We don’t die. It’s a little bit like dropping off your rental car at the airport and then flying.
I wake up at my normal time today, Memorial Day. It’s just a few minutes after sunrise. My first thought this morning, like every morning is Shayna. I don’t know how long this will go on. Will it ever not be the first thing on my mind? Do I want it to not be? I am forever changed by Shayna’s life and passing. I wouldn’t have that any other way. I just want to make the best of what she has taught me and left me so that when I see her again and she tells me she was watching I can make her proud. I think of her looking over my shoulder and encouraging me in her, oh so critical, way. The girl had a sharp tongue that could cut to the quick. I miss it so much.
Today is the day we honor the war dead. We are debating on my Facebook page whether or not it was acceptable for the President to visit Japan and speak of the Japanese (and Americans) who died in WWII and particularly at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some say he shouldn’t have done it on Memorial Day weekend. Some say he shouldn’t have done it at all, to honor their dead is to somehow dishonor our dead. I have room for both. Today, we honor those who have died in service of our country, but there are 364 other days of the year. Every day I multitask between honoring and remembering Shayna and dealing with other problems of the world. So many times now people tell me about their trivial problems or problems with their teenagers and I just so want to say “You think that’s a problem? That’s not a problem. A problem is when she is no longer with you. No graduation coming up. No career to consider.” But I can’t do that. I have to remember their problems are very real to them. I just tell them, as gently as I can, it’ll all work out and try to focus on the big picture. As long as they’re healthy and happy, that’s all that is really important.
Today after I get back from my walk I’m looking at the Facebook page for Helping Parents Heal. It’s rapidly approaching 7,000 members. So much pain. So much sorrow. I try to help out where I can. Today someone has posted about how she often doesn’t feel like going on without her child. She has lost her motivation to live. The responses are immediate and compassionate. She is embraced by virtual hugs and words of reassurance that she can make it and has to for the others around her. I see this every single day now. My world is filled with people who have suffered what seems like the ultimate loss. Most days I’m OK with it. I can take it pretty well. It seems like I have a limit though as to how much sorrow can build up in my heart before it has to burst forth in a stream of tears. I never know when it’s coming and there’s no gauge on the tank for me to read. The tears just come as I cry for her, I cry for me and I cry for everyone on that thread feeling the way we do. This world is a foreign place to us now. We are visitors here passing through on our way back home. If we’ve forgotten our missions, we have been given a not so gentle reminder. We’re tired and we just want to go home, but first things first. Every day I wake up and even though I’m exhausted, I think of Shayna and what I need to do today.
It’s Memorial Day weekend and it’s graduation weekend for several local high schools. We have been invited to three parties today. The first is from 3-6, the second from 4-until and the third from 5-until. Kayla attends the first and third with us. The first is a graduation party, the last a Memorial Day party. Tywana and I go to the second, just the two of us.
Going to three parties in one day is a tricky proposition. You have to figure out how much to eat at each party, how much to drink. Fortunately, Tywana and I have a lot of experience in this department. And, the first party has no alcohol, so this is easy. We have a couple of chicken tenders there and Tywana samples the macaroni bar. The second party has a Mexican bar with fix-your-own Chipotle styles meat, rice and fixins. We are there from about 6 until 8, so I figure this will be the place where I have dinner. We have a couple of drinks while we’re there, then we make our way to the third party where I intend to only have a drink or two then call it a night.
We knew we’d be late to this party. So, we volunteered to bring dessert rather than a side dish. When we arrive at around 8, everyone has eaten since the party started at 5. We take our dessert to where the party has moved to the deck and offer it up. Our host has greeted us as we walked through the front door and offered us drinks. They had served steak, ribs and chicken for the main course. I’m stuffed. It sounds delicious, but I had to choose to eat somewhere and I had a huge bowl of Mexican food at the last party. Then she tells me that she has held a steak back for me because everyone knows I like my steaks rare. She has never prepared a rare steak before, but she’s going to prepare this one, just for me. I’m honored. I can’t refuse. So, she prepares the steak and brings it to me apologizing in advance because it can’t be done just right. It’s actually perfect! It’s not difficult to cook a steak for me. Just get it brown on both sides. That’s it.
