Dear Andrea: Another in a series of meditations on the death of our sons.

Dear Andrea
We have had a bitterly cold, –indeed, record-breakingly cold– winter here in South Western Ontario. Few birds to be heard, lots of darkness, huge amounts of snow. I do not like winter- yet, as the small signs of spring are finally appearing, I find I resent them, terribly, and fight against them almost all the time. A part of me never wants spring to come. This difficult, challenging, miserable weather is perfectly appropriate.
When I hear the spring birds-still very occasionally as yet, I resent them. I am bitter and I want them to shut up! There is an almost visceral dread in the pit of my stomach when I hear these harbingers of a gentler season. Much as I do not love the bitter winter we have been enduring, I find myself dreading its end. The greening of the trees is the same.
When I realized that you were passing the second year milestone of Adam’s death, I had an epiphany. This is about Shawn! You would think by now, 23 years on, I would be on top of this anniversary ahead of time, but it takes me by surprise every time. A little differently every year, and no less an ambush.
Shawn died April 21. It was an unseasonably early and beautiful spring, and the week of his funeral, the lilacs were in crazy bloom in Kitchener-Waterloo, and I walked to the funeral in just a cotton dress, stepping on those little green broccoli-like flowers the maple trees drop as the leaves come out.

I do not want to be there again, every year, with the weather so redolent of both oblivious beauty and stark death; the birds so seemingly joyful. I want to skip the whole thing.

It does pass, and is worse in the anticipation then in reality. But still.

It is good to mark it in some way-such as the collage of your beautiful boy that you posted. I have done something every year-it helps to plan a different unique thing,usually small, always different. This is just for me. Also, every year, the family that is here, (and my Matt now lives an hour away, in KW,) plus certain close friends, go to his grave-we interred his ashes- bring everyone a Tim Horton’s coffee and donut (including for Shawn as well) and tell Shawn stories. My baby who is nearly 34 is now fully an adult and a huge balm to my heart. He was 9 when his brother died.

I do not think it means I am stuck or inappropriately not moving forward. This annual upsurge of grief honours my boy. My life is not sad-I have made a certain kind of peace with his absence. This yearly pause is good. It is right and proper so to do.

Much love to you, Andrea, as you negotiate this milestone, and to all mothers who have lost their children.

Happy Families Come In All Shapes and Sizes

Beyond Grammacello

Christmas! I have been in the grip of writers’ uh, not exactly ‘block’, but certainly ‘stall’ since last summer. With an emergency gall bladder removal in late July, and a diagnosis of a heart rhythm issue which can be managed but not fixed, coming on the heels of my retirement in June, I fell into a hole of exhaustion, fear, and disappointment, that has oh so slowly been resolving but has seemed endless to my impatient soul. When I catch a minor bug, as I did the other week, I am convinced that I will never feel better. But, time has worked its inevitable magic and it seems I will live to write a bit longer after all. Life has settled into a new normal, thankfully. Christmas. As in any family, the reality usually smashes head-on into the myth of the perfect Christmas, but, unexpectedly, this one has become a…

View original post 523 more words

Happy Families Come In All Shapes and Sizes

Christmas! I have been in the grip of writers’ uh, not exactly ‘block’, but certainly ‘stall’ since last summer. With an emergency gall bladder removal in late July, and a diagnosis of a heart rhythm issue which can be managed but not fixed, coming on the heels of my retirement in June, I fell into a hole of exhaustion, fear, and disappointment, that has oh so slowly been resolving but has seemed endless to my impatient soul. When I catch a minor bug, as I did the other week, I am convinced that I will never feel better. But, time has worked its inevitable magic and it seems I will live to write a bit longer after all. Life has settled into a new normal, thankfully.

