Sharing my mourning journey as my family learns to live a new normal after the death of my 19 y.o. son in an auto accident on 10/12/08.

Posts tagged ‘guilt’

Thinking of You

“I’ll be thinking of you, thinking of you

Though we’re far apart, you’re in my heart

And there you’ll always stay

Till we meet again someday

I’ll be thinking of you”

Andrae Crouch

Jordan is always on my mind, always. Some days the comfort I get from feeling his presence in my heart and surroundings is like light and warmth all at the same time. I freely talk to him telling him about my days and asking him to watch over and encourage his siblings. I remember silly things he’s done and am able to laugh, feeling his laughter too.

On other days, thinking of him makes me wish that there were some way that he could come back, that a horrible mistake has been made and he’ll find a way to return. I’ve even gone so far as to chastise myself for having him cremated. “He doesn’t have a body to come back to, what were we thinking?”

Still more, are the days when I’m so angry not only at the accident that caused his death or at his friends who lived, but at Jordan. A litany of  “Why” outbursts cascade through my mind as I lash out at him for not surviving.

  • Why were you sitting in the rear passenger seat?
  • Why did you fall asleep?
  • Why didn’t you stay in NY instead of tagging along to Baltimore?
  • Why didn’t you stick with friends your own age?
  • Why didn’t you listen to your dad and I and stay vigilant when you’re riding in the car on long trips?
  • Why didn’t you tell me how tired everyone was on the day you were going back to school?

And then the anger fixed on Jordan turns to me.

  • Why didn’t I listen to my gut and call you to check-in while you were on the road?
  • Why didn’t I buy you a bus ticket for NY instead of allowing you to drive with your friends?
  • Why didn’t I get angry when you changed plans and off-handedly told me about it in a text message?
  • Why did I let you make your own choices and decisions?

The last why is the conundrum that threatens me most. I’m raising my surviving children to be just as independent and to live fully the way Mark and I taught their brother. Am I doing right by them? I pray they will live long, happy lives. I’m proud of them for their resilience and that they continue to embrace life with exuberance and hope. The love and pride I have for my children doesn’t change the nagging thoughts that undermine my beliefs in what being a good mother means.  It still stings when people tell me I’m a good mom. Sometimes all I can give in response is a nod as I lower my head. They’re saying, “Good mom.” I’m thinking, “Cautionary tale.”

My oldest boy is gone and as hard as I try I can’t completely shake the feeling that I should have been able to save him. Yes, it was an accident that took his life but there are so many intersections of time where things could have been different. A bus ticket, a phone call, saying, “No, you can’t go,” would have changed the trajectory of my family’s life. I know his death can’t be undone and facing that reality is a part of who I am now. Yes, I think about my son everyday and today happens to be a “Why” day.

Always Mom of 4

Should I have been a helicopter parent?

Helicopter parent: a mother or father that hovers over a child; an overprotective parent.

There are days when I try to change the events of October 12th, 2008 by turning myself into a helicopter parent. I wonder if hovering and being a parental GPS would have saved Jordan’s life. I know it’s useless. “What ifs,” at this point change nothing but I’m still haunted.

I found the writing below on Jordan’s laptop after he died. He gave me another purview into the world of parenting:

“My mother would tell me I had the soul of a poet. She would take my grade school musings, read from the crumpled pieces of yellow lined paper, and tell me how wonderful they were. Her unwavering praise for my puerile prose had the perhaps unintended side effect of imbuing me with an aura of unwarranted confidence.”

The words above are the beginning of a file, which he entitled, “Jordan’s musings.” The story goes on to talk of him bent over a commode as he vomits to the point of dry heaving as his friend chastises him for trying to drink a much larger, more experienced drinker under the table. The friend’s disgust stemmed from the fact that they’d come to the party with a group of girls and Jordan had ruined their chances for the night.

When I first read this story I sat with my hand over my mouth. Not because of the drinking, I knew Jordan was drinking while away at college. I’d told him to be careful. I told him of the history of alcoholism in our family. He always nodded, saying, “I know Mom,” uncomfortable with the conversation. But I persisted wanting to make sure that he knew I’d had a college experience as well and things hadn’t changed that much in 25 years.

My hand gripped my mouth because my son seemed to blame me for making him feel too special. Had I really gone too far in my praise and pride in my child? How much had I contributed to his air of invincibility?

