I am a pretty positive person, in general. So when I woke one morning with a sense that something terrible was going to happen in my world, I was worried. I couldn’t shake it. I prayed, said positive quotes in my thoughts…it wasn’t going anywhere. It was a physical sense…it unnerved me. It was more than a gut feeling…it was like the rumbling of thunder in the distance with ominous clouds I could feel coming my way, no doubt about it.
Am I losing it? What’s wrong with me? Age?
I called my husband, Dave, to see if he got safely to work. I texted my adult kids and made sure I locked the door before I left my daughter, Hannah, sleeping in the house. I drove very carefully to work. I felt like I suddenly understood with clarity what “they” meant by a “sense of impending doom.”
That…or I needed sleep. I decided that waking up against my will at 4 o’clock in the morning was the culprit. I got to work and the feeling passed. Life goes on.
Only, when I got back home, it was back. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and worried…about something I couldn’t name. I finally heard Hannah and Dave come in from late nights at work. I went in to chat with Hannah on the foot of her bed…
“Is everything okay? I’m worried.”
“Ummmm, yes?? Why?”
“I’m not sure, just a gut feeling that something is wrong…”
She patted my head. I went back to my bed. On my way, I looked at the clock and realized I had been up for twenty-one hours…is this hormones? I am almost fifty. I did finally go to sleep and ended up sleeping seven and a half hours, which is average for me…then I woke up.
My eyes popped opened and my breath was literally taken away. It’s here. The Grief Train came rolling through my brain as I screamed in my head, and it landed behind my eyes and the tears came rolling out. The no-facial-malformation-cry, saved just for Cory’s suffering and death day grief…just a steady flow of tears down the sides of my cheeks. I could feel my ears getting wet as I lay listless. I know I am powerless over this Thing that has visited me the past two years with a vengeance in September and October. Then It retreats sometime in early November.
We had watched my son’s immeasurable suffering in the ICU for two months, and then he died on October 31 of 2013. It was every bit as tragic as one might imagine, but life in general is no longer tragic. This form of grief, though, is. It feels tragic when It arrives. It’s something beyond my daily life that I have no control over. It is the unwanted house guest that I can’t tell when to come or when to go. I do manage it, though…this grief is nocturnal. So it leaves me be while I work. If this reads a little like a horror movie, it’s because sometimes in September…when it’s almost October….it is.
Most other days of the year, Grief pops in like a grandpa with a sense of humor, soft worn skin, and gives me tidbits of wisdom. I feel comfortable with the grandpa Grief. He isn’t usually pushy, and is often surrounded with beauty and memories and even smiles as I remember and miss Cory. I am comforted to talk, walk, and rock with grandpa Grief, reminiscing about the good ole days. I cry, but it’s happy, grateful tears about what we had and wishes that I’d had him longer and warm longings for him. This grief makes me feel close to Cory, keeps my memory of him alive, and I’m thankful for it.
But in September, It—this intense painful thing that seems truly beyond grief—arrives in a hostile manner, uninvited. No beauty or warmth surrounding it. It’s primal and intrusive…it’s the doom my body and brain had warned me was coming.
I lay in bed for two hours, drowning in the feeling of my heart sitting on the outside my chest. A mental slide show of Cory’s short life played over and over again in my head. Then I made a decision.
“Hey there, Grief….It….the Thing. You’re back. I know, because it’s almost October, you’re back. I just wanted to have a little chat. I’m changing the rules. We are doing this a little differently this year….
Instead of dreading you, I will welcome you.
Instead of fearing you, I will embrace you.
Instead of running from you, we will dance.
Instead of escaping the pain you bring, I will feel.
Instead of staying in bed, I will get up.
Instead of pretending you don’t exist, I will acknowledge your presence.
Instead of being angry with you, I will be gentle with me.
Instead of drowning, I will swim.
Hopefully, this time around I can give you the attention you must need so you don’t have to be louder every time you arrive for an annual visit. So that maybe next year when you arrive, you might come in like a wind instead of a storm. And maybe someday you’ll only be a breeze when you announce your arrival. And maybe some almost-October, you’ll be a rainbow.”
One can hope.
It was Saturday. I could have stayed in the bed all day. But instead I pulled myself up, breathed deeply, and did normal things. Planned things. Unimportant things. Me and Grief hung out together all day long, and my only decision was to keep moving. We got in the shower and cried some anguish I-can’t-do-this tears. I got dressed, fed the dogs, and walked out the front door into the sunshine and felt a sense of okay-I-can-do-this. Then moments later in the car the tears came again to the songs on the Christian radio station, reminding me to pray. I’m trying. Please give me strength to do the normal things today.
As I drove into the car wash, the song “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan came on from my iPhone playlist….oh, timing. And I felt Grandpa Grief holding my heart as I bawled my way through the psychedelic colored soap raining down on my car. Cory loved the car wash when he was little. I laughed through my tears at the memory of the cuteness of his little self. When he was a toddler, I would reach my arm all the way back to hold his chubby fingers propped on his car seat while we drove…He was blond and beautiful and healthy.
The car wash seemed in slow motion as I had the memory movies of my baby and young- child Cory playing in my head. As the gigantic brushes enveloped my car, I felt all the immense, intense, like-nothing-else-before love that my early twenties self felt toward my first child. I saw him laughing and running in the grass and squealing on the swing. I felt him lying on my chest, crawling in bed next to me, his little arms around my neck…
PULL FORWARD, EXIT
Sometimes I need flashing signs to remind me.
