Thursday, February 26, 2009

Some methods to make grief less unbearable.

Notice I don't say "make it bearable" or "easier" -- wouldn't want to mislead you. Grief is never fully bearable, to be honest, not for the first few years. Decade. Recent emails and conversations have caused me to compare what it was like to lose my dad, to what it has been like to lose Jesse. It really isn't the same; up until Jesse died, I felt the loss of my dad more sharply than I do now. It's not that I don't still miss what a dad means to a child; or what my dad could have been, might have been: losing a child just knocks all that to one side.

At first (and if you look back to the beginning of this blog) there was nothing but devastation. In order to dig out of it, I tried to follow the same path I went through with my dad; believing in something afterward, confronting pain-- not a good idea. Then I tried reasoning my way through it. A lot better. I think Meaghan O'Rourke on Slate has taken that route too. It only works up to a point: no matter what anyone else has written or said about death, no matter how sincere or pointed or deep or meaningful: it all sounds so stupid and wrong and misguided when you yourself are grieving. There are no words that will make it any better. It helps more to know that others are going through it, than what they think of it. Sometimes it helps to know how they go through it, but not prescriptively. We each have to find our own way. When someone tells you how to grieve (and I mean you, Elizabeth Kubler Ross junkies) they aren't really helping you. They're trying to overcome their own grief, maybe, trying to assert their mastery of life, trying to indoctrinate you? I don't indoctrinate. Maybe some find comfort in being told what to do and feel. I only rebel. It makes it worse.

Grieving, that is, expressing your grief, however you do it, is an art form. Not like this, like this. Like child rearing, grief is shaped by the person who is doing it. Take what you want from others' methods, but don't feel you're doing it wrong. You aren't. You'll figure out what you need sooner or later. Don't give up on that.

I don't for example need or want religion to help me. I don't want to read sad poems about losing children. I don't want to delude myself into believing anything that I don't actually know and see for myself. Well meaning people may prefer I do otherwise. I try to avoid confronting them about it; but it's not going to happen.

Things that have helped: the walk to work. Feeling that I can mourn Jesse in the park on the way to work, and cry in the privacy of the city sidewalks. Music. Especially fast beats, with positive messages. I'm a New Orleans girl, so When the Saints Go Marchin In works, but so does Modest Mouse, Jimmy Eat World, Walking on Sunshine. And the song I swear Jesse sent me one morning: Someday, we'll be together. Say it, say it, say it again.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Love and Guinea Pigs

When I left their dad, it was hard to persuade the boys of the advantages (which were obvious enough to me) of having me out of their father's target range. One liberty I gave them at our new place was their choice of pets, which included tiny frogs that sat like stones in their terrarium till 4 am when they would begin a chorus of barking not unlike a terrified Pekinese; fish; a mouse named Stuart Little (who unbeknownst to us was allergic to his cedar chips and would eventually scratch his ears off before the vet figured out the problem), and what soon became several obscenely oversexualized guinea pigs. You might think that guinea pigs can't mate successfully until they've reached at least the juvenile stage. Trust me this is not the case. We became all too familiar with the sound of two guinea pigs fucking in the total darkness after bedtime.

We separated the boys from the girls.

One night when the boys were at their dad's house, I heard that inexorable squeaka-squeaka sound the females make in full penetrated lordosis, jumped up from my dining table and ran into the bedroom shouting "NO! NO!" Considering only briefly it was a possible case of lesbianism, and deciding not to chance it, I got there just in time to see two guilty looking beady eyed white faces staring at me from the horniest of the male guinea pigs' cages. Somehow the oldest female had sprung her cage, crawled down the dresser, up the back of a chair to the windowsill shelf where Squeaky the Sex Demon's cage had been moved. Yes, he was in isolation for his previous crimes, the evidence of which clutched their little paws on the bars of their own cages as they observed me yanking their mother/grandmother/aunt from Squeaky's cage, half in horror, half in wonder at her determination. There was no doubt in my mind she was now pregnant with twins. Time proved me right. We now had seven.