When I was growing up my father’s biggest mandate to my sister and me was, “No matter what, you have to be able to take care of yourselves.” That one sentence meant being able to cook, do laundry, live independently and make choices that enhanced not hindered our lives. I say the same things to my children. Jordan starting doing his laundry at 14 and could cook simple meals before he went away to college. He ran errands, picked his sisters up from school and did his schoolwork without any prodding. He hated that he was the only one of his friends that had a curfew. My only response was, “Every family has their own rules. A curfew is one of ours.” He was a good boy, with good friends. Even though I know from looking at pictures on his cell phone that he experimented with alcohol and pot with his high school friends. I should have asked more questions. Why wasn’t I a helicopter parent?

The events of the weekend that Jordan died replay in my head with an on/off switch that I don’t control. I never know when an image will pop into my head or when I’ll think of what Jordan told me he was going to do that weekend, and what he really ended up doing. His plan was to go to New York, spend the first night with a friend from college who was taking a semester at Columbia, and then spend the rest of the weekend with his childhood friends one of whom attended NYU and another who had taken the train in from Boston. It wasn’t until Saturday when he texted me that he was on his way to Baltimore did I know the plan had changed.

Many months after he died, one of his friends from the car emailed me after much pleading on my behalf to please tell me about their weekend. He told me that they’d gone to Baltimore to go clubbing and attend a concert. The lure of a concert and hanging out with his older college friends pulled Jordan from a weekend that would have kept him safe. I didn’t try to stop him. I wanted to and even thought about telling him to take the bus back to NY and stick to the plan we’d agreed upon. But he was 19 away at college and Mark kept reminding me that we needed to let him make his own decisions. I finally relented hearing the words I’d spoken to Jordan before he went off to school. “I’m not going to be one of those helicopter moms, swooping in and tracking your every move. We’re raising you to be able to take care of yourself and that’s what I expect you to do.”

That’s what I thought was the right thing to do. Now I don’t know anymore. I wish I could find an article that would tell me if helicopter parents children survive in greater numbers than those of us who send our children out into the world hoping and praying that we’ve done right by them.

I’ve had so many arguments in my head with Jordan since he died. “Why didn’t you stay in NY? October 11th was one of your best friends birthdays. You were supposed to celebrate with him. Why did you choose partying with your college friends all 21 and legally able to go to clubs when you had to show your fake ID that I found amongst your things to get into the club?”

I always hear him say back, “But Ma it was a once in a lifetime concert. My friend got the tickets we all wanted to go.”

“How could you leave your friend, especially when it was his birthday. I don’t think I’ll ever understand that. I’m so disappointed that you made that choice. His birthday will never be the same because the next day is the day you died.”

I don’t think I was blind to Jordan’s shortcomings, he was impatient, at times selfish and quick to anger, and sometimes he didn’t think he just did. Jordan knew his shortcomings and was just entering adulthood in a way that we could start the conversations about triumphs and mistakes, both from me as his mother and from him as my son. I’m now left here working through the anger and disappointment that leap out of my grief, putting a chokehold on sorrow and replacing it with shame. Did I do right by my son? Could I have protected him from death? The prisms of grief have so many facets and can be blinding at times. Sorrow, lost, longing, anger, disappointment, shame and love. No matter what, there is never ending love for the boy who seemed to have a perspective on parenting that is now added to my rule book.

Jordan in his own way probably said it best further down in his, “musings”:

“Perhaps it’s a parent’s responsibility to be intensely optimistic when it comes to their children, their legacy. Its natural to hope that what’s left of you once you’re gone is a good representation. It’s even more natural to allow your hope for immortality through the greatness of your children to blind you to their shortcomings.”

Jordan didn’t get to be my legacy and that is the biggest shortcoming of this cautionary tale.

 

 

Getting The Boot

My ankle is officially out of commission for a while. I went to my family physician on Wednesday who took one look at my ankle and said, “I want someone from ortho to take a look at this.” Performing her unique magic, after a phone call she was able to get me in for an appointment an hour later. The ortho doc took x-rays, examined my ankle and prescribed a compression sock to relieve the swelling and one of those boots to keep it immobile. He also scheduled an MRI and wants to see me in 2 weeks. I was a fairly agreeable patient but did tell him, “March 24th is my birthday and my family is headed to Florida for Spring Break. I can’t disappoint them, and we all really need the break.”

He responded with kindness saying, I don’t think that will be a problem, but if it turns out you can’t go, I’m happy to have a little break in Florida.”

We both laughed and then he reassured me that he thought everything would work out fine. I left the hospital trying to learn how to walk in the black clunky boot and remember to, “roll from heel to toe,” as the technician had advised me, even though every step sent daggers through my ankle. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in so much physical pain. I thought back to the first time I had the same problem with my ankle although in a less serious form. It was August of 2008 and Jordan had driven me to the doctor, letting me lean on him as we made our way from the car to the office.

