We’re Back. I’ve missed you

Hi, friends.

I feel the need to make an apology, though I’m not sure if it’s to you or to myself. These last few months have been a whirlwind – I started a new job and left some people I consider family behind, Cassy and I went through the buy/sell process AT THE SAME TIME (more to come on that), and I’ve had some pretty interesting shifts in my fatherhood perspective. All that to say, I’ve taken some time away and haven’t been spending as much time here as I typically would have. I’ve found ways to keep Jonah and Luke with me as I go through some of these changes which has been one of the biggest developments thus far, but this is my processing space – where I download all of the wonderful and horrible things that go through a parent’s mind in a real, (hopefully) relate-able way.

So here I am, letting you know that I’m okay. Jonah and Luke still visit with me when I least expect it and sometimes when I do, and I’m making progress in one way or another. We’re unpacking here at the house, but I’ll do my best to unpack a few things here too – out loud, for my boys. I hope you come along with me

#TeamJonah

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What should you do?

I was talking with a friend recently who didn’t know about Jonah. He didn’t know our struggle with Luke, he didn’t hear about what it was like to fight for a chance at life for Jonah, and he didn’t know who I was before I became an almost father. We talked about several things across business and life, but what struck me was a question I hadn’t heard before because it was so honest and forward. I listen often for messages from our boys and try to find paths to walk that could beat down a trail for those who come after me, but I hadn’t actually stopped at the place this took me before.

Eventually we hopped onto the topic of writing as a place to process my grief but also as a way to reconnect with parts of myself that I’d lost over the years. I explained that I tried to avoid some of the more common topics in grief writing because no matter how necessary they are, all of us have stories about things that are better left unsaid. Whether I agree or not with the fact that we are still young and can have more children, that is not helpful when I’m fighting to hold onto the two I can’t see let alone when it drives my anxiety at the thought of losing more. There are a million examples because they are repeated over and over to all of us who have become a part of this kind of parenthood. So when we were discussing how often we hear these things and how little they help, he asked a question that brought me to a new place.

What should you do then? 

Well, a few things, but it’s such a simple question that I never think to talk about it. For one, I’ll never forget my children so know that you don’t ever have to avoid bringing them up. In the same way, no one asks about a child they don’t know lived (or died) so I don’t often get the chance to talk about them in a way other parents do. There’s no soccer or baseball practices to navigate in the evenings or homework to fail at explaining, so give me the chance to talk about them. Every place we go we see children who could have been Jonah and Luke, running and playing and learning things about themselves. Every single child could have been either of my babies, and there are times where it breaks me down – so sit with me in it. I don’t need to hear about God’s plan in that moment, I need to feel like I’m not falling further into the abyss and knowing you’re there with me will give me a type of community that helps keep me off the edge.

It’s going to be uncomfortable and emotional, no question. You’re going to wonder if you should hug or leave us. You’re going to want to say something to break the mood, but we don’t need to hear any of the platitudes of the situation that break awkward silences but won’t ultimately make progress for either of us. We need to be surrounded by real people who can tell that we’re breaking and want to do what they can to hold us together. We’re going to be fighting to hold onto whatever sense of normalcy we have left whenever we venture back into the world of parenthood again and we don’t know what life holds for us. Every plan we’ve put into place has fallen apart and every precaution we took the second time put us in the position to experience everything we could, but we will always hurt for two lives cut short and two versions of parenthood we could have had. So be present with us – that’s the only thing we can ask for.

To Luke

Sixteen Weeks. This isn’t supposed to happen.

I remember how absolutely ecstatic we were to be your parents. All of the progress boards, craving memories, and pregnancy notes are still so fresh, even two and a half years later. We held it as close to the vest as we could for as long as we could, waiting for Christmas to come before sharing with family and taking my most favorite Christmas picture, heartbreaking as it is now.

