Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Day 199: Role Models in Grief

September 13, 2014

I'm part of a continued community of writers and mourners in a 30-day writing workshop found here: http://www.refugeingrief.com/30daywriting/

Today's prompt encourages us to write about role models who live with grief in a way we admire.

Dear Lisa,

I remember sitting next to you on the way to a conference. Or was it the way home? Either way, we were on a plane, nearly snuggled in together, as plane seats will do. We hadn't spent that much time together, you and I, even though we worked together. Taught together.

It was because of your grief that I ended up teaching middle school. I received my first call for a substitute teaching job in the district where you still teach. It was to cover your class- middle school Language Arts. I was terrified, having never taught middle school nor Language Arts before, but decided I could do anything once. If I didn't like it, I could just ask not to be placed there again.

I had no idea at the time why you were out. Why I was covering for your classes. I had no idea that a few days would turn into weeks. And weeks then into months. I had no idea, until I did, that you were on bed-rest for your health and the health of your baby.

You and Brad. When I first met you, your family included your husband, your beautiful little girl Ally, and you were expecting your second child. A boy.
I had no idea that bad news would keep getting worse for you. That while I was fumbling through teaching your students how to write a 5-paragraph essay on "The Outsiders," you were swallowing bit at a time the fact that your baby, discovered to have Trisomy 18, would not survive more than a few days, or a few hours. If at all. You were in your bed for days, watching movies or reading books or staring at the ceiling (have I ever asked what you did in those long and painful days?) waiting for the moment you'd deliver and then say goodbye to your little boy. His name is Brendan. He has a name and his cells were dividing in a way they shouldn't have as you were laying there in your bed and I was teaching your students about paragraph structure.

I had no idea.

I had no idea that at the same time, your mom's cancer cells were also dividing rapidly, spreading their way through her body and threatening to take from you a mother whom you needed. A mother whom you loved. This is not how awaiting the birth of your child should be. I had no idea.

I heard later, maybe from you, maybe from a coworker, that you were in the hospital delivering Brendan, holding him for the few moments you could while your mom was dying. Was it the very same hospital? I know we talked about it on the plane that day. I think I remember you saying some family had to go back and forth- between hospitals- to see you both.

I wish I had been a better listener. I had no idea.

I know that your mom died just before Brendan. That later you'd tell me that it was comforting to think of her being there to help Brendan and welcome him home. I know you described the image of your mom holding your newborn son.

A photographer was there to take photographs of you with Brendan. Your husband with Brendan. You made a beautiful video of still photos and video clips, documenting the short life of this little boy you loved. I remember seeing your husband bathe Brendan's tiny frame. I remember the dark hair on his little head. I remember a Natalie Merchant song played along with the video.

O, I believe
Fate smiled and destiny
Laughed as she came to my cradle
Know this child will be able
Laughed as she came to my mother
Know this child will not suffer
Laughed as my body she lifted
Know this child will be gifted
With love, with patience and with faith
She'll make her way 

I think of you and Brendan and the sweet and heartbreaking image of him being bathed by his dad, your husband, for the first and only time. I think of this every time I hear that song. Have I ever told you that? Have I ever told you how beautiful I thought that video was? How stunning those photos were?

I don't mention your daughter's Downs Syndrome as a component of your grief because you've shown nothing but pure joy with her. A diagnosis of Downs Syndrome, I can imagine, is not what you had dreamed for your daughter- and in that, I'm sure there is grief. But it is the joy of Ally, not any loss associated with her Downs Syndrome, that anyone ever sees. You're raising an incredibly amazing little human, there. And I can't imagine how it was to still have the role of mom active as you were losing your own mom and your baby boy.

You came to work once or twice before you were on total bed rest. I remember you walking into the building and then entering our team area and finally the classroom. My classroom. Your classroom. I was so fearful of appearing like I was invading your space- taking yet another thing away from you. I suddenly wanted to hide the things I had added to your room. Your walls. My things. I met your daughter and your husband. Ally was wearing little ducks on her feet. 