Last night the swirl of Jordan taking me to the doctor back in ’08, having a recurrence of the same ailment and just a few days earlier planning a scholarship fund in his memory became too much. When we sat with the representative from Amherst College talking of our plans for the scholarship we ventured into talk about some of Jordan’s friends and their after college plans. As we talked my discomfort grew. I let Mark engage in conversation and I kept looking at a picture we have in the living room from Jordan’s high school newspaper days taken by his friend Clare. In the photo he’s looking over his shoulder as if someone just called his name and he has that trademark smile on his face.  I kept looking at the picture talking to him in my mind. “Why aren’t you here? I want to tell people what you’ll be doing next year. We’re sitting here planning your memorial fund. Why aren’t you here?”

I made it through the meeting and the kind, young woman who came to meet with us begged me not to get up as she prepared to leave. “Please rest your leg. I hope you feel better soon.” I want to feel better too. Some days I wonder how that will happen. I’m feeling excruciating pain in my ankle and my main thought is, “How can this be? How can I be here hurting, being assured I’ll recover fully and my son didn’t get to live? Jordan took ME to the doctor before and that image is colliding with the sight of this boot on my foot. The physical and emotional pain are so intertwined that they’ve become one.

I continue practicing with the boot, trying to figure the best way to walk with the least amount of pain.

Picture of Jordan we have framed in our living room

Amherst, Massachusetts

I’m sitting on the couch, my right ankle propped up on a pillow with a bag of ice underneath and one to the side of my ankle. I have to check in with my doctor tomorrow to let her know if the antibiotics are working and the swelling in my ankle has subsided or at least not gotten worse. Being forced to be off my feet is not something I do well. Pain is ruling however and I’m listening to my body even though I’ve told it that I have a meeting today at 12:15 that I plan on attending. For me, idle body means overactive mind, taking me to places I’m not sure I’m ready to go. Thinking of the things yet to be done that I desperately want to do. Spreading Jordan’s ashes, turning “Jordan’s Fund,” into an official non-profit and most importantly helping my daughters as the awareness that their brother Merrick will be going off to college soon. None of these thoughts happen in any organized fashion but rather like a racquetball bouncing off of any available wall. I’m still learning how to quiet my mind.

Later today Mark and I are meeting with an alum from Amherst College to officially set up a scholarship fund in Jordan’s memory. I’ve stopped myself from saying, “finally,” set up a scholarship fund because I have felt that after 2 1/2 years we should have already had a scholarship in place. I decided that guilt wasn’t helping the process at all and that my goal of having a scholarship in place by what should be his graduating year has to be good enough.

Jordan’s Fund has been in existence since the week he died. My friend Michele went with me to the bank to set it up so that in lieu of flowers, people would have a resource to honor Jordan and his love of learning. I’ll never forget sitting in that bank officer’s cubicle filling out paperwork and being prompted by Michele to answer questions when my mind would wander to, “What am I doing here? Where’s Jordan?” But we did it and every year since his death we have had a celebration of Jordan’s life where we’ve welcomed donations to Jordan’s Fund. There will be scholarship funds at his high school and his college.

I subscribe online to  the Writer’s Almanac because I like starting my day with a poem. When I opened the email this morning the title of the poem was, “Amherst Massachusetts,” by Jaimee Kuperman. Just seeing the title felt like another validation that we are doing right by our son. In May, my family won’t get to see Jordan receive the college diploma from the school he loved. There will however be scholarships for years to come for incoming students with a love of learning and a thirst for social justice. Jordan will live on through the learning of others.

Jordan just learning of his acceptance to Amherst College

Time for, “The Talk”

I frequently read other parenting blogs and have a couple of my favorites on my blogroll. Katie Granju is a mom who has several blogs. I became acquainted with her Mamapundit blog after the death of her oldest son Henry. Yesterday I commented on her Babble blog about what to tell your kids when they ask questions usually out of the blue that don’t always have comforting answers. Questions like, “Can we visit heaven?” I commented as a parent and as a person with a background in developmental psychology. Part of my answer to her regarding her preschooler was, “Answer only what question they ask in the simplest way possible. You don’t want to overwhelm them.” I’ve found that kids want the truth and usually find a way to ask for it. Usually.

