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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

All The Firsts

When you have a baby, it's all about firsts...

her first smile, the first time she sleeps through the night, her first coo, her first laugh...

and the firsts just keep coming through the years.

So then what are the firsts like when your child dies?  Here's my list:

The first time you view her body at the funeral home.

The first time you return to the cemetery to see her grave filled in.

The first time you eat out in a restaurant without her.

The first time you go to a movie without her, draping a hoodie beside you in the seat to the right of you.

The first time you smile after she is buried.

The first time you seriously contemplate suicide.

The first time you admit you need help.

The first time you reach for your phone to call and check on her before you remember she's dead.

The first time you realize your remaining child is still alive and needs you.

The first time you realize never telling that remaining child "no"  because he might die, too, is not helping him.

The first time you realize you are using medication to escape the pain.

The first time you realize you are not the only one grieving the loss of your child.

The first time you realize losing your child does not make you special.

The first time you know you can survive this loss.

The first time you speak in public about her.

The first time you do it without crying.

The first wedding you attend after knowing she will never have one.

The first one you attend without being medicated.

The first time you go to your family's holiday gathering without her.

The first time you wear one of her dresses.

The first time you allow yourself to see how many people she has touched and continues to touch.

The first time you watch American Idol without her.  

The first time you know the pain she went through has found meaning.

The first time you think maybe your pain has meaning, too.

Friday, April 6, 2018

"Shut Up When I'm Talking To You"

I sabotage myself.  I do.  Still.  But at least now I can spot it and name it, so that's something.

Two nights ago, I took Jake and Tim to see the musical, Lion King.  It was amazing and we had a great time...except...
except at intermission, Jacob wanted a hoodie and while paying for it, I noticed a dainty little set of charm bracelets that belonged on Cory's arm.  And just like, my heart landed at my ankles and the sneaky, nearly imperceptible feelings of guilt and shame began to hum in the background of my thoughts.
Here having a great time at Lion KIng, are you?  For the second time?  Seeing it in New York like Cory never got to wasn't enough, Nick?  She should be here.  But she's not.  Why is that?  What role did you play in that?

The persisting thoughts that I could've saved her started there; by the next day, they were all encompassing.  I laid in my bed, my dog beside me, poring over every minute of July 5, 2012, seeing every much horror.  My chest began to hurt, but still I couldn't seem to stop myself from replaying every last moment and trying out all the possible variations if I'd done something...anything...differently.

The guilt I feel whenever I enjoy something now that she's gone?  I don't know where that comes from.  I know it's not logical.  I can push my way past it after I've had a day or two to feel it, name it, and send it on its way.  It does not help me.

But the shame?  Where does that come from...this pervasive, horrifying feeling that a better mother would never have sent her child on an errand she could run herself?  That certainty that my judgment in that single moment was deeply flawed and cost my sweet girl her life- it's nearly impossible to renounce; where does that come from?

I have one idea.

I remember feeling responsible for Cory's death the moment they told me she was dead on the road.  So there's my ownership of feeling not good enough and like a failure at keeping her safe, the hardest thing I'd ever done up until that point.

Thinking it was my fault that Cory died has plagued me ever since.  Every human being I've ever spoken to about this thought pattern has assured me that it is illogical and distorted...
except one.

Of all the hurtful things Bob has ever said to me, telling me Cory's death was my fault was easily the most damaging.

Most of the time I have been able to separate myself from his out of control emotions, even if took years to do it.  Looking back now, almost all of his words have lost their power.  Like anyone else, I can sometimes be difficult, but I am not a bitch.  I may act foolishly at times, but I am not stupid.  I didn't always know my self-worth, but I was never a slut.  Those names he called me?  They belonged to him and to his rage, not to me.  I look in the mirror and see them nowhere in my reflection.

But the accusation  I keep hearing in my head?  "You might as well have been driving the car yourself."

Ridiculous?  Yes.  I would never hurt Cory on purpose.  But my mind translates it so effortlessly to "You should've gone to the store yourself.  She'd have never been on the road that day.  She'd be alive today if only you'd done it differently."  Now that plays in my heart so genuinely.  For what is the primary job of a mother, if not to protect her child?

Unlike Bob, I don't for one second think I was a bad mother.  But maybe I wasn't good enough.

So this is when I borrow a page from Cory who had to deal with auditory hallucinations, not just memories of something mean said to her by someone unstable, on a daily basis.  Sometimes, she'd talk back to them, tell them they were wrong.

Shut up, Bob.  Shut up when I'm talking to you. 

Where were you that day? 
 What did you even know about her? 
 Did you ever worry when she was growing up if she was hungry or cold or scared?  Did you?  
Where were you all her life?  
I know where I was.  I was there taking care of her, loving her, feeding her, clothing her, tucking her in, soothing her fears, buying her books, listening to music with her, watching movies, talking, joking, laughing, enjoying the wonder that she was.

And I know where I was that day.

I was cooking her dinner.  She was nineteen years old and I was still worried if she was hungry, if she was scared, if she felt loved, if she felt good enough, if she was okay.  I thought about it when I woke up in the morning and I thought about it before I went to sleep at night.