We spent so much time figuring out how we wanted to tell your grandparents, from the old Bun-in-the-oven for Nana to a jar of Prego for Grandpa and Grammy Brown. complete with due date. We took that picture in front of the fireplace – our favorite place in the house – just to show everyone how incredibly happy we were to get to join the fraternity of parents. I chewed on whether or not to tell Dee about you since we hadn’t told anyone else yet, but she passed before I had made the decision… she would have been so happy to hear about you, even if she wouldn’t have been here to see you.

So many things were coming towards us now – replacing the window in and painting the nursery, finding enough of the correct type of chocolate for your momma (who never eats chocolate), making the inevitable cloth vs plastic diaper decision. But before we could get there, you left us. I remember the room so clearly, hearing from doctors we hadn’t seen before and feeling so absolutely angry that this could happen to us.

Sixteen weeks. This isn’t supposed to happen.

All we wanted was for you to stay with us, to grow and play and learn and do all of the things little boys are supposed to do, and every day it feels like you were stolen from us. Everyone says things like you were too precious to stay or it’s all part of the plan, but the only thing that mattered was that you weren’t here with us any more; we weren’t going to get to do the things we had been dreaming of. Our first baby, now only a dream we once had and are forever chasing after. We found out that we had lost you on February 6th, which is the coming of baby Jesus in the book of Luke (2:6)… I had to name you. I had to give you a reality that wasn’t just losing you. Because you belong to me, still.

There are times I feel guilty for talking about your brother so much more than I do about you. It’s so different knowing his diagnosis ahead of time, hearing about the likelihood that we would meet him, fighting for care let alone for a life with him. We met him, got to see his face and feel his hands and feet. We knew that he had my hair, and that he had his momma’s heart by how much he loved when she would lay down to cuddle with him. It’s hard to come back to these days, when my most cherished of dreams was extinguished before it become reality.

If I’m being fully honest – as this space is being dedicated to being – losing you taught us more about parenting than anything else could have short of having you here with us. Those sixteen weeks were the greatest of my life, and they taught us to be absolutely present with Jonah. We recorded everything we could, wrote everything down to preserve the experience, and kept every moment as precious as it deserved to be because we knew that it could be taken from us at any moment. Your legacy, sweet Luke, carried on in teaching us about how truly significant and fragile this life is. You keep my feet on the ground when I get caught up in changing winds, and you keep my heart soft. As these last few years have come through, you were the only thing that could have kept it from hardening under the pressure.

On this July 24th – the second anniversary of your due date – I want to tell you that you are the source of my greatest sense of self. You are my greatest achievement, my first dream come true, and my very first angel. My sweet baby Luke, I’m sorry we couldn’t do more to bring you home. You were our first love, and you will always be my baby.

Sixteen Weeks. This wasn’t supposed to happen… but thank God we had them with you. We love you

The Loneliest Day of the Year

Being an almost parent requires keeping your guard up. Everywhere you look is a trigger of some sort, a reminder of the things you wish for more than anything. If it isn’t some family – or every family – when you go out, it’s the commercials and billboards. I walk through my house without feeling like something is missing. I’ve been on an edge for a few weeks now after struggling to keep my guard up through Father’s Day. I call it the Father’s Day Hangover, and it’s been real life for a few years now. I was still close enough to Jonah’s passing last year that my gratitude and memories of our six hours were still fresh, even though his hole in my life was so large. This year, I’m learning of the evolution of grief.

I’ve long felt that the loneliest day for me would be Father’s Day. The celebration of a thing I feel so close to; a redefinition of success as I matured put under a spotlight. Even while I work my way out of this pit of grief, I’m learning every day that the things you expect rarely come in the way you anticipate. We had some things come up leading into that weekend that didn’t allow for me to reflect on and process what I was feeling. Making it through the weekend without breaking felt comforting in some way… maybe I thought I found a secret in dealing with it. Either way, I got comfortable in how I go about my days now. I let my guard down.