When I get there, there is a bottle of red wine already open. I’ll drink wine. I notice some people have wine glasses, but I’m not going to bother anyone asking for a wine glass. I’ll just drink out of this clear plastic cup. The wine tastes just as good. Our host notices and offers me a wine glass. “No thanks. This is good enough.”
Being around all of these high school kids is still really tough. Shayna, Kayla and the kids from the first party used to go boating together. I remember when the the girl graduating was 7 or 8 years old splashing in the lake with our girls. The second party has kids Shayna played basketball with. They’re looking at their own graduation parties in a couple of years. I’m sad because I know I’ve planned my last graduation party and people are just going on and on about planning the upcoming graduation parties for the younger siblings. At the third party I get into a deep conversation with a guy I just met. His son is 17 and looking at colleges. He’s a year older than Shayna would be. This father is in touch with his feelings enough to know that time is getting short. It won’t be long before his best buddy of 17 years will be going off to college. He tells me stories of going to his son’s football practices and how he enjoys spending time with him. I tell him I’ve already walked down that road with Kayla. I don’t tell him about Shayna. I never know when or how to bring that up. I just tell him to enjoy the next year to cherish every moment.
We sit down some good friends of ours we have known for a decade or so. Their girls are around the same ages as Kayla Shayna. They’re concerned about the paths their girls are taking, like all involved parents are, and they’re trying to figure out how to steer them in the direction they want them to go. I remind them that our kids’ lives are not ours to lead. As much as we want the best for them, they have to make their own decisions. And, often the decisions we think are “wrong” are the best ones for them in the long run. I offer them my newfound perspective that whatever is is what was meant to be and that if we can learn to trust that, life is so much easier.
Party days like this are rough. So much to navigate. People look at Tywana and me differently now. They look into our eyes to see how we are doing. Being around kids Shayna’s age still hurts. Knowing when to talk about her with strangers I’m just meeting is still tricky. And I still think of her constantly as we’re packing up to go, just the three of us, thinking “Shayna should be here.” Everything now is exhausting, including partying.
Synchronicity in life is something I didn’t pay any attention to until I started looking for signs from Shayna. Now that I am more open to synchronicity, I am finding it more and more. I am reading a book about a guy who died and how his peers began looking for synchronistic occurrences and finding them abound. This has made me even more aware of not just signs from Shayna, but things that happen all the time that we just dismiss as coincidence.Here are two from just the last couple of days.
As we arrived back in Cincinnati from our trip, it was clear we weren’t going to get home until around dinner time. Tywana hadn’t filled up the car before we left so we noticed as we made the 45 minute trip to the airport a week prior that we were very low on gas. Being tired from the trip I just wanted to get home and unwind. We started the trip back home and Waze routed us the long way around I-275 from the airport due to rush hour traffic on I-75. This is out of our way, but we followed Waze. I was hoping to have enough gas to make it home and leave the hassle of stopping for gas until tomorrow when I was more refreshed. As we were driving, Tywana suggested Popeye’s chicken for dinner. This meant a stop on the way home. Not too bad.There is. Popeye’s a few minutes from the house. But, as we were approaching the Colerain Avenue exit on 275, the “Refill” light came on the dashboard. I don’t like to drive far with the light on, but I really didn’t want to make two stops on the way home. I pulled off on the next exit which was a few miles down the road. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to stop twice. As I was making my way to the Shell station, I noticed that this particular Shell station had a fast food restaurant attached to it. The restaurant? Popeye’s. We made one stop, got gas and chicken. This is not a route we would normally take and we had never been to this gas station or this Popeye’s. We didn’t even know it was there.
Yesterday, Tywana and I were talking about killing the weeds around the mailbox. I suggested she spray with Roundup instead of trying to pluck them out. Then I suggested maybe making up the natural weed killer we first tried last summer. It’s a mixture of Epson salts, dishwashing liquid, vinegar and water. I couldn’t remember the exact recipe. This morning, as we were sitting in church each looking through our bulletins at the exact same moment we spotted it, the recipe for the weed killer was printed in the church bulletin.
