready to turn off the lights tonight and go to bed, I caught a glimpse of its bright blue color that reminded me of a beautiful piece of intricate glass.   I felt as if I was drawn to it, so I picked it up and went straight to my office.  As I was inserting it into the port, I got this butterflyee (it that a word?) nauseated, sick to my stomach feeling.  It was  the same exact feeling I had been struggling with for a couple days. I keep trying to push it away, thinking it was nerves because your  sister was going on her own with the baby.   I told Scott that I hated when I felt like this.  It is the same dreadful feeling I had on the day you left me.

I watched nervously as the files were downloaded and then there it was.   There YOU were.  Your entire life from the days when you were just born to the months before you passed.  They were all in front of me on this giant screen.  I scrolled through every picture, devouring your smiles, your face, and your beautiful eyes.  It’s the closest I’ve been to you in years. Even the picture we used for your obituary was there, along with the one with the wings painted on that we used for the program.  I clicked on a couple that were short video clips. I heard your voice.  I heard your laugh.  I heard you sing to Sarini as she playfully laughed and made fun of you.  My stomach went into somersaults.  I wanted to click the screen off, but I couldn’t.  Each picture drew me closer and closer to you.  I reached out and touched the screen yearning to feel you one more time.

Scott came in to see what I was doing.  I think I heard his heart drop.  I never turned to see him.  All I said was “I forgot, honey,  he is really gone.”  All the emotions came flooding back.  Th antsy, ugly, nervous  feeling I had that entire morning.  Your dad’s phone call.  Scott’s words to me. My silent scream. The walk into the hospital. How everything was in slow motion.  The walk into the ‘viewing room’. Your beautiful body laying on that stupid metal bed with a stupid pink waffle blanket on top of you. I remember laying my head on you and feeling your cold body.  I buried my face into your chest and cried for you to come back to me.  I wasn’t finished loving you yet.

I went through each and  every picture and each picture brought the memories flooding back to me.  The way you played Pretty, Pretty Princess with your baby sister.  How you and your brother would sit on the couch on Saturday mornings watching the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles.  You would wear your ninja turtle underwear and P.J.s pretending you were each one of the characters.  How handsome you looked in your uniforms. How you KNEW how handsome you were! HA! The many looks and fashion eras of Joey!    We teased you how if the house ever caught on fire, and you had to run out, there better not be any mirrors along the way!  You could not walk past a mirror without first stopping to check yourself out.  Man, you loved yourself!  God, How I love you and how I MISS YOU. 

I haven’t said that for a long time….because I forgot you were gone.