Here, There and Everywhere

Our family has covered a lot of ground on our journey through the grief of losing Brooke. Along the way we’ve made all the usual stops. Shock. Denial. Anger. Bargaining, etc. As for Acceptance… I think it’s more of Acknowledgement. We Acknowledge that we lost Brooke to a congenital birth defect called a brain aneurysm/AVM. We Accept that there was nothing we, or any doctor could have done to prevent what happened to her from happening. We Accept that God is holding her hand in heaven, and that she is holding our hearts here on Earth.

Our family has covered a lot of ground in the literal sense, too. All the way from California to North Carolina. Our journey took our little family to the Grand Canyon and Route 66. Through a solar eclipse and, finally, to the street where we now live, aptly named Brookfield Place.

Moving cross-country was something we never planned. But if there’s anything we’ve learned in the past two years, it’s that life seldom goes to plan. So when a great job opportunity came up for Brenn, along with the chance to slow down a little with shorter commutes and a more reasonable cost of living…the choice became perfectly clear.

Our new neighborhood feels like something out of a storybook. A street full of kids who are outside playing ball or fishing in the nearby pond. There are tree houses and trampolines, and amazing neighbors that invited us to dinner the day we pulled in, road weary and hungry for something besides rest stop food.

But we were hungry for connection, too. We told the families on our street immediately about Brooke. The next day, the most beautiful thing happened. Our neighbor came by with a housewarming present. It was a purple, sparkly butterfly lawn ornament.

“We want you to know that Brooke will always be part of your family,” she said. “And this butterfly represents your beautiful Brooke.”

She had no idea at the time that butterflies and purple are two symbols that we always associate with Brooke.

Last Friday I had lunch with a mom I previously only knew from an online parent support group for kids with aneurysm and AVMs. Her gift to me… another butterfly for our lawn.

People ask us if it was hard leaving our home, if we felt like we were leaving Brooke behind. It’s actually quite the opposite. As I always told both kids, “Home is where your family is.” Our family is in North Carolina now. And Brooke is most certainly with us. I’ve told people that I literally feel Brooke when I stay in the light. I feel like our family is floating in the sea of Acknowledgement, with Resilience as our life jacket. Since moving here, we’ve felt the peace of her presence, and the warmth of her light.

Butterflies are a symbol of Brooke. And this one spent about 20 minutes with us the other day. She landed on my arm first, and then flitted over to Blake’s shirt where she stayed, quite comfortably, until a gentle breeze took her up and away.

Our journey continues, as does our story. But one thing’s for sure. She’s here, there and everywhere. Because Brooke is always with us wherever we go. Forever.

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Forward March

March, you’ve exhausted us. While you used to be a month of milestones to celebrate, you are now an annual reminder of what we’ve lost.

Our 14th Wedding Anniversary: We are still (and will remain) in the habit of marking how many years we were married by knowing Brooke arrived just one year later.

Brooke’s 13th Birthday: We went “big” this year with kindnes activities at the elementary and middle schools, random acts of kindness cards, and even a birthday gathering for her friends where we painted rocks with inspirational words and reminisced about her birthday parties. This was no birthday party, but we ate Brooke’s favorite cupcakes anyway and they tasted just as sweet as we remembered her.

My Birthday: I always told Brooke that she was my birthday present (and still is). Last year I threw lemons at our backyard retaining wall while sobbing loudly. This year I wept softly as I blew out candles on a creme brulee with my mom as well a chocolate cake baked just for me by a sweet little girl. I had lunch out with friends and enjoyed a birthday weekend of treats and shopping with Brenn and Blake. I’m finding that when I allow people into my heart, it feels a little less broken, just for a little while.

March also marks the beginning of baseball season, making it impossible to hide inside my home or car. Our Little League field is a hub of excitement, with “whole” families and pure joy. This year, I’m able to stay in the moment and enjoy the sense of community that baseball brings.

March also marked advocacy day for brain aneurysm research and, while we couldn’t make the trip to Washington, I shared a lot on social media and even made my first call to our congressman.

But March, I’m tired. I’m tired of dragging myself out of bed every morning and facing another day without Brooke. I’m tired of all the purple things we keep creating and receiving, the cards, notes, photos and other gifts that serve as constant reminders that she is no longer here. Her room is full of boxes of these things. I think that’s where they belong. And every time I put them in there, I tell her how much she is loved.

So goodbye, March. Although you’re gone for another year, we really don’t need all your milestone events to remind us about Brooke.

Because Brooke is loved forever. Because Brooke lives inside each of our hearts as we remember her sweet smile and her silly laugh. The way she sang songs just a little off key on purpose, the way she danced and twirled everywhere she went. But mostly, we just remember how Brooke made us feel. And that is something that will never leave our hearts. As we March forward, we take that with us. Always.

