Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Letter at 2am for My Son

I hate when I wake up in the middle of the night, when I dream that my alarm is going off and I leap up only to find that it's 2:00am.

I also hate when I read books that make me cry. I hate it and I love it at the same time. I'm reading 'Tiny Beautiful Things' by Cheryl Strayed. It is a lovely book, a collection of letters to 'Sugar' an advice columnist.

Hon, keep reading. I'll get to the point. You know me. I never get to the point easily, plus sometimes I don't have a point, so it's hard to tell the difference.

In her book, Cheryl responds to a man who lost his son to a drunk driver and is anguished. Here's what I know, what made tears come to my eyes when I read the letter he wrote: When you were four, you had pneumonia for the first time. Watching your flaccid little body in that hospital bed was agony and I knew in a visceral way that I would not survive if I lost you.

Visceral? Don't know what it means? Go look it up. Okay?

Sweetie, I looked into the abyss of not having you in my life and the world went black. There was no reason to live. You just lay in that little bed with things taped to you like you weren't a human being at all. The worst part was that you let them be. When you finally began to get better, you ripped at that tape as if it were hurting you. You worked to get that IV out of your arm. They finally had to tape the oxygen sensor onto your arm with heavier tape and a splint because you kept pulling it off. They tied knots in gauze that you couldn't untie over your IV. I loved that about you, even as I sat with you and argued that you needed to keep it on, that the nurses and doctors needed to see what was inside your body and this was the only way. You didn't buy it, so eventually, Mike and I took turns trying to play with you, distract you while holding your arm as you struggled. I loved watching you struggle. Even the nurses would grin when we talked to them about how you struggled. They told us that meant you were getting better. When we left, they gave you a little orange fish bubble toy. When you put the nose into the bubbles, then blew through the tail, bubbles came out and spun the fins. I found that toy the other day and set it aside to keep. They said that blowing bubbles would help your lungs heal, that we should blow bubbles a lot for a few months. They said it would take up to eight months for your lungs to heal completely. You never, not once, liked stickers after that. Nice nurses tried to put stickers on your chest after an examination and it would make you cry. I learned to be adamant that you be allowed to say no to them, even if it was confusing why any little kid might hate stickers.

I know. I go on and on. I really do.

After you came home from the hospital and went back to preschool, I had time alone. It was awful. I couldn't wait to see your sturdy body running away from me in the playground toward the slide and the other kids. While I waited for you to be done with school, I stewed. What if I had lost you?

I know. I didn't lose you.

But what if I did? How would I survive? I was angry and sad and afraid. That was my response to you being seriously ill. I couldn't imagine life beyond your death. I really got into a funk about this. Your dad's response to your illness? He took us all to Disneyland. Ha! I got into a funk, but he celebrated.

It just goes to show  what perspective can do. It can either make you celebrate or it can make you crazy. Be like you dad, hon. It's easier.

See, you know by now that I lost my dad when I was thirteen. So, I know what loss is. Fourteen months later, I lost my grandpa too. Oh, I still had three other grandparents that I loved, but I'm telling you that it was a very dark time in my life, to have lost so much so early. My life was completely changed by those losses. At least I was lucky enough, was old enough, to have known what my dad wanted for me in life. So, I went after that with a vengeance.

And I ached for my dad. I still miss him.

You're thirteen now, and I have to tell you that ache has been worse this year. I know it doesn't make any sense, but I worry that you won't get through the year without losing someone important in your life. I can still feel that fear, the fear I first faced when you were four, of the grief of losing you. It would almost be that bad if I lost your dad. Don't tell him that I said 'almost.'

So, here's my dilemma - I'm afraid of that awful grief. I don't want it to happen to you while you're thirteen, to permanently change your future. I don't want to have to get through that pain again myself. Not yet. I don't want an awful legacy of us losing people we dearly love at the same age. I will breathe easier this summer when you turn fourteen. I really will. Isn't that stupid?

I've tried to let go of this fear. I really have. I've tried to hide it from you and your dad. Finally, after you'd gone to bed a couple of months ago, I told him. He listened. He's good that way. We talked about how it seemed to be bad luck to put away your nebulizer, that you seemed to get sick again whenever we did. I told him how bad things seemed to happen to me when I was thirteen, twenty-three, thirty-three, forty-three and now fifty-three. Death, surgery, illness, illness, and his illness. Each time, I came out stronger but the grief, especially when my dad died, was huge.

My dad was a vigorous man, a powerful man. Oh, he seemed physically powerful, but I'm talking about a metaphysical power. He gripped life. He battled with it sometimes. He wasn't always easy to be around when he was battling it. He was wonderful to be around when he was working to help me experience life. I would love to give you the experience he gave me of sliding down a big mud hill on pieces of cardboard. It was gloriously dirty. I remember landing badly on one of the runs and getting mud packed into my ear. When I went up to him, he took his big pinky and dug out what he could. He said not to worry about it, that the rest of it would come out on its own. You haven't lived until you've played so hard you have mud packed against your eardrum. I've tried to give you that, let you experience new things the way my dad did. I think that even though the two of you have never met, you have a sense of who your grandpa was. You've heard the stories about him, about when he'd organize a bunch of us kids to paddle a log across the cove for firewood, how he blew up the stump with dynamite, how he leaped into the air and danced in a circle when his experiment worked on the Apollo 12. You get him, I think.

What I see is that your vitality, your vigor, is so much like his. You are and have always been a powerful boy. You'll probably be physically powerful too, but I'm talking about something that is attached to your soul. I might fight you over that power. I might tell you that you need to do something yourself when your power would so easily get someone else to do it for you. But ultimately, I love seeing that power in you.

And I honestly don't know if I can keep walking through this world if I lose you in my lifetime. I'm not sure how I could live through losing your dad. Yet, I want to spare you losing either of us. The hardest part of all of this, I realized a couple of months ago, is that one of us has to lose the others. It's inevitable. It's not an if, but a when.

There is both darkness and light in gratitude. It's all part of the same wheel. I want to celebrate and I want to cry in anguish over my love for you and your dad.

So almost every day, I wake up and I ask one question. I beg. I pray even. May I have just one more day with you?

Thank you for listening, jb

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