By the time we all accepted defeat at the hands of the guinea pigs, and had brainstormed our way through the surrender, Squeaky had died of old age and sexual exhaustion and been buried at sea somewhere off the shores of Long Island. (Jesse was not pleased-- "you tossed him in the ocean?" but what else could we do? There's noplace to bury rodents in the city that won't draw the attention of the parks department, they won't flush down the toilet like a proper pet, and he'd have been even madder if we'd tossed him in the trash).

We knew we couldn't let them loose (someone had done the same thing not a year before, gotten caught and had to pay the $50 fine for each of the 40 or so guinea pigs he'd set free in Central Park), sell them to Ecuadoreans, or return the adults to the pet store. So we put up signs around the boys' schools, and gave away all but the youngest females. Which had both managed to make themselves somehow pregnant. I took them in a shoe box to the closest middle school, found two suckers-- err, sweet schoolgirls-- and put one ripe piglet in each one's hand. And made sure they didn't catch my last name before I left.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday the 13th

For a few moments on the walk to work I felt happiness rise and fall around me. I'd forgotten how that felt, just being glad to be alive after a long winter. I could feel something tangible, like love, like arms around me and thought of Jesse, felt that he was ok somehow, that we were all ok for now, and that I could make it just a little farther. And I heard a song that used to make me cry, but it made me smile to think of Jesse going on his way through whatever is next for him. And I don't know, I don't.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable. --Khalil Gibran

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Yesterday or so, someone advised me that if I didn't believe in Jesus I didn't have a soul, and no afterlife.All who are without God are dead already, and are merely counting down to nothingness. and so on. So, you know, therefore I'd never see Jesse again, and I was doomed, and so on, as such arguments often go. I realize his theology is a little off (in case you were wondering); I'm not even sure how much he believes such things. Sometimes christians get a little drastic, in their zeal to evangelize us. I usually answer people like that by pointing out that I wouldn't want to believe in an exclusionary God, and I wouldn't consider heaven any place where my two atheist sons couldn't be. Love me, love my kids.

At the San Gennaro festival in Little Italy one year, my kids' father (my ex) and I stopped at one of the game booths, consisting of darts, and a board with Bart Simpson's face on 10-inch circular targets, a balloon at the center where his nose would be. "You just have to hit the circle," says the barker, "and you get a prize. It's easy." Well, of course I can do that, for a buck a try. I hit inside the circle, and ask for my prize. "Well," says the guy, "you have to hit Bart on the face." I buy more tries, hit him in the eye. Where's my prize? "Oh no," says the guy. "You have to bust the balloon."

I probably could have, but I figured he had enough of my money at this point.

My ex, when we first met, took me once for a long walk on the beach at night; and gave me his spiel about his deep spiritual convictions. I mean, for hours. His soulful outpourings were, of course, exactly what I wanted to hear. Years later, on my own spiritual quest, I realized that most of what he'd said, he was just repeating from the same authors I was now reading. But it got him what he wanted. Even then, I let it go; because he never really claimed they were his own ideas. Later, when he became so focused on destroying my relationship with my children, I remembered his strong moral positions and I wondered where they'd gone. At a family counseling session I asked him that question, more or less, and he told me I had forced him to break his beliefs because of what a terrible person I was. In front of Jesse, who was just about to turn 13. Not long afterward, Jesse stopped living with me and moved in with his dad. Let me tell you, if you'll say something like that in front of your child, to his parent, and do the things he did to lure the boys away and destroy their trust, then you literally believe in nothing. But what did my ex in, morally, was that he convinced himself that what he was saying was true, and that what he was doing was right.

I on the other hand, tore myself apart inside wondering which was worse: to drag out the fight to keep them with me, where they would at least have the respite of my peaceful home when they were with me; or let them go, and have him in total control of what they believed, and how they lived. I can recall the physical pain of my fear in those days, vibrating through me so violently that I could hardly think clearly. I can recall vividly how I fought to make myself calm in the face of his onslaughts, his threats, his accusations. He was mad with the need to control me, to drag me back into that house. He never stopped to question himself until a few months before he died, but by then it was too late.