I left and drove toward the shoe store. Every red light and slow, slow traffic just solidified my perception that the world was moving in slow motion. As I passed a church and pulled to yet another stop at a red light, I caught sight of thousands of small American flags in the grass…oh my goodness. Tomorrow is 9/11. That must be 3,000 flags, which means 3,000 mothers and fathers. Tomorrow is Their Day. My compassion tears came on full force as I stared at all of the flags that represented someone’s lost child that left this world through no fault of their own. Moms, like me, who lost an adult child before themselves and are trying to push through life belonging to the club we never asked to join.
BEEEEEP! I was jolted by the car behind me honking. The light was green. I quickly pulled into the church parking lot and sat and took all those flags in. I wondered what their names were…I could picture men and women in their suits. Maybe a young wife who was visiting Daddy with their child on the eighteenth floor. And I thought about the nightmare calls their parents received or the remains that were never found for other parents.
It’s so interesting that I still say, “I can’t imagine…”
I prayed for the families who were left here, without their child or brother or sister…So much will never make any sense.
I pulled out of the parking lot, wiped my face off with the paper towels I’d brought to clean my car windows with, and headed back into traffic. I started to head home and give up. My prior year’s comforts of my bed and some wine sounded much more appealing than pushing through my venture with “It” on my back. I prayed again…replacing shoes for Hannah that our cute, chewy puppy ate the backs off of was the last thing on my to-do list. I can do that. I think I can, I think I can…I thought of The Little Engine That Could children’s book. Then I laughed out loud at how ridiculous it was that I had to cheerlead myself on to go to the shoe store. Stop this, I corrected myself in my head. And I said out loud, “This is silly.” I sucked it up and walked into Rack Room shoes.
I caught myself in the mirror…no make-up, red face, puffy eyes, and my Tenacious Fortitude shirt with Cory Jay Powell’s name on the back—the memory shirts representing Cory’s fight for his life and his love of vocabulary. “Team Cory” wore them to raise awareness for the need for bone-marrow donors for those who suffer from blood cancers…I wear it because I love him. As I looked through the shoes, I pleasantly remembered that every time Cory would come home as a young adult—from college or California or from his life adventures—I would insist on buying him new shoes. He was the most unmaterialistic human being I have ever known…and always had worn out, holes-in-the-toes tennis shoes. “They’re fine, Mom, see??” and he’d show me the soles that obviously, to him, still had life in them. I realized, right there standing in front of the size eleven men’s shoes, that this attitude carried him through Cancer.
I walked to the check out and the older lady with a smile greeted me so kindly. “How are you today?”
“Fine,” I said, but I knew by the looks of me she probably didn’t believe me. As she rung things up and I fished through my purse for my credit card, she said, “Tenacious?” I smiled and said, “Yes.”
I don’t ever mind talking about Cory. I love to talk about him, just like any of my children, and by now, do so with ease. But I know it can make “new” people I meet feel upset, awkward, or uncomfortable, only because they are so compassionate. I think it makes their heart skip a beat, because it’s every parent’s nightmare, really, and they just don’t know what to say. So it’s not something I bring up with just anyone…but for their sake, not mine.
She said,“I know something about Tenacious. Why are you Tenacious?”
“Oh, I’m not Tenacious. It’s for my son. He had two cancer battles and was quite a fighter.”
I watched for the shocked look in her face, and was ready to say something to comfort her discomfort, but she didn’t bat an eye.
She simply said, “I lost my son to cancer, too.” Now I was the one tearing up.
I did know what to say…“I’m so sorry. How old was he?”
“He was six.”
My heart dropped into my stomach. I can’t imagine…
“And he was such a little fighter, but the brain tumor took over.”
“Oh, my goodness…How did you know? What were his symptoms?” I said.
Her response helped me know she wanted to talk about her baby, how proud she was of him. And like describing her son’s first goal in his first soccer game, she proceeded to tell me.“Well, he came home and his eyes weren’t right, kind of crossing and he was wobbly for a few days. I knew something was wrong. And we went to the doctor and they thought it was dehydration. After a week of giving him enough water to float, we took him back. They found the tumor, and they told us we would have six months with him. In the middle of chemo treatments, he still insisted on going to school! He just kept going! He was something else, marching and eventually wheeling around with his little bald head. He fought until the end. It’s been twenty years now.”
“It’s been three for me…thank you for sharing that with me. Cancer is terrible…it’s amazing how strong they are.” I said, and we gave one another a smile of solidarity.
Then, as I scooped up my bag, she said in a motherly way, “Remember, you are Tenacious, too.”
Not one customer came to check out while we chatted about our sons. I walked out of the glass doors with a sense of awe and gratefulness for the angel behind the counter at Rack Room Shoes. I passed the 3,000 flags on my way home and wished I could listen to every mom and dad about tell me about their sons and daughters, too.
I’d just decided to do normal things. Planned things. Unimportant things. Me and Grief hung together all day long, and it was okay. I felt exhausted, but as I laid my head back on the same pillow I was on when the Terror Train came rolling in this morning, I felt Peace.
Turns out this is a better way.
[Photo credits to Forsaken Fotos]
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