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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Booster Seat

Jacob was ten when Cory died.  He was, and still is, small for his age.  My children have always been little.  The booster seat in the back seat of the car, at that time, was a necessary precaution, and no one thought twice about it.

In the last month or so, a couple of friends have ridden in my car and become completely mortified, on Jacob's behalf, to see the booster seat still occupying its accustomed space.  He is after all, twelve years old, and about to enter seventh grade.

"Nicole Edna Mansfield, what is that booster seat still doing in here?"  one of them asked.

"I know.  I know."  I mumbled, hanging my head in shame.

I've read that parents who lose a child often overcompensate with their remaining children, becoming overly permissive or overly restrictive.  I guess in some ways, I've been both.

Most of the time, I fall on the overly permissive side.  Some of it is instinctive.  Due to my unfortunate decision making around letting Cory walk to the store, I no longer trust my ability to keep Jacob safe, but other parents- whose kids walk around and breath freely-are okay with me.  I have no issues letting Jacob ride in other people's cars without a booster seat, spend the night at their houses, go on day trips, overnight trips, or even leave the state.  They are solid, trustworthy, responsible adults and I know that in their care, he will be safe

.My care?  Obviously, it's a crap shoot at best.

My gut feeling says, "Better keep that booster seat."  So I do.   I know that I can do everything I'm supposed to do and still end up with someone dead before I've finished cooking dinner, so maybe a little extra insurance is not a bad idea.

Some of the permissiveness is chosen.  I know what a dark hole this grief is.  I've done some regrettable things in mine, and I'm an adult.  I know Jake is in his own dark, cramped space, freaking out right along beside me.

 So yes, I've let him drink too much pop since his sister died.  And yes, I've let him escape through his video games without monitoring his screen time as carefully as I should.  It is only as I build healthier coping skills for myself that I can guide Jacob in using or developing healthier ones for himself.  Maybe we'll get there one of these days.  In the meantime, who wants a fountain Coke from MickeyDee's?

Jacob never used to beg...for anything.  He knew, before Cory died, that when I said no to five more minutes before bed time, candy, or a toy, I meant it, and no amount of begging would change my mind.  He now has tipped to the fact that I am exhausted most of the time, and out of my mind the rest.  Begging gets him everywhere.

But back to the booster seat:
 Jake and I talked about it just the other day.  I asked him if it bothered him, and he said it did a little.  He asked me why he needed it in my car, but not in grandpa's.  I turned the question back to him- could he think of any reason why I might want him to sit in the booster seat longer than he really needed to?

"Cause you love me.  And you don't want to lose me.  You're scared I'm gonna get hurt like Cory did."

Yeah.  We know each other well, him and I.

I admitted that it wasn't strictly necessary, but also told him I couldn't give it up yet.  We struck a compromise.  For the foreseeable future, the booster seat will ride in the trunk of the car, where it's handy in case it's needed.  Jacob nodded, satisfied.  He didn't point out that accidents take place in the blink of an eye, and it was absolutely illogical to house the booster in the trunk, thinking there would be time to pull over and re-seat it before disaster struck.

Jacob, who has been thirty five years old since the day he was born, knows this, I'm sure.  But he also knows the value of any comfort you can find in the aftermath of this type of loss.  He gave up carrying his stuffed animal after one school year, but he still carries a favorite blanket from room to room of the house during every waking hour.

 You do what you have to, and who cares what anyone thinks.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Just Me

Jacob, at twelve years old, is much more mature than I am, and a much better person.  Why, you ask?  This:

We did a little school clothes shopping a Saturday or two ago.  I promised him a quick pit stop, followed by lunch at one of his favorite spots, and a movie after that.  All his personal shopping skills gleaned from years of trooping along with the two females in his life, mom and sister, have gone by the wayside.  He is now the typical impatient male who has no interest in comparing fabrics or stitching, and shops only because an important woman in his life has some type of power over him.  I miss the little guy who would point out how intricate the thread detail was and debate footwear.

Our business done in ten minutes or so, we approached the counter to pay, Jacob's face relieved and victorious.  I've gotten much better about small talk with people, and listened as the saleslady told me how busy they'd been, how her son is in his first year of college, and how woefully empty her nest felt.  I nodded, and smiled a tight-lipped little grin, thinking she may never know what a truly empty nest feels like.  She turned to Jake, asking after his grade this year, was he ready to go back, and the like, before turning back to me, "But you must know what I mean, you have an older one.  Is she in college now?"

No.  She's not.  She's not in college.  She's dead.

So there's that awkward pause, in which I have to decide whether to take the smile off the kind lady's face or just go along with the banter and walk away.  In that handful of seconds, unbeknownst to the other person, a handful of images- some real and some imagined- play across my mind:  Cory in the cap and gown that never existed, Cory sitting at the dining room table with a litter of books and papers- juicebox and cookies at the ready, Cory grabbing an imaginary tote, imaginary car keys in hand- rushing to get to an imaginary class...somewhere.  Living.  Alive. 

 The pain of having a child leave for college is no doubt real, but God, why couldn't that be my pain?  What did I do so wrong to be punished this way while so many others just float right along?  Why can't that empty nest be mine?

It sours my stomach  It hardens my heart.  It makes my words harsh and narrows my perspective to one:  mine.

The jealousy just slips in, and takes over the world.  Not even realizing I was speaking aloud, I ranted in the parking lot, "Yeah...sure, she misses her son cause he's off to college!!  Give me a break!  She can call him and hear his voice.   She will see his face again because chances are no one is going to run him over on the street."  Oh, the anger turns me into a completely different person.  Put a baseball bat in my hands during one of these tirades, and there's no telling what would happen.

Jacob touched my arm so gently.  "I'm sure it's still hard for her, though.  You know, she said she had to work so many hours when he was little that she barely saw him.  She probably feels like she missed out on his childhood.  It's not as hard as us missing Cory like we do, but she did look really sad."

And there you have it.  Jacob could take himself out of the equation, and look at things from someone else's perspective.

 Most times, I cannot.  I remain mired in this wretched living nightmare, and have very little sympathy for those who take the world for granted.

I used to be a nice person.  Now I'm just me.

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.