The debts I owe

How does anyone begin to repay a lifetime of gratitude?

I have innumerable debts that I know I will never be able to pay back, pay forward, or pay sideways, even if I dedicate my entire life to service.

In the past decade, I have received an organ transplant from a living related donor. My beautiful angel in Heaven received a transplant from a child whose loving parents chose to share a piece of their beautiful angel. I have depended on countless individuals who continue to stand by my side no matter how deep I let my grief consume me, how angry I become at this life, or how impossibly I react to the challenges life deals me.

I have suffered. Maybe more, maybe less, than those around me, but I suffer. And I hurt, deeply, every single day I walk this Earth without my sweet angel in Heaven.

And in that suffering, an immense army of individuals formed who has not only helped, but made me the survivor I am today.

Sure, I can say thank you a thousand times. I can send thank you notes, hand written with envelopes decorated in stickers, to express my gratitude. I can show my appreciation through friendship, love and support, the best way I know how.

And if I were to ask any of these individuals how I might repay them for all they have done, every single one of them would say they did what they did out of love. Purely and simply. No ‘thank you’ needed. No repayment of the debt. No IOU, no guilty feelings, no uneasiness that maybe something is a little off balance because I have been the recipient of graciousness more than I have been the giver.

They just do what they do out of love. Those are the people in my corner. That’s my team.

I had the ability, just recently, to help out a dear loved one with an opportunity. It is rare, so rare, especially in the last few years, that I have been able to offer anyone anything, other than maybe to listen or offer some kind words and support.

But I had this opportunity and I took one very small action that led to someone else feeling gratitude toward me. And what I wanted was the same as all those who’ve offered me unendless support, and favors, and love, and kindness.

I wanted nothing. Because giving, helping, assisting someone with something, anything, feels so good in its own right.

I just did it out of love. An unconditional love I have for this person. And a love I have for being able to do anything, anything, to finally help someone other than myself. To be able to step back, remove myself from my own needs, and just be selfless.

I don’t think there could be anything more gratifying on this Earth.

Messages

It’s no secret that I whole heartedly believe I receive messages from my angel. I read stories all the time of other mommies whose beautiful babies in Heaven send them signs and symbols only meant for them in times they truly need them.

My girlfriend from work just came back from a stressful week of traveling. She had several delays getting to her destination, the event itself was kind of a mess, and she was a ball of stress the entire trip. Upon her arrival back to the office today, she told me the story of how, in the midst of all of that, she also misplaced her laptop while she was across the country.

She explained she had stopped at a local grocer to get a few items needed for her event, and at some point during the afternoon, she realized her laptop was missing. She called the transportation company, the hotel, and the event location staff, none of whom had recovered her computer. She then remembered the grocery.

She called the local number and they confirmed they indeed had her laptop and it would be waiting for her at the front counter.

She stopped by later that afternoon and the store owner was waiting for her as promised.

“I’m so happy I’m able to return this to you,” he said.

He handed it to her and pointed to the white label with block lettering showing her name and employee ID along the edge of the back.

“My wife and I had a daughter who was still born, thirty years ago, and she had the same first and last name as yours.” He pointed to his nametag and she read her last name on his badge.

She went on to tell me that I was the first person she thought of when this conversation between this bereaved dad and her took place. A little part of her knew, through the conversations we’d had, that the angel message received by that man, on this day, that she got to be a part of, was meant just for her.

Maybe to solidify her belief just a little more that we really do have wonderful little beings watching over us. Or maybe to give her a sense that just her presence in that moment gave that father a wonderful reminder of his sweet angel. Or maybe, just maybe, we all really are here for a greater, beautiful, Heavenly purpose.

The grief monster

I’m having one of those days, baby, where the gravity of missing you is pulling me so far into myself that tears are about the only energy my body can muster. You feel so far away.

It’s days like today, when I start to worry about the kind of person I’ve become, the mother I wish I could be, the angel that you are, and the world I’ve come to know, that the weight of your loss pulls on my will to progress.

I have come so far since you’ve been gone. There were days I could do nothing, nothing, but miss you. I asked friends to drive me to appointments, because I was afraid of breaking down behind the wheel. Those same friends walked me to the counters and checked me in so I wouldn’t have to converse with those who may, or may not know you’d gone to Heaven.

But in time, I became independent again. I still rely heavily on a whole lot of people, but I can function on my own. And I’m functioning enough to maintain a full-time job and raise a child who was placed in our lives at three years old after a lifetime of turmoil. He is thriving. I am thriving. I should be proud of my progress.

I had to make a dentist appointment for your brother last week. His first one. I called your dentist and explained he was a new patient but the doctor had seen his brother. “And do we still see your other son?” The receptionist asked over the phone.

“We lost him two years ago,” I replied, and cringed. 

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

Me too. Me too.

I’m so sorry, baby.

I’m sorry that you aren’t here with us. I’m sorry you’re not here to celebrate our family, in its new and beautiful form. I’m sorry that I want to be so happy for the blessings we’ve been given, but that the happiness hurts so badly. Any happiness still hurts so badly, because at the end of every day, I still lost you. I still have to live this life without you. 

