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Saturday, August 30, 2014


Dear Josie,

I was asked something recently.

In one of my online support forums, a question was posed.  If you could go back and say something to your former self, what would it be?

People speak of baggage.  It is true that everyone has their past, their regrets, though that's not the type of baggage I can picture anymore.   There is only one bag, and it holds the "I Could Never's." 

I hear it all the time.  And I used to think so, too.  My list was long and my bag was heavy.  Not sure how one carries such a weight.

I could never.
I could never teach.
I could never be a mother.
I could never love someone more than myself.

I could never watch machines breathe for a brother, hold his lifeless hand in mine.
I could never sleep in an ICU waiting room.
I could never watch my parents, trembling, fading, begging, in corners during emergency brain surgeries.
I could never push my strapping,  independent, twenty three year old brother in a wheelchair and drive home grateful.
I could never.

I could never deliver her.  Just knock me out, I'm serious, I could never.
I could never hold her. 
I could never show her to grandparents and aunts and uncles,  look them in the eye as they kissed her and cried.
I could never hand her away. 
I could never bury her.
I could never say goodbye.

I could never return to work, pick up a pen.
I could never tell.
I could never share. 
I could never smile.  Laugh.  Relate.
I could never forgive.

After reading several responses, I realized that it was all good advice.  Take more pictures, one woman said.  Follow your intuition, no matter what the doctors say, offered another. 
Don't take one second for granted. 
Give more hugs. 
Laugh more.   
You have a good life.

But given the opportunity, there is only one thing I'd advise.   I would walk right up to her, take the bag off her shoulders and set it down.  Then I'd lean in and I'd say,

You are capable of so much more than you think.


A Companion Unobtrusive

Dear Josie,

The morning of our discharge from the hospital I was visited by several doctors.  They all agreed I would begin the regimen of sleep aids and antidepressants.  I had never taken either in my life.  I nodded. I nodded a lot those days.

I lied to your father the first night, told him I had taken the sleeping pill when I hadn't.  I lay in bed from nine to three am, the empty thoughts in my head finally giving way to the exhaustion, albeit briefly.  I opened my eyes at five am, didn't close them again for twenty seven hours.

I wasn't afraid of the nightmares, still babies and stoic faces.  The humming of the machines next to me. Warming lights turned off, cold and jaded and robbed of their purpose. 

I was scared that my dreams wouldn't change, that I would close my eyes and enter a world of birth announcement color schemes and nursery curtains.  I would wake up to the panic, the finality.  Doomed by the twilight to live my shock repeatedly. 

I didn't want to need the pills.  I wanted to be present for all of it.  Despite the insomnia, I didn't welcome the cellular distractions, wanted to feel the loss in my bones.  I owed you that much.

But how I needed the help.  The distractions.  I'm not sure I understood the fragility of this pain then, how vulnerable I had become, held captive by my own mind.   I didn't want to need the pills, but I needed them.  I needed them very much.

I took the sleeping medication for two weeks, the other for nearly five months.  I remember the day I began to lower the dosage.  One pill every two days, then half.  Then none.  I was afraid again, but this time, it was the nightmares that scared me. 

Had I been fooling myself?  Walking around on this earth without you as if I were normal, someone who had never experienced the trauma.  Who did she think she was?  This mother who had held you, dead and cold in her arms, shopping for shift dresses as if the world weren't cruel.  Night swims in lakes as if her life weren't devalued.  As if she were allowed. 
Surely, the pain would come full force now.  Surely, the pills had done the hard part for her. 

Last week on the way to work a song came on the radio.  Geddy Lee at six forty three am. 

I watched her turn the knob, nodding her head.  For seven exits it grew louder with her voice, wrists lifting from plastic bracelets and paper gowns.  And it was her, one million years ago before you and but a minute after. 

For a second I was worried, but I think she just might make it.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Black and Blue

Dear Josie,

There are few memories so vivid, I can actually smell them. 

I am ten.  It is the fourth of July at my grandmother's apartment.We are sitting on blankets, watching the fireworks up the hill.   My cousins are there, as are my younger brother and sister.  I remember the finale beginning.  The grass on my bare feet as we're running up the hill, dodging blankets and coolers and chairs.  We reach the fence as they explode just above our heads.  My heart is beating out of my chest and I'm smiling. 

I'm eighteen and I am standing in my dorm room.  My mother has just left.  The floor is covered in suitcases and laundry baskets.   I open the window and look at the circle drive seven floors below.  I am alone.  There are footprints on the walls and it smells like dust and my closet door doesn't close all the way.  I have never been happier. 

