Tag Archives: bereavement

The Button and the Balloon

“Hey, Mama, look! I used the Germ-X trick and now it’s ready.”

I glanced up from my lesson planner, smiling at her excitement and curious to see what “trick” worked this time. She was so proud of herself, I don’t think she noticed when the smile froze and didn’t quite reach my eyes.

She dangled it in front of me, and the weak winter sun, shining through the window, reflected off a shiny button and all I could see were blue letters spelling “Daddy” in her mini-Kev handwriting. I knew what button she had, though. The one I got at Disney World, on my last birthday. A brightly-colored birthday cake and big, bouncy letters “Happy Birthday!” trying to inject a little joy on that desolate day. The cast member at the resort had written my name on to the button, but in a little trick I picked up from my days as a substitute teacher, we’d swiped Germ-X across the Sharpie letters to clear the space and printed Bear’s name on her birthday last month.

And now it’s Kevin’s turn.

She’d been planning this from the moment I got the button in December. First it would be mine, then hers, then finally…Daddy’s. Three months, right in a row. Three birthdays, right in a row. Three names, right in a row. Mama, Beary. Daddy.

She chattered on.

“And here’s a balloon, Mama, to tie to the button. And then we’ll let it go, and it will float up to Daddy and he’ll have the button for his birthday!”

She handed me a limp blue balloon.

I took it.

I looked at her face, as shiny with happiness as the light blue-Sharpie scrawled birthday button she still clutched in her hand. I could almost see the birthday candles flickering in her sparkling eyes.

I looked at the balloon in my hand.

Limp.

Airless.

Deflated.

I know.

The waves of grief keep coming. Christmas, New Year’s, Little Bear’s birthday, Valentine’s Day. There’s been no break and the grief won’t let go. And I can’t stand up. I can’t even drop to my knees and crawl like I’m supposed to do. What you do when you can’t run from the waves fast enough is get on your knees and crawl.” But the ground keeps shifting under me and I can’t find anything solid to crawl on and I’m dragged under. There’s no air and there’s no Kevin and he was my air and it’s so hard to breathe without him.

My heart is not filled with light and joy. I’m limp. Airless. I can’t float.

My lungs swell to bursting with grief and I sink.

The next wave heaves the flotsam of my heart onto the calendar and it lies there, desperately gasping for breath, on the day, inked with appointments, stuffed with busy-ness, and a little heart doodled around the date.

Kevin’s birthday.

There’s no air.

I can’t.

But she can.

The name he loved most is scrawled across the button.

A rush of air fills my lungs.

She planned a feast for him. Pepperoni pizza and Dr. Pepper.

I inhale hope.

“And ice cream, Mama. Mint chocolate chip. And French silk pie, too…even though I only like the French silk part. Not the pie.”

The air is light and it is love and I gulp it in because I’m empty and heart-heavy and I need it to live.

“Daddy will LOVE this party SO MUCH, Mama!”

I take a breath. It still hurts. My throat is raw from screaming and my lungs tender to the gentle wisps of promise slowly swirling inside.

But she surrounds me with her air, her beautiful air, and all the particles of happy and hope and life and silly and love and squeals and giggles and…yes, joy – and it’s the sweetest air I’ve breathed in so long. Her Daddy’s spirit in her, breathing out to me.

Filling and floating and healing.

She planned a party because it’s what we always do, that hasn’t changed, and a button of love floats to her Daddy. I hear his voice, rumbling in my ear, “You don’t have to get me anything, Baby Doll. Who needs more than I’ve got right here?”

I can breathe.

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The Frog on the Shelf

It began, as things so often do, with the first one.

The frog’s bobbling head caught my attention. I tapped it again with my finger and smiled as its head dipped and nodded obligingly, a small red heart dangling from its mouth and a golden yellow crown perched absurdly on its head. “My Prince Charming” the box read, and I knew I had to have it for my own Prince Charming, the man who’d so recently knelt down, sang me a song, and slipped a diamond on my finger.

I wrapped it and presented it to Kevin on our first Valentine’s Day together. And the note I attached promised there’d be a new frog every year until the shelf overflowed with the silly testaments of a love only found in fairy tales. He looked forward to it each year, waited eagerly for me to hand him the evidence of my love wrapped up in a tiny 3-inch green figurine. I searched each year for the perfect frog, and, to me, February didn’t mean heart-shaped candy boxes – it was frog-hunting season. Different shapes, different greens, different hearts and crowns and smiles. Same love, growing deeper with each whimsical addition to his collection.

