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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

Some people seem to have all the luck. They’re the ones with the winning raffle tickets, and their names get pulled out of the hat first. Some people are lucky in love, while others are lucky in looks.

But lately I’ve been wondering about bigger things, and if luck has anything to do with it. Brooke had a brain aneurysm. That’s bad luck. And although statistics say it’s likely that one in fifty people have an aneurysm,  most of them don’t burst. Double bad luck. On top of that, brainstem aneurysms, where Brooke’s was, are typically not survivable. Triple bad luck.

So why did Brooke have such bad luck? I have no idea. But even Brooke would laugh at how she never won anything. In board games, random drawings…that type of thing. I have bad luck too,  so we laughed it off together. I guess, in a way, we still share that bad luck. I lost my daughter, she lost her life.

There are things in this world we can change, and things we simply cannot. We never, ever could have known that Brooke had a brain aneurysm. While some aneurysms have symptoms, Brooke’s had none. We also have no family history of aneurysms or stroke. Doctors tell us it was likely congenital, meaning she was born with it, and that we were lucky to have her as long as we did. She was also a perfectly healthy child right up to the unexpected burst. In the past ten months I’ve connected with other parents who have lost children to brain aneurysms and AVMs (a similar vascular disease). Some children are the same age as Brooke, some are younger. My heart breaks for them all, and when I talk to a mom who lost her child at a younger age than Brooke, I feel lucky.

I also feel lucky that, of all the daughters in the world, I got Brooke. Because Brooke was the best daughter a mother could have. I just wish I had been lucky enough to have her longer.

September is Brain Aneurysm Awareness Month. October is AVM Awareness Month. If you have a family history of aneurysm, AVM or stroke, talk to your doctor to find out how you can screen yourself and your family for this disease. You can also visit http://www.taafonline.org/ to learn more.

Luck, or lack of it,  had everything to do with why we lost Brooke.  But some aneurysms and AVMs are treatable. And by raising awareness, it is my hope that those with this disease are lucky enough to be in the care of a well-informed medical community.

As The School Year Ends

The end of the school year is always bittersweet. As we see our children gleefully advancing to another grade, we long for time to slow down, to stand still. This was us, last year, at Brooke’s Fifth Grade Graduation Ceremony.  I cried happy tears as I watched my girl move on to Middle School. I had no idea that fifth grade would be the last grade she would ever complete.

As this school year ends, there is a huge hole in her Sixth Grade class. She started something that she will never finish. Brooke is forever a Sixth Grader.

This time of year was and still is a flurry of activity. End of the year parties, baseball playoffs, Blake’s birthday. And Brooke’s dance recitals. The ones she won’t be in. The ones with a dance number dedicated to her. She should be on that stage. But she’s not, and her young, beautiful teammates are dancing through their own tears of losing her.

The end of the school year is bittersweet. But this year I will not cry as I watch Blake in our school’s annual “Scoot Back” Ceremony where he moves to Fifth – yes Fifth Grade! I will celebrate that he made it through the entire school year. I will think of the other parents I’ve met on my journey of child loss who are also missing their child’s progression to another grade.

I will slow down and savor every moment of those chaotic days leading up to Summer. To those of you with intact families, no matter how many children you have… please do the same. Please. Just. Enjoy. Every. Incredible. Moment. For sometimes moments are all we get.

As this school year ends, I know Brooke will be at Blake’s “Scoot Back” Ceremony.  She’ll help her brother blow out all 10 candles on his birthday cake. She’ll be the strength her dance team needs as they take the stage in her honor. Because Brooke is always with us, and if we keep her in our hearts, she will forever inspire us to slow down, enjoy life’s precious moments, and be kind to one another – this school year, next school year – forever.

 

 

 

An Invisible Day

I don’t think Brooke would mind me sharing this. She wrote it in fourth grade.

An Invisible Day – By Brooke Randle (2014)

One day I was sound asleep until a strange violet light came into my window. I felt like I was flying but when I looked in the mirror I didn’t see myself. Away I flew through the roof of my house into the cherry pink clouds. Just then I fell onto a rainbow bridge. And there I saw an amazing sight, a clear crystal castle gleaming in the distance.

Wondering why I couldn’t see myself,  I walked on the rainbow bridge and into the gleaming castle. There I saw a king made only of silver. I asked him, “Where am I and how did I become invisible?” He responded in a voice as loud as thunder, “You are in Weather World and when the weatherman was changing the weather he accidently made you invisible. You must go to into his garden to not be invisible anymore.”

