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.

Archive for October, 2010

11-18-49 Hike!


Halloween circa 2002

It is the last day of October. In the shower this morning I stood and cried, thinking of Jordan, freshly feeling the pain of losing him, and how we lost him. Water fell around me as the intrusions of traumatic days and dates surged causing me to sob. In 2008, October 11th was the day Jordan told me he was going to Baltimore. The 12th is the day he died in a car accident. On October 13th, in the early morning hours the news of his death was forced upon us. The 16th is the day we viewed his body one last time at the funeral home. The 17th was the day he was cremated and the 18th was the day of his Memorial service.

On the heels of all these days comes October 20th, Merrick’s birthday. A bright spot that feels flung at us after the pounding traumatic remembrances early October brings. The 20th is the gasp of air given to my family after being held underwater for days by shock, flashbacks, turmoil and grief. I got to breathe a little knowing there was life to celebrate even though it was swirling with the vestiges of death and loss that wafted around us.

Merrick approached his 18th birthday with resolve and reflection. I asked him what he thought about such a milestone birthday, being able to vote, society’s view of him as a quasi adult? He felt more circumspect than excited. “This time next year my friends and I will be scattered around the country, attending different colleges. Our time as, “the guys” hanging out together like we do now will be over. “ I listened to his words, hearing no cynicism only the matter-of-factness that is a by-product of facing the loss of his brother. “The world is yours,” promise, so giddy and hopeful in it’s bumper sticker mentality doesn’t resonate the hopefulness the way I always imagined it would for all of my children. Merrick has firsthand knowledge that nothing is really promised. I selfishly wanted Merrick to proudly declare, “I’m 18,” with excitement. He didn’t and he wasn’t. I watched him try to find traction for celebration after days of lost sleep, quiet contemplation and wanting. The ultimate and unreachable gift, his brother to congratulate him on being 18 was unattainable. Awareness of mortality, embracing moments, and a loss of innocence were firmly placed in Merrick’s path in the month of October.

Yesterday my parents were here briefly as they started a train trip to the West Coast. They’ve always wanted to travel cross-country by train, replete with sleeper car and the luxury of time. October 28th was their 49th wedding anniversary and after years of talking about travelling by train, this year they are doing it. They sat at my kitchen table talking about the books and movies they brought along with them for their trip. I go through my checklist and they tell me they remembered the camera and look forward to sitting in the observation car watching the landscape float by. They’re finally taking one of their dream trips and a part of me senses how final it feels. As independent as they are, Daddy needs a wheelchair to get him onto the train. I ask him if he has his medication and how his arthritis plagued ankles are holding up? His response is as it always is, “Oh girl, I feel good. The doctor says I’m fine.” I ask who is picking them up from the train station and they tell me their high school friend will be there to meet them. Daddy laughs, excited about catching up with old friends. He tells me that his friend wanted him to bring him a taste of moonshine. I laugh along with him but am relieved that none of them will be drinking moonshine. Clearly their West Virginia roots are still firmly entrenched. Mark takes them to the train station and I stand in the driveway waving and yelling, “Have fun.” I walk back inside thinking and praying, “I hope they have a good time. Don’t let anyone get sick.  Bring them home safely.”

Today is Halloween and I witness my 11 year old daughters pour bags of candy into a basket that will be empty by the end of the evening after all the trick-or-treaters make their way by our home. The girls’ excitement this year is less about running from house to house filling their candy bags to the brim, than it is about attending their friend’s haunted house party. Wanly I watch them, glimpsing the teenagers they will soon be. They are my youngest and my wish to have time stand still, to keep their youthful exuberance about costumes and counting their candy at the end of the evening, “Mama, I got 3 BIG candy bars,” is overpowering. I’m stuck in a nostalgia time warp that is making me teary in wanting things I cannot have. The days of having a parent accompany my daughters, waiting on the sidewalk as they run from house to house, racing to ring the doorbell are over. They look forward to trick-or treating with a group of their friends. If I want to hear them say, “Trick or treat,” this year I’ll have to force myself on them or follow them from a distance. They are acting like typical “middle schoolers” and my gratitude that they embrace normal activities without being too weighted down by grief is tempered by wariness and melancholy. What am I doing letting them explore the world and have independence? Am I insane? I’ve lost a child, yet I keep encouraging my others to find their way in the world.

