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Monday, September 15, 2014

Confessions From the Mosh Pit

Self-regulation:  some children learn it at an early age; some adults have never mastered it.  I confess when I taught pre-school, it was my number one objective.  Yes, I wanted them to learn pre-academics, but I knew that someday they would most likely know all the letters of the alphabet and how to count to a hundred.  Most of them would eventually learn to  identify shapes and colors, and cut paper with scissors.  So what instead was my biggest focus, and something they might not ever learn unless I taught them?
To manage their feelings.

I explained it to parents this way:  their children needed to enter public school ready to learn, and while all the academic skills would certainly help, but they also needed to know how to get along with others, how to follow a routine and directions, and how to problem solve.

Without these skills, school and life can be much more difficult.  Most felons?  Probably not the best with self-control.

If at school, you become overwrought with fury and sock it to the person next to you, learning comes to an immediate halt, and consequences aren't far off...more time away from learning.

The adult's question is always "why?"  Why did Tommy hit Sally?  It does no good to ask Tommy, of course- Tommy may or may not even know.  It does help to ask the question to ourselves, and watch Tommy a little closer next time to see what, if anything, prompted his action, and what gain he was able to derive from it.

All of this well-intended behavior analysis aside, last Friday night, I discovered that there is still this humble but undeniable truth:  it just feels good.

Doesn't it?  Have you ever just wanted to give someone a good shove or a light slap?
The reason we don't is because it's not acceptable behavior, and there are consequences for those who cannot follow these basic social norms.  Most of us enjoy our freedom too much to risk it for the satisfaction of beating someone senseless.  (Well, that, and most of us developed some self-control at some point in our formative years).

So, what if you remove those expectations?  What if you put a few hundred people, with their various rages and angsts, inside a dwelling and tell them it's perfectly okay- even encouraged- to push and shove?

Buddy, sign me up.
Do you hear me?  I stood there the other night at the concert of my favorite band watching the crowd begin to move back and forth in a light wave, and slowly realized that to the music, these people were "moshing"- deliberately pushing and slamming up against each other to demonstrate their enjoyment of the music, and perhaps to work out their anger?  The word mosh was originally an acronym for "move over shit head"- as in that obnoxious stranger in the crowd that in your line of sight and refuses to budge an inch.

Look, I had already realized I was very nearly the oldest person a this show while waiting to get in.  When an eighteen year old slip of nothing girl with a belly ring came up and asked if I'd take her and her friends picture, it was all cemented home, "Umm, excuse me, ma'am?  Would you please take our picture?"

Ouch... ma'am.  I guess my days of climbing on the speakers to see the band better are over.  What I wasn't too old for, however,  was to take advantage of the new rules of etiquette.

I looked around at all the sweat streaked faces- some with smeared makeup, some with piercings, and saw in my mind some people I'd like to have a good go at:  the insurance lady, a few of Battle Creek Police Department's finest, the rescue workers, and none other than the driver herself.  To the angry music, I gave a satisfying yell, and pushed with all one hundred and twelve pounds of me.  I really put my back into it, and you know what?  It felt mighty fine.

I was lost in the satisfying meaty feel of pushing against someone else's flesh in an effort to knock them off balance, if not completely over,  perhaps picturing her father's face when he showed us his back for the hundredth time, when my husband caught up to me.  I was just considering climbing into some stranger's hands for a little crowd surfing when he pulled me back, shaking his head with a grin.

Maybe he was right.  I was wearing glasses that night.

But the next mosh pit?  Count me in.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


I can't avoid writing about this any longer.  It's stuck in my throat, and I can't get past it.

For too many years, I measured my worth on my value to another person.  If he missed me, I felt good about myself.  If he didn't, I must not be enough for someone to miss.

If things didn't work out, I hadn't tried hard enough, performed well enough, or tolerated enough.

It was never him; it was always me.

So he told me, and so I believed.

I am so past all that shit.  Or at least I thought I was until I realized I've been keeping tabs on someone else's reaction to Cory's death for the last two years, and for what reason?

Why do I care if he misses her?

Cory's worth does not depend on how another person grieves her, or what she meant or did not mean to him.  She had a full and happy life completely independent of him.

 I cannot judge or even know how someone else grieves for my daughter, but this much I do know:  as much as I feel I am being burned alive in my grief for her, I was once completely set alive by her smile, her eyes, and  her laugh.  The pain now is the price of the joy then.

  I am mourning her entire lifespan, every moment, while he can only mourn the small slice of her that  he took the trouble to get to know.  I could name every scar on her body before the day she died.  I knew every story.  Her tears were mine, and mine were hers.

So what if he doesn't mourn her out loud, in public, or at all?   She will always be completely irreplaceable magic and joy, not a disposable girl to be forgotten, a failed attempt, or a closed door.

 Sure, she deserves to be missed, but she deserves to be missed by someone who knew her well and treated her better.  

Friday, September 5, 2014

Viewing the Monument

I drove.  My mom rode in the passenger seat, my dad and Jacob in the back.  It was probably a good thing that I had company for this errand because my insides were a mess.  The closer we got to the cemetery, the slower I drove.  Mom tried to engage me in conversation on the way, but I was mostly silent.  Around anyone who knows me, I am a total blather mouth.  If I'm silent, something is usually very, very wrong.

The car knew the way, winding around the turns with little help from me.  As we entered the cemetery, my heartbeat sped up with sick anticipation.  I wanted to see the monument and I never wanted to lay eyes on, all at the same time.  I wasn't ready to see it, but I had to be first, you understand.  It belonged to my girl, and she was mine.

