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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Do You See?


here's the thing.  A visual person, a visual learner, looks for symbols and connections constantly.  If you write or draw or paint...double that.  Someone who thinks in metaphors doesn't see a slab of concrete for its practicality and look forward to the the beauty that will rest upon it.  I wholeheartedly appreciate the hard work that my brothers-in-law put forth in setting the foundation for my daughters monument.  I not only am indebted to their labor and the materials, but can never repay the fact that people who knew and loved Cory did the digging and the pouring.

While a stranger may have whistled a cheerful tune while performing a mundane chore on auto-pilot, I know in my heart that Bud and Dave, whether they voiced it to each other or not as they worked, thought of my girl.  Her face came up in their minds.  And since they have both been steady, positive male role models in her life since the day she was born, they had many, many memories to draw upon.

That means something to me.  In the same way that a meal can taste better simply because it is made for you by someone who only wishes to bring you joy, I know that Cory's final resting place was made better by men who loved her...who watched her grow.  They saw her as a child exploring the world and playing with their own children, her very first friends; they saw her gawky years, all braces and skinny legs; they witnessed her struggles with her mental health and prayed for her; they saw her grow into a beautiful young woman whose smile lit up the room.  They have laughed at things she has said, and they have made her laugh, many, many times.  No matter what negative feelings this monument business stirs in me, I will remain forever grateful for that.

So this foundation.  I think going out to see it meant I am getting stronger.  A year ago, I would've avoided it like the plague.  So flying high on the heady relief of a couple good weeks of feeling that life might actually be worth living, I went out there.  I didn't have to.  I chose to.  And yes, it broke me down.  I didn't see concrete; I saw a barrier.  I'm so brand spanky new to this whole "carrying her in my heart" business.  I still haven't figured it completely out.

This whole task of finding a way to continue a relationship with your dead child is hard enough.  You have all this love you want to give, and all these small observations about the world that you want to share in the same way you always have.  When hugs and conversations are no longer on the table, you have to find other ways.  I'm here to tell you it sucks ass.  And it never seems to be enough.  How can you leave all those feelings on the ground with some fresh cut flowers and just walk away?  How do you know she heard you?  What does she have to say in response?  What if, no matter how closely you watch for signs or how carefully you listen, the wind is still and you hear nothing?

That's what I've been struggling with.  So then, imagine walking up and seeing something so impenetrable as concrete.  Barrier:  "a circumstance or obstacle that keeps people or things apart, or prevents communication or progress".

Do you see?  Can you put yourself in my shoes and stand there, regarding the place where she rests (not necessarily thinking of her whole and well, because if you're a visual thinker like me, you know there is a broken skull, and broken bones that lie below in that pretty pink box)?
 Can you feel the fear that tightened your scalp, and got your adrenaline pumping in a most unpleasant way?

I am afraid.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Good Foundation

I've been at both ends of the acceptance continuum these last couple days:

 I couldn't help but go out to the cemetery and see the foundation on which her monument will rest.  Tim drove me; I sat in the passenger seat, barefoot and despondent.  He asked a couple times on the drive out there if I was sure I wanted to go.  Funny question, that.  I most definitely did not, but motioned for him to keep driving, anyway.

"Honey, I'm afraid this is going to upset you."

I laughed hoarsely.  "When am I not upset?"

"True."  he acknowledged, and turned his eyes back to the road.  Before long, we were turning down the narrow lane, easing the car over the bumps and curves.

 "I hate it here."  I hissed as we made the familiar turn.

"Honey, it's a beautiful little cemetery.  It's really very peaceful."  he said, turning his gaze out the window as we rolled slowly along.

"Yeah, I love it."  I said, sarcastic and mean.  Oh, my heart.  It takes such a beating every time I come here.  

Resolved to overcome Big Ass Baby Syndrome, I stepped out of the car, and walked on the soft grass in my bare feet.  There it was, a perfectly proportioned, smooth rectangle of concrete.  No digging her out through that.  Nope.

We looked at it, and said absolutely nothing.  What was there to say?

Our words had been passed on the drive over.  Tim had said, "I can't for the life of me figure out why the monument upsets you so much.  It's immortalizing her!  It's honoring her!  Doesn't that make you happy?  Doesn't that make you feel good?"