So shut up, Bob, shut up when I'm talking to you.

And as far as Lion King goes,  Cory would've loved it. I know every part she would've laughed at.  I know the scenes she'd have declared her favorite.   I know she would've clapped until her little hands throbbed, leaping  to her feet before any of us for the final curtain call.   But if she couldn't go, she'd want me to take her little brother who now stands three and half inches taller than she was.  She'd want me to watch his face just as carefully.  She'd want me to notice the parts that made him belly laugh and discuss them in length with him on the car ride home.   She'd want me to reach over and grab his arm in the dark during the exciting parts, even if he pulled away in embarrassment.  She'd want us to enjoy every moment.  That's just the kind of girl she was.

The kind of girl I raised her to be, Bob.

That same girl  told me the voices were scary and hurtful but they were wrong.  That same girl, on a good day, would sometimes get so fed up with the voices' annoying commentary that she'd stop in mid-conversation with me to tap a slender finger lightly  to the side of her head and roll her eyes in contempt.  The look on her face?  These stupid losers just don't give up.  She'd give a wry grin, shrug her shoulders lightly,  and refocus on our conversation.  She'd try again.

Guess I need to start rolling my eyes whenever Bob's voice pipes up in my mind talking shit.

You see, Cory and I?  We don't give up, either.

 And we are smart enough to consider the source.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Let's Play Pretend

For as long as I can remember, I've loved to play pretend.  Once I learned how to write, I had the ability to create any reality I wanted.  I remember reading Stephen King's novel, Misery, about the writer held hostage by his greatest fan and wondering for a moment if that was really so terrible.  I mean, you'd get to do what you love, no other responsibilities, writing every day, someone else to cook and clean up after you, you'd have an avid reader who enjoyed your work, someone to proof, what was all the fuss about?  If he hadn't complained so much maybe she wouldn't have chopped his foot off.  I wanna be someone's pet writer.

Over the years, I've used my imagination in some admittedly unhealthy ways.  When Bob and I were young, it was let's pretend if I do everything just right, he won't lose his temper.  Let's pretend he can keep his promise to never do it again.  Let's pretend that was really the last time he will ever push me, choke me, wreck the house, block the exit, smash the phone, etc.  Then when he got down on his knees, his face tear stained, and asked me where my heart was...well, we all know what my answer was, time after time.

Nearly twenty years later, it was let's pretend he can do more than go to church and complete a substance abuse program.  Let's pretend he can hold down a job, regulate his moods, and learn new roles [father, provider, husband].  Let's pretend he's not controlling anymore.  Let's pretend he will stay in treatment.  Let's pretend he can be part of a family...this family.

You see there were moments when it all fit together with no empty spaces, just one piece nestled up snugly against the other so perfect and warm, like the feeling of his hand in mine when we drove along in the car, the way my head fit against his chest...just right...the sight of he and Jake sitting together watching tv, laughing, and sharing a bowl of popcorn...the times Cory joked with him during a meal, looking up to see the two people who had come together to create her, together, loving, silly, and easy.  It was in these moments that I had begun to hope, and my imagination ate that hope up like a starving creature...and once that happened, it was all too easy to propel myself into a future in which Bob worked a regular job, we ate dinner together with the kids every night as a family, and I went to sleep with my head on a pillow next to his head on a pillow, warm and safe, poor but happy.  I'd look down at the diamond on my hand and my heart would nearly burst.  It was going to be okay this time.  It was.

Until it wasn't.  You can't pretend mental illness, addiction, or abuse away.  I'm a slow learner, but I finally got that lesson.

After Cory died, it was let's pretend there is a way out of this pain.  What would it be like to have everything just stop?   What it be like to never again have to open my eyes to that terrible knowledge?  What would it be like to never see those awful pictures in my head again?

But playing pretend isn't always a bad thing.  The morning after Mom's surprise party, my niece, Alisha texted me to tell me Cory had been on her mind.  As she described a twenty five year old Cory, alive, strong, and healthy, with "meaningful and beautiful tattoos, a couple more piercings, and fashionable af, accessorizing the hell out of every outfit", I could see her in my mind's eye.  Do you understand how huge that is?  What a gift that is?  I could see my child.

She went on to describe how Cory would've reacted to being asked to be both her and my nephew's wife's maids of honor:  "asking if we were sure and jumping up and down and screaming".  The tears rolled down my face at this image, this was just so perfectly Cory.  She is still remembered.  She is still loved.  She is known.  Someone other than me is carrying a perfect mental representation of her in their mind.  I don't have to worry that when I'm dead, she will cease to exist- one of my biggest fears.  I'm not carrying her all on my own.

A couple of hours later, it was Cayla calling me as I drove to the coffeeshop to tell me of a dream she'd had of Cory the night before.  She'd had a dream of hanging out at my house, watching something on tv with Cory.  Cory's eyes were bright and her energy high as she popped up off the couch, "Snacks?"