I want to tell myself, I want to believe, that I am conquering grief. That I will not let it destroy my spirit or my will to continue thriving. But it is an ugly beast. And it will kick you when you’re up, it will kick you when you’re down, and it will kick you at times when you have no defense against it.

I’ve heard that if you’re ever face to face with a bear, the best defense is to roll over and play dead. Or is it stand up and be as big and tall and loud as possible? I have no idea. I don’t know what my best defense is here, either. 

But I’m so tired of fighting. Fighting the urge to cry in the middle if the day. Fighting the urge to hate everyone for everything. Fighting the pain inside my soul. And fighting this feeling that no matter what I do, it’s never going to be ok. 

I just want it to be ok. 

Big brother

Time heals. So they say. My heart will never truly heal from the loss of my only born son.

But since his loss, I have gained.

I have gained the love and admiration of friends and family for the way I have handled his loss. I doubt this, often, and I tell them so. But they keep it coming, every day, and for that, I am grateful.

I have gained a strength and resilience I would not have not know had I not said goodbye to my sweet boy. Only a mama who can fight off boulders, get hit with a lightening bolt, and be run over by ten thousand trucks, can survive the loss of her baby. I am that mama. And I am not alone.

I have gained a bond with my husband, his daddy, that will never break. We lost our baby. Our only baby. We share an angel in Heaven. An angel that shows us he is with us in the most precious ways, at the most magical times, in only ways the two of us can see. We are broken, but we are bonded together in a way only we can know.

I have gained an angel. That angel on Earth was the mightiest, bravest, sweetest boy a mama could ever know. But that angel in Heaven is one special gift to this world. He works a magic on those of us who love him that not one of us can explain, but each of us treasures in our own way.

And I have gained a son. My beautiful angel is now a big brother. And even though he never knew his little brother on Earth, his little brother knows him. He talks about him, he sees his picture, and he told me, in his sweet, innocent, three-year-old voice, “I love him, Mommy.” He loves his big brother in Heaven.

That sweet son I have gained, and that sweet angel I lost are the two greatest gifts this mama could ever receive. Lord knows, I would give anything to have them grow up together on Earth. But Lord knows, I would not have one without the other.

And I know big brother in Heaven will always be watching his little brother on Earth, and hearing when he says, “I love you.”

 

Grieving gracefully

I have been a bereaved mother for 2 years, 3 months, and 6 days. My sweet baby, my first, and only born son, has been in Heaven for 829 days. These days have been filled with a suffering and a longing I never knew existed, tears I never knew could fall so steady and streaming, and an overwhelming abundance of love and support from those who both knew and loved him, as well as those who never had the pleasure.

My heart has been broken since that day in March, 2 years, 3 months, and 6 days ago. It has taken a conscious effort – 829 times – to force myself out of bed in the morning. I have told myself on 829 consecutive days, “You can do this today. You are strong. You will make him proud.”

If I did not believe, if I did not know, that my sweet angel has been watching, guiding, helping me through this time without him, I would not have survived his loss. He is the reason I continue to tell myself I am strong, I can continue, I will survive.

After two years, life has changed so much, I often do not even recognize the family we are today. We are busy, we are successful, we are blessed. We are happy.

But that happiness, as wonderful as it is, makes me so sad. Because he is not here to enjoy any of it. I know he sees it. I know it’s because of him. But tomorrow, on day 830, I will have to coach myself once again as I try to rise, because all I will want to do is stay stuck in my dreams, where I know I can find him once again.

I have been a bereaved mother for 2 years, 3 months, and 6 days. As time continues to pass, I hope that I find a way to grieve gracefully, and impart some wisdom on others who suffer a similar fate. But for now, I am just going to prepare my 830th pep talk and attempt to wake tomorrow with purpose, and joy.

Happiness in strength

I remember very vividly about this time two years ago. My husband and I were sitting in our living room, watching some mindless evening television program, discussing our monotonous work days, and trying to be optimistic in our somewhat dismal existence. He looked up at the photo that hung over our entertainment center.

The photo was one of the three of us. Our sweet threesome, on the beach, sunkissed, all smiling at the camera, enjoying just being together in our traditional vacation spot, maybe two months before our sweet baby’s fatal diagnosis.

As we sat there admiring the photo, still in shock and disbelief, having only been stuck in our grief for mere months, my husband said something I will never forget. He asked a loaded question. One that had certainly plagued me since we said goodbye to our angel, but neither of us had ever uttered aloud. He said, “Do you think we’ll ever be that happy again?”

Honestly, no, I never thought it would be possible. There was no way, no chance, no miracle on Earth that could occur to heal the hurt of this loss that would allow either of us, alone or together, to ever be that happy.

And even worse, the odds and facts, were against us. Couples like us, who have lost children, suffered trauma, been through the heartache and pain we suffered, typically do not survive. They grieve differently, they suffer immeasurable guilt, they hurt themselves and they hurt eachother, in the aftermath of grief.

The simple answer was, no. We would never be that happy again.

