I Did for Memorial Day Weekend
On a beautiful Spring Friday late this past May, I boarded a small airplane at John Wayne Airport in gorgeous and sunny Southern California. The temperature was dancing around the lower 70’s such that if you stood in the shade you could get a little chilly (depending on to where you’re acclimated.) The breezes are virtually constant here, as are tans and traffic.
In short, I boarded a plane in Heaven and an hour later, landed in Hell – Phoenix, AZ. A 114? eyeball-searing heat welcomed me outside of baggage claim. I escaped from Phoenix exactly a year ago after surviving there for almost eighteen years. I made a vow not to travel to the Grand Canyon State when the temperature was over 100?, leaving the months between Mother’s day and Halloween as black-out travel dates.
This trip, however, is the exception; I arrived on day two of the annual three-day Passages Conference held by and for the MISS Foundation. A gathering where entire grieving families come together as one: one community, one force with which to be reckoned, and with one underlying drive – the death of our babies.
Like many of you, I am questioned as to why or how I could attend such an event. “Isn’t it hard? Isn’t it depressing? How could that possibly help?” I am asked. Well, of course, it’s hard. And, yes, it can be terribly sad, but it really does help to be surrounded by and witness to others who have a great understanding of how I feel.
After returning from the conference no one asks about the amazing people I got to meet, with stories that continue to floor me. No one is concerned about the women I witness meeting for the first time in person after carrying on an Internet-relationship for months or maybe years. I wasn’t asked about all the new ideas floating around regarding new ways in which to memorialize my son. I didn’t bother to share the breathtaking art or some of the amazing new concepts I learned from the guest speakers. We all know these mere mortals, devoid of true bereavement, could not possibly comprehend the concepts we acquire at such a conference.
From Dick Obershaw I learned about the fine line between laughing and crying. I was shown the difference between mourning and grieving and how mourners are comforted, not grievers. By the way, I’m not a very good mourner.
In listening to Peter Barr I took a great deal of notes (It’s this brain injury thing, I swear.) Peter gave an abstract idea that is perfect for allowing your mind to simply sit on for a while: experiencing the absence of a person’s presence and/or the presence of someone’s absence. Profound!
In a second workshop of Peter’s he taught us the difference between guilt and shame. Shame being a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness and guilt is a feeling that an action or inaction of yours could have changed the outcome of a situation. Guilt, he said, is a “functional process.” This took some further explanation for me. “Self blame regarding behavior provides hope and the possibility of efficacy [efficiency] for the future, while narcissistic devaluation [self blame] intensifies despair and inadequacy,” Peter explained.
Dr. Gutierrez gave a beautiful and detailed demonstration on the vastness of the universe. From him I was convinced the probability of there Not being a Divine Force (call it what you will) is markedly small. He also reminded me that although the human body is evolving and transforming every single second, the essential person remains the same. Therefore, are humans simply bodies filled with blood, cells, and amazing systems working together to create this person we love and miss so much? Or are we all more?
No, I am not asked the incredible knowledge I learn at the MISS conference. I am not questioned about the profound caliber of people I am honored to meet. Instead, I get the downward looks of sorrow and a quick change of subject. I also get the understanding that I am emotionally and physically drained and am in need of some quiet time along with a nice long nap. (I love naps! I’m a big fan of nappage.)
At this year’s conference there was an event that happened for me that was huge, and I did choose to share it with those who would understand: I cried; I broke down and lost it.
For many in the bereaved community, crying is a common occurrence; something we apologize for often…too often. My tears shut off for some reason right around what would have been Blake’s 2nd birthday– around six to seven months after the crash. I have no idea why this happened, but it just did. There are many times I Want to cry; stories I hear, memories I have, the shear desperation I feel over the absence of my only son, and yet, my tears just do not come; every once in a long while I will cry. I will be remembering something, sharing something, and I will get that familiar feeling building in my chest: the sensation of my heart tearing its stitches, ripping through the scar tissue, releasing some of the anger, sadness, and desperation I hold. The river of tears will make its way upward and I know I cannot fight it; I don’t want to fight it. I welcome the tears. I know they are healing, and I know I need to release them.
It was the last night of the conference, the closing ceremony: the candlelight memorial service. Entering the room and seeing the grieving angel statue and all of the memorials set up by other mothers, I knew my heart was full and would most likely break open during the service. I was hoping it would. After a few welcomes and thank you’s from some of the amazing MISS volunteers, a song began to play. I don’t know what song it was and I don’t know the words that grabbed me, but shortly into the song I felt the stitches begin to break open. I looked a few rows in front of me and recognized the back of Joanne’s head; I knew there was no one else whose arms I wanted to catch me.
eserting my poor sister-in-law, Kelie, I left my seat and made my way up to the front. Joanne immediately saw what was happening and opened her arms. I fell to my knees, surrendered my head into her lap and we embraced, holding on for dear life. I was sobbing, absolutely sobbing, and I didn’t want to stop. At one point I actually had the desire to scream; I’m not sure what held me back, it’s not as if every other person in that room would not have joined me.
After a while, I composed myself and was watching the candlelighting with Joanne. At one point, through all the tears and dedications, Joanne leaned over to me and said her famous line, “This f^&*ing sucks.” I couldn’t agree with her more. Then, feeling the surrealism of everything around me and everything that was happening, I said to her, “I don’t want to play this game anymore; I’m done. I’ve learned whatever it is I need to learn and I want to wake up now.” Joanne agreed.
When I am able to really step away from the moment I think this can’t possibly be happening; how can this be real? How could something like this happen? I felt as though all of us were living in the same parallel universe and we would wake from the nightmare together with our babies.
Experiencing the death of my child is worse than anything that could possibly happen on this earth; Stab me, rape me, beat me over the head with a bat or a hammer, cut off my legs, cut out my tongue, take out my eyes. Do all this then dip me in acid–I don’t care! Just don’t ask me to live through the death of my child!
We are asked, “How do you do it? I could never live through that.” Some responses may include a husband or other children. Personally, I didn’t have either; Blake was my entire life. Often times, I still don’t know how I have made it this far. Don’t get me wrong, there were quite a few times where I was ready to leave, wanting throw in the towel. For some reason I didn’t. My response has always been: For some reason I keep waking up in the morning and I keep putting one foot in front of the other.
That’s another reason I would never miss out on the MISS conference: you never know when you are going to hear a simple statement, maybe only a couple of words, that will click in your heart and bring you some semblance of comfort. Profound words that will continue to bring a slightly healing touch with it for the rest of your life. For me, I got two sets that really stuck with me. The first was from Joanne; I called her several times early on in my devastation with the same question: what do I do now? The gift she gave me was: just make it through the next five minutes. Sometimes, that’s all any of us can concentrate on. The second set was from my grief counselor at the time, an angel named Diane Mabante, who suffered the stillbirth of her first daughter while almost dying herself. She said, “it’s only a matter of time”. It’s only a matter of time until we hold our babies again. She also brought me great comfort by sharing her belief that we will pick up right where we left off, so we will not have lost out on anything.
Even though these gems of hope and healing did not occur at this year’s conference, maybe something a speaker, a peer, a volunteer, or I said did bring a comforting stitch to a heart. Not that we will ever close the wound completely–and many of us wouldn’t want that anyway, but just enough of a closure to make it through the next five minutes.