Thanksgiving is over. Kayla just had her 21st birthday, was here for a short visit and is back in Toledo on the home stretch of the first semester of her fourth year.  The sun is rising late and setting early, when we see it at all. These are the dark days I dread every year.

To add to this, these are the holidays, a mixed bag.  My favorite holiday has always been Thanksgiving. There’s no financial pressure. There’s no trying to pick the perfect gift.  It hasn’t been tainted with commercialism. It’s all about spending time with family.  What could be better than that? But, now we’re at the time of our lives when there are gaps at the table.  We pretty much know when family gathers in a large group, one or more of us won’t be here next year. We think it might be Aunt Lil who is over 90.  We don’t suspect it will be Richard, her 69 year old son.  We certainly never think it’ll be our 15 year old Shayna. But, each year, as we gather and give thanks for one more trip around the sun together, we hold that pain of those who are not with us anymore.

I’ve been trying to cultivate this “attitude of gratitude” they tell me is the key to life, the law of attraction, manifesting what I want in life. But, when I hear people say to be grateful for life, I struggle.  Being grateful when you’re going through hell doesn’t come easily or naturally. All the platitudes in the world don’t help with that. At Richard’s funeral a couple of weeks ago, the pastor said we should give thanks for God getting us up this morning, for our hearts beating, for drawing breath. OK… yeah. Well, what is the alternative? If you believe we are only our bodies; sure, we should be grateful that we’re not worm food for one more day. But, we’re not that. When we leave our bodies we’re more alive than we ever were here.  You know who’s grateful right now?  Richard is grateful.  He’s Home. Being grateful for another day of struggling on this planet is difficult. I need something more specific.

Kayla came home a few days before Thanksgiving. She brought her boyfriend, Gabe. I so look forward to Kayla coming home and to getting to spend time catching up with her. We text while she’s in school, but it’s not the same. Gabe came to spend her birthday with her and she went out with her friends the night of her birthday.  Thanksgiving night, my sister-in-law, her husband, and her three boys came to spend a couple of nights.  So, I really didn’t get to spend much quality time one-on-one with Kayla over the break.  Thanksgiving day we went to Columbus to spend time with my family.  It’s tough for me to be around them since Shayna passed.  My brother’s daughter is only a couple of months younger than Shayna.  They were like twins, always together at family outings, always up to some “nonsense” (as Kayla would say).  Seeing Briana without Shayna is tough.  I got through the day, taking a few breaks every once in a while to spend some time with Shayna and tell her that I missed her physical presence.

I can’t force gratitude and I can’t pretend I’m happy about everything in my life. It’s a struggle being here without Shayna.  The business is in a transitional phase that is taking a toll on my mental health.  This life is hard. But, I did find things to be genuinely grateful for.  Kayla is 21 and still enjoys spending time with Tywana and me. It’s not easy for her to be in this house without Shayna. But, she does it for us.  She had dinner with one of her childhood friends her last night here, but she came home early to spend time with Tywana and me, alone and we watched the movie we had wanted to watch.

I reflected on Tywana and Kayla and how they have changed since Shayna’s passing. My first thought was how much they have grown since then. Kayla has gotten stronger and more assertive. She’s enjoying life more with more of a carpe diem attitude.  She’s changed her major into some that is more in line with her passions.  Tywana has expanded her horizons, taken a whole new look at life. She’s meditating, practicing energy healing. She’s dedicated to helping other people. But, I realized this was wrong.  They haven’t changed since Shayna’s passing. What has happened is Shayna’s passing has presented an opportunity for them to reveal what was there all along. That strength, that passion, that drive was always there.  What has changed is the expression of it is more full.

I am grateful for the time I get to spend with them.  I am grateful for the abilities I have to overcome the challenges of the business. I am grateful for an amazing family to spend time with.  Our house was full for a couple of days. We love having that energy here, even if it’s only for a couple of days at a time now.

Thanksgiving 2017 is in the books.  Christmas is around the corner. Helping Parents Heal is full of parents who are struggling with a first or second holiday season with their children on the other side.  I am grateful for having made it through two and being in a position in this third season to help others make it through theirs.

Tonight is the awards night for the volleyball team. This would have been Shayna’s senior year.  Coach Kornau has not forgotten Shayna or us even for one minute even though she is the varsity coach and Shayna only played on the freshman team. She has brought us gifts, has invited us to the events, has created mementos for the girls to wear, and has come by the house several times to make sure we still feel like part of the Lakota West family.

Today, there is a mother on Facebook who says that she’s struggling with the fact that the leukemia that ended her son’s physical life has been cured in another kid. She feels great for that kid, but what about her?  Why didn’t her son get cured?  Many of us jump in and express the same emotions. Shayna’s peers’ parents are posting pictures of the girls all doing their senior year stuff. It hurts. A medium I know and I strike up a chat and he’s telling me what he is learning about exit points from a spirit he’s in communication with.  He also shares some really exciting news on what he’s learning about what we get to experience after we cross over, with our departed children. I explain to him that, from a higher perspective, all of this makes sense.  But, meanwhile, we have to live these lives in these meat suits and it’s not always easy to hold that higher perspective. I know Shayna didn’t miss a thing. I know Shayna is doing way more exciting and important stuff than completing her senior year of high school.  As a parent, it’s easy to fall into thinking our kids’ lives are about us.  “Why did this happen to me?” comes up over and over again.  It’s a struggle to remember it didn’t happen to me.  This was Shayna’s soul plan.  He tells me that Shayna says if I want to be a star, I have to act like a star. He also tells me that Shayna says I am her star. Two things he doesn’t know.  Our team that walks for Shayna in the Shamrock Shuffle each year is called Shayna’s Shining Stars. Also, tonight, Shayna’s “star” of a sort will be revealed.