I’m stuck right now because Mark and I are faced with bringing our children to another level of awareness about loss and grief. I keep waiting for them to ask a question about Jordan’s ashes, any opening that will lead to a discussion of our plans to keep some of his ashes in an urn at home. They know we plan to spread some of his ashes as we travel but even this is an abstract concept. I don’t want them to be afraid of Jordan’s urn, especially when Mark and I need to have part of Jordan stay at home with us. What will we do if any one of our kids can’t handle an urn at home when it is something that will give Mark and I solace?

I’m afraid of scaring and scarring my kids by even bringing up the subject of the urn to them. And I’m afraid of them hurting in a way that I can’t help them. But I have to admit I’m also feeling a little selfish too. Jordan is also my child  and I want part of him at home with me.

I’ll get the perspecitve and suggestions from therapists and counselors. I’d like to know though how others in my situation have dealt with this issue. I’m asking for help from anyone who has experience talking with their kids or knows someone who has. How do you prepare your child/children to accept that the sibling that once laughed and played with them is partially, yet symbolically represented as ashes in an urn? It is a conversation quite frankly I’m dreading. I don’t want them to hurt anymore than they already do and yet it’s a conversation that must be had.

Jordan and his siblings on his 19th birthday. The last picture taken of all of them together.

Mind Over Matter

I’m downstairs, listening to my daughters who are upstairs simultaneously practicing flute and clarinet. They’re in separate rooms but I have no idea how they can practice without messing up the other’s timing. Tomorrow is a snow day! It is the first my daughters have ever had since being in school. They are beyond excited. Merrick found out his high school is closed tomorrow as well, the first time since the mid 1970′s. Before he could fully relax he asked me, “Mom, they really said school is closed. You’re sure?” So we’re all hunkered down for the storm. Mark is home and aside from the howling winds our house feels safe.

I’m working to bring safety back to my spirit. When I emailed Edward to ask about the accident I did so without letting anyone know. Mark wishes I’d stop, not wanting me to hurt anymore than I do now. He thinks we know enough and that any additional details will only hurt me more. He may be right. The mother in me, Jordan’s mother, can’t rest without understanding the whole of the truth of that night. Mark’s afraid I’ll be haunted by what I find out. I’m afraid I’ll be haunted if I don’t. I check my email as usual everyday, not expecting to see a response from Edward but bracing myself just in case there is one. So far he has not responded or acknowledged my query of him. There may never be a response.

I did fantasize when I saw the mailman across the street today that perhaps Edward was writing a real letter and that was why I hadn’t heard from him yet. I know I’ve asked a lot of him. What I’m learning from my own experience about trauma and PTSD are that the things the mind does to protect the heart are astounding. Edward may be in full protection mode and unable to even go back to that night.

Mark reminded me when I told him about finally realizing that Edward put his t-shirt to the back of Jordan’s head not to his forehead, that I’d know that all along. So gently he said to me, “Remember, the coroner and James (a family friend who is an ER doc) told us that he couldn’t survive an impact like that to the back of the head.”

I remember that Mark talked to the coroner in MA by phone and James was also on the line. He told me afterwards what they said. What I remember from that conversation is him saying, “Jordan was asleep. He didn’t feel any pain.” That’s what my mind took in and that’s what my heart could handle. Almost 2 1/2 years later the shock and blur of Jordan’s accident are not as constant and I can’t explain to anyone why I crave details now.

I read a short story a while ago entitled, “The Girlfriend.” It is in a book by Maile Meloy called,Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. In the story a father seeks out the girlfriend of the man who murdered his daughter after the trial where the man is found guilty. He wants to know every detail of that night that he can find. What the father ultimately finds out makes him feel worse, almost a party to the crime instead of somehow more settled. I’ve thought about that story  a lot wondering if I’ll end up like the father having too much information that will have to somehow keep house with my pain not ease it. I just don’t know.

I found an entry in one of my journals from 11/10. The entry is entitled, “Why Do This.” Meaning why write a blog, why am I writing a book? I had a long list of reasons some of which are:

  1. To feel closer to Jordan
  2. To stop being afraid of being happy
  3. To accept that my boy is gone
  4. To figure out how to diffuse some of this pain

The last item on my list was:

5.To ask all the questions that I want answers to, even if there aren’t any answers.

Circling, Orbiting and Making His Presence Known

For much of my day, Jordan stands in the distance. He is far off and a bit hazy but I know it’s him. His stubbornness shows even in death. He doesn’t come closer when I beckon him, only when he feels it is the right time.