I looked at him- his face so open and sincere.  Certainly, he meant this.  But he'd not been there to see the plump, slightly bald little baby she'd been.  He didn't get to see her first wobbling steps.  He doesn't remember her slobber on his shoulder. He wasn't the one she'd ran to and clung to all nineteen years of her life.   He didn't blow out candles with her until her sixth birthday.  Every moment he didn't have with her, was stuck fast in my throat.  I just barely stopped myself from saying, "I bet you wouldn't feel that way about Jake."

Come on, Nick, aren't you past all that by now?

Yes, I am, but sometimes when you're hurting, the ugliest words come so fluidly out of your mouth.  And no matter how well everyone says I'm doing, or how well I even suspect myself of being, I am still experiencing the most hurt I've ever known or even considered.  It engulfs my soul, a seamless slip cover.  Where it ends and I begin, I have no idea.  We've become one- the pain and I.  It's a hard, but necessary marriage...and like it or not, we're just gonna have to make it work.

I looked down at the ground again, and noticed someone had been to see my girl.  There was a twine of long-stemmed roses below her sign, and rose petals scattered on her grave.

 I turned to see if Tim wanted to walk a bit.  He did, curious to see if there was another obelisk monument in the new section or if Cory's was going to be the first.  I hot footed it over the gravel lane, wincing as the stones bit into my feet.  We walked on, pointing out a marker here or there.

I tried to explain to Tim as we walked along that this felt the last step.  He listened; he consoled, but I know he didn't understand.  It wasn't his entire life underground.  She was mine.  She'd always been mine.

We picked our way back.  When we got to the gravel lane, Tim held out his arms, "Want me to carry you so you don't hurt your feet?"

Tim is steady, but seldom chivalrous.  I smiled at this gallant gesture.  Carry me?  Yes, please. I've been waiting a long time for someone to carry me, instead of the other way around.   He hefted me, carrying me across the sharp stones- which would have made Cory smile and tell us how cute we are together- and placed me on my feet in front of Cory's spot.  Wordless, we said our goodbyes to her.

The next day, I stumbled on some pictures Tim had on his I-phone of Cory and him at their Friday lunches.  There was one, in particular, that had been taken only a couple of months before the accident.  She was tucked into a booth across from Tim at Speed's, one of their haunts.  I never took Cory to Speed's on Mommy/Cory days.  I never offered, and she never asked.  Speed's is one of those greasy spoon diners, but it was beyond special because it's where her dad took her for their time together.

It took me back in time to the therapy session where Cory revealed that she wanted time with Tim, without Jake, just the two of them.  She wanted to get closer to him.  She needed to be someone's little girl.  Her therapist suggested she write it out to Tim in a letter, which she did the minute she got home.  I think about it now, knowing Tim has that folded note put away in a safe place, a treasure he can barely look at.  How brave she was, when you think about it.  If that's not laying yourself out there to be accepted or rejected, I don't know what is, especially given the track record of the men in her life.  Bless her heart.

I lingered over this picture of her, hair all skinned back in a ponytail, a headband framing her face, that just shone, no makeup required.  She was so incredibly beautiful, and her newly gained peace of mind showed in her eyes.  There had been a look I'd grown to recognize when things were not well in her mind.  There was none of that sick, confused fright here.

There was a strong little bird with the most beautiful song to sing, who'd finally broken free of her cage.

Monday, August 11, 2014

I Saw Her

Just two quick things:

One, Cory's monument is in transit- no more barriers, no more turf wars, no more heated arguments over frost lines.  My loving brothers-in-law have done the digging and poured the foundation.  I  know if Cory could, she would thank them for taking such good care of her.  Knowing it will be here shortly, and set in place leaves me feeling not so much sad, but completely frightened.

What does this mean?  When something permanent- something that will last hundreds of years- is set into her spot, will she be farther away from me?  And why does it suddenly feel as if I've been trudging around in a great, wide miserable circle only to start back at the beginning all over again...again, at a place I never wanted to be?

And two, Jacob saw me looking upset tonight- sad, terrified?  He snuggled up beside me, and told me I was a good mom to Cory.  He said, "You treated her so nice and you did good things for her- the medicine, and taking her to those places."

I think I scared him a little with my gasp and the fierce hug I gave him, practically crushing him against me.

