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, August 14, 2022

A twenty-year anniversary

Squalicum Harbor on Saturday

We have perhaps a dozen different walks we do on Saturdays. Yesterday Melanie and I took a lovely walk to Squalicum Harbor, on a cloudy and cool day in the middle of August. Weather right up my alley, in fact. I am very happy when I can exercise in this kind of weather, rather than having the hot summer sun beating down on me, making it impossible for me to enjoy myself. This Harbor walk is in full sun, so we don't do it on hot days. We walked over five miles and it was simply lovely. I try to exercise every day, even when it's hot.
Millions of Americans today are taking dietary supplements, practicing yoga and integrating other natural therapies into their lives. These are all preventive measures that will keep them out of the doctor's office and drive down the costs of treating serious problems like heart disease and diabetes. —Andrew Weil

As many of you know, heart disease is rampant in my family. It took my father at 62, and my mother at 69. But the hardest one of all was my son Chris, who died at forty of heart disease. Tomorrow it will be twenty years since that fateful day. Although I was already pretty disciplined to get plenty of exercise and keep my weight in the normal category for my own health, I never expected that Chris would die of heart disease so young. 

Although I don't dwell on my losses, I considered writing a post about all the wonderful things I remember about Chris, but as I pondered how I might do it, I realized that I still, even after all these years, have trouble going there. Although I can recall and enjoy memories of my parents, it's not so easy when I think about Chris. However, over the years that I have been writing this post, I've attempted a few times to make sense of the loss. What follows is from a post I wrote in February 2010.

* * *

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.  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 SG, 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.

* * *

And now, more than a decade has passed since I wrote that, and after having read it again along with all the comments that my followers and family left afterwards, I am both humbled and honored that I was Chris' mother.  As I look forward to celebrating my eightieth birthday this fall, I will always be grateful for the long and interesting life I have lived, with two angels waiting for me to join them.

My beautiful son on his birthday

And I am also so happy that I am still enjoying my life with SG, and as he sleeps next to me, I can only hope for more days and years of joy and fulfillment to surround not only me, but all my readers who still come here on Sunday mornings looking for a little inspiration to lift their spirits. Until we meet again next Sunday, I wish you all good things. Be well, dear friends.


ApacheDug said...

That is certainly one very tough anniversary DJan. I'm already familiar with the deaths of your two sons, but this was still such a tragic, compelling read. My God, I'm so glad your employer made it possible for you to go to Germany. And of course, I'm very glad you met SG and found your light at the end of the tunnel. My mom always used to say that her biggest fear was losing one of her children while she was still here. The fact that you did it twice and look back in such a healthy way is admirable.

Anvilcloud said...

What you have borne is almost too much, but you have borne it. That is all that I have to say.

Far Side of Fifty said...

My heart hurts for you, sending you a hug:)

Arkansas Patti said...

This was a sad but beautiful post. You have suffered such loss but you also have some wonderful memories to comfort you. So glad you have SG right there to give you comfort and strength. Sending you virtual hugs and hope you have smiles to go with the tears.

Hilary said...

I can't begin to imagine what you have been through, not once, but twice.

Sending you the biggest virtual hug I can.

John's Island said...

What an amazing post. I went back and looked at your Sunday, February 14, 2010 post, Till We Meet Again, and all the comments. You are truly a strong person. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever read two posts that were quite as moving as today’s and the one in 2010. As Arkansas Patti said before me, “This was a sad but beautiful post.” I don’t think I can say it better. Sending you a virtual hug! John

Linda Reeder said...

I read your previous posts about your sons some time ago and they linger with me. I remember quite frequently when I read your Sunday posts the tragedies you have borne and continue to bear.
Love and hugs to you on this difficult anniversary.

Galen Pearl said...

Your writings about your sons always touch me deeply in my heart. You are generous and brave of spirit to share this in the world. Whenever we can show the world who we are, without embellishment, honestly and emotionally all there, we invite others to open their hearts and do the same. It is a gift. And it is honored and appreciated.

Gigi said...

Sending so much love your way, my dear friend. xo

Red said...

Writing is strongly recommended as one way to deal with grief. Years ago you wrote some things that show your knowledge and awareness of what happened. In the beginning there was shock and horror. Many people do not come to terms with a loss like Chris's. My Dad never came to terms with the loss of an eleven year old daughter. His son's did not talk to him or he to us about his loss. Watching my Dad I can still see how difficult it was for him. I have a good idea of what you had to face. You've done well to deal with these loses.

Chris said...

What a sad but beautiful post. Just came across your blog by chance, it was amazing to read.

Linda Myers said...

DJan, thank you for your courage in this very powerful post. I feel like driving to Bellingham to give you a long hug.

Dee said...

Dear DJan, your lovely post, filled with the tenderness of a mother's love and the gentleness of her touch on the lives of all her readers, left a lump in my throat. Perhaps after Stephen's death, you closed yourself off from the grace within your deep and abiding spirit of acceptance and love. But SG helped you go down deep into that center of yourself where love and light and joy abide. And that learning helped you with Chris' death. And now you help all of us as we deal with loss. Thank you. Always, I learn so much from your living. Peace from Dee, ever and always.