Monday, December 31, 2012


(This was written in June, around the Alysia's birthday. Don't know why I didn't publish it then.)

I was reading about John Travolta and his wife Kelly,and how they lost their son to a seizure, and John described the feeling as being covered by a wet blanket. I know how that is. For most of the first year after Alysia's death, I oscillated between numbness and exquisite pain, pain that was actually physical as well as emotional. I described it as, "feeling like my skin was going to split open and peel off." It is a common theme among parents that the absence of their child is felt throughout their body as well as in their hearts. And the pendulum swing to numbness isn't actually any better, though it is less painful: being absent from those you love and who would reach out to you brings feelings of guilt and despair. You would like to be comforted, but all the attempts do is highlight what you have lost. The natural result is to push away the out-reaching hand, which then leads to more loneliness and guilt. It is a death-spiral of emotions.

A commenter on a friend's blog mentioned a friend who had lost a child and that 5 years later, he was still in the fog. That fog is the result of emotional overload, combined with a complete loss of life direction. When you lose a child, all the things you had planned, consciously and not, are blown up. And it is not clear at first, and maybe not for a long time, just how deeply committed you were to the direction you thought your life was going. I re-wrote some of the lines from "American Pie" in the months following Alysia's death:

"And the three things we had hoped to see,

College, a marriage and a grand-baby

We realized were not to be,

the day Alysia died."

Not Grammy material, I grant you, but an indicator of the direction we had planned. Would we have been willing for her to change? Of course. But that doesn't change the reality that we HAD the plans, and our lives were thrown into turmoil and we felt ungrounded, adrift. That feeling is a big part of the fog, because you suddenly don't know what to count on. Never mind that it was all made up in the first place, it was a plan. And we do have plans for our kids, don't we? Even if we are enlightened enough as parents to say to them, "Find your passion", we still think we know what's best or at least what will work well for them. And by extension, that means for ourselves as well. Their lives help define ours, and when they leave, we are left rudderless for a time, longer or shorter. Recently, I was looking at our granny unit, (we call it the cottage) which is where Alysia and Sean had stayed when they came home. We redid it last year, took it down to the studs and rebuilt it, and it is beautiful. But I was suddenly struck by the fact that the kids would never stay there, and the grief burst over me: who was I doing this for, now? Why should I bother? And it took quite a while before I could think that maybe I could do it for myself. That's how deep it runs.

When parents don't speak about this, when they don't acknowledge with each other the degree to which they feel that they have lost their purpose, they drift apart. It seems to me to be why so many marriages break up following the loss of a child: the parents don't realize that they need to reaffirm their commitment to each other and to the family direction, and so they head off in different directions. This is exacerbated by the differing grieving styles that men and women often have: men moving outside, and women going within. As usual, Frost was there first, in the poem "Home Burial", where the wife berates the husband for cleaning the shovel he has just used to bury their child, and he in turn chides her for not facing life going forward. He thinks he's just doing his duty and then going on, and she understands that the ship has hit an iceberg and needs the captains to direct the action. But he just sees it as more talking, because it hits deeply into his view of himself as the leader, the patriarch, for his family to be directionless.

Most of the books we read about dealing with the loss of a child focus on the distinct style difference in grieving between men and women. But from a spiritual perspective, men and women are the same, and the soul cries the same way regardless of the body it is attached to. Focusing on our spiritual selves, meant that we could leave the notion of "What are we going to DO?" out of the conversation, as the answer for us is something to the effect that we are not directed to a single end point, we are here to work on ourselves in whatever way presents itself. And if that way is to learn about grief, then so be it. It is true that 5 minutes later, we wept again and were bereft and distraught and caught up in the crap, but those few minutes gave us common ground to work with, and so we never were seriously in danger of splitting the family. There were, however, some windows and a camera that bore the brunt of our grief, and still now, more than 2 years later, I can be caught by an upwelling of emotion that can really flare into anger and lashing out at the physical world.