I made it through October again. A new month beckons and as ceremonial as it is, I’m relieved that the calendar page is about to turn. I need the surges of grief and middle of the night weeping that are now hallmarks of October to be quieted.

Seeing, “The Stinky Cheese Man”

We went out to dinner today to have our birthday dinner for Merrick’s 18th birthday. The Cheesecake Factory has been our family spot for celebrations since we’ve lived in Chicago. As we sat waiting for our table I watched a family leaving the restaurant. A little girl of about 7 was holding a book upside down as she walk out. I turned my head and read the title, “The Stinky Cheese Man.” The book is a parody or “The Gingerbread Man,” and other fairy tales. Jordan whose wit and humor started at a young age loved that book. He loved to read it to himself and aloud to his brother. I touched Merrick on the shoulder and pointed to the little girl. He saw the book and then looked back at me poking his lip out in an, “Aw,” moment. We had talked about Jordan so much in the last weeks and now we watched as one of Jordan’s favorite childhood books passed by.

As we make our way through October, reminders of Jordan seem to be everywhere. Thoughts of Jordan’s death and memorial service and then Merrick’s birthday collide at times. Merrick works hard to feel celebratory on his special day. Merrick and I talked about his ambivalence about turning 18. He sees it as much as the close of a chapter on childhood friendships that will necessarily separate as he and his friends go off to college next year; as he does the burgeoning of adulthood that he must ferry without his big brother as promised guide.

I’ve told him that he never has to put on a face or emotion of happiness or excitement if that’s not how he feels. The notion I had of what turning 18 would be like for Merrick are tempered by the trauma and tragedy that have encroached on his month. Merrick claimed the month of October as his own. Now we struggle to push through the month without losing our bearings. Today a childhood book expressed our loss. I never thought, “The Stinky Cheese Man,” would make me cry.

Celebrating 18

My wonderful son is 18 today. I am so grateful to have him as a son. He is wise beyond his years, funny, compassionate, giving and so loving.

Happy 18th Birthday Merrick. You’ll always be my baby.

My sweet little boy

The handsome young man

So Grateful For Jordan’s Tree

Jordan's tree with his elementary school in the background

In the days leading up to October 12th, the anniversary of Jordan’s death, I was thrust back into the pain and numbness I felt right after he died. Walking down the hall towards the front door of my house or hearing the phone ring, shifted me back to 2008 and all those traumatic October days. As much as the leaves changing signals fall, it also starts the anniversary days. One thing I knew I needed to do to and I hoped it would make me feel some peace was to visit Jordan’s tree.

Jordan’s tree is a crabapple tree that was donated by his sisters’ Girl Scout Troop through a Park District Program. In the summer of 2009, their troop leader called me asking if they had my family’s permission to have a tree planted in Jordan’s memory. My answer was of course an emotional, “Yes.” I was so touched by their offer and also the courtesy and grace they showed by asking how we felt before proceeding with the tree planting.

On August 8, 2009 the day before what would have been Jordan’s 20th birthday we had a tree dedication ceremony, which was attended by family and friends. The Girl Scout Troop had a plaque made for us to use at the ceremony because the permanent plaque that would be placed at the base of the tree wasn’t ready yet. The plaque given by the Girl Scout Troop starts with a line from a poem by Margueritte Harmon Bro, “We thank thee for special trees which will always stand large in our memory.” The quote so fittingly expressed the sentiment of the day.