After A While

This is little piece of hopeful writing for all the grieving parents I’ve met on my journey. I certainly don’t feel like this everyday, but this came to me just sitting here in the silence and I thought I’d share.
Because Brooke would want me to. I’m sure of it.

After a while you grow accustomed to the pain
After the explosion has detonated your heart, mind and soul
You find you can walk through the searing fire of grief
And make it through another day, and the day after that.

After a while the scar tissue feels like a blanket
Allowing you to survive the triggers and reminders
The ponytails, giggles, and songs of children still here
While yours is gone forever.

After a while the tears stop pouring from your eyes
Enabling you to see the way the world really looks
You see truth in suffering, humbleness in heartache
You see the purity of grace and the clarity of love.

After a while you grow accustomed to the waiting
After you’ve asked why  a million times
You realize you must productively pass the time
Until time becomes the time when you will see your child again

After a while you grow accustomed to the light
That you’re finally brave enough to let into your heart again
Because that is where your child lives for now
Until time becomes the time when you will see your child again.

You will see your child again.

Keeping Her Flame

I finally understand the incredible poignancy of Hamilton.  And the most meaningful words to me are these:

But when you’re gone who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
Who lives
Who dies
Who tells your story?

We all have a story. And, while most of us will not be part of history, our story is just as important to our loved ones because it keeps us alive long after we’re gone.

I’m fully aware that it’s my duty to tell Brooke’s story, to keep her flame.

I’m also fully aware that it’s totally backwards. The loss of Brooke remains so devastating that sometimes those who love her the most have the most difficult time talking about her.

To quote another  phrase from Hamilton, It’s Quiet Uptown, “We’re trying to live the unimaginable.” Yet for bereaved parents, it is imaginable. It is real. And the only thing that keeps us going  is remembering that our child existed, our child was real, our child mattered and will always matter.

Every bereaved parent has the same fear… that their child will be forgotten.

So we keep their flames.
We lived
They died
But we tell their story.

So if you know a parent who has lost a child, listen to their stories. Better yet, tell their stories, too.

Because Brooke has a story that inspires us all, let’s continue to tell it. Remember her laugh, her love, her essence, and together we can keep her flame burning bright in our hearts and minds forever.

Comfort and Joy

Blake was asked to light the Advent Candles at our church’s Sunday evening service on December 11. It was especially poignant because the date and time coincided with The Annual Worldwide Candle Lighting Ceremony of The Compassionate Friends, a support group for families who have lost a child. While we couldn’t be at the actual candle lighting in our town, being back at church, watching the purple candles glow in the evening light, was quite comforting.

Blake was amazingly composed as he carefully lit the first candle, Hope, followed by the second one, Love. As I watched him light the third candle… Joy… I found myself getting angry.  I thought to myself, “What joy? How could there be joy this Christmas or ever, for that matter, in our lives?”

That evening was also Taco Night and one of our first encounters with many people from our church who I haven’t seen since last year. As I walked into the hall, I was immediately greeted by a woman from our summer camp  who had known Brooke since she was four years old.  As we were hugging and crying, I found myself comforting her by telling a funny story about one of the plays they put on many years ago. And through that comfort, I found joy. Joy in remembering something, joy in the fact that Brooke was here. Joy that we could smile through our tears.

Comfort and Joy. The perfect pair of cause and effect. We find joy when we give others comfort. And when someone gives us comfort, we experience joy.

Comfort and Joy should be the hottest gifts of every holiday season. While you can and should do this through your local community outreach projects, consider also giving it in your daily lives. Reach out to people who are lonely or struggling. Take time out to listen and to be present in someone’s life. Have no agenda other than providing the invisible gift of comfort. And in return, welcome your gift back. Joy in knowing that we are human, we are connected, and we’re here to care for one another this holiday season and always.

Because Brooke knew that. Somehow she knew that making people feel better made her feel happy. That is why she always had that light. And that’s why her light still shines. Because when there is joy inside you, it burns as brightly as the third candle on the Advent Wreath…. all year long.

November

November is a weird month. It’s a shift in the seasons, the gateway to the holidays….and the looming New Year.  November is also the month we lost Brooke and, while this marks the first one, I’m certain that all Novembers from now until forever will be difficult.

The last morning of Brooke’s life,  we sat on the sofa and drank peppermint tea as sunlight streamed into our living room. We talked about her school’s Cotillion the night before, about the dance numbers she was rehearsing and the birthday party she was to attend that evening. We had no idea this would be our last conversation. I’m so glad it was a good one. Within one hour,  the ambulance would arrive and she would never come home again. I often wonder how it’s possible that someone so young, so healthy, so vibrant, could be gone in an instant. In fact, I wonder about it almost all the time.

