Tuesday, October 1, 2019 we said our formal good-byes to my mama. Saw her face for the last time on earth surrounded by friends and family. Sang a few songs and walked away from the cemetery back to a fellowship hall full of people.
A crowded place never felt so empty.
A noisy room never sounded so quiet to ears straining for the one voice we longed to hear.
It was like that when Dominic ran ahead to Heaven five and a half years ago-I stumbled back across the grass to the waiting food and folks both relieved the public spectacle was concluded and horrified that the final act of committing his body to the ground and commending his soul to Heaven was complete.
Left with only photographs and memories.
They were not enough then and they are not enough now.
Flat, lifeless representations of the vibrant, funny, sassy mama that only recently rediscovered her appetite and snuck past the kitchen to the bowl of candy on the dining room table at every opportunity are NOT. ENOUGH.
Even though it was delightful to dig out old photo albums, scour the house for boxes tucked away in corners and open drawers searching for mementos and precious tokens of a long life, it was also a heartbreaking reminder that if she were still breathing we’d never be invading her privacy.
I remember boxing up Dominic’s things in his apartment only a few days after we buried him.
We were trespassing, pure and simple. He deserved to have whatever secrets he’d been keeping (though they were small and not at all dark or dishonorable) and here we were dragging them into the light.
I hated every minute of it. I sucked in my breath and held back the tears as I piled a life into containers of “save”, “toss” and “give away”. A lifetime reduced to lifeless objects.
We buried Mama with a white rose and a small photo of Dominic placed in between her hands. It was a tiny token representing both our heartache and our eternal hope.
I am thankful for every memory and photograph I have of Mama and Dominic.
I tuck the memories away safely in my heart and place the photos carefully in labeled albums.
But they are a paltry substitute for their earthly companionship.
Everyone knows about your wrinkles, your less-than-perfect figure and your lopsided smile.
So refusing to stand still for a picture ( unless you feel you “look your best”) when someone begs you to join in is not really effective in curating your photographic legacy for generations to come.
What will happen instead is that those who long to have photographic evidence of your sense of humor, your sense of style, your silly antics and serious moments will instead have a giant hole in the family album.
I just finished a week-long adventure that included two dogs, four cats, five adults and one infant crammed into a house that hasn’t seen that much action in a decade.
My son’s family had to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Dorian (which, thankfully, didn’t do near the damage to their area as anticipated!) and came north to my parents’ place. I drove south to meet them.
It was an opportunity to make pictures we will treasure for years to come even if many of them aren’t even near “perfect”.
My mom (on oxygen and in her nightshirt), my dad (sometimes sweaty from outdoor work), me (absolutely NOT dressing up or wearing makeup) and the baby had fun snapping candid and not-so-candid photos.
I’m not sure if many or any of them will ever make it to the boxes we used to use for Kodak moments since our phones are our photo storage units, but I know we will look back on them fondly and enjoy reliving the moments when we gathered round the TV wondering if or when Dorian might make its way up the coast of Florida.
I think I’ll print some out for my mama whose memory is failing her but whose smile shone bright when holding her great-grandson.
So go ahead, take that picture!
You never know when it might be all you’ve got left of someone you love.
I’ve learned that there are new things to miss even five years down this road of child loss.
I’ve learned that any odd moment, random smell, taste,touch, or occasion can pierce that place in my heart that screams, “Dominic should be here!”.
I’m also learning additional ways his absence continues to shape the family we have NOW. Dom’s absence continues to impact decisions, expectations, hopes and dreams TODAY.
I miss family photos when I don’t count heads and note unfilled spaces. It’s not just Dom I’m yearning for. I long for us to all be together-no one missing. It’s a little easier (sometimes) when one or more of us aren’t able to make a particular trip or event because then it’s not ONLY Dominic gone from the frame.
But truth be told, I can’t stop my heart from looking and hoping that this time, it’ll be different.
This time, we’ll be whole.
I miss the ease with which I used to toss together family meals, social occasions and holiday gatherings. I’ve always LOVED making things special and never minded cooking buckets of food. I used to plan weeks in advance-gathering recipes, ideas, decorative items and sometimes little gifts or favors for those who attended. I checked with folks for dietary preferences or allergies. It was a joy even when it exhausted me because I loved shaping spaces and experiences to strengthen family ties.
I miss waking up and facing a new day without reservation or trepidation. I’m a sunrise kind of gal. I used to turn my face toward the big picture window in our living room waiting for first light to dawn and the day to get going. Fresh start. New opportunities.
It took awhile but some days I can do that.
Still there are many days I watch the trees come into focus knowing daylight can’t always lift the darkness in my heart.
I miss turning corners in my house or walking on my land encountering only good memories, happy reverie and hope that tomorrow would bring more of the same. When we moved here over twenty years ago, it felt like home. Plenty of space for children to run, exciting adventures discovering woods, water and animal life abounded. There are so, so many memories everywhere I turn. Memories used to spark hope for more. Now they are silent witness to the line that demarcates our lives into BEFORE and AFTER.