To conclude the ceremony, the Pastor of our church said a prayer and also placed a piece of cloth over one of the branches. He called the cloth, “Jordan’s Mantle.” He encouraged all of us to cut a piece from the cloth and keep it with us as a symbol of some aspect of Jordan that we wished to carry forward. He spoke of Jordan’s passion for social justice, his love of music and reading and his dedication to family and friends. Everyone that was there cut a piece of the cloth. Many of our family and friends keep their piece of mantle cloth in their wallets

Last week, I went to see Jordan’s tree for the first time this fall. I walked up on his still young tree thinking of Merrick’s words to me the summer before, “I want to tie a piece of the mantle cloth on one of the branches, so when I’m 80 I can come and stand under the tree and look for the cloth.” The spirit of hope and looking towards the future embodied in Merrick’s words made Jordan’s tree even more of a legacy. I came to visit the tree and to see the permanent plaque that was finally in place. The plaque was supposed to be placed at the base of the tree in the months after it was planted. There were problems with the manufacturer, then the weather made installation impossible. When it was finally installed, it was put at the wrong tree. The irony of the Park District’s placement is that they put the plaque at a mature tree that shaded the baseball diamond. Jordan took many practice swings before going up to bat under the shade of that tree. When I first saw the plaque under the “baseball,” tree, I wondered if Jordan was in on the joke. I know he would have found it funny that the plaque started off at the baseball diamond and not near the park bench.

The plaque stayed at the “baseball,” tree until this fall because cold weather and frozen ground settled in early last year and prevented it from being moved to its rightful place. Unfortunately the Spring thaw did not quicken the actions of the Park District, despite the efforts of a very determined volunteer in charge of the tree dedications. As fall approached this year, I urgently called the volunteer again alerting her that Jordan’s tree still did not have its rightful marker. When October 12th arrived,  I wanted to be able to go and sit near his tree with everything in order. The wonderful volunteer, Mrs. Holmes, must have stood and watched them move the plaque because the day after I called her, she left a voicemail message telling me the plaque was moved.

On October 13th, I sat on the bench near Jordan’s tree as its branches framed the children playing in the distance. It is a tree that overlooks the baseball diamond where he played little league baseball and the field and playground where he ran, jumped and climbed as a little boy. It is the perfect place for his tree.  I look at his elementary school in the distance and remember my son as a boy getting every bit of use out of his 30 minutes of recess. His clothes were always the proof that he played hard. His pants were worn at the knees and he came home with unexplained rips in his shirts. There is also the infamous day that he called me, needing a whole new set of clothes including socks because he and some of his friends couldn’t resist jumping and splashing in a mud puddle. Jordan’s tree anchors those memories now.

As much as fall hurts now with its memories of late night calls and police visits broadcasting loss, it is still a time of  beauty. I am amazed that in the shock and numbness of grief, the Technicolor show of nature still beckons me. Even in the days after Jordan died I couldn’t help picking up beautiful leaves as I walked. Two years later I know that the fears I had right after Jordan died, that fall would annually mock me with its brilliance as I stood with my loss are unfounded. The brilliant colors of all the trees still thrill me just as they did before Jordan died. I don’t look away from all the beauty. I stand beneath the trees looking up at the brilliant golden, red and orange leaves with the sun filtering through them. Beauty can coexist with sorrow.

The plaque at the base of the tree shows a beginning and ending year for my son’s life. It will never feel right or fair that Jordan’s year of death precedes my own. In the midst of my grief, I’m so grateful that I can sit and look at a living monument, honoring Jordan’s memory. Everyone that walks by can look at Jordan’s tree and hopefully pause and read the plaque, knowing that he is loved, honored and remembered. 

With Friends Like These

There are so many people in my life who have shown me what true compassion and grace look like. Yesterday my family and I received so many communications of love and support and we are forever grateful.

I have one friend from college who showed me I could laugh again in the months after Jordan died. We had been out of touch over 15 years, even though mutual friends kept us updated on each other’s lives. I saved every email she sent and reread them finding wisdom, comfort and laughter in her words. I’ve already told her that she will have her own chapter in the book I’m writing.

The emails I received from her started 2 weeks after Jordan died. I would hear from her at least weekly. She offered comfort, “remember when” stories from our college days and so much understanding. Some days I would look out the window after receiving an email from her wondering if she’d been watching me. How else could she know exactly the comforting words I needed to hear? Laughter and tears accompanied my reading of most of her emails. It got to the point that as I sat with my laptop and would randomly start to laugh aloud or at times cry, Mark would simply say, “Bev?” and I’d read to him what she’d written and he’d share in my emotion.

Today I wanted you all to get a glimpse of my friend Bev. Here are condensed versions of emails she sent to me after learning of Jordan’s death and the one she sent on the 2nd anniversary.