That one image...I've seen it a thousand times.  Cory in pajama bottoms and an Aeropostale shirt, her hair pinned back or pulled into piggy tails, sitting cross legged on the couch, laughing and cracking jokes as we watched a show, popping up on her feet suddenly, as if on a spring, and saying, with one eyebrow slightly raised, "Snacks?"  They padded into the kitchen to rummage through the fridge and freezer, finding only...wait for it...dozens and dozens of homemade doughnuts.  Apparently at some point, I had learned to bake.

So there she was again.  My child alive and standing in front of me, if only in my mind's eye.

This is the single best gift and the most powerful gesture you can ever give a grieving mother.  For any second that my girl is raised from the dead, whole and in my company, I am made whole and I can fly again, free from the suffocating pain that weighs me down every moment I live in this Cory-less world.  Because most days, I am merely surviving.

Playing pretend doesn't have to be dangerous, sometimes it is what keeps you alive.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Keep Looking Up

My mom's surprise eightieth birthday party?  It started about two weeks ago when I got together with my sister and her family for dinner.  I shared a conversation I'd had with my mother on the phone a couple of mornings prior, "...and then she said, 'I've never had a birthday party-not once in my whole life, not even as a child."

The whole table, minus the baby, hung their heads over their plates in shame.

I continued, "and she paused...and then she added, 'If I never do, I guess it's been an okay life, but I do wonder what it might have been like...'  You guys!  It was the saddest thing I've ever heard in my life!  We should be ashamed of ourselves!  We HAVE to do something!  We are FAILING her!"

Not even twelve hours later, we were group texting with my other two sisters, their kids, and their kids' spouses to nail down a location, make a guest list, decide on food, decorations, and create a secret face book group for invitations.

At times we had as many as three group texts going at a time about gifts and party arrangements.  I lived in constant fear of accidentally responding to Mom or including her in a reply.  I tell my mother everything.  Since Cory's death, she has become my best friend.  I loved her dearly before, of course, and more than ever after, but I think it was sharing that tiny cookie while we waiting for them to get our room ready in Rome that gave our relationship a whole other dimension.  We nearly laughed ourselves off that couch onto the lobby floor and suddenly, we were ...friends.  We became and have remained so close.  I don't want to imagine a day I can't speak to her.   I get halfway into a thought about that, made even more vivid by my longing to hear Cory's voice, and turn my mind violently away.  NO!

Everything came along pretty well, all of us splitting up the work and pooling our resources.  My sister, Kim, snuck into Mom's house ninja-style to retrieve photos of Mom at different ages for the party.  My sister, Tammy, pulled our dad aside at church to let him in on the plan.  I asked him, afterwards, how he managed to keep the secret from She Who Knows All.  He grinned broadly, and pulled me close, "You know how I handled it?  Here's what I did...the only thing I could do given the situation.  I avoided the topic ENTIRELY."

At one point, we needed my uncle's phone number and had to get creative in order to get it.  It would be weird to ask Mom for it out of the blue.  We couldn't ask Dad because he can't hear very well over the phone.  I see my cousin at the local coffee shop nearly every weekend, so I invented a plausible story line about running into her and how she had asked me if I could get his number from Mom to give her.  We soon realized Mom may decide to call the cousin herself instead,so I had to get a hold of her and let her know we'd included her in our ruse.  Worked like a charm.

The nearest disaster was when two of my sisters went shopping for the food items and discovered Mom and Dad were in Meijer's shopping, as well.  There they stood with no less than sixteen bags of shredded cheese in the cart.   "Oh my God!  We've got to get out of here!"  Indeed, they did.  There is simply no explanation for that much cheese.

Kim ditched the cart, actually pretending it did not belong to her as Tammy broke into a near run to grab the Parmesean.  Kim said she nearly bent over laughing when Tammy appeared in her line of vision, holding the Parmesean up like a trophy and giving it a good waggle, her face victorious. This may have been the best part of planning this party for my mother... the way it brought me and my sisters together and the fun we had doing something good for someone else.

My niece, Alisha, had the pictures made.  My nephews' wives put the decorations together.  My sister, Ronda, ordered the cake and picked up flowers for the tables.  I ordered the balloons and picked up a flower arrangement for Mom, which Tim took over the the party early.  My sister, Tammy and her husband made lasagna.  Everyone worked together to decorate and then wait for the big arrival.

Everyone but me.  Jake and I were in charge of bringing Mom and Dad to the party without Mom knowing where she was going or why.  The minute I heard I was to be in charge of this task, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation...time to put my creative writing (making crap up) skills to the test.

So originally, I invited Mom to the movies with Jake and I.  I figured keep it routine; keep suspicions low.  Tim would pick Dad up and take him to the party location with the balloons and flowers.
But then, Mom wanted, naturally, to have dinner with her girls for her birthday.  We were forced to  make up reasons why it would be better to wait until the following weekend, claiming that one of my sisters had to work and my nephews wanted to come but had to work, as well.

She seemed so sad.  At one point she said, "I'll be the big 8-0." sort of despondently.  I kept to the story and said, "Yes, so we want EVERYONE to be there.  Better to wait till next weekend."  Heartless, I am a heartless child. If there is a hell, I will surely burn there.