It is Christmas. As in any family, the reality usually smashes head-on into the myth of the perfect Christmas, but, unexpectedly, this one has become a lovely, gentle, almost perfect Christmas! (It’s a miracle, perhaps?) At home, this year, we left thirty years of ornaments and knick-knacks in their basement boxes and went with just lights. Vases filled with lights, fake twin trees in the front window flanking a real tree with ultra simple decorations, (from my sole student) My “baby”, youngest of our blended family of five kids, aged 33, and his love, are, for the first time in more than a decade, living a scant hour away, and love to cook! 27 years in a step family, with its tensions and compromises, especially in the early years, has blessed John, my husband, and I, with a hard earned ability to go with whatever the flow is each year. There is genuine freedom and acceptance in our very non traditional Christmases, now, as we prepare for Christmas dinner at Matt’s apartment. Besides John and myself, (and my youngest son, Matt and daughter-in-law to be-Mel ,our gracious hosts, and cooks extraordinaire!) the guests include: Mel’s sister and her long divorced mother; my ex and his wife, together now 28 years, as John and I have been, and my John’s eldest daughter, my dear step daughter, and maybe her five year old son, our youngest grandchild-no “step”grandchildren for me!-unless he is with his father, from whom she is separated- these arrangements are usually somewhat fraught as the young family is only two years into separated family issues. Missing: John’s son and daughter-in-law, who will be travelling all day to a town six hours away to see her mother, and my divorced daughter, far away on the west coast, and my two beloved grandchildren, who will be with THEIR father this year flying to see HIS parents on the east coast. Also missing, my other dear dear son, Shawn, dead now since 1992 at age 18, from the hideous ravages of schizophrenia. And yet, it is shaping up to be a wonderful, (dare I say, almost perfect) Christmas afternoon and dinner.

Absolutely untraditional, our peculiar, post modern family can be as magical and filled with comfort and laughter as any idealized Norman Rockwell “normal” one. And Love, there is so much Love! Which is the meaning of Christmas, after all. I always wanted a big, happy family. And by the most crooked of paths, despite everything that has happened, as my husband and I pass our mid sixties, our seventies coming into view, we feel so blessed and rich in family which, it seems, is where you find it. There is a wonderful freedom in our lack of structure. Families: step and bio, dear dogs and/or cats waiting at home, multiple doting grandparents for the kids. Laughter, with the comfort of long association that has mellowed over the years into in-jokes. We did this at Thanksgiving as well and I feel privileged to again spend this iconic holiday with the imperfect, yet perfect family I find myself so so lucky to have.

Happy Christmas to everyone! May the Spirit of Christmas bless us, one and all! (And Happy New Year too, since it has taken till January 1st to post this.)

Matters of the Heart

When I last wrote, my daughter and grandkids were here on their annual visit from Seattle. I had just retired at the end of May. We had remodelled my cello studio into a proper guest-room in a crash two weeks. I felt on top of the world, high on the freedom retirement would bring. The visit was fine, except, boy! was I tired. But, it had been a frantic spring, to wind up my job of 37 years and then instantly repurpose my teaching studio just in time.

The second half of this two week visit is traditionally music day camp-for kids from three till university age. K, the 13 year old boy in particular likes it. I thought I was awfully tired. I decided to let the kids and their Mom leave at the ungodly starting hour and to join them later. I managed to ‘not notice’ how very uncharacteristic this was. Aside from the obvious merits of camp, this is my daughter’s and my yearly chance to really catch up, in person, without nosy preteen eavesdroppers. They are in class-we are hanging out. By Wednesday, I had stopped going to watch classes, and by the Thursday evening chamber music concert, in which K was performing as first cello in an all cello quartet, I begged off altogether. I cannot tell you how utterly out of character this was. My reason? I was “tired”. That was all…Yet, all night I was up and down, three or four nights in that week, in agonizing abdominal pain, sick to my stomach, wondering whether I was “really” sick. Even wondering, should I go to emergency? By Thursday my husband convinced me to at least see our family doctor.

After this, things moved at warp speed. My sweet doctor suggested I let HER diagnose me-I had been spending time with Dr Google-and within 24 hours, I had had an 18 hour heart test, an abdominal ultrasound and an electrocardiogram. I was to go to hospital, not pass Go, not collect $200…I had a bed by 3PM and my nasty, highly inflamed gall bladder with its giant resident gallstone-NONE of which I even suspected, in my total denial-was history after emergency surgery at MIDNIGHT that same evening. The reason for this unseemly haste was an out of control case of atrial fribullation, which is an electrically out of control heart rhythm, which can lead to a catastrophic stroke. It can, perhaps, be brought under control with drugs but not fixed. Treatment for the heart could not commence until the surgery was over as it would include strong blood thinners. So that I wouldn’t, you know, throw a blood clot,..have a stroke…..die…lovely….

And of course, we had our daughter and her two kids in residence. Our annual, much anticipated two week family visit was pretty much a bust from my viewpoint-I felt so ill that I barely remember it at all. My wonderful son and his fiancé, who live an hour away, took the visitors over, fed and entertained them and put them on the plane home.

All my life, I have aspired to be one of those calm, take it as it comes, solid-as-a-rock-in-a-crisis types. But I never manage it.