What Bev Said

October 27, 2008 4:02:52 PM CDT

My  Dearest Jackie,

Beautiful, kind,  Jackie….Girl with  a smile and a kind word for everyone. I miss you dear friend and I am so  very very sorry.   All words seem inadequate. Because they are.  I won’t speak of religion, or espouse lay philosophy  in an attempt to comfort  or bring sense to your loss.   I know, there is not much that anyone can say  or do…there is only time.  We have been out of touch for far too long. But I want you to know, that you are loved.   I and so many of  our classmates  are thinking of you, hurting   for you, sending out prayers and love,   and lifting you up.  We are all with you right now.   I  want you to know that you are Sunflower- with a life force and a spirit full of light- outshining all the other flowers in the garden. I see pictures of Jordan , and I know who gave him that smile and that same bright, blinding life  force.   Consider this communique, my arms and heart,  extended across these many years and miles, to you.   Please know that I will do whatever I can to help you –  [  ]The only thing that  has changed with  me is that my figure is no  longer an hourglass, it is now a beer glass.

I  was laid off in June and (I have been throwing confetti ever since). …..and pretending I have a husband, a house and an income. I get my nails done, drink coffee at the local coffee shop, and  am in the middle of reading Anna Karenina. Sure, I am about to be evicted but.. ..could someone pass the  half and half?  Anyway, I say all of this to say, I have some free time on my hands.  And I want to see you. Let me help you in any way that I  can. [ ]I am calling you. Feel no obligation to talk if you are not up to it, or are busy. We go back too far to be worried about being polite.

I will be calling.
(If my phone ain’t disconnected)

Please be patient with yourself …. know that you are loved.


October 12, 2010 7:38:34 PM CDT


I want you to know that today and everyday, you are in my thoughts, my prayers, hopes and wishes.  I am simply wishing for a measure of relief for your weary heart.   I don’t think I can ever tell you enough times how very, very sorry I am. Life proves itself to be so very unfair sometimes.  All references we make to karma,  and reaping what you sow,  can so quickly prove false and fall away when the unimaginable happens – leaving our point of reference, our guide for an ever changing, unpredictable world, shattered.  What karmic adage can make sense of the chain of events that took your precious Jordan away?    I know your world and everything you believe has been turned upside down by Jordan’s accident.  You follow the rules of life. You give the love. You nurture, raise, and shape this beautiful boy. You give him to the world, shiny, polished and perfect, and the world does what it will, as it will. as it has, making no sense and undoing  everything we have ever believed about how to be, how to do, right and wrong, good and bad.
Jackie, everyday, I imagine your mind still asks and wants to know why. Everyday, you  seek answers to a question that cannot be answered in a way that makes sense, and will give you peace. No because in this universe can explain and justify the loss of Jordan. My prayer for you today is that this unanswerable question, one day, will cease to gnaw at every level of your conscious and unconscious mind.  I wish peace inside your mind for you.  Fight on for the sake of your children, your parents, your husband, your friends. Fight on, because Jordan is right beside you, and wants you to know that he loves you, he has changed forms but he has never left you.  Beautiful mother, he is okay.  You will see him again.  Feel him now. Reach out and just hold him quietly.
Keep going Jackie. Sometimes the universe is cruel and senseless, yet it continues to require that we make our way through it sensibly and with sensitivity.   I’ve said this before, and I know, Jordan would not want his mother to be so sad forever.  The  depth of your love is greater than your tears, and your sorrow.  You will overcome. Everything is going to be alright. It may not be today. It probably won’t be tomorrow. It may not be any time soon. But Jackie, I promise, it will be. It will be . Keep going.
Love you much,


Jordan and his beautiful smile. The way we remember him.


We’re all missing you, remembering you and most of all, loving you always.









The Johnson Sisters Come To Call


Jordan's Candle burning in remembrance

I sat with my eyes closed in my counselor’s office. I’d come in for a second session last week because as the anniversary of Jordan’s death loomed closer I felt myself growing more anxious and afraid. The images of him lying in the coffin with the bandage on his head wouldn’t leave my mind. I was jumpy and weepy every time I heard a siren. I wanted to be able to go longer than a few minutes without crying and feeling like I was going crazy. My mind needed to be quieted.