The day before the party, she announced she wasn't sure if she could make the movie, that she'd been talking to Dad and figured since no one else wanted to go out to eat with her on her birthday, she'd just have him take them both to Finley's.  Well, crap.

I switched gears quickly.  "Oh!  You're going to Finley's?  We want to go!  How about if Jake and I just pick you up and we'll go just the four of us?"  I may have thrown something in about how we loved her best and preferred her all to ourselves anyway.

So now, how to explain when we didn't drive straight to Finley's, but in the opposite direction?  And how to lure her inside the building?  Girl, hold my coffee.

I came up with the idea to tell her my best friend since childhood, Nicole's, parents were having their anniversary party at the party location.  I'd been invited, but hate large social gatherings and so needed to drop off a card and maybe give Nicole a hug as she was setting up and doing the decorations.  Mom could even come in and say hi, if she wanted...Nicole would love to see her.  I'd even worked a prop into the story, writing "Mr. and Mrs. Havens" on the birthday card for my mom and sealing it shut.

Mom texted me a couple of hours before the party saying my sister, Tammy, and her husband, Dave, were planning to join us at Finley's.  Was that okay?  I told her it was, trying to make it real by teasing that Tammy invites herself everywhere, doesn't she?

Jake and I picked my parents up at precisely 3:40.  Twenty minutes and counting...

The minute she got in the car, I said, "Oh, Mom, I'm glad we're early.  I forgot to tell you I just need to make a quick stop on the way to Finley's.  Nicole's parents are having their anniversary party today and they invited me, but you know I don't do big crowds so I just wanted to drop this card off and say hi to Nicole real quick.  I won't stay.  It's not even until 6.  They're setting up the decorations."

She said, "Oh, okay.  But I'd better call Tammy and tell her we'll be a few minutes later than we thought."

I apologized, "I'm sorry.  I hope that's okay.  I just hated to say no.  Nicole's been so supportive to me."

Mom patted me as she settled the card for "Mr. and Mrs. Havens" safely into her lap.  "It should be fine.  It won't take long.  You do have a good excuse not to go, though.  It IS your mother's birthday, after all!  And her 80th!"  she laughed.

I laughed right back, "Right?"

Mom started dialing.  I fell right into my lie, headfirst.  "Hey, Mom, this party is that place where Alisha's bridal shower was, but I didn't go, so I'm not sure I know where it is exactly.  Can you ask Tammy how to get there?"

As we drove along, Tammy gave Mom directions to the building I'd staked out earlier that morning when getting the flowers and balloons.  I knew exactly where I was going but pretended I didn't so Mom would guide me every turn.  I was padding my cover story here and there, asking what she thought about using the same location for Jake's open house in two years.  It was so much fun getting her to believe it, I had to restrain myself from just throwing in random lies unnecessarily.  Like what could I get her to believe?  Had I missed my calling?  Should I have been a spy?  An undercover cop?
A used car salesman?

Once we got to Riverside Drive, I made a big to do about Jake learning to drive but not knowing his way around the city yet (as if I could talk...I've lived here for four decades and could still get lost driving home from the mall).  The mention of "Riverside" was code for Jacob to text Cayla and give the Estimated Time of Arrival, which he did efficiently and discreetly.

Sure enough, as we closed in on the party location, Cayla was on the phone with Mom distracting her by asking what time would be okay to bring Lillie by for a visit with her great grandma.

Mom pointed.  "Here, right here!  That's it.  Just park right there on the grass, we won't be but a minute."
Knowing we would be staying, I ignored her directions and drove a little further down.  "What are you doing?" she protested.  "We're gonna have to walk a long way."

"I don't want them to come out and tell me to move.  I'll just park right here." I said, going against her wishes, which made me way more uncomfortable than the gollywhopper of a lie I'd been telling her for the last twenty minutes or so.

Without another word, I put it in park, casually saying to Dad, "Oh Dad, maybe you should come, too, if Nicole finds out you're in the car and I didn't bring you in to say 'hi', she'll never forgive me."

Jake took this cue perfectly.  "Don't leave me in the car."

I kept her talking the whole way up the walk, Dad and Jake right behind us, certain she would recognize a vehicle and the whole cover story would come tumbling down.  "Do you think I should knock?" I asked her, playing the shy-in-social-situations-Nicole.

"No, you don't need to knock.  Just push it open."  she directed.

I did, with her close at my heels.


The look on her face.  It worked!  It really worked!

The moments that will stand in my memory always:

My Dad turning to me and my sister, Ronda, at one point, looking around the room at all the people and saying, "Do you see all these people?  How they showed up for her?  They love her!  They just love her!"

As the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to her with the candles lit, my Dad suddenly become so overwhelmed with love for her, that he spontaneously leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, right there in front of everyone.  My dad is the shyest man I've ever met and that includes Jake and Blakie.  So if you didn't tear up for that one or at least feel a tug at your heartstrings, you have no soul, buddy.

Me, calling out to Mom as she opened her presents, "Mom!  I just have to this the best birthday party you've ever had?"

She laughed right back at me, her blue eyes twinkling.  "You know, I think it just might be."