 Always one to question, always a little pessimistic, I wondered if he'd simply overheard some conversation where I'd tried to defend myself against my own guilt.
 So I asked him, "What gives you that opinion, Jake?"

"Because I saw her, Mom.   I saw her getting better."


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Speaking My Peace

When I was in high school, I took a required public speaking class that I passed with a D.  The D was courtesy of the book work.  Every speech, every presentation in front of the class was worse than the most miserable failure...I didn't even try.  I happily took my zero, and hid from the spotlight.  My anxiety had me frozen, immobile.

Later in life, when classes cost money, I forced myself through each and every presentation- white knuckled, red faced, voice warbling, and stomach churning.  As I said to a friend just the other day, I was the person most likely to poop their pants in public.

So to be doing these little talks at KCC and Western, voluntarily, is nothing short of miraculous.  Before Cory's death, I don't think anything short of threats to my life would've gotten me up in front of people to speak.

It's pretty amazing how comfortable I feel telling a roomful of strangers a lot of very personal stories.  I always stumble over the introduction part, but once the topic turns to Cory, I relax, often pulling my legs up into my chair to sit cross-legged, as if having a cup of coffee with a dear friend.  It is utter joy to talk about my girl.  I've decided to do an experiment this coming month, and simply tally how many times other people say her name or bring her up in conversation.  It's not as often as you'd think.

  I asked Tim awhile back why he never talked about her; it hurt my feelings so much.  He replied that he didn't want to upset me.  I certainly can't speak for every bereaved mother out there, but for me, there's no better sound in the world than to hear Cory's name spoken out loud.  It means she was here, and that she still matters.  It means she's not forgotten.

After the talks are over, and all the questions have answered, some with tears accompanying the words, I leave feeling incredible- incredibly validated, incredibly purposeful, incredibly close to my girl.  To be her voice in this world after she's gone is a sacred privilege; to share her with others is simple joy.  There may be tears, but there is often laughter, as well.  Cory was never her illness, and we had the most amazing times together.  I can remember her by myself, and I do it everyday, but sometimes sharing the memories with others seems to summon her into the room.  I can't see her, but I can feel her.

The most surprising part of doing these talks is that I usually end up saying something I didn't expect to.  I think I do a pretty good job of processing my grief on this blog, but other people have the uncanny ability to wring things out of you that you weren't even aware of...they catch you off guard.

The question at Western this last time was, "How has this loss changed the way you live?"
Six months ago I'd have said, "It's made me unsure I want a life."
A couple of weeks ago, I was stunned to hear this come out of my mouth, "You know, grief takes a lot from you, but it gives, too, when you get to a point where you're willing to take it."

Say what?

They asked me for examples.
I'm more careful with people now.  I'm more careful of their feelings because I'm painfully aware that you never know when it's going to be the last time you see someone.  Time with the people I love is important to me.  I treasure the small moments.  I write everything down.  I know now that someday these little gems will mean more to me than all the riches in the world.

Last night, I wandered into the kitchen for a snack, and looked over at Tim's little coffee corner of the counter.  He leaves a small tornado in his wake every single, blasted day:  dirty coffee cup, like as not filled with cold coffee, a dirty spoon, coffee stains that I physically cannot walk away from.  My tiny smattering of OCD demands that I clean this up, and my hands move of their own accord, so much muscle memory.  As I wipe up the mess, I practice in my mind the stern reproach I'll give him when I see him next.

I stopped mid-swipe, remembering how aggravated I used to get with Cory when she left bobby pins, ponytail elastics, and brushes scattered all over the bathroom sink.  Consistently, I'd call her in, and ask her to put her things away, and the next day we'd go at it all over again.  The first time I cleaned the bathroom after she died, it never occurred to me that I'd miss seeing those things out, cluttering up all that clean white space.  It didn't occur to me until a handful of days later when I realized I'd never get the chance to ask her to put them away again.  It hit me that I'd never see them out again, and I burst out sobbing over my perfect, shiny ceramic surface.