My counselor sat across from me and told me to be aware of where I felt the pain and anxiety that was overpowering my body. I pointed to my chest, which felt like someone was squeezing my diaphragm and not allowing me to take a full breath. Then I touched my throat, which throbbed and felt like it was closing because of unshed tears.

She assured me she’d help me find a place for all the feelings that were overwhelming me. I leaned my head back on the chair hoping to find a way to ease my sorrow even if it was just a little bit. My counselor told me to imagine a container or a place that I could use to store the pain and help heal it. The thing that came to mind was a big, black bowl sitting on the grass. It looked like a huge salad bowl. My counselor in her low soothing voice spoke to me, “Do you have a container?”

I shook my head, “Yes,” as tears streamed down my face.

“Were you able to put some of your pain in the container?”

I shakily said, “All of it.”

I already felt relief knowing that I’d found a place for my sorrow. It didn’t feel like it was overpowering me anymore.

She continued, “ Now if you want to, you can send some source of healing to the container. It can be light, a higher power, anything that you think would help to be a healing force.”

With eyes still closed I took a deep breath and nodded my head to my counselor letting her know that I was imagining the healing of the pain. I knew who I wanted to help me with the pain. In my mind I called out to my grandmother (Nanny) to come and help me. She’d helped me before in sessions like these. In the months after Jordan died when I wondered what prayer was for, because it hadn’t kept my son safe, Nanny was my intercessory. I asked her to watch over my boy until I could see him again. I asked her if he was okay? I begged her to help me learn to talk to God again. In life and beyond I felt her unconditional love.

Nanny holding me.

I saw Nanny walk out and stand by the container. Then she said, “Come on now, we’ve got to help Jackie.” Then one by one my grandmother’s sisters all of whom are with her in heaven, appeared and stood around the bowl that contained the hurt my heart couldn’t hold.

To me all of them were fearless. One summer, when I was a child, during one of our family reunions in West Virginia, I’d seen them shift from sisters sitting around my aunt’s kitchen table talking, drinking coffee and playing Scrabble, to warriors. One of my cousins came upstairs from the bedroom portion of the house panic-stricken. With wide eyes and a shaky voice she said, “There’s a bat downstairs.” Nanny, Aunt Mary, Aunt Gaynel and Aunt Frances rushed from the kitchen table, one of them grabbing a broom on the way, as they went downstairs to kill the bat. Aunt Gaynel’s voice rang out, “You kids stay up there. I don’t wanna see any of you downstairs.” I stayed in the kitchen still perched on the red vinyl stool that was my post for watching the Scrabble game. I heard, “There it is,” “Be careful,” and “It’s over there,” float up the stairs as the sound of brooms and shoes and whatever they could use as weapons struck the walls and ceiling. I finally went outside to sit on the porch with my other cousins telling them about the bat. A little while later, one of the sisters put a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on the porch. My cousins and I dared each other to look into the container. I finally took my turn and quickly peeked in to see the dead bat lying on its back. Through the screen door I heard one of my great-aunts call out, “Ya’ll don’t get to close to that bat now.” I looked in the door to see them seated around the kitchen table again, Scrabble game and sister-talk resumed. Their actions and teamwork still rank as one of the bravest things I’ve ever witnessed.

Now as I sat with a tear-stained face in my counselor’s office, they’d come to help me. All of them knew about the kind of heartache contained in my bowl. Nanny had mourned the loss of a son from a miscarriage. During one of our late night talks when I was a teenager I remember her telling me, “It was a boy, and he was about this big,” as she held her hands a little less than a foot apart.

Next I saw my Aunt Gaynel determinedly walk up and grab Nanny’s hand. I swayed in my seat as I thought of the early morning call so many years ago telling us that Dougie and Dawn; her grandchildren had been killed in a house fire. She’d felt the same kind of tear soaked pain that my container held. I continued watching as Aunt Frances and Aunt Mary came and stood around the bowl. Aunt Mary’s hair was still pulled back in a bun. I couldn’t help thinking, “She looks the same.” She stood there with her sisters, who’d helped her mourn the loss of a son born prematurely. A son she tried to keep alive and warm by placing him near the open oven in her kitchen.  They helped her hold vigil because there was no hospital in West Virginia where she could take her brown- skinned baby and get quality care.