I am twenty nine on Sunday, March 30th.  It is hot, quite possibly the brightest day of the year.  We pull into the park.  It takes us thirty minutes to travel half a mile.  As I sink into the upholstery, I see joggers and picnics and spring.  We reach our destination and he places the black box into his old college backpack.  I ask to see it. 

We hold hands as we walk to your tree.  It is silent.  I refuse to remove my sunglasses. 

A family passes us on the trail.  Then two.  A child running hits my side and his mother apologizes.  I doubt her sincerity. 

We arrive at your tree and a family is sitting beside it.  A birthday party.  Balloons and presents and cake.  I count them.  Twelve total.  Twelve people who will watch us bury you. 

Your father says to wait.  We circle the lake twice.  I am crying as I lean on him.  I have never needed physical touch in this way. 

We return to the party and sit on a nearby bench.  The child opens a new dump truck.  A baseball tee.  A jacket.  I want to scream.  

Your father reminds me of our intent.  Families and children running near you.  It's why we didn't choose a cemetery, remember?  We wanted you near the happiness always, children laughing and engagement photo sessions and marriage proposals and zoo trips. 

But in this moment I hate them.  I hate anyone who can smile as I sit next to the blue backpack which holds my daughter's remains.   

After twenty minutes they begin to pack up.  Blankets in bags and babies in strollers.  One balloon flies away and laughter ensues.  One of the children stands on his tiptoes, reaching and begins to cry. I want to hug him. 

We kneel beside your tree.  Your father removes the shovel and begins to dig.  I watch his hands and think of the azaleas I planted last summer. 

The black box is on the ground between us.  He removes the plastic bag and begins to pour them, pouring you into the earth, and I stop him.  They are sacred to my hands as I lift them, and they fall like sand through my fingers.  And I see each one as I let it go.  And I've felt each one every day since. 

I've often wondered how people do it, bury their child and walk away.  He watches the ground close and makes the drive home, sits in traffic and uses his blinker, pulls into the drive as if returning from the grocery store. 

I know the answer now, and it's simple.  One never walks away from this. 

It has been six months.  It has been a minute.  It has been a lifetime. 

Everything I touch has felt your ashes first.  Every image I see is blurred behind your face.  For an eternity, my knees in that dirt.  Black boxes in my dreams. 

And I see you.  And I feel you.  As intensely as I ever did.  There is no time in this life.  There are only steps, towards the promise of a face, on a very long drive home. 


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pants on fire

Dear Josie,

Your mother's a liar.

I remember the night I called home.  It was nearly my third year of college, and I was changing my major to education.  I never wanted to be a teacher.  Truth be told, I was wary of the job prospects for someone with solely a Biology degree.  I'll give it a year, I thought. 

I told my mother and she was silent at first.  "Doesn't teaching require patience?" 

The night before my very first day I broke out in hives.  There I sat on my twin bed, highlighting ice breakers and memorizing their names, the responsibility weighing heavily on my twenty three year old shaking fingers.  I thought of them then, visualized their eighth grade graduations and mall excursions.  Saw the various routes shifting inward, ninety three lives culminating and connecting, ever so briefly under the florescent lights of my very first classroom.  I wondered if I'd disappoint them, promptly vomiting the Benadryl into my purple polka dotted trashcan. 

The fear might have stopped me then, but it didn't. 

The patience comes with the first twenty minutes, only growing thereafter every day for a million years.  It comes in waves as they ask you to stop believing in them, over and over, cursing you under adolescent breath and asking you to stop.  To run.  Daring you to change your mind.

And I could have changed my mind.  Every day for seven years, but I haven't. 

I haven't run on the many days I've wanted to.  The hard days.  The bleak days.  The days they scoff and yell, running away as they file in,  throwing it all back in my face and begging me to give up on them.  There are many days where the truth comes easy.   You can't do this days.  I can't do this days.  Days where what's the point?  Many afternoons I've gazed out windows and seen myself running, fading into the solitude of a thousand research labs and never looking back.

Instead I cringe as I raise my chin.  The words like sandpaper as they leave my lips and I tell them.  Yes.  Yes, you can. 

And I lie to them.  All of them, over and over.  I lie when it's blatantly obvious and the next day I lie again.  I lie to them until they believe it, until it isn't a lie any longer.  I lie to them as they show me the truth, that it was never a lie to begin with.

I thought of them in my hospital bed that morning.  I have thought of them many days hereafter, seen them prove me wrong time and again, the dreams surpassing my expectations single file. 

I'd like to say that I've taught them.  The fruits of this labor, reaching and growing and rising because of me.  I'd like to say that I've shown them how, that I've saved them.  But the truth is, they have saved me. 
Every day they're saving me.