These are small things. They could be coincidence. What are the odds of either event occurring? I don’t have any idea how to calculate it. But, noticing them does make me wonder. Life appears to be so random, but just how random is it actually? I’m starting to believe not nearly as random as we think.
Something that I have noticed since being involved in so many grief groups and listening to the stories of grieving parents in various interviews and reading their stories in books is a profound absence of fathers. This is what is known as anecdotal evidence. This is only my experience. It is statistically insignificant, but it seems grieving mothers are out there expressing themselves a lot more. There are notable exceptions. I happen to know two fathers who have given tremendously to keep the legacy of their children alive and to help others. Each has written two books. I am grateful to have the opportunity to learn from them. But, when I go to the groups for grieving parents I so often hear about a mother’s pain and how there is nothing like it.
Not having given birth, I cannot speak to a mother’s pain. I’m sure it has its nuances that make it different from a father’s pain. But, a parent is a parent. Mother or father, we see ourselves in our children. We want better for them than we have for ourselves. We would gladly give up anything to see them happy up to and including our lives. A mother may have a mama grizzly instinct. But, a father is the protector of the whole family, including the mother. When we lose one, it’s a failure that threatens our very identity just as much as losing threatens a mother’s. We struggle just as much to find a reason to keep living when our primary purpose in life has been taken from us.
Why do men suffer in silence? That’s a purely rhetorical question. I have no answer. Maybe it’s the American way? I have a friend who has chronic pain and has for decades. He tells me people sometimes try to silence him about it. We seem to admire those who suffer quietly, who don’t make the rest of us uncomfortable with the inconvenient truth that pain will come to all of us. We’d rather believe that the fairy tale we are living in will never come to an end. So, we tell men to suffer in silence is to be a real man. To “move on” is the goal. Don’t wallow in your feelings. Just stuff them in and keep on stepping.
I told my friend we need people like him who do not let us forget. People who speak out let others who are suffering silently know they are not alone. Them speaking out isn’t self pity or just self serving. We are not designed to make it through this life alone. While we cannot remove each others’ burdens, we can make them a little lighter, but we can only do that by speaking up about what we are going through.
In a couple of months, Tywana and I will launch a group for grieving parents. I expect we will get more women than men. I guess some people would worry about appearing weak speaking the way I do, letting people know just how much this hurts and sharing my struggle to get through it. Whatevs. I don’t care about looking weak. My hope is one day someone reads this and says “Wow. That’s how I feel. I thought I was the only one. If he can make it. So can I.” Then the display of weakness will have been worth it.
Today I attend the wake of a friend’s stepfather. He died suddenly and unexpectedly in just a couple of days. He was the one who was the caregiver taking care of her ailing mother. No one expected him to be the one to be gone today, but here it is. When we think we have life figured out, when we think we know what’s around the next bend we call tomorrow, life has a way of saying “Uh, you don’t know me that well.” Also today a friend is in the hospital with a sudden and severe case of pancreatitis that has become not only extremely painful, but could be life threatening. Compounding that they have discovered an issue with her heart which has slowed it to 30 beats per minute. So, before they can perform the necessary procedure on her pancreas, they will have to put in a pacemaker. I guess this has been on my mind a lot because last night I dreamt I was the one having the surgeries.
These bodies. They are miraculous. So fine tuned. So intricate. Each cell is alive. Each cell is a miracle in and of itself. Our bodies fight outside invaders. They turn random food into energy and into new cells to replace the ones that have worn out. Our hearts beat billions of times from before we are born to the time we die. But, these bodies are frail. They turn on themselves. If the heart decides to stop, the whole thing shuts down. We can go days without water, weeks without food, but only moments without air. I heard the analogy that our bodies are like gloves for our souls. If you stuck your hand into a blast furnace, it wouldn’t last even seconds, but put on a thermal glove and it would last for a little while. Our souls are here for as long as the glove lasts. I think a little better analogy is they are like spacesuits. They allow us to experience this foreign environment. We can last here as long as the suit functions properly, but as soon as the suit is breached, we are no longer able to function here.