What would I give to have her here mucking up the bathroom?  My right arm.  With this bitter knowledge, I imagined how it will feel someday to see that part of the kitchen counter clear and perfect.  That will likely only happen after Tim dies, and it won't make me nearly as happy as having him around does.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Tales of Jacob: Volume II

Jacob, to the outside world, is coping magnificently.  The only ones who are privy to his struggles are the ones who live with him.  I've really only seen him cry the day of the accident, and perhaps those secondary tears that come from seeing your mom sob her heart out.  No matter how I assure him crying is healthy, and non gender-specific, he holds tightly to his composure.

So how do I know he is suffering deeply when tears are off the table?  It's in his eyes, so much older than twelve years should be.  It's in his almost spooky quiet manner.  He has always been an introvert, but since the accident his utterances have gotten less and less.  Does he think there's no sense in stating your opinion because most things are out of our control anyways?  Does he fear getting close to others because he could wake up one morning, carry about his routine, and then be told a piece of his heart is gone forever?  It's in his eating and sleeping patterns, which two years later are still disturbed.  He goes through periods where he's not hungry for anything, and no amount of schmoozing can get him to eat.  And the last couple of weeks, he has suffered from insomnia.  If haven't experienced a child going through insomnia, I'm here to tell you, it's enough to break your heart all over again.

A child on the brink of puberty should be sleeping his buns off.  Instead he spent a sleepless night recently tossing and turning.  At first his logical brain was still engaged, as he offered this:  "Hey Mom, I know!  In the morning when I'm still sleeping, can you take a picture of me?  If I can see what my comfy position is, I'll be able to just replicate it when I can't get comfortable at night."

Yes, he really said "replicate".
I marvelled at his brilliance.  Who is this kid?  While I was still in the throes of parental pride, he added, "Maybe take pics for a couple days- everyone has more than one comfy position.  We could line them up on the wall, and I could just try one after another until I found one that worked."

What is this boy going to do in the world?  Good things, that much I know.  Cory would be so tickled by this scenario.

As the night wore on, the hours stacking on each other like some nail-biting version of sleep Jenga, his cognitive processes turned emotional.  He was like every other person out there suffering from sleep deprivation:  miserable.

As I rubbed his back, and tried to take him for a walk through his mind, looking at all the relaxing images it had to offer, I was reminded of how it had felt to see Cory suffer, sleepless and afraid, and be unable to do a thing about it.  Secondary misery.

As 4 a.m. neared, I was down to the one thing I'd always been able to do for Cory in terms of comfort:  feed the child.  With work a mere three hours away, I tiptoed into the darkened kitchen with him.  I made him a waffle with hazelnut spread, kept him company while he ate it, and then pushed a yogurt on him.  As the waffle toasted, he patted me on the shoulder blade- reminiscent of his father's most favored comforting gesture- and marveled, "Mom, I can't believe you're doing this for me!"

A wave of love rushed over me, sleeplessness forgotten, and my true purpose to remain here, without my daughter, realized.

I have always been a caregiver.  And there are loved ones here who still need my care.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Thought I'd give you guys another shot of my positive side while the getting is good.  I'm getting tired of all the smiling, and while I feel the tiniest bit better than I have in past days, it still feels like being burned alive most of the time.  And while I want to be as healthy as possible, and functioning for my family, I don't think there's anything wrong with being sad.  Really sad.  Devastated, even.  She's gone...she's really gone and it's killing me, you guys.  I can't pretend it's not.

So as much as I've enjoyed - maybe even gotten a little hooked- on all the "atta girls!" I've received over the last couple weeks or so, I've gotta go sit in my corner for awhile.  Strength is waning.  Choosing joy is not as easy as it sounds.  It's hard work.  I've been feeling a little run down since I passed that kidney stone (a must hear tale for another day), and my anxiety has been out of control for a couple days now.  Wolf Teeth (that strange phenomenon in which my teeth suddenly begin to feel too big for my mouth, which in turn freaks me out to the point that I can't sleep or stop feeling them with my tongue during the day) has descended with a vengeance.  Work is a pretty stressful place right now, but I knew there had to be more to it.  Here's what I came up with:

I recognize that I can't keep going at this "always find the silver lining" pace I've been walking, and I feel like being sad or getting depressed again is going to be a sign of weakness.  I feel like I'll be letting people down.  I feel like I'll be failing as a I should be strong enough to just carry on.  Isn't that what is expected by our society?  Be strong.  Keep your chin up.  It's good to see you trying.