I’m learning how to listen to the laughter of his siblings and embrace its authenticity without always thinking, and wishing Jordan should be here. My children are circling each other, finding ways to be together that has Jordan as their outer orbit with his arms stretched wide encircling them all. They’re laughing more, teasing each other and having private brother sister jokes that tickle them to no end. I watch them and see how they’re moving on, grateful but always a little afraid that their joy means Jordan has been relegated to the past.

I don’t want any of us crippled by grief. All of us must plan and enjoy life. Moving forward with joy must not feel like a sting against Jordan’s memory. We’re planning a trip for spring break, to feel sun and warmth.

Yet again the, “How many” question will be asked? I’m getting better at saying 5 without adding caveats of, “We’ll always be 6.” I feel all of us moving forward and I feel Jordan near even when I can’t make out his face.

Jordan's forever beach chair

Sweet Honey In The Rock To End The Day

To all of you still visiting my blog I say thank you. Writing has been difficult for me lately. Grief doesn’t follow any specific path and I’m learning to lean into what is happening so that as my friend Tom tells me I can, “Feel what I’m feeling.”

I was fortunate to hear Sweet Honey in the Rock perform this past weekend. If they’re ever in your town make sure to see them. One of their songs put writing in my heart again. Your comments are welcomed and needed. Thanks

My morning started with the thought, “Why did they get to keep their sons and I didn’t.” I sat up straight in bed knowing that no more rest would come. All that day the, “Why them and not me,” feeling latched on invading most of my thoughts. I wanted Jordan. It was snowing out and I wanted to call him, hearing his sleepy voice as I described what home looked like in a blanket of snow.

“Are you warm enough? Are you wearing your heavy coat?”

“Yes Mom, I’m fine.”

That’s the conversation I wanted but there’s no number to call anymore. I stayed in my pajamas most of the day, which is such a rarity for me that my kids asked if I was sick. I told them, “No, I’m just looking at this snowy day and trying to feel cozy.” I knew later in the evening I’d get dressed because Mark and I were going to a concert but the day was spent wrapped in warmth wondering when the hurt of longing would lessen.

The night was icy and the snow had the crunch of cold. As we walked to the car bracing against the wind, Mark and I joked, “This better be the best concert we’ve ever been to.” Sweet Honey in the Rock was singing at a local college and I was excited to see them. Since college I’d missed going to their concerts for a variety of reasons but I was determined to hear them sing. They sing a mixture of folk, gospel, spirituals, jazz, blues and all of it with their voices as the only instruments. My college friend Melissa was the first to rave about their concerts. Everyone who saw them told me that you leave their concerts transformed.

As we settled into our seats a woman we’d met at the reception before the concert sat next to Mark. She was an administrator at the University and we talked at the variety of guests that came to perform. While making small talk she asked, “How many kids do you have?” Mark told her, “We have 4. Twin girls who are 11, a son who is 18 and our oldest boy was 19 when he was killed in a car accident.” I studied my program as he talked knowing the story by heart but still flinching when he said, “killed.” I briefly looked up and made eye contact with our row mate as her eyes offered condolences and then went back to the program. The lights dimmed and the concert began.

After a lively upbeat intro song called “Denko,” one of the singers introduced the song they were about to sing saying, “All of us have plans for what we want to happen after we die. Sometimes those plans are followed, sometimes they’re not.” She then went on to sing, “When I Die,” with the rest of the group repeating in perfect harmony the phrase, “When I Die,” as her, “music.” As the song started, Mark reached over and rested his hand on my knee. I could tell by his touch that he worried about the hard start to my day and if this was a song I could bear to hear. I squeezed his hand, closed my eyes and chose to be a part of the song.

Jordan’s voice was in my head as I sat up straighter swaying to the refrain, “When I Die, When I Die.”

“When I die, I want to be cremated.” That was Jordan’s desire expressed to Mark and me. We filed it away in the far recesses of our hearts because we didn’t think we’d need to carry them out. Gratitude filled me because we’d listened to Jordan and carried out his wishes. Then a perfect voice sang out, “When I die let my spirit breathe, let it soar like an eagle to the highest tree,” and I touched my throat as I imagined Jordan’s spirit soaring higher than it ever could on this earth. I opened my eyes briefly then quickly closed them back tight. I needed to experience this song without distraction. It meant hearing it and feeling it without worrying about what others around me were doing or how I looked to them.