The frailty of the body is both a blessing and a curse. The slightest misstep can cause damage that renders the body inoperable. The systems are finely balanced, if they are off just a bit, life cannot be sustained. We never know from moment to moment if they will hold up. But if the body was more robust, we’d be marooned in this foreign environment forever unable to return home where we can function normally without the burden of this clumsy spacesuit. It’s important to maintain it so we can have the best exploration possible, but don’t confuse the spacesuit with the astronaut. When we are done with the suit, we take it off and leave it behind.
In the song “Once I Was 7 Years Old” Lukas Graham goes from reflecting on the ages of 7, 11 and 20 in his past to contemplating 30 and 60 in his not too distant future. As a man in his 20s maybe he doesn’t realize just how well this four minute song so succinctly captures the passage and acceleration of time as the decades roll on. You’re 7, then 11, then 20, then 30 and the next thing you know you’re 60. Thank merciful God the past year has flown by. Shayna passed exactly 11 months and 3 days ago. Every single day passed is a blessing because it’s one day closer to the end of the journey.
Yesterday was my birthday. Tywana and the girls always want me to do something exciting for my birthday. What they don’t understand is it’s a good day no matter how it’s spent. Yesterday the first thing on the calendar was a meeting with the pastor of the church we are attending. Unity of Garden Park has agreed to host our Helping Parents Heal chapter. This is huge. Not only do we have an official place to meet, the church will promote us in the bulletin, etc. With their help, we hope to have a viable group. We will start meeting in August.
Tywana gave me a gift of a reiki healing session and an acupressure massage. Nice. I’m looking forward to that.
After that, I had a demo of a software we are considering. That took about an hour. I took a short stroll and had a cigar and a short bourbon before Tywana chauffeured me to a show at the new comedy club where we had dinner along with the show. Came back home to watch the basketball game. Because Kayla had training for her new job, she didn’t get home until around 9:30. She wanted me to celebrate my birthday, so she brought me a surprise banana split. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was completely sruffed from a giant club sandwich, French fries and bread pudding ordered at Tywana’s insistence. Tywana wanted me to have bread pudding because it was my birthday. I don’t eat a lot of sweets. But, when your baby brings you a birthday surprise banana split, you shut up and eat it.
Overall, it was a good birthday. They all are. Today, I am one more day closer to 56. And soon I’ll be 60 years old.
55 years old. Wow. There was a time when that would have sounded ancient to me. 40 is a distant memory now. That was the most difficult birthday, when I officially realized I was “old”. I went through major changes at 40. 50 wasn’t tough at all. I just wanted to be around long enough to see the girls grow up- at least see them graduate college. Now, it’s not about longevity. I’m well past the halfway point. I just want to finish strong.
I don’t want to get old. Maybe it’s selfish. Maybe it’s vain. And I’m always on Kayla about reveling in her youth because youth doesn’t last. At 55 I’m still in good health. I walk five miles a day. Anything I could ever do I can still do. I enjoy that. Hanging around for the sake of hanging around does not appeal to me. This life can be good, but this life is hard. I know that what awaits me is better. As I celebrate the milestones, and this is a pretty big one, I celebrate being closer to have accomplished what I came here to accomplish. So many of us get stuck here, get attached and we want to just keep on running the race and hope to never cross the finish line. Not me. My eyes are set on the prize.
Today we are meeting with Reverend Kathy from the Unity church we attend. We are hoping to use the church for our Helping Parents Heal meetings. Then I have a demo of a software we are considering for the business. The local comedy club had free tickets available for tonight. So, Tywana and I will celebrate my birthday there. Kayla has training for her new job.
At 55 I am now 40 years older than Shayna was when she passed. This is something I never imagined and wouldn’t wish on anyone. Even though I know Shayna is better off than I am, there is a part of me that wishes she were here with Tywana and Kayla instead of me. I’d do anything to give that to them, but I guess that’s not the way it was supposed to be this time around. Every birthday from here on in will be bittersweet as it marks another year removed from the last time I saw Shayna, but it’s another year closer to seeing her again.
To overcome any and all fear is simple. Not easy, but simple. All that is necessary is a trust that whatever happens was meant to happen and is for the ultimate good. What sometimes seems bad is actually better in the long term. What is bad is only a temporary stop on the way to ultimate good.
Besides, worrying about the state of the world won’t change what happens tomorrow. It just means you won’t enjoy today.