Talking with a friend today I realized this grief thing is not much different than a life long illness.  It will always be there.  There is no finish line.  It will wax and wane, much as Cory's illness did.  And if I always encouraged her to be honest about her symptoms, why do I feel like I have to hide my pain?  I'll show you my joy and my good days, but I shouldn't feel like I have to hide the bad ones, either.  It's part of the process.  It takes a lot of strength to look pain in the face, to sit with it and study the lines and creases in its infinitely old countenance.  It takes courage to tell others what you saw, and how you feel about it...what you're thinking...and exactly what it's like to sit alone in  that dark corner that has begun to feel strangely like home.  And that's what I want most now- to be brave like my girl.

So here's my gratitude list for the past couple of weeks: one item for each day.   Enjoy, and if I'm not super sunshiny for the next few posts, just know that's how it really is...two steps forward and one step back...forever.

I am grateful for:
  • the model of marriage my parents offer
  • to be alive
  • my son
  • the chance to educate others about living with mental illness
  • David Sedaris' sense of humor and snappy prose
  • Angie's friendship and quick reflexes in emergency situations
  • the chance to share Cory with so many people
  • feeling young and pretty today
  • thinking that I heard Cory laugh today
  • the day off to rest
  • Jake's techie skills that got my laptop up and running with a couple of educated clicks
  • the fact that Jacob finally wants to hang out with me
  • chocolate
  • the Gillio group on facebook
  • my therapist and her help figuring out what it is I seek from Bob
  • the chance to share Cory's art and mine with others
  • take out and the money to buy it when cooking is just too much
  • time to write
  • my job
  • to have found a therapist who gets it and has something to offer

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Safety First

The first time Cory insisted on bringing her American Girl doll to Daddy/Daughter lunch with Tim, he may have given her a curious look.  But I am proud to say, he said nothing to make her feel bad, only quipped to his eighteen year old daughter who was battling a major mental illness daily, "Josefina hungry today, Cor?"

It was pretty obvious that Cory's dolls brought her some comfort in a scary situation.  I can gaze off into the distance now and see her sitting cross-legged on our couch, brushing their hair and swapping outfits.  Some people, I suppose, may not understand right off what would prompt a young adult woman to return to a cherished childhood activity.  So for those out there who may not get it or even worse would label her a "retard" and claim it the outfall from her electro-convulsive therapy, let me take a stab at explaining:

The way I see it, safety is a primary need.  If you don't feel safe, you can't learn; you can't function.  The hallunications and delusions Cory experienced threatened her feeling of safety.  To regain it, I think she returned, in some fashion, to a time when she had last felt safe- which would have been those happy, stable pre-pubescent/early puberty years from age eight to about age fourteen.  During these years before her mental illness struck, she passed quite a few happy hours playing dolls.

Make sense?

Let's take this a little further.

I have struggled to feel safe since Cory's accident.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder's job is pretty much to attack your feeling of safety and your ability to discern between real time and past trauma.  I have returned to my coping mechanisms of childhood also.  In my mind, I have developed a split screen, and on one side can easily see an underweight, pale, peaked anxious fifth grader walking the half block to school everyday loaded down with enough notebooks and paper products to drop a mule in its tracks.  On the other, I see a late middle aged woman, whose once youthful face is now ravaged with grief, gathering up her supplies to leave the house for nearly any errand- the purses and totes getting bigger by the day, and bulging with planners, journals, and pen pouches.

Words (and the materials needed to generate them) have always been my fail safe.  I even wonder now if there isn't some grounding effect to this toting heavy things around all day- does it put a lid on my anxiety in some way?

  Occupational Therapists often use "heavy work" (the pushing, pulling, and carrying of heavy objects) to provide children with the sensory input their bodies crave.  Have I been doing this all along?  I'll never foget when I first learned of this concept.  I was so excited to come home and share the word "propreoceptive" with Cory and Jake.  I guess it's the writer in me, but just the sound of some words can completely thrill me.

So I guess I would challenge you to think of a time in your adult life that you've felt a little unsafe...was there something in your childhood that you returned to?  Something that gave you comfort or the illusion of stability at a time you desperately needed it?

I also ask if you see an adult toting around a doll or stuffed animal, you suspend your judgment of their mental state.  They may be finding a very healthy way to cope with unimaginable pain.