“When I die, when I die,” the song continued and I thought of Jordan’s ashes and our need to spread them far and wide to signify the world traveler he would have been. I feel guilty that it is taking us so long to spread his ashes. It has been two years and we’re only starting to plan the journeys for Jordan’s ashes. The words to the song entered my body interrupting all guilty thoughts, “Well, well when I die you can cast me out into the ocean wide.  Let my spirit cry, let it enter the tears that make the ocean deep and wide.” Eyes still closed I saw Mark and I standing on a beach releasing Jordan’s ashes into the sea saying goodbye and safe travels one last time. The tears started to fall and I did nothing to stop them. The song held a truth that freed me from one of my burdens. I whispered to myself, “What do you believe? What do you believe? Then the answer came, “Jordan is safe. You don’t have to worry about him anymore. Jordan is safe.”

I leaned back into the song and rocked as I heard the next refrain,

“Oh, oh, oh when I die, toss me out into the winds of time

Let my ashes roam, blow here blow there

I know I’m gonna find my true home”

Tears streamed down my face as the song washed over me. The truth was there begging to be accepted. “When I Die.” The when for Jordan was an answered question. There is nothing I can do about the when. I listened to voices covering and comforting me and asked my heart to accept that Jordan is safe. In the long nights when sleep won’t come and all I want is to have my boy home, I can take comfort if I choose to believe Jordan is safe. I don’t have to worry about him any more. Many questions linger but that one can be put to rest if I allow it.

The fact that he is gone and he’s here is settling in and slowly finding it’s rightful spot within me. I feel him in the bright red cardinal that perches outside my window, peering in looking straight at me as I call him Jordan by name. Jordan’s spirit is in the coincidences of his name appearing or being overheard when I miss him most. He is in the emails, texts and notes from his friends reaching out to me when I ache for him. A beautiful song opened a small part of my heart to that truth. My sorrow hasn’t evaporated and my heart is not burden free. But there is a feeling of relief akin to joy to be able to put one of my worries to rest. Jordan is safe. No more harm can come to him.

“When I die, let these bones take root, let the seed that been planted let ‘em come up bearing fruit”

Just Be Jackie

I’ve been away from my blog for longer than usual. I thank all of you who continue to visit.

I travelled to my college alma mater for homecoming and the Black Alumni reunion this past weekend. I went even though the week before was filled with anguish and tears. In the days before my trip I ministered to my children when grief engulfed them. I cradled each of them as they wept out of yearning for their brother and as they relived with vivid memories learning of Jordan’s death.

Even though I had already purchased my plane ticket I hesitated about going. I wondered if  I should cancel my plans. I didn’t want to be away if my kids were in such a fragile state and needed me. While I became ambivalent about my trip, Mark became the reassuring voice, “You were looking forward to seeing your friends. We’ll be fine. I’ll be here for them. Go and be Jackie.” Even though I felt Mark was right, thoughts of what my children needed from me swirled in my head. I finally landed on the thought that made me know I was going on my trip. Since Jordan died, my children hadn’t seen me do anything to nourish my spirit. I wanted them to see me beyond my roles as wife and mother. They needed to know, just as I did, that it’s okay to look forward with excitement, instead of anxiety.

The fact that I was excited about travelling back to my college campus thrilled and intrigued me. Four months earlier, when I attended my 25th college reunion, my experience was one of sorrow and regret. Mark came with me that time and I could barely leave our hotel room. The first time I stepped onto the campus and saw all of the college kids, I was holding back tears. I kept looking for Jordan. I watched the students with their rightful looks of freedom and invincibility and wanted to see my son. I looked at the students and thought repeatedly, “Jordan should be at college, not me.” It was an emotionally exhausting weekend. I walked with vigilance and apprehension, praying Mark and I wouldn’t run into anyone. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the exchange. I dreaded being asked, “How have you been?” or “What have you been up to?” I had no idea how I would answer these questions. My biggest fear was that I would start crying and not be able to stop.

The brief encounters I did have with former classmates were strategic. I made sure to stop by my freshman dorm reunion as I had promised, to see friends who I hadn’t seen since I graduated. The other event I attended was the meeting of the Black Alumni Association to thank them for the scholarship fund they started in honor of a classmate from my graduating year who died in the years after our graduation and in honor of Jordan (even though he didn’t attend my alma mater). I was determined to thank them for honoring my son.

Fast forward four months and here I was feeling excitement and anticipation when I was headed to the same place that had recently brought me to my knees with anxiety and tears. I realized Mark was right. I needed to be called “Jackie” for a few days. The responsibilities of marriage, motherhood and grieving have absorbed the majority of my heart and mind. I wanted to reminisce with friends, rekindle my intellectual self and think about career options that have lain dormant. For the first time since Jordan died I was leading with joy not fear or regret.