Then my Aunt Frances came and stood by the bowl too. She looked at me with all-knowing eyes. She’d stood and wept at the coffins of both of her adult daughters who were taken by illness. Witnessing her mourning helped me to accept that no matter their age, your children are always your babies.  My grandmother’s youngest sister Juanita was there too. I watched as they coaxed her to the circle. She moved slowly and Aunt Frances in her raspy cigarette smoke-stained voice said, “Hurry up you can help too.”

Juanita died when I was a child. My memories of her are as the “Cosmopolitan,” sophisticated sister. She could have graced the cover of any fashion magazine. She gave me my first real jewelry when I was about five. It was a birthstone jewelry set with matching heart-shaped necklace, bracelet and ring. The heartache she endured was inferred by my family, but never talked about to me. I felt Juanita’s love as she stood by the bowl with her sisters.

I took a deep breath in and exhaled slowly as they circled around the bowl. I talked to my grandmother, “Nanny, I’m so tired. It hurts too much. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through another anniversary. I miss my boy. I want him to come home. Help me.”

Nanny briefly looked at me and nodded her head. Then she and her sisters bowed their heads and began to pray. I couldn’t hear what they said but I’d heard all of them pray before. Their prayer was a balm of healing over my bowl of pain, longing and loss. I felt peace and protection coming my way. As I watched them pray, the tears that fell from my eyes didn’t burn so hotly. My breathing came easier and didn’t get caught in my throat. My hands that were clenched in my lap relaxed and I uncrossed my legs. As I sat feeling the tension subside in my body, I heard my counselor’s voice in the distance bringing me back to the room in her office. “Listen to the sounds out the window. Feel the floor beneath your feet and your back against the chair.”

I sat for a moment eyes still closed taking a few more deep breaths. I opened my eyes still not ready to make eye contact with my counselor. She sat patiently waiting for me to compose myself. After grabbing a tissue and wiping my eyes I looked at her. She gently told me, “The container and the healing image that you used today can help you whenever the pain feels overwhelming. Just take a few moments and close your eyes and allow yourself that comfort.” I looked at her attempting a smile as I nodded. Then for the first time in our sessions, I told her of the image I’d just witnessed. “My grandmother and her sisters held hands and encircled the bowl. They came to help me.”

She looked at me and simply said, “That’s beautiful.”

As I rose to go, I grabbed my purse, told her, “Thank you” as I always do and walked to the elevator. I put my sunglasses on as I reached the first floor. As I walked to my car I continued to feel the fierce love and protection of Nanny and my aunts. They are my role models of strength and resilience.

Today the phone rang and when Mark answered I heard him say, “Whose calling?” He then stood and walked out of the family room. The next thing I heard was, “Jordan passed away in 2008.” Like I’d done two years ago almost to the day at hearing Jordan’s name, I got up and followed Mark. I held my hand over my mouth waiting for him to finish the call. He then told me, “It was Jordan was on their volunteer list. They were calling to see if he wanted to volunteer again.”

Sobs broke through my hand covering my mouth and Mark held me as I cried. I sobbed at the pain that announced more precisely than any date on a calendar, “My son is dead.” He isn’t here to volunteer for his favorite causes. I don’t know what direction his interest in Political Science would have taken him. As I cried, the fact that Jordan’s been denied the opportunity to have new adventures and experiences made the ache of loss surge. He died. Even though I want to go and look for him to bring him home I can’t. I leaned against the doorjamb in the dining room, crying and thinking of all the things he wanted to do and be.

October 12th is the date Jordan was killed in a car accident, but everyday I struggle to learn to live without him. After the phone call from MoveOn, the images and sounds associated with losing Jordan threatened to overpower me. I took a moment and remembered the 5 sisters with their fierce love and arms of protection. I closed my eyes and saw them encircling and praying over my container of pain.

Back row(l to r): Aunt Mary, Aunt France and Nanny Front Row (l to r) : Aunt Juanita and Aunt Gaynel