My Dad, smiling and laughing, with his baby brother, he at 83 and his brother at 81.  As his brother got ready to leave, they hugged and jostled, my Dad's face lighting up as they joked about their youth.  He whispered to me ruefully, with a smile, "We were always in trouble."
As Uncle Len got ready to leave, Dad grabbed him. "Take care, Brother!" he said giving him a final arm squeeze.
 Uncle Len answered heartily, "You take care, too, Brother!" smiling from ear to ear. "All right, now!"
My Dad called out to him as he walked away, "Keep looking up!"

This last comment, thrown out in excitement, I pondered later.  What did he mean?  Keep positive?  Keep trying?  Keep looking up, as in towards God?  After all, my Dad never misses an opportunity to share his faith.  He'd ministered to me and my sister, Ronda, not five minutes ago.

The only drawbacks to this wonderful event were that Cory wasn't there and Mom couldn't call her sister, Dorothy, afterwards to tell her all about it.

When she opened the card I'd bought from Jake and Cory (Jake being so insistent that he only sign his name and I sign Cory's so they appeared in different handwriting), I watched the pain wash over her face as she read her name.  My eyes filled with tears to hear her say quietly, "That sweet girl would've loved to be here with us today."    Man, would she ever.  Cory would've loved to get caught up in the covert operations required to pull this shindig off.  Every single moment, she'd have been plotting and helping and offering to do whatever was needed.  Cory loved to make people happy.

 I haven't done any searching behavior in years, like when I used to look for her in the aisles of Barnes and Noble, but there are still moments when my guard is down and I half expect her to just come flouncing out from the bathroom, radiant and alive, talking about getting a second piece of cake or complaining that her shoes are hurting her feet.

 And I'll tell you a secret totally unrelated to my mom's birthday party.  It's taken me a long time to realize that Cory was the "mover" in our family- my family of me, Tim, her, and Jake.  She was the one who urged us to plan outings and family activities.  After she died, we sat around looking at each other, none of us quite sure how to fill her silly, fun loving, spontaneous shoes.  None of us had ever done that role before and we were all too traumatized to even try.  So our family stood still...for years.  Slowly, slowly, we are reorganizing.  It will never be the same, but we are doing our best.

We took a zillion photographs towards the end of the party- Mom with every possible combination of every human being in the room.  Had someone walked in off the street, we'd probably have taken a few of the two of them, as well, just to be safe.  So, of course, Cory's absence was heavy on my mind as I saw her pose with her grandchildren.  Cory had loved Mom so very much.  I sometimes think Cory could never have handled losing Mom.  Maybe that's why she died first.

I didn't want Mom to see me sad on her special day so I did what I do best.  I just turned it up all the way, draping myself across her lap for the sort of silly, impromptu pictures I know will mean the most to me someday.  If there's one thing I've learned in losing Cory is that pictures are incredibly important and the ones that tell the story of your relationship with that person... priceless.

I know at the party, behind the smiles and the banter, Mom was already thinking about how she wanted to tell Aunt Dorothy all about this party...and couldn't.  Sure enough, on the way home, she said just that, her eyes filling with tears and I had to reach across the seat and hold her hand as we drove along.  I get it.  I know how much that hurts.  And I will sit here with you while your heart is breaking as we drive home in the dark.

The next morning, at the coffee shop, I reflected on the happy and joyous Mom had been with her friends and family around her and I realized that we never stop modeling for our children our entire lives.  It doesn't stop when they become our adult children.  They still watch us the entire time.

I've watched Mom struggle with her grief after burying her grandchild and now her dear, sweet sister.  She is the one person, outside of Jake, that I feel really understands what I'm going through.  Yet she shows up to every family gathering, she smiles, she has fun, and she hugs everyone when she leaves. She told me once, "We have to try, honey.  And we have to help each other." She hugs us a little tighter and she tells us she loves us every time we part.  In fact, she usually tells me she loves me multiple times in a row just to be sure I've heard her and perhaps to emphasize the weight and sheer vastness of her affection.  If anything, she loves more fiercely now, more purposefully.  She makes sure every interaction ends with her love voiced as loudly and as plainly as she can muster.

You see some things our parents teach us outright.  Other things we pick up just by watching.

I hope your teachers have been as incredible as mine.

Love with all of your might.  And keep looking up.

Friday, February 16, 2018

He Returns

And just like that, I saw someone I thought I'd never see again.  Dr. Z has returned after a medical leave.  I had been told he would not be returning.  I could barely restrain myself from tackling him with a bear hug when I saw him earlier this week.  It was a very near thing.

He was exactly the same...same broad smile, same kind eyes, same dapper argyle socks, same sensible shoes. 

How did it feel to see him again after resigning myself to never being able to see him again...never being able to  say goodbye to someone who has consistently and kindly helped me through the worst times of my life?  It was like coming home.  It was like making it to the surface to take a breath when you though you'd never get there.  Pure joy. 

He said he felt on top of the world to be back on a lighter schedule, taking his extra time to write down all the stories he wants to leave behind.  I can't think of a better way to spend one's time.