College Graduation

The weekend was transformative. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you tomorrow.

Back To School

When my kids go back to school, it is always an anxious time for me. When I was working quasi part-time (4 days a week) I chalked my anxiety up to the stress of working and keeping track of all the beginning of the year activities like, open houses, parent “meet and greets” and the start of soccer season. It’s been over 10 years since I worked outside of the home and I still react to the beginning of the school year the same way. I know that my angst stems from more than just an overloaded schedule.

The physical energy needed to obtain what everybody needs always brings on distress for me. Heralding the school year with the lunch boxes and school supplies, carpooling and homework assistance typically brings on a lupus flare. In years past, because of being ill from lupus, I missed one open houses. On these occasions, Mark would go without me, taking copious notes knowing what questions I would ask of him about the teachers and the curriculum when he got home.  It didn’t matter how well he handled the task alone. It didn’t matter how quickly my kids got over their disappointment that I wasn’t going to meet their teachers that particular night. I felt guilty that I wasn’t going. My inner critic badgered me with questions like,  “What’s wrong with you?” “Can’t you suck it up for a couple of hours?”  The guilt and self-criticism got worse once I stopped working. “You’re not even working and you still can’t pull it together to go to your kids’ schools.” Even though one of the best remedies for a lupus flare is rest, for me it was hard to come by with such a harsh inner critic at the helm.

With time and help, I’ve learned to quiet but not silence my very intense inner critic. When I feel myself going down the, “You should be able to…” path, I’m quicker now to take care of myself and remember to do what I always urge others to, “Be good to yourself.” Still, I’m wrestling with my “back to school” demons as Open Houses kickoff this week for my kids. At both the middle school and the high school, the open houses are conducted the same way. Parents/Guardians follow their child’s daily, albeit abbreviated, schedule and meet all of their teachers. Going to my daughters’ school, which was also Jordan and Merrick’s middle school isn’t presenting any problems for me. It is going to the high school that has me paralyzed. Mark isn’t sure he’ll be able to go this year and I’m not sure I can go alone.

For Jordan’s freshman year at the high school, Mark went to the first open house by himself. That first year he came home to tell me of all of Jordan’s teachers and his workload. I listened eagerly, liking what I heard and determined not to miss another open house. In the years that followed, Mark and I went to the high school open houses, bumbling along with all the other parents through the 4-story building with its mazes of hallways. It was easy to get turned around because the numbering of rooms follows no logical order. Walking the halls of that massive high school trying to find classrooms has always been difficult for me. I am self-diagnosed as spatially and directionally challenged. Offering me assistance by telling me to travel east or that a building is on the northwest corner sounds like a foreign language. When Mark and I lived in Houston I called him from work during one of our first days there to give me directions to the supermarket. This time was before cell phones or I would have kept him on the line until I reached my destination. Instead I relied on directions written on a scrap of paper. He started his directions with, “When you get to the top of the street, make a left.” I immediately stopped him. I snapped, “Remember who you’re talking to. When I get to the end of the driveway which way do I turn?” I’ve always needed “left”, “right” directions with plenty of landmarks thrown in for cushion. Each time I’m at the high school for a meeting I ask for directions along with the room number and allow myself “getting lost” time.

Last year was our first open house at the high school for Merrick even though he was a junior. He did a mid-year transfer from a private school his sophomore year, so we missed the previous year’s open house. While I’d been as far as the “Welcome Center” to drop off Merrick’s registration forms, the open house was the first time back, walking the halls of the high school since Jordan died. There was trepidation for both Mark and I, wondering how it would feel to bump into teachers we hadn’t seen since Jordan died or even sit in classrooms that he once occupied.  With all of our sorrow and fear, we were determined to go. Our children need to know that we are fully invested in their presents and their futures. I kept telling Mark, “It’s Merrick’s school now too.”

We walked from our home to the high school holding hands while catching each other up on our days. We entered the school and were forced into the crush of other parents angling for a place in line to pick up their child’s schedule. There wouldn’t be much time to reminisce. I was relieved. I wanted my focus to be on Merrick, even though every thought had as its backdrop images of Jordan walking the halls. I was hoping too that we wouldn’t run into any well-meaning friends or acquaintances that would ask with pity filled eyes, “How are you?” Pity is hard to accept. Loves, concern, compassion, even discomfort from others are feelings I understand. Pity makes me angry. For me someone showing pity presupposes knowledge and understanding about how I’m feeling and what the grief I’m enduring. It always feels laced with relief that the loss didn’t happen to them. I had my guard up, staying vigilant and hoping that no one would say anything inappropriate about my loss (“He’s in a better place”) or feel the need to update me on their children’s lives even though I hadn’t asked. Hearing people talk about how much their children loved being away at college and that they were planning to see them for parents’ weekend hurt so much in the first year after Jordan died. I was so traumatized by grief that I rarely did more than stand and nod when people would update me on the college experiences of their children even though I wanted to turn and run.