Becoming the man I want to be includes finding ways to identify myself as a dad to my boys and working to be the husband my wife deserves. The struggle is this, however – working through this kind of grief is trudging through the mud, knee deep in the memories you don’t get to make. It’s trying to talk to them through your heart and prayer because you can’t talk through the tears. It’s watching the world interact in joy and feeling like you only get to watch through a window, waiting for someone to open the door to let you out… and it never comes. The loneliest day comes when I let my guard down enough to get swallowed in the darkness. Most days I remember recognize a trigger coming and can posture for it – Shoulders back, steady mind, preparing to weather the storm. When I don’t, it takes weeks to find my way back.

I’m in the middle of a storm right now and I feel like I’m fighting with one hand tied behind my back. I have to remember that when I’m in this space, the locks are in the inside of the door. I locked it the moment I let Jonah’s loss creep in, and the very second I unlock it his life will fill my heart and brighten my world.

It’s never one step backwards when you’ve lost a child, it’s three or four. But remembering the time we had with him, preparing the nursery and finding whales in unexpected places brings me to a place I never could have found on my own. I just miss him, and that’s ok. He misses me too.

We’re Back

I’ve always been more of an introspective person. More introverted than extroverted when it comes to processing things and how I reflect on my day, more tucked into myself when I’m working through something emotionally difficult. It hit me a while back – about the time I wrote Burning it Down – that I keep waiting to feel ‘like myself’ again. I did everything I could to be present in the moment, feeling all of the feels and processing as best as I could when the waves roll in, but I just didn’t feel like I could get anywhere. I realized that the version of myself I was waiting to return never would, because my life had changed in ways that couldn’t be reversed – I had evolved. I had lived both lifetimes of my children, added ‘dad’ to my qualifications, and made it to hell and back. Twice.

Burning it Down was less about frustration of the world around me and more about the realization that I needed to tear down all of the walls that I used to define myself. Moving forward was less about getting back to feeling like myself and more about learning who I am now; more about figuring out who the best version of myself could be after the things I’ve been through. It took five months – from my first birthday after Jonah to just after his first birthday – to realize that I didn’t really know where I was. When the only memories you have of what has become a defining moment lasted a few hours, you relive it repeatedly. You’re afraid that you’ll forget if you don’t. You run through all of the things you maybe could have done differently, and you do it a million times. You feel responsible and guilty. You wake up every day hoping it hadn’t happened and sink a little further when it hits you. The weight is excruciating, and it’s hard to trust that you’ll have the strength to move forward without leaving them behind. So I stepped back.

I wanted to see who I was now, and where I was in the process. I wanted to come to terms with where my life has taken me, and put some real soul searching back into my life. I’ve spent the last fourteen months trying to focus on living the lessons I would have taught my children that I wasn’t paying attention to my own. In short, I stopped writing and started listening. I’ve learned that my empathetic heart is very much still there, it just hurts a little sooner. I’ve learned that there are some people and situations that I have significantly less patience with than I used to, and I’m not necessarily upset about it. I stopped searching for glimpses of them every day and found that they still came – they were one glowing field in a mountain of shadows or one hummingbird floating through. They are with me on bike rides and runs, on hikes and road trips, and on our little family adventures.

But more important than any of that, I’ve learned that I can trust myself to feel some freedom from the shackles of these losses because while my heart is still in tatters, there are four little hands holding it together. I can move forward because my family is the reason I keep going, and my children are always with me. The more I looked at who I am now and who I could be, I realize that I want to be more success story than work in progress. I want to show that parents of children that cannot be seen are among the strongest out there because we see their faces all around us and keep going. Every swing set, every tee-ball practice, every bike ride I think about sharing with them, and I keep walking. I look around me and feel their love, and I’m proud to be their dad. My lost fatherhood is something I’ll always wish was different, but it’s only half true. Before any of that, I’m a proud father first.

If you’re out there reading this and wishing you could just make it stop, don’t. Your heart doesn’t have to be healed for their hands to do good work, and your mind doesn’t have to be clear to know your strength. If you can get to a place where you can test it, give yourself a chance to trust that you can do this. You aren’t leaving them behind but taking them with you. As mommy, and as daddy.

