Stigma

TW: Suicide

My son died by suicide.

I’ve practiced saying that until I can say it without flinching. Expressing it this way was the request of another mother whose son died by suicide. She wondered why we blame suicide victims for their last act by saying they “committed suicide.” Why is there still a stigma associated with suicide, anyway? Well, fuck stigma. My son died of an illness just the same as if he’d died from heart disease, cancer, or COVID. It was the mental illness of depression, but it was an illness nonetheless.

In some ways, his death was a shock; I truly didn’t see it coming. That said, in hindsight the clues were all there. I’ve had the normal “what if” thoughts, but I know in my heart there was nothing I could have done—he was determined for it to be successful. But still, I wish…

The grief has been new territory: the best comparison I can make is a concussion from a blow to the head. Though I’ve never had one, I imagine it to include the same fog and reduced mental capacity and occasional stopping dead in my tracks unable to function. Except for when it’s like a hard punch to the gut, without the physical blow.

The only consolation is the huge gift my son’s life was, though it was too short. He was one of the three true loves of my life. He was laughter when I was down. He was help when I needed it. He was a light in many lives. Though I miss him like crazy, I have peace that he’s no longer hurting and a deep faith that I’ll see him again. Until then, Bryan, “I love you a Brazilian.”

“Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry.” —Dr. Seuss


The Good

I’m on my first solo vacation, a solitary sabbatical to a quaint cottage near the beach in Charleston, six hours from home. I planned it in less than a day, atypical for me. But what else was I supposed to do at the end of a six year period that saw:

• My daughter’s successful fight for her life, only to discover that the chemo which saved it destroyed her health; followed quickly by,

• The spectacular car crash ending to my 30 year marriage, a victim of alcoholism; then,

• A layoff, requiring a cross-country move 1,100 miles away from my entire support system, just when I needed them most; capped off last month with,

• The tragic loss of my only son to an intentional overdose.

You’d run away, too.

I wasn’t sure what I would do or why I was going…I only knew that if I stayed home I would spend the week getting my car’s oil changed and replacing our broken microwave and cleaning my disaster of a garage. I knew deep down that I needed to spend the week doing nothing useful, if my week off was to be useful at all in my recovery.

So I packed books and snacks and music and allowed myself to be moved along like the debris washing up on the beach where I spent the first day. (I remembered to apply sunscreen everywhere except my chest, which now constantly itches like mad against my collar. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there, but I’ve so far failed to discern it.) I walked Charleston’s Battery and French Quarter and sought out peanut butter pie, which is happily plentiful here. I toured a WWII aircraft carrier, marveling at the complex and massive engineering feat accomplished before modern computers. I paid homage to a 500-year old oak tree and toured Antebellum mansions and read the book, Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. (Ladies – if you’re even thinking that you might need to read this book, then I can just about guarantee that you do.) And then I read Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things and found a new hero.

It all served to fulfill my hope for this trip: to rest and sob and reflect and figure out how to move forward. Because when the horrible things happen—and they can and do at any time—we really only have two choices: to move forward or not. To recognize that insanely tragic shit happens, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it except remember that good and love and beauty happen, too. During the times when it’s nearly impossible to see them, we can remember they exist and cling to their memory until the scales fall from our eyes and we‘re able to see them again.

So I’m returning home in better shape than when I arrived…mission accomplished. I’m bringing with me a Bigfoot yard statue. I just need to determine where to strategically place him for maximum effect. Jenny Lawson would understand.

“Because you are defined not by life’s imperfect moments, but by your reaction to them. And because there is joy in embracing—rather than running from—the utter absurdity of life.” —Jenny Lawson


How are you really?

That’s what a friend messaged me this week. A lot of people have kindly asked how I’m doing, but I answered this friend honestly. I knew she’d see through a lie.

I told her week two has been harder than the busyness of week one, though the shock has worn off. She said she understood…that the world moved on, but mine had stopped. It’s reminded me of an article I read early in the pandemic explaining that our collective exhaustion stems from the disruption of the autopilot routines that conserve our energy. Except I was additionally dealing with profound, sucker-punching grief.

In the short span since my loss, I’ve already seen others join this shitty club. We’re in a pandemic, after all. We just observed the 500,000th American death from COVID, a tragic milestone. We’ve “graduated” from early in the pandemic asking each other if we know anyone who’s had the virus, to most of us now knowing at least one person who’s died from it. 2020 was a year of collective disruption and exhaustion. 2021 will be a year of collective grief. The impact on our society will be permanent and profound.

Crying releases stress hormones. Connection is healing. We know what to do: practice good self-care, check in on others. And allow yourself to grieve. We’re grieving loved ones, and we’re grieving a way of life. Don’t hesitate to ask—and honestly answer—how are you doing…really?

“Grief never ends. But it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor lack of faith. It’s the price of love.” —Unknown


Lifetime

Yesterday is when I learned that I’ll live the rest of my earthly life without my sweet boy, and the girls without their brother. Being a parent is the most vulnerable thing a human being can do, to create another human whose life means literally more than your own. You’re suddenly and permanently exposed to the most horrific possible loss. You see others go through it and wonder how you would possibly get through it. I guess I’ll find out.