I am mostly scared. Not yet feeling healthy, wondering whether I ever really will be again, even wondering whether I will be one of those statistics, you know: “She retired and then BAM…..” We have cancelled our long planned road trip this fall. There is no way I have the stamina. The timing of this illness feels incredibly ironic to me. Take off the pressure and my body collapses. It has happened before, more than once. I feel jinxed.

When I was a child, my mother, who was a real piece of work, loved to accuse me of being “selfish, self-centered and irresponsible”. I think I have pushed my physical and mental health right to the brink all my life, trying to prove her wrong, despite realizing long ago that she was describing herself. It seems discouraging to, apparently, still be in this place after so long. Looking back over the last, say five years, I can see how I was abusing myself, body and soul, by working in massive and punishing overdrive, way beyond my limits. I knew it, sort of, but isn’t that ” being responsible”? Unselfish? Well, no.

I have started and discarded half a dozen blog posts. I am feeling so many things, mostly negative, in contrast to my post retirement high of June, that I cannot even think coherently, never mind write. Maybe it is the uncertainty of this heart condition. It cannot be fixed, just imperfectly controlled. And so far, anyway, “imperfect” is the right word. Also, stress exacerbates it. Good luck with that!
I do not really know why I cannot write. Or, really, do much of anything. I derive so much joy and pleasure from playing music-I can play, but not listen- art, and writing. Maybe it is like what happened with listening to music. After my son died, I stopped listening to the classical music we shared and were so passionate about-which was such a bond between us. I have not listened purposefully to music now for over twenty years.

Things could be worse, I know this. I read blogs by people going through much worse, and I know comparisons are futile. I myself have gone through worse. So maybe this time I need to just get back on the horse and put a post out there. I feel dead centred, and sidelined. I worry I will sound whiny and self absorbed. But, it is the truth, and one can never go wrong with that.

Time Held Me Green and Dying*: Reflections on the Deaths of our Sons.

20140716-093631-34591584.jpg

Beyond Grammacello

I have an on-line friend who lost her eighteen-year-old son sixteen months ago. I plan to write here, with her permission, a series of Dear Andrea letters, both because I hope it will be helpful to her, in some small way, early as she is in her hideous journey, and because I want to start finally talking about my own long journey through the sudden loss of my eighteen year old son, twenty two years ago.

Dear Andrea,
I know you lost your dear Adam as suddenly as I lost my Shawn. They were both eighteen when they died, gentle, funny, charismatic charmers , cat lovers, who were very musical. There is much weird synchrony in all of this. When you were painting me the three beautiful pictures I have in my living room, five years ago, you said you had a strange sensation, as if Shawn were himself standing…

View original post 573 more words

Time Held Me Green and Dying*: Reflections on the Deaths of our Sons.

I have an on-line friend who lost her eighteen-year-old son sixteen months ago. I plan to write here, with her permission, a series of Dear Andrea letters, both because I hope it will be helpful to her, in some small way, early as she is in her hideous journey, and because I want to start finally talking about my own long journey through the sudden loss of my eighteen year old son, twenty two years ago.

Dear Andrea,
I know you lost your dear Adam as suddenly as I lost my Shawn. They were both eighteen when they died, gentle, funny, charismatic charmers , cat lovers, who were very musical. There is much weird synchrony in all of this. When you were painting me the three beautiful pictures I have in my living room, five years ago, you said you had a strange sensation, as if Shawn were himself standing beside you, telling you how to portray the details of the house in which he grew up. You said, then, that you were not at all the kind of person who experiences this sort of thing but that somehow, Shawn himself seemed to be present, right at your elbow. That is why the house is shown at night, and in the autumn, with the leaves falling. Shawn died in 1992, Adam in 2013.
Shawn died from delusional suicide-he had become floridly schizophrenic at about age 16, and believed that in sacrificing himself he would “change the matrix of the universe” and thus achieve a higher level of being for the entire population of the world. Adam, with no warning, died almost instantly from an undiagnosed heart condition. He had been “perfectly healthy”.

Two beautiful boys on the very cusp of adulthood, gone in a breath. It is starkly true, what they say about losing a child. It is the worst thing that can happen to a parent.