“In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and You listened to my cry.” – Jonah 2:2

#TeamJonah

True Confession #5: Out of the Darkness

I remember the call like it was yesterday. It’s amazing the details that stand out in your brain that are imprinted on your heart forever. My dad was very sick. We had been told for weeks it would be any day now. I was a new mom. I was going to Grad school, working two jobs and had an 8 month old baby. I didn’t have any other choice than continue to do life, even though my life was falling apart around me. 14 Months prior, my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 Glioblastoma. This is an extremely rare but very aggressive from of brain cancer. There is currently no cure and the longest person that has lived with this disease only lived 5 years. The diagnosis was very grim. He immediately went into surgery to remove what they could.

That was the day we lost my dad.

See, brain surgery does something to a person. He came out fine. Recovered well from the surgery but the parts that made my dad, my dad were gone. He was a shell of a person left to struggle through this disease. Then came the chemo and radiation. As he lost his hair and about 60lbs he still continued to fight for the time that he had left. He so wanted to meet his first grandbaby. They decided to do another surgery at about the 8 month mark to give us some more time. He recovered well from this surgery also but a little bit more of who he was got lost. We knew that this was the last stop before it all went downhill. It’s not that we weren’t hopeful we just knew the odds of this disease. He continued to decline throughout the months.

We experienced our last Christmas together, but to be honest our last Christmas with my dad was the Christmas before. He got to see his grandson be born. My son got to see who his Opa was. Around the 13 month mark he was put on hospice. We were blessed enough for him to do Hospice in my parents’ house, we got to spend so much time connecting as a family and loving on my dad. It was beautiful, and it was heartbreaking. I do not wish on anyone the pain of watching your parent waste away until there is nothing left. My husband and I were having dinner at our friend’s house. We had chili. I remember what the dishes looked like. My mom called and said it was time; that his breathing has slowed. See I lived an hour from my parents so we rushed to get stuff together and left. I knew that it might be possible that we would be spending the night so we went and bought diapers and formula; I was still breast feeding at the time but because of the stress of the situation my production had begun to slow. We went to my parents’ house and got to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening saying goodbye. At this point my dad was in a coma and not coherent but it was such a special time. We all sat around and told stories of who he was and how he was always the first to make a joke.

I went to sleep knowing that he would probably not be alive when I woke up.

I woke up straight out of sleep at 4 in the morning, my mom called my phone from downstairs and told me that he was gone. She had heard his last breath. You think that it’s weird seeing a dead person. It’s not. We as a family got to sit with my dad’s body for 7 hours. Loving on him. Loving on each other and relishing in the time that we had left. Some would say that sounds morbid but I look back and it was beautiful. So beautiful. People came and said their goodbyes and wrote messages on the blanket he would be cremated in. When it was time for the Coroner to come get the body that was the hardest part. We all had done well keeping it together but something about watching a body be wheeled away from you, knowing that you would never get to see them again broke us. I am the oldest of four and felt like it was my responsibility to keep it all together. My brothers were just teenagers at the time and I didn’t know how to help. I am thankful that my son was too young to know what was going on. My Grandma came and cooked breakfast for us. No one was hungry. My youngest brother who never shows emotion broke down and sobbed.

The hardest thing was knowing there was nothing I could do to take this pain from any of us.

Nothing.

Here we are, coming up on 5 years this week. My emotions still sway heavily from sadness, to feeling numb to being angry at all the things that cancer stole from our family. It eventually stole my mom’s health as well who passed 2 years ago. It stole part of the joy from my pregnancy, from my son’s birth. It stole from the milestones my children will hit that their grandparents will never get to see. My brothers’ marriages. My college graduation. So many things.

But I am also able to see the immense blessings from this experience.