A friend has already given me the priceless gift of perspective in all the time I had with Bryan these last few years. Though he’d moved to Florida a decade ago and considered it home, he came to stay with me when he got laid off. I was sad for him but thrilled for the time with him. He hung out with us more on than off these last three years. He was a godsend. He helped me settle into the new house and cooked gourmet meals for us. We shared our sorrows and disappointments and cried and laughed – Lord how we all laughed. That’s what everyone remembers most about him was his laughter. Our family practices dark humor…really dark humor. It’s one of our most valued coping mechanisms, along with each other’s company. We even took the trip of a lifetime last year, to unforgettable Chernobyl and Spain. A lifetime of memories, crammed into three, way-too-short years.

After only the gifts of my children and Megan’s remission, these last three years with all three of my kids has been the best gift of all. God knew Bryan wouldn’t be here long but gave me the gift of a lifetime of memories anyway. He is so very good. Bryan’s life may have been short, but his light burned bright. And oh, that laugh…

“You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” –Two of Us, The Beatles


Ancestors

“Behind me are all my ancestors giving me strength. Life passed through them until it reached me. And in honor of them, I will live it fully.” —Bert Hellinger

I love this sentiment…that I’m the inheritor of a continuous stream of life coursing through countless others, a force which ultimately connects us all, if we only go back far enough.

Who were the humans before me from whom I inherited my very existence? I don’t know them, yet I still know something about them.

I know that they were people of deep faith, fleeing their Germanic homeland from persecution as Mennonite conscientious objectors, first to Russia and then to America. They were hard-working, introducing hard red winter wheat to the American prairie, transforming it into the bread basket of the world.

They were optimistic, trusting all of their hope and limited resources to a months-long voyage toward a new life in a new land, knowing they would never again see their families or birthplaces left behind in England and Ireland.

They were risk-takers, bundling my great-grandfather—then a newborn infant—into their wagon as they raced to stake a claim in Oklahoma’s Great Land Rush in 1889.

They were fun-loving, as evidenced by my Great-Grandpa “Red” Kelley’s ability to dance an Irish jig and his children’s love of laughter. Many of his great-great-great grandchildren also share his red hair.

They were all obviously resilient. Simply surviving this hard life and raising children to adulthood is evidence of that.

What do I owe them? I owe them survival, just as they managed. I owe them protection of the life I inherited from them in the form of raising my children. And I honor them by displaying the same traits they demonstrated which allowed me to exist at all. I will, indeed, live my life fully.


Broken

This two inch tall figurine is one of my most treasured possessions. She’s part of a miniature nativity made by my late grandmother during a relatively brief ceramics phase in retirement. As you can see, she’s seen better days. About 25 years ago, I was placing her on my mantle, and somehow she slipped, shattering as she crashed onto the tile floor below. There were so many pieces that my immediate thought was my nativity would be Mary-less for the rest of my life.

But I’m stubborn, and my grandmother was one of my dearest friends as I grew into adulthood, so I painstakingly retrieved each piece I could find, no matter how small. I spent more than an hour reconstructing a tiny 3D puzzle. I was beyond blessed that the Madonna’s face was untouched. I glued the pieces of her shattered body together best I could, and she has graced her place of honor next to her Savior for decades since. Unless you take her in your hand and study her in the light, you’d never know looking at the traditional scene that she’d been broken.

Her metaphor couldn’t be clearer: an innocent girl allowing her body and her life to be broken in an act of utter faith. Her path wasn’t easy, from the beginning to its tragic and triumphant end. Yet she endured.

I can’t understand her life or her struggles, but I can feel hope from her humanness and her sacrifice. Her obedience to a larger Cause gave birth to a beacon of Love and Hope that shines brightly two millennia later. Life may be hard and short, but she gave us reason to believe that perhaps our brokenness can be a purpose unto itself.

“For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” —Luke 1:48


How clean are your steel toes?

I’ve worked in manufacturing businesses nearly all of my career, most of it in the food industry. I love food plants; it’s fascinating to see how things are made. I’m amazed at the creative ways engineers have found to efficiently process and package chicken nuggets and canned pet food and bags of flour. It’s a marvel.

My team plays a support role. We work in the office and collect money and pay bills and provide data to the teams actually running the plants. Most of the time we stay in the office to get our work done. Sometimes we go out to the plant floor. When we do, we suit up with PPE like everyone else, including safety goggles and steel toe boots.

I once worked with a guy who regularly challenged his team with a question: how clean are your steel toes? His simple question was a powerful leadership lesson, that to truly support the business, you need to know the business, and you can’t learn the business from behind your desk. You have to see the challenges first hand to know how to help solve them. And you have to build relationships out on the floor, to show that you care enough to go out where it’s loud and dirty and there’s no air conditioning. You have to get your boots dirty.

One of the reasons I like food businesses is the practical, down-to-earth culture that goes with it. As I learned in the meat-packing business, it’s hard to be pretentious when you’ve got blood on your boots. There are a lot of industries like that: unglamorous but essential businesses providing the critical products and services for our everyday lives, like my friend who merchandises industrial plumbing products, or an attorney friend who works at a quirky egg company with a mission to “advance happiness,” or another who leads strategy for a global farm implement company. We know that the value is created in the fields, on the farms, and on the plant floor. It’s important to regularly challenge ourselves, “how clean are my steel toes?”