I’ve spent most of this year asking the same questions again and again. Why? How? Of course there are no answers. But I know I’m not alone. Children die suddenly all the time. Adults do, too. No one is invincible and life is a precious gift. That’s all I know. That’s all I need to know.

So this November as we remember Brooke, we cherish what we had, and what we still have.

The three of us went to the Santa Monica Pier to ride the ferris wheel. And we remembered her laughter.

We attended another baseball tournament in Las Vegas. And we remembered when we rewarded her with a frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity for being such a great sister.

While chaperoning Blake’s week-long field trip to Outdoor Science School, I took the same paths Brooke walked just two Novembers ago. And I remembered how much she loved her experience there.

We’ve been remembering Brooke all month, with many tears, but also with laughter. We’re finding that when we talk about her, the heaviness lifts from our hearts and the room lights up just a little. Sometimes we even have beautiful dreams.

November will never be easy. But this one, in particular, has been difficult… and that goes beyond Brooke. As I watch people tearing each other down for their beliefs, for their conflicting opinions and overall disagreements,  I want say two things:

1. Your biggest fears and  worst nightmares aren’t the ones you worry about. They’re the ones that sneak up on you when you least expect them.

2. You never know when the conversation you have with someone will be the last one you’ll ever have.

So speak kindly. Listen intently and tread lightly on everyone’s heart. In the end, there is only love. Love and memories. Everything else fades away and doesn’t matter anyway.

The last morning of Brooke’s life, in the middle of that remarkable conversation when we were oblivious to the  aneurysm that would burst in her beautiful brain,  she stood up and gave me her version of the The Lorax.

“A tree falls the way it leans,” she said. “If you lean towards bad, you fall to the bad. But if you lean towards the good, you fall to the good.”

So lean towards the good. Because Brooke, most certainly, always did just that.

Child Loss: A Day in This Life

“How are you?” People ask. For a bereaved parent, there is no simple answer. We say we’re fine. But the reality is, we’re not.  How could we be? But we do appreciate you asking. We appreciate you trying to understand something that is incomprehensible. We appreciate your love and support and the fact that you cannot fix this. All you can really do is stand beside us in this insurmountable grief.

If you really want know what it’s like to be a bereaved parent, here is a snapshot of just one day in this life.

7:30 am: The alarm goes off and my very first thought is that Brooke is dead. I look over and see my son, sleeping peacefully, holding her stuffed turtle. He had a bad dream and wound up in our bed – again. I rustle him awake, give him a few snuggles and jump in the shower to give him a bit more time to sleep.

8:00 am:  I used to make elaborate breakfasts for both kids and still do sometimes, but I also used to put on crazy 80’s videos and dance around the kitchen to wake them up and make them laugh. Now it just feels hollow.  Instead I let Blake do the Water Bottle Flip while he eats and, if there’s time, we watch another epic YouTube Water Bottle Flip. Diversions, especially new ones, are always a good idea.

8:30 am: Off to school. Sometimes I feel like talking to other moms at drop off, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, the glimpse of a girl with a long, sandy-colored ponytail will take my breath away because I imagine Brooke carelessly running to this very school just two short years ago. I see the past everywhere I turn at our beloved elementary school and cherish the days when both kids were safely tucked away here.

9:00 am: I work from home so I have long stretches of alone-time in a house that no longer  feels like a home because she’s missing. And nowhere do I feel it more than here.  Since my hours are reduced, I have plenty of time to connect with my new friends from my closed bereaved parent groups. We all share the same feelings of loss and loneliness. We all have good days and bad. On my bad days, they hold me up. On my good days, I hold them up. These parents… they are true warriors, saints… the very best human beings on this  planet. I know more about them, their deceased children and their living family members than I do about some of my closest friends. I know their beautiful hearts and souls and I cannot understand why these good people must suffer this tragic loss, too.  Their children are/were spectacular humans and I ponder why the good are taken. I look at some of the horrible people making news. I look at despicable criminals, politicians, and I wonder… why are they still here when our precious children are not?  I wonder what these children would have done to make the world a better place had they lived.