Once we'd each expressed our delight that he was still in the land of the living, conversation turned to how I was doing with Cory's birthday approaching.  It was the biggest relief to lay it all out there without fear of worrying anyone or looking weak:  the constant pressure in my chest, the panic attacks no one really knew about, the pressing guilt, the nightmares that started again a couple of weeks ago.

He picked up his pen.  "What sort of nightmares?"

"Oh, you know, someone breaking into the house with a gun trying to kill Jake, being mugged at knife point, someone chasing me...lots of dreams about Cory on the road..."  I trailed off here, feeling strangely embarrassed.  Like, get it together, Nick.  What is wrong with you?

He caught my eyes and nodded.  "Yes, yes.  So tell me, then, are you getting any exercise?"

I never want to disappoint this man.  So I fibbed about walking the dog which I haven't done since the snow began to fall.  The only exercise I've been getting is walking down the hall to the copier at work.

"And do you still do some kind of art?  The beautiful memory making?"

Here I didn't have to fib.  "I do."  I nodded vigorously.

"Good."  He responded.  "Keep doing that.  You know, it is when you spend the time making something with your hands, thinking of her, that you are able to be together again.  That is how you keep her."

Making art has always been a two fold for me.  I have a safe place to express all my feelings, explore them, and sometimes even figure things out.  But secondly, when I'm creating, I feel close to Cory.  It's the whole reason I started doing it in the first place.  I couldn't let her paintbrushes and things just sit there looking so lonely and abandoned. She didn't have enough time to make all the art she wanted to.  But without her, dealing with this relentless pain, I have nothing but time to fill, a sort of mental life prison sentence.

So in that moment sitting across from Dr. Z, it hit me why I always want to be alone when I head out on an "art day" or why I barricade myself in the studio, sometimes feeling put out when even a pet tries to join me.  My art dates are my new "Mommy/Cory" days.  We used to plan them elaborately, but they almost always included a fixed shopping pattern:  Target-Kohl's-Barnes & Noble-rest of the mall.  After this had been conducted to our satisfaction, we'd go to the movies and then dinner.  Somewhere in the middle, we'd stop to pay a bill so we felt somewhat responsible.  The order rarely changed, so over time it became a ritual.

 So now instead, there is packing up the art and journaling supplies, going to my favorite coffee shop, unpacking it all in a welcoming semi-circle, ordering the hot beverage, putting on the headphones, listening to the music we enjoyed together, and creating while looking through pictures of her.  Sometimes I end up posting memories of her while I wait for paint to dry, thus sharing her with others.  This is my new ritual.  This is my new relationship with Cory.  Visiting her grave never has the same effect.  I often feel the need to go to the cemetery, but I rarely, if ever, look forward to it.  And I usually feel wretched when I leave.  Angry, guilty, and depressed.

So then I asked him the question that plagues my every waking moment these days.  "She'd be twenty five this month.  How do you think she'd be doing?"

He templed his hands beneath his chin and leaned forward slightly.  "You know, I gave up predicting the future some time ago.  I found I'm not very good at it."

I nodded, waiting.

"It's hard to say.  Her illness came on early and was incredibly difficult to treat.  She was so brave in the way she managed what many of us cannot begin to imagine.  It may be that she is better off where she is than what may have been waiting for her.  It's hard to say.  Her illness was debilitating, as was her father's." 

My eyes immediately filled with tears.  I could only offer my silence.  I will never think she is better off dead than here.  This comfort I cannot accept.

Conversation turned to Jake and how he was coping. Jake is quiet, but steady.  He is unarguably withdrawn, but still generally optimistic.  Dr Z nodded, pleased with this report. I shared how he has his learner's permit, was excited at first to learn to drive, but is now reluctant to get behind the wheel at all.  I wondered if this was because of the way Cory died.  He answered, "Most certainly. It is the trauma.  Give him time."

He renewed my scripts and was walking me to the door when he stopped suddenly, raising an eyebrow, "Now wait, please remind me, your son does not have the same father as Cory?  He is your husband's, yes?"

"Yes, he is Tim's."

He exhaled.  "Okay, okay, then.  Yes, then, just monitor for depression.  If he complains of being bored, watch out for that."

I smiled as he ushered me out.  Watch out for that? 

I nearly suffocate the poor boy with my constant monitoring of his mood and mental health status.  Part of it is that I know Cory's death was traumatizing for him.  The other part is that Tim has Bipolar Disorder, too.  I've always been afraid that Jake will develop it.  It was even something Cory and I had talked about before she died.

 But I'll say this.  It's no longer my biggest fear that Jake develops a mental illness.  Instead, it's my biggest fear that he dies before I do.

Everything else...anything else...I know I can manage.

Saturday, February 3, 2018


I have the hardest time with family gatherings now.  Or maybe I should say, after almost six years, I have the hardest time with family gatherings STILL.  You'd think losing Cory so unexpectedly- so horrifically- would drive me to go to every family gathering, holiday or no, and milk every precious moment with my loved ones.  You would think...

but human behavior is not so simple, is it?  Grieving behavior even less so. 