Such a silly tradition, but perfect for the two of us. Happily ever after? You bet! we said.

I saw it on a display in the store in May, which struck me as odd. I don’t remember much about May; the swirling fog of grief shrouded me with its grey cloak, and only the brightest pieces of light could pierce the gloom. I remember a baseball game and a yellow cat. And I remember a brilliant flash of green caught my eye, and for a moment the haze lifted and I saw a bemused lime-green frog grinning at me, his golden crown jaunty on his head.

I stopped.

A frog prince? In May?

I reached for it slowly, almost afraid I’d imagined it and the frog would disappear and my hand would close around empty air, like it did every morning when I stretched my fingers to Kevin’s side of the bed. But the green ceramic was cool under my touch and I grasped it, cradled it in my left hand, the back of the frog clicking dully against my wedding bands.

I needed it.

It was perfect for his collection.

It was perfect to remind me.

Kevin had just died, and I was floundering because he was the best part of me. He was the man who learned with me, over the beauty and bruises of ten years, exactly what love – the real, messy, hard-sometimes-but-always-worth-it love – means. The man who pulled me close after the doctor told us there was less than a one percent chance we’d ever conceive, and then rained happy tears on my face when our miracle was born after months and months of fertility treatments. The man who looked at my stricken eyes when we heard the word cancer and fought day and night year after year after year to stay with me and our little girl. The man who murmured “Baby Doll, I love you” over and over, even as he slipped into unconsciousness and his body weakened and his breathing slowed and I counted the last beats of his great gentle heart with my head on his chest.

I’d buried his body, but his love? Our love? Never.

The frog reminded me.

That love is still with me, inside me, glowing through the shattered wreckage of my heart, pulsing with each beat, sustaining me when the sobs wrack my body hidden deep in the closet, and creasing my face with a smile when I remember his sly grin. That love is alive and screeching with laughter, chasing a cat through the rooms of the home we created.

That love is a lime-green frog that I nestled gently in my bedside drawer, waiting to join the rest of them on the shelf on Valentine’s Day.

That love will go on forever, with a shelf full of golden-crowned frogs to prove it.

Him: Hey, would you, uh, love me the rest of my life?
Her: No. I’m gonna love you for the rest of mine.
(Phenomenom, 1996)

frogs

Happy Thoughts are Better

    It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. When you wake in the morning,…on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.
    (Peter Pan, Chapter 1)

I sat on the edge of her bed, listening to the soft patter of the rain machine and the soothing melody of her angel music. My hand swept gently across her head, smoothing her hair back to the pillow, lifting, and repeating the motion over and over. In the dim glow of her night light, I saw her mouth turn up in a small smile, parting slightly as she exhaled a contented sigh.

“I like it when you tidy my mind, Mama,” she whispered. “Don’t forget the thoughts on that side, though,” and she motioned to her left, “if they don’t get tucked back far enough, there will be mischief tomorrow.”

I smiled and moved my hand over as she directed. Smooth, lift. Smooth, lift. The repetition was soothing for both of us, and especially helped calm my whirling dervish of a daughter. Her thoughts got caught in a loop, sometimes, and if those thoughts were especially worrisome, it wouldn’t take them long to upset her sleep.

I lost track of time in the cozy half-dark of her room. I startled when she spoke. “Your turn, Mama. I’ll smooth out your thoughts, now.”

Her little hands lifted and stroked through my hair. “I’m pushing them way to the back, Mama. I’ll put all the sad thoughts about Daddy way behind the happy ones and that will be better for you.” She chattered on quietly, hands smoothing across my head, as I sat there and let my beautiful Bear work peace into my head. I don’t ask how she knows I need it; even when I try to hide the grief…she knows.

A few more pats on my head, and I could tell the sandman was coming for my girl. She yawned and pulled me close for a never-let-you-go Bear hug. I wrapped my arms around her and rocked us slowly until she loosened her hold and snuggled back into her pillow, her Dora doll clutched tightly in her hand, rubbing the doll’s play-roughened hair against her cheek.

“G’night, Mama,” she murmured, slipping herself sideways in the bed and tugging the blanket higher.

