I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Till we meet again

Yes, this post is hard to write, but not as bad as if it were still September 2002. That's when I wrote a remembrance to my son Chris at work. He died of what is called "sudden cardiac death" while jogging. Since this happened, I have seen several young people, usually men, written up on the obituary page as having died of the same thing. Part of the difficulty of it is that there is no warning, either for them, or for their loved ones.

I had just returned from Quincy where I had a two-week vacation, if you can call it that, jumping out of airplanes at the World Freefall Convention, tanned and happy to be back at work. I remember the phone ringing at 9:00am in the office and hearing the clicks and pops of a long-distance connection, and then a hysterical woman on the other end, saying things I could not understand. (Chris' wife Silvia was German and didn't speak great English at the best of times.) When I finally put together who she was, I felt a sick feeling and asked her what was wrong. She babbled something about Chris and finally said, "he's dead!" It was like being kicked in the stomach.

Finally Chris' Commanding Officer came on the phone and told me that Chris had died while he was on a three-month tour of duty in Macedonia. He told me in the gentlest way that I was to go home and wait for the soldiers to come to my house and inform me. I have a memory of one of my co-workers driving me home, but I was in shock. Once I got home, three young uniformed soldiers knocked on my door, one of them a young woman holding flowers in her hands and looking scared. They answered my questions, and told me that Chris' wife had asked for him to be buried in Germany, and as the next of kin, she could make that decision.

Then I found that there was no provision from the Army for me to get to Germany to see my son one more time. You see, I was no longer considered the next of kin, Silvia was. But when my boss Mickey heard about this, he presented me with a round-trip ticket to Frankfurt and $500 and told me to just go. I went to Germany. The link above will tell you about my time there. I learned that Chris had been happy and very well liked, and I spoke to his unit one morning about how glad I was that he had found his place in life.

The funeral was very tough. Nobody had told me about the Army's calling his name three times as if he were to answer, and when he didn't, they played "taps" to honor the fallen soldier. It was truly hard to bear. Some very thoughtful person had recorded it and gave me a copy of the Memorial Service. I have never watched it, but it holds a very special place on my keepsake shelf, along with the triangular box that holds the flag with three spent shells inside.

I was 59 years old when Chris died on August 15, 2002, on the anniversary of the day that his brother Stephen had been born 36 years earlier. The difference between me, the 59-year-old, and that young 22-year-old who lost her child was like night and day. If anyone were to ask me which one was harder to bear, there is no question: the poor young woman who lost her son who never had a chance to live, or the older woman who lost her other son after he had found himself, a career and a wife -- I don't have to tell you, you already know.

I also wrote another post about my two lost sons on my other blog, which I called "Amethyst Remembrance" after a favorite Emily Dickinson poem. It gives more detail, but here I want to talk about who I am today, and how the loss of my children has helped to make me who I am. When Stephen died, I could not bear to be in the same room with a small baby, whose beautiful chubby cheeks or fat arms tore at my heart and made me so aware of my loss. I turned away and avoided touching that place inside that felt like it would never be healed. Chris suffered too, because he reminded me of his brother, and I wouldn't let myself love him unconditionally. I hardened myself in ways I didn't even realize. I think this is one reason why I went from one husband to another: it was impossible for me to reach down inside and be truly authentic with anybody.

But when Chris died, I had found a job, a life I loved, and a man who supported me emotionally. He had helped me work through some of the buried grief and I learned that I was not going to find myself through another person, but through examining my own motives and desires. This is much easier to do when you have a partner who knows how to facilitate this, and I have been very fortunate to have Smart Guy, who always asked the right questions.

Because I had healed from my earlier wounds, I was able to grieve properly for Chris. I didn't look away when I went to Germany and met his fellow soldiers, when I went to the PT field and did pushups and jumping jacks in his place. I let it in. And although I miss calling him and hearing from him on Mother's Day and his birthday (he called me then, not on mine), I know that he had found himself before he died. It's all any mother can ask for.

Chris died just before the war in Iraq started. Every one of those young men I met in Germany was deployed to Iraq, and Chris would certainly have gone there too, and would probably have died there instead of in Macedonia. He never had to go to war, and for that I am grateful. His roommate in Macedonia told me how Chris would come back to their room after having been in the heat of the day, guarding the border: he would strip down to his shorts, turn the air conditioning to high, grab a beer out of the fridge, and plop down with a satisfying "ahhhhh!" That's the way I like to think of him, with a hedonistic grin and pleased with a job well done.

When you don't have grandchildren, and both of your offspring are gone from the world, your life doesn't necessarily include small children any more. But I find myself enjoying them so very much. There is a young boy, 13 months old, whose dad brings him every morning to the coffee shop where I have my latte. I've watched him over the past few months learn to walk, first by holding onto tables, then those first tentative steps like a drunken sailor, and now the confidence that he doesn't have to hold onto anything. It gives me such pleasure to watch, knowing that this beautiful child doesn't have to be my kin for me to love him.

Next Sunday I'll talk about these last few years that took me away from a job I had for almost three decades, and how I moved from a full-time job into retirement.


Norma Jean said...

There's not a lot I can add to this. I keep thinking about, "what does not kill us, makes us stronger". You have been resilient through so much without even realizing how strong you were. It makes me so proud to be your sister. I love you, Jan.

CiCi said...

Yes I know this was a difficult post to write. I hug you and appreciate the effort it took for you to share this episode in your life. I am so happy you are a strong, stable woman today who is able to write about things so painful and are able to live life fully.

Buz said...