After Mark and I went to several of Merrick’s classes we started to relax a bit. As we stopped to look at the schedule to see where Merrick’s next class was, an acquaintance with whom we shared several mutual friends stopped us in the hall to say hello.. We’ve known each other since Merrick and her son went to preschool together. She wanted the update on Merrick’s transfer to the high school and asked how our daughters were doing. We talked of how big the girls were getting and yes how time flies given that both of our sons are in high school. We stood smiling and then she said, “You have a son in college too, right?” In the seconds after the questions Mark and I looked at each other wondering which of us would answer. How could she not know about Jordan? I stayed mute knowing that the only other gear I had was rage. Mark calmly said to her, “Jordan was killed in a car accident last October.” Her hand flew to her mouth and she said, “Oh my God, I knew that. I’m so sorry.”

Mark told her not to worry. I stayed silent and focused my attention on her right ear. I didn’t want my eyes to meet hers anymore. She kept talking, nervously saying how dangerous the roads were and how she always tells her son to be careful. I thought but didn’t say, “Yeah that was our mistake. We didn’t tell Jordan to be careful. PLEASE STOP TALKING!” The last thing I heard her say was that she almost got into a car accident earlier that day. She said, “Almost”, I didn’t want to hear the word almost and accident strung together, not when my son is dead. Panic was rising in me and it finally dawned on me that I didn’t have to keep standing there listening to her. I had to get away, so I started moving towards the water fountain. An old neighbor of mine popped into my path, hugging me and asking who Merrick had for his guidance counselor. I looked up to see that my acquaintance had vanished. She no doubt couldn’t find a way out of the conversation either and was relieved to have a quick exit. After briefly speaking with my neighbor, Mark and I looked at each other and exhaled deeply. The bell for the next class was ringing and we both wanted to meet the rest of Merrick’s teachers. As we started to walk towards the next class I gripped Mark’s arm in panic, remembering the one place I didn’t want to happen upon, the newspaper room. Jordan was on the newspaper staff starting his sophomore year. He loved the work and the camaraderie and would often be at school until very late into the night when they were doing layout. Thinking about Jordan’s connection to that room and knowing how fragile I was I whispered in Mark’s ear, “I don’t want to go by the newspaper room. I can’t handle that tonight. That’s too much.” I was shaking my head and trying not to cry. Mark asked one of the student guides in the hall where the newspaper room was. She pointed in the direction and told him how to get there, assuming that was our next destination. Mark thanked her and we set off in the opposite direction. He held my hand and said, “We know where it is. I don’t want to go there either. Now we won’t accidentally go by it.”

Going to the rest of Merrick’s classes I was reeling from the trauma of being asked, “You have a son in college right?” and trying to stave off all the reminders of before Jordan died, that being at the school was bringing up. I wondered as I sat at the desks, “How do my kids do make it through school everyday?” I was fidgety and could barely sit still let alone focus on what the teacher was saying. I am amazed at their strength and resilience. At the end of the evening, Mark and I left the school through the door closest to our home. We took a few steps and then I began to weep. Mark put his arm around me as I said repeatedly, “You have a son in college, right?” and then bitterly answered the question, “No we don’t. We used to, but he’s gone. Our son is dead.” I cried and spewed out a variety of responses to the question we’d been asked until we were in front of our house. Mark and I stood there for a moment catching our breath and preparing to enter our home. As we walked in, Merrick met us in the entry. With eager eyes he asked, “So how was it? What did you think of my teachers?” Without pausing Mark and I both said great and gave him the details of our evening he needed to hear.

I’m keenly aware of my desire to be emotionally present and available for my children. The vigilance I carry for my kids and me to ward off unintentional but still hurtful comments is on high alert. I haven’t decided what I’ll do about Merrick’s open house if Mark can’t come. I’ve thought about contacting Merrick’s teachers to see if there’s an alternate time they’re available to meet. Maybe I’ll still go. It’s not as though I haven’t walked the halls of the high school by myself since Merrick started there; I have, numerous times. It’s still hard. Each time I visit, I whisper the same thing to ready myself, “It’s Merrick’s school too.”

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