We all lie to ourselves to some degree, to make us feel better about our motives, for example, about our purpose and aim. I knew I was the better, safer, healthier parent, but I also just wanted my children. Blindly, an urge so deeply rooted in me that I couldn't countenance the loss. I would find myself wandering the halls of Jesse's middle school after he moved out, just to catch a glimpse of him, in gym, in class, anywhere I could see him. Making up excuses. I couldn't have been more desperate if he were any other basic need deprived. If only I could get him back before the breach his father had opened, widened too far for us to leap. If only I could cross it now, before it became a chasm. I failed. I overheard one of his friends one day, saying of me, "but you don't know what she's like," to another girl. I hated her a little, even though I knew she was just repeating gossip. Just what Jesse's father had said to her mom; what Jesse had been taught to say about me. What everyone in the kids' gradeschool had heard that made them cross the street when they saw me coming toward them on the sidewalk.

Friday, February 6, 2009

When it's time.

Dad was a farm boy. Once an animal reached the point where they were suffering and not really clear about things, Dad would have put her down. Probably wouldn't have given her medication beyond say, antibiotics or similar; but then he was hardly willing to care for himself beyond that. Before he had his first heart attack, he felt it was cruel to keep a sick old animal alive, since they couldn't really understand what was happening and they would never get well. And the expense was more properly spent on one's human family. I'm of the same mind (I'd never take my cat to the vet unless he was showing symptoms of something, but he gets the special food anyway, so it's moot).

[Now let me add that my BIL is an emergency vet, and from his inside view of the industry I feel about the same way toward vets as I do toward cosmetic dermatologists.]

At some point, Dad would point out that we were being selfish, forcing an animal to stay alive because we couldn't bear to part with it, or couldn't see how much it was suffering, and that the suffering wasn't going to end, or make sense, or help any of us. I remember him telling me, right before he died, that he wished he hadn't made it to the ambulance the last time. I knew why, he didn't have to explain it. Later he told my mom he felt he'd upset me by telling me that, but he didn't, not really. Knowing it's time, and accepting it, are two vastly different things, separated by an impenetrable wall of tears.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


It's been two years since that last week of my son's life. I've been trying not to think about it; you can imagine how that works. My nephew, who never seemed to be the empathetic type, knows how much I love kids and is driving here for the weekend so I can immerse myself in playing with my great nephew instead of mentally pacing the distance between Sloan Kettering and the 6 train again and again, praying to a god I don't even believe in for an outcome that can't be provided.

I think about the dead. That's my abstraction. My defense. To move from the loss of Jesse to the general. The rules would apply, right? If the dead aren't really dead, as Fritz once told me, what are they? Do they hear us whisper? Think? Do they finally understand and forgive? Do they want our forgiveness? Or are they truly gone? Not elsewhere, not on another plane of existence. Just gone. And would that be easier than if you had to confront them one day with your faithlessness--yes you were faithless. You had your doubts. Don't lie to the dead.

Today is the 3rd. He was already in the coma. The pressure in his brain rose and fell, measured on the monitor where you might see a heart rate, blood pressure, pulse, blood gases. 65 mm/Hg. You, your intracranial pressure is probably somewhere between a negative number and say, 10. You see what I'm saying? His head exploded. So stop using that expression as a joke. As if I have any control over what people find funny.

Sorry. It's not you, it's me.

No, no, no, no, no.

This is the time of year where all I can hear in my head is that word, over and over. January 28th, I have to go home, I'm sick. January 29th, the last time I talk to him. He's fine, his friend Alex is coming by tomorrow. January 30th. The nurse. Come back now. He is already gone. Just a body on a bed surrounded by family and friends. Breathing because they're making him breathe. His heart still strong, everything else gone, even his eyes.

The vigil.

The 8th.

It never ends. I haunt the hospital and the walk from the subway to his bed. You can see my ghost every night.

Monday, February 2, 2009