I blew a kiss from the door, then closed it gently and started down the hall.
I didn’t make it far before a tear slid down my face. Then another because my girl had done it again. She recognized the clouds of grief swirling about me, but with a gentle gesture and words wise beyond her years, she blew them back. The sadness never goes away, but she nudges it back. Just a little. Just enough to let some joy and light streak through the darkness. Just enough to let some happy memories of her silly Daddy jostle and bump their way to the front of my mind.

And as I walked down the hall, in my mind, I heard echoes of her shrieks of glee as Kev plaintively cried, “Blankie on my back, Mama, blankie on my back!” A game only a two-year-old could invent and play with such delight before bed each night. A game only a doting Daddy would play with such animation, for as soon as he was “tucked” into bed by the little “mama”, he’d toss his blanket off and cry out his line in the script. I smiled and shook my head.

She knows that’s what I need to keep going: happy thoughts. Too many days in the dark and I lose the will to do anything. To cook, to clean, to read her a story or spin her around the front room. But when I think about the happy times, the crazy, filled-with-laughing-“Did-you-just-snort?!” times, I can make it through the day. And that’s the point, isn’t it? To make it through. To keep moving forward. To gently bind the broken bits of this life with ribbons of happiness so that the sharp edges of grief don’t poke so viciously, don’t prick the bubbles of joy my daughter laughingly blows into my life.

And she’s right. It’s better for me. It’s better for both of us.

Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

She smoothed out my thoughts, tucked the sad ones gently away for a time, and spread out the prettier ones – and there are so many of them, of my wonderful Kev and my beautiful Bear.

And when morning comes, the prettier thoughts will be there, ready to guide me through the day.

And so will my girl.

And so will the joy.

Every Morning

The tears stung my eyes before the guy on the television movie even started his speech, because I knew what he was going to say:

“I will forget you every night.”

The character had a condition that caused him to lose all short-term memory when he slept, the result of a traumatic brain injury. He was trying to move forward with his life, to absorb this new way of living, making notes about everything each day so he could learn it all again the next day – but he struggled. Because he couldn’t figure out how to step out into the new life, create a new way of living, not when he had to start all over again every single day.

I cried.

Because each morning I have to start all over.

I’m finally figuring out how to sleep without Kevin beside me. Sometimes I crash as soon as I put the Bear to bed, and sometimes I listen to the clock chime deep into the night before I can close my eyes. Sometimes I can watch a show or read a book and get to bed by ten o’clock. It’s still a mixed-bag, but I’m getting there, and my sleep is getting better.

Until I wake up.

Lately, when I sleep, Kevin weaves in and out of my dreams, and he’s always cracking up about something, or watching a football game, or we’re driving around at night with Bear in the backseat like we did those five weeks she was so colicky. Sometimes, he just holds me and I feel like everything is okay again.

Sometimes at night, I forget he died.

But morning always comes and when the early rays of sun slip through the slats of the blinds and slant across the bed, I’m confused. The room is unfamiliar, because I moved the furniture one day in a fit of sleep deprivation, desperate to find some peace at night. The blanketed lump beside me is too small to be Kevin, and instead of his flat lumpish pillow, I see the long tendrils of my Bear’s hair sweep across her Dora pillow. I don’t know where I am.

Then I remember.

He died.

And the ache is as sharp each morning as it was the day he slipped away.

I understood the shattered look in the character’s eyes when he said, “I will forget you every night.” Because every morning, when I wake up, I’m back at the beginning, back at the searing pain of first day I woke up without him. I’m back to clumsily gathering the broken bits of my heart and trying to figure out how someone I love so very much is just…gone. I’m back to tears streaming down my face, knowing he’ll never call me Baby Doll again, I’ll never be cuddled in his hug again. He won’t kiss me, or guard my secrets, or call me at two o’clock to check on my day.

Every single morning, I have to start all over.

“It is God who heals”

I didn’t see his leap onto the kitchen table, but I heard the hollow thunk when the plastic cup tipped over, and the drip-drip-drip of my soda plinking to the floor.

“Really, Kev? You sent a cat that always wants to drink my Mountain Dew?” I spoke to the empty room, but I know he heard me.

I sighed. Chased the cat out of the kitchen. Debated whether to pop open another can and guard it more carefully this time.

And smiled.

Because only my husband would send us a furry, yellow, soda-drinking angel cat. Knowing we’d need to laugh and smile again. Knowing that grief couldn’t be all we felt every day – there had to be joy and hope and laughter and living, too.