“Jesus came into this world not as a philosopher or a general but as a carpenter. All work matters to God.” —Timothy Keller


Anticipation

I hate cold, yet the first day of winter is one of my favorite days of the year. The reason it’s one of my favorites is the same reason that studies show that our favorite day of the week is not Saturday, as you might think, but Friday, as we anticipate the coming weekend. By the same logic, Sunday is our least favorite day as we dread the inevitable Monday. Anticipation is also why I used to dread the first day of summer when we lived in Minnesota, as it heralded the beginning of shorter days and the inescapable Arctic winter which was coming too soon.

To me, the first day of winter represents hope…hope that spring will eventually arrive, welcome and renewing, just when we need it most. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice also occurs just before the day that Christians celebrates their holiest of days, a day representing ultimate Hope. This year’s winter solstice also brings a rare gift, coming at the end of one of the most difficult years in memory—the first appearance of the Star of Bethlehem since 1226. An hour after sunset in the southwestern sky, Jupiter and Saturn will nearly perfectly align from the Earth’s perspective, creating a bright double planet. The next time we’ll see this spectacle again will be March 15, 2080. I don’t expect to still be around to witness that one.

So on Monday evening just after 5:00, we’ll drive out into the country and stake out a clear spot, unobscured by trees and city lights, and watch for a sight unseen on Earth since 14 years after Galileo invented his first telescope. We’ll celebrate what this Christmas Star symbolizes and anticipate the beginning of longer days and the return of spring. And we’ll feel hope that the cold and darkness of this year will, at last, end.

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” —A. A. Milne


Home for the Holidays

Six years ago, I promised I’d never again take being home with my family for granted. But then, of course, I did. I’d spent months in the hospital with a child in critical condition. When a miracle sent us home for good just before Thanksgiving, it felt like heaven just to eat dinner together and sleep in our own beds. It was bliss.

But that was long ago. Until this morning, when a fellow histio/cancer mom posted that though their Thanksgiving this year would be small, at least they were home, unlike last year which they spent in the hospital. I’d nearly forgotten how huge a gift that is.

It’s easy this quarantine Thanksgiving to feel sorry for ourselves…that we can’t be with everyone we love, that we can’t travel, that things aren’t normal…to miss what we don’t have. But the very spirit of Thanksgiving is, of course, about what we do have. I, for one, had two of my kids with me, taking a walk downtown on a 73 degree day, and feasting on a scrumptious stir fry and rice. We put up the Christmas tree and fixed a screen door and rocking chair and made cinnamon rolls. We weren’t in the hospital – we were home…home for the holidays. Wishing you and yours a safe and peaceful holiday at home.

“And I, I look at you…and I’m home.” —Dory


The Farmhouse

My daughters and I rang in the new year of 2019 in a tiny apartment in Dublin. We eagerly ushered out a year from hell and celebrated a fresh start. We were sure the new year would be better…it was difficult to imagine how it could be worse. Our optimism lasted just two weeks.

A week after we returned from lively Ireland and sobering Dachau, I was called to a sudden meeting at the Home Office. Just before I left, a colleague asked if I knew who was getting laid off that day. I told her I was out of the loop but would try to find out. When I stepped into the meeting room and saw my boss, his boss, and HR sitting there, I immediately knew part of the answer to my colleague’s question.

I got my house on the market within two weeks, and when it sold quickly, I rented a house near downtown Bentonville to get us through the school year. The century old farmhouse had been added on to multiple times, and not terribly well. The owner told me he did much of the work himself, including laying the travertine kitchen floor, fractured in multiple places from an improperly prepared surface; the too-short and too-shallow kitchen bar under which bar stools couldn’t fit; and the light blue and spring green powder and utility rooms, each of which had just enough neon in them to keep you awake. But the house was available for the six weeks we needed it, and, most importantly, he let us bring our three dogs.

The redeeming quality of the quirky farmhouse was its location: one block off the Bentonville square. For six glorious weeks, we explored the creekside walking paths past the thousands of tulips near the courthouse, exploding in wave after wave of cascading colors; strolled down to the trendy market for specialty groceries for dinner; enjoyed live music on Friday evenings and the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings; and popped down for ice cream at the original Walton five-and-dime, or one special Saturday, raced to The Wooden Spoon food truck for pie just before they closed. I admired the neighbor’s blooming lilacs from my exercise bike just inside the open garage door, barely resisting the urge to sneak over at 2 a.m. to steal a sprig to bring the smell into the house. We had a blast.

The farmhouse was a wonderful bridge between a closing chapter and an unknown new one. Though we had literally no idea what was next for us, our temporary home provided a sense of adventure facing into the unknown. I’ve learned from public records that the owner has since sold it for 15 times the amount he paid for it 30 years ago…we can never go back. I don’t think I’d want to. I’m content to look back fondly on the role the little house had in preparing me for the happy ending that did, finally, come.

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” —Gilda Radner