Another thing that our practice has given us is ownership of our own feelings. When one of us was really in the pits, the other doesn't try to jolly them out, or make them wrong, or any of the other ways of not dealing with our own pain that we know. When we are sad, we're sad. Happy, happy. No explanation needed nor asked for, and so no defensiveness and no separation. But it took vast amounts of energy to make this work, energy that we had precious little of. I now know why that during the first weeks, while other members of my family and friends tried to comfort us, we could not accept their help. Never mind that it was in fact a way for them to ask us to help them as well, we could neither accept help nor give anything to them, and I know we hurt some people tremendously. People do not know how to deal with their own deep emotions, let alone anyone else's, unless they have examined their own issues around death and dying, and we were no different except that we knew we could not spend any energy helping other folks to deal with their issues around my daughter's death, having gone through it with our older son not 3 years before. My sister asked my why we couldn't get together to commiserate, and I pointed out that the word means "to be miserable together", which I couldn't do. Her misery, coming from both her love for my daughter and for me and my family, as well as her guilt around Alysia, was too much for me to deal with. There were other friends and family that Joy and I also had to push them away, as their expectation was that we would all grieve together and that we would help them heal. But Joy and I couldn't spare the few clear moments for anyone but our younger daughter and our son, and ourselves. It was very selfish, and, I believe, totally appropriate.

But, as I am fond of saying, we have freedom of choice, not freedom from consequences. And so we find ourselves without some of the friends we used to be close to, a collateral damage that none of us could have foreseen. And that is another layer of sadness. I hope that we can recover together, though I know that there is no stepping twice into the same river.

Happy Belated Birthday, Sean

(I first met Sean when he was 17. It was not an auspicious meeting: he was in Juvenile Hall, where he had been for a large part of the previous 4 years, and I was newly involved with his mother. I had worked with homeless kids at one point, and arrogantly felt that I would be able to relate to him right from the get-go. When we met, I believed I had met a younger version of myself, and it was many years before I understood that this was his version of Steve Jobs' "Reality Distortion Field": an ability to make people think he and you connected and that therefore he was receptive to your advice. In reality, that didn't happen until much, much later in our relationship. He would have been 43 in May. Alysia, my daughter, was his oldest daughter, whom we adopted.
(I put this in drafts back in May and didn't publish it for some reason, but yesterday was the 5th anniversary of his death, and I want him to know how I felt.)

 Hey Sean, it's Yogi. Man, I hope you're doing OK, wherever you are and what ever you're doing. We got some bad news today: Jamie Rodriquez passed yesterday or today. Sucks big time, I know. You and he were so close and he really never got over your death, even though a lot of people tried to help. Kind of like Alysia, but more out front, I think. She really took it hard that you two didn't reconcile: she kept waiting for you to reach out to her, and I couldn't help her see that you really couldn't do it, but that if she would, you would meet her. But your sense of manhood wouldn't let that happen and that's too bad too. Anyway, the better news is that the family is doing pretty well. We miss you, of course, especially your Mom and Michael. He's growing up to be a good man, even though he's still got some ways to go to get out of the holes he's dug for himself. But mostly he's just getting by, he's got a girlfriend and we're helping when we can and when it's appropriate. Mom is still pretty broken up about your and Alysia's deaths. So close together just whacked her hard, and it still creeps up on her pretty often. We wonder what would have happened if you were still here, and of course she has her "If only"s and "Why did I?"s, like you'd expect, and just like I do. I don't think we know the real story of your death, and I doubt we ever will. I don't entirely believe the trial testimony: there are holes in the narrative, and some explanations missing. But that's done now, and we have now to deal with, right? You always did live for the moment, and for the people around you, even if it did piss off your parents, the courts and anyone else. You were always your own person. Alysia saw that in you, and tried to emulate it sometimes. You both has such big hearts. And such little care for consequences! I try not to be too angry with the two of you, but sometimes it just guts me that you both could risk everything without any qualms, or considerations of what might result. And boy, did we all pay for that.
Anyway, your girls are fine, I believe. We talked to the oldest, H, a few times in the last year. She wants to go to private culinary school and then open a B&B, at 18. We're trying to work with her, but she wants what she wants, and won't hear that there might be another way. Sound familiar? Your ex is still just as she has always been, so we don't speak. Maybe one day she'll figure things out, apologize and try to make amends, but I won't hold my breath. We are going to help H with college, and the others as well when they get older. We're up in Sacramento, tomorrow we're going to pick up a new puppy for Aliana and then drive home. We had dinner with K and a friend of hers and another friend of Mom's, and now we're back at the hotel, getting ready to hit the sack. But I wanted to wish you a happy birthday before I went to bed, so here it is. I love you, son. I hope you've always known that. Your other step-dad, Yogi

Out of the Mouths of Children, part 3

"Mom, would it be weird if I described myself as "kinky"?"
"Umm, yeah, a little bit. (hack cough choke) Why, honey?"
"Well, one of the teachers asked me what the problem was with my leg, and I said nothing much, but that I was a little kinky. And she got this really funny look on her face!"
"Uh, did you mean you had a kink in your leg?"
"Uh, huh. Isn't that what I said?"

Too much fun.