There had to be a cat.

The cat showed up last spring, on Mother’s Day, actually. It was such a hard day; I didn’t feel like celebrating and we’d just got back from our first weekend away without Kevin – to the baseball game. I needed it all to be over because everything about that weekend made me miss Kevin so much. I was in the house talking with my sister when her daughter burst in through the back door.

“Aunt Christy? I’m supposed to tell you Beary found a little cat outside!”

It took a second for the words to sink in, then I jumped up and followed my niece back outside. There sat my daughter, with a gorgeous half-grown yellow cat sitting beside her. Little Bear was crooning in his ear, running her fingers through his fur. He sat there, patiently letting her squeal and squeeze. My breath caught for an instant because the cat looked exactly like the one I had when Kevin and I married – my beautiful Louisa May. Kev always joked that he knew better than to ask me to choose between him or my cat, but because of his allergies, she’d been relegated to the basement, a poor reward for her years at my side, but I didn’t have any other choice. I kept her comfortable and cared-for, but it wasn’t the same as the days when I was single and she was my purring confidante. She died of old age in 2008, and just a few months later, Kevin was diagnosed with cancer. Though dander allergies became the least of our problems, it didn’t make sense to add a new pet to the household when we were trying to figure out how to live with cancer.

But our little toddler Bear grew older and eventually, like all kids do, started clamoring for a pet. Specifically a cat, but that was out of the question. She took it in stride and we compromised on a hamster. Kevin wasn’t sure it would work, but he was willing to try for his little Bear. She’d been a trooper, getting dragged to doctor visits and hanging out during chemo weekends, absorbing all the disruption and uncertainty that living with cancer can bring. Fortunately, the little rodent didn’t bother him and we all got very attached to our furry friend.

But inside? Well, my girl and I both still secretly longed for a cat.

And now…

“Mama! Look! Daddy sent me a cat!!”

At the sound of my footsteps on the patio, the cat looked up and met my eyes. I reached out to pet him and he started purring. Loud rumbles of happiness rolled through him and he stretched and pushed his head into the palm of my hand, seeking out a scratch. I felt a bubble of something inside at his movement…joy?

And that was it. He was ours.

We named him Rafael – mostly for the wonderfully kind and entertaining Australian student we’d met at the Yankees game. But then I found out that, in Hebrew, the name means “It is God who heals” and I became convinced that my girl was right. The timing, the name? It was no coincidence: Daddy sent this cat.

He blended so seamlessly into our lives, twining around our legs while we studied, curling up on our laps while we watched TV, the three of us piled into Kevin’s recliner. Beary shouted with laughter when she “taught him a trick, Mama!” and I watched, shaking with silent merriment as she showed me how he followed her around when she had a treat bag in her hand.

“Daddy sent a boy cat, so we’re still two girls and one boy in the house, Mama,” she informed me one morning. And that made sense to me.

“Daddy sent Raffie so I could hold him for comfort, Mama,” she whispered to me another day. And that made sense, too.

Rafael definitely appointed himself as her protector. Sometimes, I found him at night, snuggled up at the end of her bed, instantly alert to any movement that might disturb her. And when grief sharpened my voice and my girl’s tender feelings fell hurt, he looked at me with reproachful topaz eyes and padded silently to her room, letting her tears soak his soft, golden coat. Much later, when she moved on, but I stayed trapped in guilt and shame, he leapt into my lap and purred and I imagined he said, “She’s forgiven you and I’ve forgiven you. Stop being so hard on yourself.” And we sat there in the dark, the two of us, and I felt a bubble of something inside…hope?

It is God who heals.

That’s an awesome promise. And He didn’t just promise it once, but over and over.

Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning. (Psalm 30:5)

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you…Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)

It is God who heals.

He knows my heart is shattered and He’s gathered up each shard and is gently putting it back together. He hears my sobs of loneliness, of missing Kevin with every breath I take, and He’s collected all my tears. He sits with me in the closet and stands with me at the grave.

It is God who heals.

I grab a dishtowel, wet it at the sink, and wipe up the sticky sweet soda from the floor. It might seem odd, but it makes perfect sense to me that part of God’s healing plan for me and the Bear is a deliciously soft, purr-happy cat with a taste for Mountain Dew.

And I know that last part was Kevin’s idea.

Just to see me smile.