Noon: Eating is both a blessing and a curse. I used to be a healthy eater. Now I tend to graze on comfort food: Blake’s  leftover chocolate chip muffin, cheese and crackers… for a moment, they bring me some type of escape. Then I walk the dog. There are still some purple ribbons wrapped around the trees. Some are frayed, some are faded from Southern California’s endless sunshine. I’m not sure if they give me comfort or angst. I just wish there was never a reason to tie them in the first place. Some new people have moved into our neighborhood and I wonder if they know about Brooke. I see them walking their littles around the block on their scooters and strollers and I remember the day we first moved here and how excited we were to explore this neighborhood. We would stop at the Ladybug Forest (someone’s overgrown sidewalk lawn) and count the cute little bugs. We’d draw hopscotch lines with colored chalk and bounce the big blue exercise ball in the driveway. As the kids grew older, I’d watch them play from my home office… so content in the safety of our little neighborhood where all was well and good. Now, when I look in the driveway, I see the EMTs walking up to our house on that horrible sunny Saturday morning. Every single day here is sunny and sometimes I just long for clouds or rain to match the new reality of our lives.

3:00 pm: Time to pick up Blake from school. He had a good day. He almost always does and for that I’m truly grateful. There’s homework, baseball practice and Dad is traveling again, so we make plans for dinner out. He’s so lonely without Brooke, so he begs me to go out with our neighbor on his scooter. I relent, knowing he has to release a little pent-up energy. He returns, 10 minutes later. “I got sad,” he says. And we snuggle on the sofa. He asks me the same questions again and again. “Why did this happen?” “How are we going to go on without her?” I tell him I have no answers. I tell him that sometimes even adults don’t understand and there are things we simply cannot fix. I promise him I’ll always be there for him, that he can talk to me about anything. And, most importantly, that I will never let him fall. Brenn and I tell him this daily: “You are loved, you are entitled to the happiest and most normal childhood possible.” He feels guilty he’s here and she’s not. “We all feel that way,” I tell him. We talk about heaven and the afterlife and all kinds of philosophical things that no 10-year-old should talk about or be worried about. But here we are. So we talk. And talk. And talking is good but exhausting. I’m tired almost all the time.

5:00 pm: Baseball practice is going well for Blake. He just won some contest to see who could run the fastest between bases. I’m so grateful for sports. Children are amazing because they really can live in the moment. He’s so into it…high-fiving his teammates, cracking jokes, having to do push ups for cracking jokes… Just a regular kid. I watch these boys and understand how looks can be deceiving. One of his teammates has a mom who just had two brain aneurysms coiled for the second time in four years. I see him drifting off during practice. He trips while running and grabs his knee in pain. Is it pain? Or just a release from his family’s stress?  I look at the other boys and wonder… what are they facing? Life isn’t easy for most of us. Even if they haven’t lost a sibling or a parent, I hope they have love and support they need to face whatever challenges they have.

8:00 pm: Nighttime is always the worst in our house. We all keep expecting Brooke to come bursting through the door in her ballet leotard the way she used to, sweaty and exhilarated and starving. She’d rush to her homework and I’d sit next to her while she ate and studied. When she was almost done, I’d draw her a nice bath with a Lush bath bomb. I’d turn down her bed and put her fuzzy unicorn slippers at the foot of the bed. I’d get her lap desk all ready and crawl into bed with her, finishing up my work while she finished up her reading. I cherished this quiet time with her. I just wanted her to know I was by her side. Now in the evenings we usually relent and let Blake watch a little TV – something we never did on weeknights before – but it’s a good diversion and it winds him down. It takes him a long time to fall asleep and there are usually more questions and observations about the fact that Brooke is gone. “Nothing is the same,” he says. And I just hold him tight and say, “I know.”

10:00 pm: Blake is finally asleep. He’s been tossing and turning for over an hour. All the while I’ve been chatting online with my bereaved parents who also cannot sleep. The one-year anniversary of losing Brooke is fast approaching, as is Halloween (her last holiday) and then the “real” holiday season. I’ve planned out so many “One Year” events in my head and none of them feel right. Her friend has an idea I like… I need to get on that, but I also don’t want to… because that makes it real. She’s been gone for a year. She’s not coming back. Sometimes it’s just too much to think about. Too much to bear.

2:00 am: Sleep came quickly but, as usual, I’m jolted awake with a flashback. These flashbacks are too horrible to write about. I’ve lived every parent’s worst nightmare and the nightmare continues each and every day… whether I’m awake or asleep.  The reality taunts me, reminds me… there is no escape. I fumble in the dark for my phone and reading glasses. Somebody’s awake, somewhere. Between insomnia and time differences there’s  always someone to talk to about child loss. For a day in the life of child loss is endlessly the same for us all.

This post is incredibly long, but a day in the life of a bereaved parent is even longer than this, because every moment is filled with a myriad of emotions. The “here and now” of just being, and the relentless voice in our heads that says… “they’re gone forever.”

Thank you for reading this. Because Brooke mattered. Because all of our children matter. Please do what you can to be understanding of anyone facing the loss of a child. They are true warriors who will likely tell you they are fine. And they are. They are the finest people left here on Earth.