It has taken me a lot of time and a lot of energy to do the work grief requires. There’s no short-circuiting the process. No way to rush through the painful and necessary steps.
For years I struggled with why, “Just think about the memories” didn’t comfort my heart. I treasured them. I tried hard to hold onto them. But that wasn’t enough.
And then I realized that a mother’s heart is not prepared to go on without the company of her child. I never, ever expected that it would be ME reminiscing about Dominic. I was sure it would be HIM thinking about me.
I pull out the memories like treasures from a locked strongbox.
“Handle With Care” because they are all I have left.
But they are not enough.
They will never be enough to satisfy this mama’s heart.
We are supposed to have to remember our elders, our grandparents, even, maybe our spouse at some point-but not our children.
Life may be a highway but it’s not a straight one.
It’s full of bends, curves, switchbacks and long stretches with distant horizons.
For a gal who likes knowing where she’s headed and how long it might take to get there, it’s more than a little challenging.
Sometimes I’d want to get out and camp on the side of life’s highway, take a pause and just catch my breath before the next set of roller coaster hills forces me to hold on tight for the ride.
In nearly fifty-seven years I’ve hardly ever been able to do that. So here I am, barreling down the road again toward more curves and more changes.
My youngest son and my husband are on their way right now from the Left Coast driving a truck toward home. When they get here we’ll have to unload an apartment full of stuff from my hubby’s place out there into our already pretty stuffed house. We’ve lived a lot of life in these walls and I readily admit I’m a saver of memories and things that signify special moments.
So while they were packing and loading, I’ve been cleaning around here.
It’s been physically, mentally and emotionally difficult to drag my body and heart down memory lane.
It’s just so hard-STILL– to touch things Dominic once touched and it takes my breath away. My heart has broken again over not only losing HIM but also losing the family I once had. We’ve all changed so. very. much. A mother can’t help but wonder if life for my surviving children might not be much brighter and easier if their brother were still here to share it.
Tiny bits of this and that force me to face things I’ve forgotten (sometimes on purpose) and feel things I’ve suppressed. It’s a grueling process.
I’ve had to take multiple breaks and simply walk away from the mess I’m creating in an effort to organize and downsize but I know it will be worth it in the end.
I spent long hours with Mama in the last years of her life.
That gave me plenty of time to mine her memory for details of stories I’d heard for years but never took time to really listen to closely.
I knew (although I had no idea how soon it might happen!) that I wouldn’t have her forever. I wanted to gather all the bits and pieces I could hold that would remind me who she was, who she loved and what made her unique so I could always, always remember.
When she left us last September I felt like I had a treasure chest of tales and precious mementos.
It wasn’t that way with Dominic.
I never imagined I’d need such a thing.
I never thought I would be the one left behind with questions about what motivated him to this or that, go here or there, what brought him particular delight or made him stay awake at night.
Time was on my side.
He was young and vibrant.
No need to dig for bits to tuck away in case he wasn’t here to ask.
Like many families in the United States ours has entirely too much stuff.
Homeschooling four children over twenty years and living in the same house for longer than that added to the pile of memories and tokens tucked in boxes and corners.
This week I decided (along with my youngest son) to tackle a couple of storage buildings we have. It was definitely time to clean out, throw out and pare down the piles.
So together we opened the doors and dug in.
Boxes that hadn’t been opened for years spilled out souvenirs from childhood, teen years and early adulthood. It was tempting to get lost in remembering but the heat of summer spurred us on.
More than once tears threatened and I had to take a deep breath to keep going.
Cleaning out is especially hard on my heart.
Just a couple months before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I had gone through a ton of homeschooling papers, memorabilia and odds and ends, gleefully culling them down to a few representative bits I thought I’d box or scrapbook into a keepsake for each child.
I filled my truck bed with boxes and boxes and took it to the dump. I enjoyed tossing them on the pile and relished the now organized space left at home.
What felt like freedom then, feels like regret and longing now.
Because what I have left of the physical presence of my son is represented in the scraps I have kept-the clothes, the notes, the scribbled comments in the margins of his notebooks and college texts.
So I’m careful about what gets tossed and what I keep.
And regardless how many bins and boxes I sort through on a given day, I’m exhausted by the end of it.
It’s ALL heavy lifting for my heart even when it’s light in my arms.
This time last year much of my family had just wrapped up several days of boisterous togetherness forced upon us by Hurricane Dorian.
It was the first time Mama and Papa had seen their great-grandson and it was an unexpected blessing to ooh and aah over him, hold him and witness an infant milestone as he perfected the art of turning from his back to his stomach before our eyes.
Mama was energized and so much like her old self singing lullabyes and funny songs and absolutely delighting in him!
We had no way of knowing that in a few short weeks she would be gone.
I’m struggling a bit right now.
It seems that as the days grow shorter the light reflected in my windows mimics the springtime light that reminds my heart of when Dominic left us. The mirror image of his time of leaving and Mama’s time of leaving are not lost on this body.