I ran through the crystal castle onto the rainbow bridge and into the luscious green garden. I walked quietly through the pebble path and saw a small bluebird resting in an old Oak tree. It flew toward me and surprisingly turned into a tall old man with a beard that seemed as long as an elephant’s trunk. And, with the snap of his fingers, I was back in my bed as the elegant smell of hot cocoa drifted over my head.

I hope Brooke entered a world as beautiful as the one she wrote about.

I wish it were a mistake and a man with a long beard could put her back in her bed.

Perhaps, in her world, that’s exactly where she is, safe in her bed with the elegant smell of hot cocoa drifting over her head.

That’s where I see her right now. Because Brooke may be invisible, but it doesn’t mean she’s gone from our hearts, minds and souls. And I’m going to believe that she feels warm, happy and safe.

 

 

 

All The Things We Didn’t Say

Today we finally hosted the gathering we’ve been dreading for the past five months. The one with Brooke’s friends from preschool, elementary, and middle school. From dance, Girl Scouts, Y-Guides, church, and all the wonderful people and families we’ve met along the way. Brooke’s Beach Cleanup was as perfect as anything marking the sudden death of a healthy sixth-grader could be. The weather was sunny and warm for an April morning. A task-force of amazing families provided refreshments, shade, signs, balloons… everything needed. So why were we dreading this? The answer is simple. Seeing all of Brooke’s friends, Brooke’s world… without Brooke…. made this real. And I still don’t want it to be real.

Everyone in purple, everyone gathered to remember this girl, my girl. It was breathtaking and heartbreaking at the same time. We purposely planned an outdoor event, one where people – especially children – could DO something rather than sit in a church and cry. The beach was Brooke’s favorite place and gathering there made us feel close to her. Community service, cleaning the beach, and raising money for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles was also something that would make her smile. Brooke was all about making a difference in the world. And, even without her physically present, she still is. Our plan is to do some type of community service and fundraiser every year. That’s how we will keep her spirit alive.

The event is already blurry to me as things like this usually are. As my boys napped, I decided to read through the guest book and The Brooke Book — an unbelievable undertaking by her friends to gather notes from students and faculty at both her school and dance studio. The things people wrote about my daughter were amazing. Things like how she brightened their day, how she always had a smile on her face, how she was so positive all the time. One teacher talked about how she helped a special needs boy who sat next to her – even though this boy had an aide – he looked to Brooke for help and she willingly gave it to him. This boy actually wrote Brooke a letter with the help of his mother, thanking her for being so kind.

That was my Brookie. My kind, sweet girl. I saw it in her, others saw it in her. But I wonder if she really saw it in herself? I wonder if she ever knew just how much she was loved? Middle school is a jungle. Many tweens – especially girls- think that being mean or acting cool is the only way to go. But Brooke was kind and she touched their lives. The thing is, she had no idea.  She was hurt by the transition she saw happening as girls who once spoke to one another no longer would because they only spoke to the “popular” girls. She forged new friendships because she realized that friendship should be a two-way street, not a competition, not a way to make yourself look good while making someone else look bad.

That morning, before there was that sudden, unexpected burst in her brain, we talked about it. How sometimes, in the quest to be popular, friends may leave friends behind. I assured her that they would come back and that things would settle down. I didn’t speak unkindly about anyone who may have hurt her because I knew she hated it when I did that. I remember her looking at me, gratefully, for just listening and understanding.  I think she appreciated that I could acknowledge that she could feel hurt, without blaming anyone or anything.

Then I read the beautiful things that people wrote not only about her, but to her.  And I got to thinking about how the barriers come down — how it’s okay be honest — when there is no more risk. It’s “safe” to tell Brooke how special she was, because she’s no longer here. And, while I wish she would have known (although I hope she had a hunch)  I wonder about classmates of hers who also are kind and wonderful and giving. Do they know? In a way, I hope they never  do, because that means they will live a life free from the kind of tragedy that ultimately tells the truth.

Today I looked around and saw pure love. I saw moms and dads, toddlers and teens, coming together as a community to support our family as well as one another through this inconceivable tragic loss. Since we lost Brooke, I have seen the depths of grace and compassion from people I once only said, “Good Morning,” to. I’ve found friendships through this loss, but I wish I had found them without it.

So while we should never, ever have to fill out a book for an eleven-year-old girl or anyone for that matter, we should always think about what we might want to say in that book. How we might want to act to convey just how much someone means to us. Just how much we appreciate how they make us feel. Because Brooke did that every day of her life. And, while her life was tragically short, she made every moment count by making us all feel just a little bit better about ourselves. And that’s something that, if we pay it forward, will live forever.