But happiness is a complex concept. And if you dig deep enough, work hard enough, open your heart, your mind, and your soul, it turns out, happiness can be defined in so many different ways.

I will always be unhappy that my sweet angel is not physically here with us to grow and learn and feel the love of our family here on Earth. But the strength we have gained as a couple, as a family, as a team, is a happiness that I wouldn’t trade for anything. 

This grief has tested us and bruised us and beaten us to points we thought were unrecoverable. But every time, we have conquered, we have risen, and have beaten the odds.

We may not always be happy. And we may never reach the same kind of bliss that appears in that photo. But what we have achieved over the last two years makes me happier, and prouder, than any one brief moment captured in a photo ever could. 

A heart big enough

You know those flashbacks you get from the photo sites? The ones that will sporadically email or alert you with a little message, “Flashback: Here’s what you were doing last year on this date.”

Super fun. Maybe, for some. But for me, I keep getting them at inopportune times. And for some reason, they always pick this day four years ago. This day four years ago was filled with photos of my then 18-month-old son, now my angel in Heaven.

This day four years ago, we were vacationing on the beach with a little man who was finally free of oxygen tanks and tubes, healthy enough to travel, who was learning to roll over, and feeling the sand in his toes for the very first time.

This day four years ago I was navigating a new normal of first time parenting, loving and caring for a child recently discharged after ten months in NICU, and walking a fine line of over-protecting, and keeping a fragile, near-infant-blossoming-toddler safe, happy, and healthy.

Four years ago today.

Today, here I am, raising a new, tiny human, who I never could have imagined in my most wild predictions would have been a part of my world. A new little man in my life. Not my first born. Not mine by birth or blood. But mine, all the same.

Today, I am loving this little man with a heart I never thought would be whole again. 

Today, my broken heart, torn by the loss of my first born, is growing every day with a love I never knew was possible. A love that has taken every day to nurture and grow since this little man was placed in my care. A love that is not easy, nor natural even, but takes immeasurable strength, patience, and gratitude to accomplish.

A love, that this heart – this broken, battered, and beaten heart – is big enough to hold. Because of my angel in Heaven, and because of my angel on Earth.

Always watching

Today I got a flat tire on the freeway with my three-year-old in the back seat. Thankfully, my mom was with us, and we called AAA and patiently waited an hour for a nice man to come and put the spare on in mere minutes.

Yes, we could have changed the tire. But, like I said, we pulled over on the freeway. And the flat was on the driver’s side. And my three-year-old was with us.

I put on my hazard lights and opened the trunk for a little extra visibility. We carefully got out of the car, loaded the little man into the stroller, and made our way over to the shady grass several yards from the fast passing cars.

As we watched those cars zipping by, he happily ate his snacks, pointed at airplanes, and talked about ants.

I looked up to see one of those planes as he said. “Mommy, look what I hear!” And I laughed. Then, in the tree above us, I spotted a dot of red. A cardinal, sitting over us, watching as those cars rushed by.

In that moment of stress and annoyance, danger and delay, my angel, his brother in Heaven, stopped by to check on his mama, brother, and grammy.

My angel, always with me, always watching, always keeping me safe.

Minutes later a police officer stopped, and waited, until the tow truck arrived.

Call it what you want

History or legend, fact or fiction, there are millions of stories written in books, told through generations, shared through song, that help solidify beliefs in a higher being and an afterlife.

I read or hear or watch people’s journeys with faith, and to be honest, I often judge. Every person’s belief system is their own, and truly a choice and feeling only oneself can truly know and understand. But when those who choose to make their faith public or make statements about others based solely on religious doctrine, I cringe with distaste.

Call it God, call it faith, call it what you want, but in the end, it’s all the same.

We all want, yearn, need to know that there is more than this. This life, this path we are navigating, this journey full of treaturous obstacles and endless heartbreak just has to lead to something more. This just can’t be all there is.

I have a very good friend who has a very dear mom. They are a source of support and compassion for countless people, and they have a faith that rarely wavers and always leads them to treat others with kindness, follow their hearts, and live their lives with passion and adventure.

They have a saying when it comes to decision-making, and they’ve shared it with me many times when I’ve reached a crossroads or felt my pain had become insufferable.

“This is not a dress rehearsal,” they tell me. We get one chance, one life, one shot. So do it big, make it grand, give it everything and regret nothing.

While I truly appreciate the sentiment, and totally agree with the YOLO craze, I fear my sweet angel in Heaven has me believing something different.

Maybe this is the dress rehearsal. Maybe my sweet angel, your sweet angels, all our beautiful departed loved ones are looking at us from above and laughing, while eating ice cream for breakfast and Oreos for dinner, saying things like, “Good effort, Mommy! You can slip and fall, and make mistakes, and do it a thousand times over. I will still be here, waiting for you, loving you, no matter what.”

So, I will keep practicing. I will keep falling and I will continue failing. I will get bumps and bruises on my already sore and burdened heart.

But that’s ok. Because this is my dress rehearsal. And I’m nowhere near opening night.