The next time I saw you was at the wake for your mom. You were in a wheelchair near the casket. Again, I was afraid of being where I might not belong. I had no idea. I had no idea that that was the last thing on your mind. How foolish of me. 

I remember studying all of the pictures of your mom displayed at the funeral home. I looked at her face in each one. I tried to take in the life of a woman all in pictures. An entire life. I tried not to feel sorry for you. You never struck me as someone who appreciates pity, but I had no idea what else to offer. I didn't know then what I know now.

We spoke about the wake when you and I sat next to each other on the plane. We spoke about the absurdity of it all. The scale of fairness that tipped so far over that even you couldn't believe how ridiculous it was. Who? Who loses their mother and son within days (was it hours?) of each other? Who does that happen to?\

And then Ally was diagnosed with cancer. "You've got to be fucking kidding me," is what we said- those who worked with you. There is no kidding. What cruel joke would this be? I found myself shaking my head back and forth, almost imperceptibly, when thinking about the losses you had and were up against. You buried your son. Your buried your mom. Days apart. And now you're driving your daughter regularly to get pumped full of poison in hopes that what killed your mom won't kill her, too. It's not fair.

I've always considered myself a person who doesn't shy away from any topic- someone who can be plunged into the most difficult of conversations. But what did I have to say to you about this? "I'm so sorry," seemed so trivial. "I'm sure Ally will be ok," was I lie. I didn't know what would be ok for you anymore.

None of this seemed ok. 

Did I say anything? Did I say anything at all? I wish I knew then what I know now.

And here's what I remember about that plane ride with you. I remember asking you simply, "How? How do you do it? I don't think I could keep going on if I were you." It was not helpful, perhaps. But very honest. I just couldn't imagine that depth of loss. Over. And over. And still picking up and going. Getting yourself on a plane to travel to a conference on teaching Young Adult Literature and pretending like you give a shit. But you did. 

And here's what you said to me. "You just do. You just do it. You keep doing it. You'd do it to, if you had to."

That was it. 

And here, years later, when I've found myself crippled by grief, miles away from those around whom I find the greatest comfort, I remember the words you gave me when I didn't even know I'd be needing them. "If Lisa can just keep doing it, I can, too. Just get up, Bridget. Just get up and do it." I think of you. I think of you often, not in a grief-comparative way, but in a grief shaman way. You were showing me how to do it long before I'd need to know. And I remembered you when Gareth died.

Another thing I remember is you talking about the connections you made with other Trisomy 18 moms. You were not very vocal about it. Unlike me, who feels the urge to make public just about every waking thought I have on the topic of grief, you silently channeled it into helping others. Specifically you helped people who were going through or had gone through exactly what you had experienced. And how important is that? Because the rest of us have no idea what to say. What to do. How it feels. And you do.

It's not the way you and I are so different with our grief that impresses me. It's not that I'm loud and out there and you're returning to work and having the words "strong" and "resilient" and "getting through it well" tossed about. We're both just doing it the best way we know how, and the ways that fit our personalities, with or without grief.

What impresses me is the way you quietly opened up that day. You were honest. You were present. You were, in that more silent and powerful way of yours, planting the seeds that would grow into the strongest of vines between you and me. Between South Korea and St. Louis. Between the loss of a mom and a son and the scare of the potential loss of your daughter and the loss of my love. 

You placed the strings down in front of me and said (without saying it), "Here. Take this end. Tie it to you and hold on like hell when the time comes. I'll be holding on to the other end."

I admire you, Lisa. I hold you in the dearest of places. You did not ask to go before anyone who is now grieving in order to leave a trail of where to go. What to do. How to get up and just keep going. But that's what you've done and what you continue to do.

Your beautiful Ally with her big brother, Ben, who joined your family (via Korea! My new home!) after Brendan.
This. This family. And Brendan is there in that photo, too.
You, Lisa. You inspire me. And I love you.



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