You have spoken about comparing, in your head, the age he died with the age that other children have died, when you hear of any other deaths of children. I think it is very normal to do this; at least, I certainly have done it, too. You say it seems a particularly hard age -the one at which we lost our boys-and yes it is. Of course, every parent who loses their child probably thinks this, and in truth, we all are correct. There is no such thing as a “better” age to lose your child. Nevertheless, I have come to think that eighteen is, perhaps, ‘not quite as bad’ an age to lose a son, in a tiny way. At eighteen, your son is almost not a child any more. Your time as a hands on Mom is over, really. We got to raise our boys, Andrea. We saw them all the way to the cusp of adulthood. We did not miss the joys and trials of any of those formative years. So, in a way, we are lucky. We had that! Then there is the suddenness factor. Neither of us had any warning. This was terrible, but would an long illness, waiting for an inevitable end point, have been any less terrible? I don’t know. In truth, any way at all is unspeakably dreadful.

Here we are in a sort of club that no one chooses to join-that we all would give anything to resign from. The “lifetime membership” part is the truly unbearable part, at first. Twenty-two years in, I have a bit more perspective than you do. At really bad moments, please remember that you will grow and change and that it will not be as bad ‘in this way’ forever. Not that it will not be ‘this bad’ because in a way it will. But you will change and this will help, I promise you.
This letter is short today, as I am in the midst of a huge, two week, buzzing, busy, crazy visit from my daughter and two grand children from out west. This thought is something for you to hold on to-there will be crazy/busy, happy/stressful family times full of joy, tears (the regular, kid kind!) and everything else that is normal life, in your future too. This I also promise you!
Many hugs to you Andrea,
I will write again soon,
Jo-Anne

*Dylan Thomas, from Fern Hill20140716-073120-27080393.jpg

Pack Matters: Good Dogs! (#2 in a series)

See the little line in the title, through the “s”, above? It is there on purpose. Maggie is a big girl, at 100 pounds. She gave John a whipping the other night. She was only slightly abashed about it. There was an angry ten inch welt from his shoulder down the right side of his chest, where the chain collar, as it snapped, flew back and flayed him. Now he has a multi-coloured bruise the size of a lunch plate. The reason we even keep her miserable flea bitten carcass around the place given this sort of thing, is that, mid lunge, she thought better of it and guiltily, (or so it appeared) changed her mind. Billy, meanwhile, also a big dog, at 88 pounds, who spent several neglected years half starved on a farm fending largely for himself, (when dumped at the shelter he weighed a skeletal 57 pounds), stood placidly by, in his buckled cloth collar. He waited patiently as John sorted himself and Maggie out, then heeled politely home with them. It did not occur to him to do otherwise.

Maggie, on the Pack’s regular pre-bed walk around the block, was after a rabbit. Our modest 1960’s house has a nice size lot and backs on to a medium-sized, bucolic city park. One end of the park is open grass, with swings, and a climbing structure with a slide (a basic kids’ playground), and a baseball diamond. The other end which is “our” end has a grassed area scattered with quite a lot of very tall, old trees and with a densely treed little copse in the middle. We are in an quiet, older subdivision in a very urban area, 2.3 km from the QEW, which is the “busiest highway in Canada” according to Google, which I just consulted. How we ended up in this particular neighbourhood in this particular town is a story for another post.

You would not expect to find much in the way of wildlife here, but you would be wrong. There are bird species by the dozen. A pair of red-tail hawks nests in the oak tree just outside our backyard gate into the park. There is an entire neighbourhood of skunk families on our block, one in each of the culverts running under every driveway to control rain runoff. At any given moment, should you glance out the window, there are at least five or six squirrels racing around. And the rabbits-well, we all know about the profligate mating habits of rabbits. Rabbits are everywhere. Mighty Fang and I barely notice the bunny or two grazing on our front lawn nearly every evening. But, the big dogs do! And Billy, well, let us say that he has demonstrated to us firsthand how he must have kept from starving in his old life. Three separate times, in fact, and right in our own backyard, too…

So it is all the more remarkable that he does not take off after wildlife if he is on lead. Which dog thinks, “Oh, this is a civilized walk, not a hunting free for all”? The coddled Maggie who has nearly four years of daily training under her belt, or formerly neglected Billy , who, a scant year ago, had never lived in a house, did not respond to his own name, and was not socialized well to either dogs or people?

Last night Billy completed a Whistle Recall course in dog school! He has a fancy certificate, too, and had there been an award for most congenial dog, Billy would have won it, hands down. I leave you with a thrilling and suspenseful video, part of his graduation test. Mighty Fang is blowing the whistle and is lying hidden in the long grass. Be sure to watch until the end!

Thanks for reading!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2Q4VmcijyA&feature=youtu.be