I miss the certain assurance when someone doesn’t pick up the phone or answer a text that “all is well”. We have always been a family on the move. It sounds ridiculous today, but a driver’s license was the ticket to a personal cell phone when my kids were growing up. As each one gained the privilege of driving away alone, we made sure they had a way to call and let us know they arrived safely. If I called them and there was no answer, it was a good hour or two before my heart went into overdrive and my mind imagined all the horrible possibilities.
Now I make that trip in seconds or minutes despite any logic that can easily explain it away.
I miss having energy to spare. I know part of my energy drain is simply age. I’m not so cocky as to assume the years don’t play a role in slowing me down. But I know that’s only half (or less!) of it. The constant effort to edit, direct, control and contain my words, thoughts and emotions sucks the life right out of me. What used to easily be a one hour job takes two. And projects I could whip together in a day require a week or more. Discouragement makes me sad and tired. So the cycle continues.
I miss sound sleep and good dreams. Right after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I could barely sleep at all. There was no escaping awful scenes playing across my closed eyelids. Eventually I was able to lull my mind into a kind of calm and sleep a little. Five years later I rarely sleep more than two hours at a stretch without waking. While I usually roll over and doze off again, I never get the kind of restorative rest I really need.
Dreams are another matter altogether.
They are often full of jumbled bits that leave me unsettled and full of dread.
I miss making plans for next month or next year without the silent caveat that we just can’t be sure they will come to pass. A large calendar hanging prominently in our kitchen was my go-to for keeping track of crazy family schedules and commitments for decades. I took it down a day after Dominic died and didn’t hang another for over two years. I couldn’t bear to turn page after page knowing Dominic’s name would never show up again except in reference to him being gone. I have one now. But while I still write things in different colored pen (easier to see and track) my mind knows every single plan is really just penciled in.
Until the day comes or the moment arrives, my heart holds it lightly.
I miss saying innocent good-byes. I was never the crying mom waving a handkerchief as my kids made their way down the long driveway to the larger world. I always missed them, of course. But the goal was to raise independent persons capable of doing things, going places and living their own lives. So a good strong hug, a kiss on the cheek, “I love you” and they were off leaving a smiling mama behind. It never occurred to me that THIS time could be the LAST time I touched or talked to them.
Now, every good-bye is sacred. Every hug a prayer.
I miss hearing Dominic’s name in casual conversation. Oh, we still talk about him. But it’s not the same. Sometimes it’s awkward and leads to odd pauses. Most times it’s more natural. Always it’s with sad recognition that instead of memories we should be sharing fresh stories of adventure.
I appreciate each new day I’m given.
I take nothing for granted because I know how quickly and easily it can be snatched away.
But my heart can’t help but long for the way things used to be and yearn for the way things would be if Dominic were still here.
It happens most often when things are very quiet or I’m trying to drift off to sleep.
My mind will rehearse the moment the doorbell rang, or the phone calls I had to make, or-worse yet-imagining what, exactly, Dominic experienced when he left the road and plowed through bushes until he was thrown from his motorcycle and died.
Once my thoughts begin to follow that track, it’s so hard to derail them.
It used to be absolutely impossible.
But now (at five years into this journey) I have some default visualizations that help me break unfruitful mental cycles.
I might imagine details from my childhood-recreating a room or an experience-or recite Scripture, hymns or poems. Sometimes I force myself to delineate my next day’s tasks precisely and in order.
I am always very careful what I watch, read or meditate on before bedtime because if I plant a seed of fear or dystopia it flowers in my dreams.
And then there are the days when responsibilities lead me down memory lane-going through photos for my daughter’s wedding, consolidating boxes to make room for my husband’s retirement, hunting a particular item for the holidays or another family celebration-and I have a hard time not sinking into despair because Dom’s just not here.
But at five years those are no longer utterly uncontrollable feelings.
I’ve learned ways of diffusing, distracting and redirecting my thoughts to help me deal with them in the moment:
If possible, I stop the activity that triggered the feelings or thoughts and switch to something else. Sometimes just turning my back makes all the difference.
I focus on a non-triggering detail. Shifting my eyes often shifts my thoughts.
If in a group of people, I force myself to listen to the conversations around me and ignore my own thoughts.
If alone, I speak the feeling/thought aloud. Breaking the silence can break the cycle.
Then, (often) I’ll have a meltdown later, but at a time when I can afford it better.
I’ve said over and over that the absolute weight of this burden has not changed but my ability to carry it has grown through practice and doing the work grief requires.
Sorrow is no longer all I feel and my son’s absence is no longer all I see.
Every time I overcome my fear, I redirect my thoughts, I face my feelings and refuse to let them paralyze me, I’m stronger.