My perspective giving me grace to others. My experience showing me how to love on others in this situation and overall the year that we got to spend as a family coming closer to each other. In all of that; there is immense beauty in the ashes. We lost him too young. He was only 52”

____________________________________________________

I saw a movie recently that posed the question – how do you stop a moment in time? I had only one thought – lose someone. Lose a grandparent or other family member. Lose a child. Lose a friend. Lose a person who means more to your heart than you could ever tell them and you’ll find that one moment that brings you back to a place where you can see and feel everything. I’ve lost a parent to cancer also and while I remember how hard it was to see her being taken from us, the things I remember the most are the things that will keep her with me. She laughed so hard at herself that you couldn’t help but laugh with her. She was so open and welcoming to people and was the first to try to feed you if you came for a visit. The house was always ice cold but she had sweatshirts and blankets everywhere. We watched her go, but we saw her live first.

They always go too soon. Slow down and live a life you can say was done right

#TeamJonah

 

True Confession #4 Pt.2:Out of the Darkness

We discussed this confession already, but it’s so impactful that I needed to unpack something else. Just to jog the memory, here it is:

“I feel like no one really thinks about a loss for future their children. My parents lost a child when I was little, and knowing they lost them makes me feel guilty. I bet they would have been a better person, who may have done more than I ever could. When I am really sad, sometimes I ask God to switch places with the child, because surely he meant for me to die and not them. I want to be two wonderful people inside the same body so I can give my mother all of her children’s love. The thought makes me feel like what I want to become is unreachable. How can I ever meet those standards? I don’t hear anyone speak about it, so here it is. I hope I am not alone in the ‘It should have been me’ syndrome.”

If I can take a step back and call out something that strikes me, I want to point out something in this confession that is a perfect illustration of the power that grief and love have together. Take a look at some lines I pulled from the quote above.

“…and knowing they lost them makes me feel guilty.”

“…because surely he meant for me to die and not them.”

“I want to be two wonderful people inside the same body so I can give my mother all of her children’s love.”

“How can I ever meet those standards?”

Grief is real. Grief brain is a real thing, having a lasting impact on the way we think and view the world and guilt because it wasn’t us is as natural as crying that they’re gone in the first place. Taken in isolation these seem to be on the hopeless end of the spectrum, holding on so tightly to the absence of one who would have had their own special impact on the world. Understanding though that we grieve hard because we loved harder, these are all love statements. The desire to carry their spirit forward and building up all of the things we envision them to be. The need to fulfill the things a mother would want for her children. The frustration of trying and trying to be more; to DO more.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said a prayer in anger over the last two years, asking God why my children aren’t running and playing with me in their place. Asking why Nicholas reaches down from Heaven instead of a bunk bed when I was a kid. This is real life, and it’s ok to be in that place – just be careful not to view it as the end of your journey; we can be a part of their legacy, but we can’t shoulder it for them.

We have a hard time talking about loss – and all grief, really – for anything more than just a couple of days before we’re told it’s time to move on and it’s 20-freaking-17. I can’t imagine how isolated our parents must have felt thirty-plus years ago, having to fight through this without internet support and closed groups where they can say things they wouldn’t dare in public. Seriously, it hurts my heart to think that my own parents walked this journey without the very things that have brought me some sort of sanity. They were so strong and resilient, and how amazing they are now while dealing with it again in our losses astounds me. They’ve come to some sort of terms with the things that have happened in their life and chose to continue moving forward, which is how we’re here in the first place. That’s the kind of example I’ll fight to be for all of my life.

To moms and dads reading this while taking on the daily fight to keep sight of all of their children, we appreciate you. We love you for your struggle and your strength, for your example of never being too far, for loving with everything you have and not everything you have left. For being mom and dad to all of your children when you can only see and hear and touch so many. And for embodying the power that comes from a struggle as deep and raw as this.

I want to thank you again for this very special submission, giving a voice to a void that is often overlooked. We’ll be continuing our True Confessions series into April so lets set free the things you’ve been holding on to and heal some hearts together.