There was a Girl's Night In with my mom and sisters last night. I dreaded going.  I've gotten at least to the point where I will go instead of staying home, but my anxiety about being there without Cory in tow makes every gathering painful and difficult to navigate.

We ate pizza together and started going through old pictures, most of which made us laugh until our stomachs hurt...the hairstyles, the clothing, the barely recognizable faces from decades past.  I found a picture of me with my Mom when I was nine or ten years old.  It was a silly Christmas snapshot- my mom modeling a leather coat she'd received and me sporting a new jogging suit.  We had our arms thrown around each other and my head was thrown back in a face splitting grin.  Silly, so silly! It immediately made me think of how Cory was at that age and I was pretty sure I had a pic at home of her doing almost the exact same pose for the camera.  Bittersweet.

A few minutes later, we'd made it through the years to the grandkids.  I was talking to someone, not paying attention really, when I suddenly came across a picture of Cory with three of her cousins as children sitting atop their uncle's back.  They were all so little, one still clutching his stuffed lovey.  The tears came without warning and I wanted nothing but to run out of the room, out of the house, out of my skin.  Run, Run, Run!  my brain said.

It is the oddest thing how much it disturbs me to see pictures of Cory as a child now that she is gone.  She was my absolute delight.  She was my biggest source of pride.  Why would I not adore revisiting these memories of her?  What is that about?  I know some bereaved parents who take great comfort in their deceased child's younger pictures.  It is so personal what some bereaved parents bring closer to comfort them and what others push away to lessen the pain. 

It's hard to explain.  When other people see pictures of her as child, I imagine they focus on the moment captured, exclaim about her looks at that age, remember something fun they did with her, and keep going.  When I look at pictures of my firstborn as a child, now that she is gone, it creates this painful chain reaction.  I see her little face, so innocent and trusting of her future....her eyes so bright and precocious, full of possibilities and discoveries yet to make...her narrow shoulders seeming to speak of fragility and vulnerability and then my mind short circuits immediately to the way it all ended:  her eyes closed, her skull and bones broken, her future over in a millisecond.  I guess that's trauma.  I don't understand it; I just know that the pictures bother me horribly. I"ve purposely looked at less than a handful since the day of her visitation.
From there, the guilt that I did not protect that sweet girl and prevent her from being hurt, from getting broken, from dying far too young is vicious and inevitable.  It eats me right up.  I feel paralyzed to stop it.  Might as well be swallowed by a python.

I considered leaving the gathering a few minutes later.  I was tired anyways and my heart hurt horribly.  It was no one's fault, of course, it is just what life is like now- you never know when a grief attack will strike.  Instead, I decided to stay a little longer.  The gang had just started playing Catch Phrase and I decided to give it a try.

Hours later, my stomach hurt from laughing.  Everyone's clues and guesses seemed to get funnier as we all became more and more tired.  At one point, I was describing the term "Bittersweet" for my teammates of my mom and oldest sister, Tammy, to guess.  I said, "You know, it's when something is happy but also sad.  Oh!  Oh! And it's also a type of chocolate chip for baking."

Tammy blurted out with calm confidence, nodding ever so slightly, "Semi-sweet."

The entire room broke up laughing and in that moment I knew coming to these gatherings is important.  Staying as long as I can is important.  One day I will lose my dear, sweet mother and my sisters...and these are the memories I will go to in my mind to be with them again.  If I'm not there to add to my memory bank...I lose out.  I will have regret.  Not irrational regret like not going to the store myself that day so Cory wouldn't have died (something I never could've predicted) but the rational regret of not making the most of opportunities to treasure my loved ones while I still had the chance.  That I can control.

So that one day, maybe twenty years from now, when I remember last night with my loved ones and the game, CatchPhrase, a smile will come and go on my lips as I think to myself., perhaps nodding slightly..

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Me, Cory Girl, and a Baby

Three of Cory's best friends are pregnant right now, all at the same time.  Two are already great Little Mommas and the third has been meant to be a Momma since the day she was born- she's just a natural nurturer.  I am lucky enough to get together with two of them on a regular basis and sort of marvel through the experience of watching girls I've known since they were five years old become grown women carrying and then shaping their own little people.  I get to pat bellies and hear delivery stories.  I haven't been able to make it to their baby showers, but I hope they know I'm with them in my heart during those celebrations.  They are just too hard to attend.

It is now about twenty six days from Cory's twenty-fifth birthday.  How much do I wish she could be part of this club?  There are no words.  But I'll try.  And based on the dream I'll share with you, my brain is trying desperately to process it, too.

My sister and I were pregnant at the same time.  Even though I was a little cut off from my family during that time, there will always be something special about carrying our babies together and bringing them into the world within months of each other.  Even more special, perhaps, was the bond that my nephew, Blake, and Cory had together all the days of her life.  Grade school, they were playmates, classmates, present at each other birthdays.  Middle school and high school, they continued to be delighted whenever they saw each other. They protected each other.  I can't remember a single time I ever saw one of them angry with the other.