In the distance, I glimpsed the shape of her stone, and my first thought was, "It's not very tall."  That was perspective fooling me.  As we closed the distance, it grew taller and taller before my eyes.  I parked the car, gave a heavy sigh, finally grunting as if I was about to pick up a heavy burden and carry it a very long distance.  I opened the car door and shut it.  My feet moved closer and I stood in front of my daughter's gravestone, staring, shaking, crying without realizing I was until the tears blurred my vision.

There's something about putting things in writing, isn't there?  It is formal; undeniable.  It's a public declaration, and from my perspective, being a lover of words, it is the final confirmation of truth.  Is it no wonder the first thing I did was show that beautiful, intricately carved stone my back?

I turned away and sought out my son.  Shaky hands reached for him, and he came to me, with no resistance, whatsoever, burying his head in my chest, and locking both arms around my waist.  I looked down into his face, and saw the sight of Cory's monument had hit him hard.  He was choked up, and miserable.  A stone as a replacement for a big sister, a best friend?  What kind of screwed up deal was that?   He blinked furiously, fighting to get on top of these emotions that had snuck up and sandbagged him without warning.

Mom stood beside me, as she has through this entire nightmare.  She rubbed my back, she held my hand, and she stood strong beside me, murmuring gently all the while about how beautiful the stone was, and pleased our sweet Cory Girl would be.  What flowers should we place?  What sort of pots?  Would bushes be better?  What did I think?

I couldn't answer her.  This was one of those experiences in which you disassociate yourself from all sensory input to avoid the pain.

We weren't there, in front of the monument, more than five minutes.  I bent down before we left, and touched her name with my fingers, rubbing the rough texture and feeling as if my heart and soul were on fire  In that moment, studying those letters that someone had painstakingly carved, I traveled back in time to the beginning, more than two years ago, just days after walking up on her lying on the side of the road.

In my mind, I could see a shocked and hollow eyed woman examining an announcement board at the funeral home, crazed eyes tracking left to right, and back, again and again, unable to believe it was her baby's name on that board.  And that her baby girl's name was on that board to direct people to the room in which her dead body was lying in a coffin.

  On my knees in the cemetery, I was caught up in total memory recall, watching that woman, clearly sick with guilt, begin to sway on her feet.  Those white letters on that black board doubled and trebled, until finally they lost all focus, and Nicole, mother of Cory for as long as she'd been a grown up, fell down.  People came to help her, and she could only beg, "Please, please make them take those letters down."

They did.  The lovely, compassionate folk at the funeral home moved quickly to do my bidding  They couldn't bring my girl back to life, but they could ease the sting of all that reality staring me smack in the face.

No one can take her name down now.  There is no reprieve, however temporary, from this unfathomable realization.  In so many ways, I am back to the beginning, all over again.  As I drove my parents home, I made it about four minutes before I interrupted my mom's casual conversation with huge, donkey braying lung-bursting sobs.

"I knew this was gonna happen."  my mom said my dad?  To me?  She patted me.  She reached for the hand in my lap that had balled into a fist.  Misery and heartbreak; anger and rage- they seem so intertwined in my world these days.Photo

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Walking Crescent

I have struggled through words and art to express the horror of not only losing my precious daughter, but also losing the bulk of my identity.  Behind the courteous smiles and laughter in the right places, I am lost, wandering around looking for the rest of me.  I have looked in the wrong places; I have given up before giving some places a thorough search.  But the hunt always resumes.  It must.

If you draw a big circle, that's me.  Inside it, make an arc that cuts the pie into maybe two thirds, and one third.  Got it?  Two thirds of me has been a mother my entire adult life, since I was nineteen years old.  A mother first.  A mother last.  If nothing else, a mother.  Left alone to raise a baby- I was still a mother.  Single parent, poor- still a mother.  Separated from my husband with a divorce in process- still a mother.  If I were fired from my job tomorrow, God forbid- I'd still be a mother.

 The third is split into many smaller sections:  daughter, wife, friend, worker.  Now go back to the the mother slice, and let's tell the truth.  Cory got the largest piece- one- because I had that job for nearly twenty years, and two- because she needed me more.  Jacob got a smaller portion, but just what he needed. We are still learning this dance

 Now let's talk about Cory's illness, and how being Cory's mom during that time bled over into every other part of me.  Her well being was my first waking thought and the last thing I turned over in my mind before sleep.

Do you have this picture?  Now take your trusty marker and scribble out the Cory's mom part of the pie.  And scribble out half of the Jake's mom slice because I am struggling to fill that role.  What is left?  A little slice- a little slice that is miserable and lost, and just wants to go home.

But home is gone.  And now there is the job of rebuilding your identity.  What do you put in all that empty space?  Some people fill it with drugs; some fill it with drink.  I tried to fill it with possessions- a most miserable failure that I will continue to pay for.

  I've tried filling it with new labels:  writer, artist, speaker.  I understand the concept of filling that space with something, of gluing the plate back together- cracked but usable.  I do.

But let me tell you something:  It is uncomfortable.  It's scary.  It feels like a farce.  All of that is fine, I am no stranger to difficult situations.  Here's the worst part:  I don't think I'll ever find anything to fill that space as well as being Cory's mom did.  I do feel as if I'll always be broken and wandering.

"Feelings are transient.  They are temporary."  my counselor says. Oh buddy, are we sure?  I've been feeling this way an awfully long time now, and I'm not sure I'd recognize the face of hope if I tripped over her on the street.

Because here's what I believe, right here, right now, just between you and me.  I believe I can learn to live and function without Cory.  But I don't believe I will ever be happy without her.  It is the most foreign concept to me.

Happy without my girl?  Have you lost your mind?

Photo: Early morning doodle...

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.