I feel like I should remember Stephen -- I guess I was about 5 when he died -- but all I really remember is a hand print in the cement steps behind the lake house. One hand print from Chris, and one from Stephen.

I have several memories of Chris, though, and these days I think of him quite regularly, partly because I occasionally fret about the seemingly short average life span of men in our family, but mostly because you’re keeping him alive in my heart.

I love your title, “Till we meet again.” It makes me think of the song we sang in church just this morning:

Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away;
To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away).

I'll fly away, Oh Glory
I'll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away).

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I'll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away)

I'll fly away, Oh Glory
I'll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away (I’ll fly away).

Just a few more weary days and then,
I'll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away)

I'll fly away, Oh Glory
I'll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away).

Lucy said...

A hard one to write and although I've never given birth to a child, I cannot imagine having them die before you. You are such a strong woman. I'm glad you let me leave my humble comments!

The Retired One said...

I am speechless upon reading this post and your linked ones...because of your bravery and your willingness to examine your vulnerability and your grief in detail and with brutal honesty.
I admire you so much. Those boys had a wonderful Mom...I am sure you will see them and be reunited with them again. Sure. of. it.
Sending {{hugs}} your way!

gayle said...

I just read this and the other post that you talk about!! I feel so sad with tears in my eyes...that hasn't happened in a long time. I can't begin to understand what you went through and how you made it!!

Jo said...

Omigod, what a strong person you must be, to have endured this. The other day when that young man was killed on the luge track at Whistler, all I could think about was how heartbroken his mother must be. I couldn't hold back the tears, I felt so bad. And now to read it from your perspective, it breaks my heart. No mother should have to bury her children, at any age.

I am so sorry for your loss.

Far Side of Fifty said...

DJan, Such sadness, deep to the bone sorrow. I am sorry, and I have no doubt that you will be reunited again...may that hope comfort you everyday.
Sending you a hug:)

Stella Jones said...

I hope you do meet again. I think and believe that you will, in the Summerlands, where the sun shines on both sides of the hedge at the same time.
You wrote this post well D-Jan. You deserve to be happy now.
With love, Star x

Tiff said...

My goodness, what a great tribute to your sons. I cannot imagine what you have been through in your life, and I am amazed at your strength. I will be sure to hug my kids tight tonight.

Thank you for sharing your heart.

troutbirder said...

I do admire your ability to tell this story. For us it was 1997, he was just married, a career with meaning, and the whole world in front of him.

Dorothy said...

I lost my son 18 years ago he was 17 and to this moment I still miss him so. In addition, my heart will think of you today and pray once again, you get through this time.

Hugs, Dorothy from grammology

Leave a Legacy said...

You know, DJ, I put off reading this post for a week because I knew it would be emotional. I feel like I've come to know you as a good friend and I have tears in my eyes for you. I have two sons and I can't even go there in my imagination. you are such a strong woman and I know you will meet again.

Whitney Lee said...

I have just cried through this entire post. I know that wasn't your intention, but it's heart wrenching none the less. The link to what you'd written in 2002 really brings the whole experience to life. I remember the post you had done on the loss of your baby as well. I cannot bring myself to re read that one at this point. I cannot imagine what pain you've endured or how that endurance has melded your experience of life. I admire your strength and fortitude.

Linda Reeder said...

As I work my way through your remembrances, I'm expeiencing a roller coaster of emotions. I am amazed, and impressed, and concerned, and yes, today, saddened.
I did find joy in the fact that you are more then OK with small children, and that you have contact with one that you get to watch grow and learn. I'm such a doting grandma even though my grandchildren are 1500 miles away, and I had worried that my carrying on would be hurtful to you. I'm so glad it's not.

CrazyCris said...

Oh my. Wow. I don't quite know what to say except how sorry I am and how admirative of your being able to pull through something like this.

Death still seems like the scariest thing to me. So permanent. So isolating. The only family members I've lost to date have been grandparents, who lived long full lives (except my paternal grandfather whom I never met) and even that was very hard to deal with. I can't imagine something like this.

All I can do is send lots of hugs your way!

Grandmother Mary said...

Those losses, so hard and life shaping, carve us and deepen us in important ways that we can't imagine. It is so impossibly, heart wrenchingly difficult at the time that we feel like we can't survive it but we do and then lend support to others who are devastated by similar losses. My heart goes out to you and I send blessings your way. Thanks for sharing your heart so we're all less alone in the losses of our little angels.

Linda said...

This must be so hard...even to put down on paper, or the computer. Thank you for sharing with us, and making us realize that we have no guarantees as to the length of life for either us or our families. Each day needs to be filled with love.

Donna B. said...

I know loss through death, but not like this. I cannot even imagine...reading all the posts I sit here with tears, shaking my head...marveling at your strength.

California Girl said...

I'm glad I read this. Your honesty and insight help me know you better.

I realize how little we know one another because each experience is unique and can never truly be felt by another except through the writing of it. Writing is catharsis, at least it is for me. I hope for you as well.

Sandi said...

We all have our stories, layers of stories that make up the person we are. I appreciated your honest words and reflection on where your stories have taken you.
I'm glad you've found so much to enjoy and cherish in your life today.

Unknown said...

I can only repeat what Sandi said: "I am glad you've found so much to enjoy and cherish in your life today." You have born the greatest pain and rebuilt your life from the ashes in a way that inspires many.

Lorna said...

In the year 2000 I had to pull myself through the loss of my husband to cancer. I think that those of us who love to write are lucky; we are able to go through the grieving process partly from writing about it.


Kay said...

You are so amazing, DJan. I stand here in awe of you and your strength.