 They should have graduated together, but Cory's mental illness had taken its toll and she was behind too many credits to graduate on time with her class.  If anything can speak to how she felt about Blake, it would be that she swallowed past her pride and her pain to show up for him at graduation.  I remember how it felt sitting there beside her watching her friends walk past in caps and gowns.  It was like having my heart turned inside out. I cried helplessly throughout the entire ceremony. To this day, I don't know how Cory managed to be there, with a broad smile, flinging her arm around Blakie at the end to get a pic.  It was not fair that she was not up there,too.  It was not her fault.  But nonetheless, I suspect we both felt like failures that night.  She showed up for her Blakie, but within a day fell into a months long depressive episode.  At the next cousin's graduation, I did not let her attend, hoping everyone would understand the price she paid to face all those triggers.  It was just too high.  The voices were not kind.  Her suffering was not worth one night of well-wishing.

So then, I wonder what kind of unbreakable, magical bond Cory's friends' babies will have.  They will be like family even if they aren't related.  When I daydream about what Cory would be like if she were alive and what she would be doing- there are so many scenarios I try on her in my head.  It reminds me of when we'd heap outfits over our arms and disappear into the dressing rooms in Maurices.  "Are you ready?"  one of us would call.  "Almost!  Hold on!"  the other would cry back, still zipping or buttoning.  We would synchronize the opening of the doors, our rooms often directly across from each other, for dramatic effect.  We would feast our eyes on each other, each one hamming it up a little for the other, maybe throwing a hand on a hip or tossing our head back.  Or when we already knew something didn't quite suit us, we owned that too, parading past the other with fabric drooping in defeat or giggling helplessly at a neckline that would never meet public decency standards.  Then it was back again to try something else.

So now that's what I do.  I imagine her as a student- how does that fit?  Or maybe working part time?  Living at home?  Living with a friend?  Boyfriend?  Single?  Hardest to imagine...married?  Please tell me she picked a good one.  A mother?  While some of these outfits fit better than others in my mind, they are each infinitely better than the reality of her ability to try on different roles being over...and having been over for five and a half years now.  This doesn't stop me from going back in those fitting rooms with her all the time.  Sometimes she comes out with books in hand.  Sometimes she has a work badge on.  Other times, I glimpse the glint of a narrow gold wedding band on her little left hand.  And when I'm around young moms, well, sometimes she cries out, "I'm not ready!  Hold on!" and then comes sauntering out with a baby on her hip and a grin on her face.

I've been working with Dr. Z for just as long now...our therapeutic relationship beginning the day after the accident when I stormed into Summit Pointe when the doors open, out of my mind, but somehow confident he would know just what to do, just as he had with every scary out of control situation Cory's mental illness had brought us for the last three years.  Turns out, he was right...your heart will always question the reality.  And argue.  If not in your waking hours, definitely while you sleep.

The other night I had one of those incredible dreams in which Cory is home and fine, the accident never having happened.   It is pure magic.  Bliss.

In this dream, Tim was at work and Jake was sleeping in his room.  Cory and I were watching tv in the living room with snacks- a typical scenario.  What did she look like?  Her walk was the same.  Her eyes were as big and green as I remember.  Her smile lit up the room.  My dreaming brain was hip to the whole accident thing because I kept zeroing in on her arm and how it hung off of her shoulder in a graceful uninterrupted line, no exposed bones jutting out.  I kept checking her forehead and hair, marveling that it was clean, shiny, and free of blood.  In this dream, her hair was a reddish brown with golden highlights. It fell gently just above her shoulders, the bangs casually held back with a couple of bobby pins.   I kept watching her chest rise and fall as she talked to me, actually searching for the movements on the lavender sweater she was wearing.  It was all a dream.  She's fine.  She's fine!!  What an awful dream.

So we were watching something like Law and Order SVU when we heard a high pitched cry coming from outside.  We jumped up and began counting cats, convinced one of them had snuck out.  "Mom, we have to go out there.  What if they get lost like Church did."  I quipped back, "Cory, this is Urbandale! We'll be mugged in our driveway."  She giggled back, "Maybe, but we are Big Brave Dogs.  C'mon, Mom.  We can't leave him out there to be catnapped."

We put on shoes and scrounged up a flashlight and laughing the whole way, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, went outside to investigate.  Just another Mommy/Cory adventure.  Just a regular day.

We made it halfway down our brick driveway when we spied a wriggling little blanket covered bundle lying there.  One of us reached out to pull the blanket back to discover a tiny, shivering, baby.

Weird?  Yes.  You know how dreams can be.  So we scooped it up and took it inside.  We cleaned it up, got it warm, and started foraging for something to feed it.  I watched Cory holding it...a tiny baby girl... and just focused on the dreamy look on her face as she gazed down at is perfect little face.  She touched her finger to its tiny nose, coaxing a smile and asked wistfully, "Do we have to call the cops, Mom?  Couldn't we just keep her?  I'll take care of her."

The craziest dream ever, but looking back, maybe the only chance I'll ever have to see Cory with her very own baby.  Well, an abandoned-about-to-be-turned-over-to-the-authorities-but-Cory's-for-an-hour-or-so-baby.

This much I know.  She would've been a great Mom.  That much I already knew.  All I had to do was watch her with Jake.