He ran ahead in spring and she in fall. For those of us who live by the sun and length of day there is a corresponding physical reaction as the golden orb makes its journey through the sky.
I’ve fallen back into the pattern of going to sleep only to be awakened in the middle of the night and unable to go back to sleep. Every dream, every. single. night. has a theme of loss, impotence and deep sadness. I don’t know how to stop it.
Of course my dad has it harder.
I can’t help him any more than he could help me when Dom left us.
All I can do is listen, let him know I absolutely, positively understand and pray that each day he receives sufficient grace and strength to endure.
I know many in the child loss community express that nothing compares to burying a child. I would agree. Out of order death is uniquely traumatic. No parent births a child thinking he or she will outlive that baby brought home from the hospital.
But my mother’s death (the first significant loss since Dom died) has tossed me back on the rocks of grief.
It taps the wound and makes it fresh.
Places I thought were fairly healed are not nearly as scarred over as I thought.
So I’ll walk back through last year, remembering.
Acknowledging that death is awful, whenever and however it visits us.
When we cleaned out Dominic’s apartment two weeks after he left us, I couldn’t throw away a thing.
Even though it meant boxing it up, carting it down the stairs and loading and unloading it onto our trailer, I DIDN’T CARE.
If it was his, if his hands had touched it, his body worn it or he had placed it in the cabinet or fridge, it was coming with me.
The only thing I left in that space was the empty echo of his fading presence.
I brought all the rest home.
Because these things aren’t just things.They represent some portion of my son-his personality, his preferences, his history and his hopes.
Many are the minutiae that make up a life:
scraps of paper tucked inside his briefcase as reminders
a dry cleaning ticket in his wallet
a legal pad on the table where he was taking notes to study for an exam
receipts from recent purchases strewn on the kitchen counter
shaving cream, hair products, favorite soap
clothes and ties and shoes
a fridge full of food he’d chosen for himself
the good coffee
containers saved from food I’d sent home with him
Of course there were the larger items most folks would think of bringing home if not keeping-furniture, computers, his car, television and stereo.
We put the delicate and temperature sensitive things inside the house.
The rest was placed in a storage building on our property. Every time I opened the door to the building for several years it smelled of Dominic.
I loved it and hated it in one breath.
I’m using his furniture in our living room. His television set is downstairs in the family room. Some of his other things live in his siblings’ homes.
We’ve all found ways to touch what he touched last.
I am slowly getting better at getting rid of some of Dominic’s things.
Just yesterday my husband replaced faucets in the bathroom my boys used growing up. In the process we pulled out stuff from under the deep cabinets.
Tucked in the back were some old bottles of hair gel and other half-used, dried up products that once belonged to my fashion conscious son who was always trying to tame his curly hair.
I grabbed them and tossed them into a plastic trash bag as we prepared to put replace things underneath. I almost pulled them back out.
Sighing, I tied up the bag and took it straight to the big curbside garbage can before I could change my mind.
These things aren’t *just* things.
Every time I get rid of something that was Dominic’s I feel like I’m erasing a little bit more ofHIM. I feel like I’m losing one more touchstone to help my mind hold onto memories that might slip away without it.
They are a tangible connection that I can see, smell and touch to a child with whom I can no longer do any of those things.
I suspect I will always keep at least a tiny stash to pull out on heavy days or birthdays or just days when my heart needs reminding.
Today is a day when we honor those who gave the last full measure in service to our country and our country’s wars.
It is a day to honor, remember and mark with solemn gratitude the sacrifice of a life poured out.
You don’t have to agree with the reasons for a war to honor the individuals who died fighting it.
War is far from glorious. It’s ugly and dirty and awful. For those that fight it and those on whose land it is fought.
But in this world where nation invades nation and the wicked often rule it’s sometimes necessary.
Every soldier is a mother’s child. Every soldier leaves someone behind.
In war after war, families across America have been devastated by the deaths of their sons and daughters, many taken in the prime of life, at the dawn of adulthood.
Almost every family and community has a story of burying a promising young soul that was sure to make a difference but who never got that chance.
My father served and my son is now serving.
And to all the mothers and fathers whose sons and daughters gave the last full measure for their home and country, I say:
“Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for the love poured into the child that became the brave man or brave woman who would put his or her life on the line for what they believed in. Your toil bore much fruit that continues to bless others today.”
You have given up what no one has the right to ask of you.
You live with both the honor of your child’s legacy and the horror of your child’s absence.
And if your child survived the battlefield but could not survive the scars of war, I am so very sorry.
I understand the pain of missing the child you love, I hear your heart and I am praying for you.
As we gather with our families and enjoy freedom purchased with the blood of sons and daughters, may we REMEMBER.
May we honor the ones who gave everything they had.
And may we remember the families left behind who can never forget.
The strongest love anyone can have is this. He will die to save his friends.