Tonight, the volleyball team is giving out an award in Shayna’s name.  It’s also the public unveiling of the permanent memorial to Shayna, Lauren Hedes, and Victoria Stoltz, the three girls on the volleyball team who transitioned within a year and a half of each other. Each girl has had a lasting impact on the team and the coaches. I’m so proud of Shayna. She only started playing volleyball a few months before her freshman year. We told her she probably wouldn’t make the team. She did and ended up starting. She went out for a club team. We told her she probably wouldn’t make the regional team. She was invited to play on the national team and went to nationals the week before she passed.  To still be included in the team’s celebrations three years later is phenomenal.

Coach Kornau gave us a private unveiling of the memorial on Sunday morning.  I can’t go to the events at the high school. Even though Shayna never attended classes on main campus, only the freshman building, it’s too full of painful memories for me. The one year she did play volleyball, the awards ceremony was there. The academic awards ceremony, her freshman year, was there.  The memorial is beautiful and is located where the volleyball teams from now until the building is no longer there will walk by. Soon, I’m sure they’ll wonder who Shayna, Lauren, and Victoria are, but their names will be there.

Tywana and Victoria’s mother go to the awards ceremony together. I stay home, have a bourbon, and watch the last episode of Stranger Things. When Tywana gets home I find out that Sophia, one of Shayna’s buddies she played basketball with for several years, won Shayna’s award.  Shayna’s star continues to shine.

Tonight I’m on a mission.  I come running out of a building to a parking lot where I’m looking for my car.  I can’t remember where I’ve parked. I think my car is blue, but there are no blue cars in the lot.  I pull my keys out of my pocket and hit the button to make the lights flash.  Nothing. I can’t find my car. I’m stuck. I can’t remember how I got here or where I’m supposed to go. So, I decide to abort the mission.  I will myself awake. I’ve done this before when I find myself in a dream that is going nowhere. The  difference is this time I feel a new sensation.  As I am coming out of the dream instead of just popping awake in my bed, I feel myself dissolving in dream land- like I’m being teleported on Star Trek.

After a few minutes I fall back asleep and I’m on a mission with another agent. We’re checking out of the lot with our assigned vehicle.  As we’re in line to check out, getting last minute instructions, the instructor (Will Smith I think) says “Has anyone ever had an experience where you find yourself stuck?  You can’t remember where you are or why you’re there?”  I say “Yes. This just happened to me. What do I do about it?”.  He reaches inside of the car, puts his finger on my palm and says “Like this?”  Then, the thought hits me.  This has to be a dream. This would never happen in real life.  The dream starts to dissolve and I start waking up. This time I feel another sensation I’ve never felt.  I feel myself coming back in to my bedroom, floating and I lie down backwards into my body as my dream body and my physical body meld back together. Then, I’m awake in the bed again.

I fall asleep a third time. I’m trying to park in a parking garage and I’m confused by the system to get a ticket. I leave the car in a drop off area and walk in to try to figure out the machine which is unbelievably complex.  The attendant walks up to me and helps me out walking me through the three step process to get a ticket which is actually a huge sheet of paper that has the exact location where they have valet parked my car while I tried to figure out this machine. He jokingly tells me I have done absolutely everything wrong I could, including leaving my car in the wrong place which is why they had to move it since it was blocking traffic.

The idea of being lost in my dreams, unprepared, on some sort of mission and having no idea what is common. Driving impaired (unable to see clearly usually) is also common. Lucid dreams, where I realize I’m actually dreaming are fairly rare. But, when I have woken myself from a dream, I’ve never done it the two ways I did last night- one time dissolving and feeling myself leave the dream slowly. The other time climbing back into my body as It was laying there in my bed.  I hope it’s the beginning of more lucid dreams or maybe even astral travel.

Our longtime friend, Julie Sweeney Bogart, invited us to appear on her podcast. From the show notes: ”

Today’s guests have experienced one of life’s most harrowing events: losing a child. Brian and Tywana Smith are fellow homeschoolers and, more importantly, dear friends of Julie’s.

They came on the show to share their story and offer support in the hopes of encouraging others who live, as Tywana describes, with “one foot in the spiritual world with Shayna and one foot in the physical world.”

As I’m about to head out of the door for my morning walk, my phone rings. It’s my brother. I slept in today so it’s nearly 8:30. But, when I get a call from my brother at 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday I know this is not good news. I let it go to voicemail, finish lacing up my shoes and call him back as I take the first few steps into my walk. I might as well be out moving when I hear whatever it is he has to tell me.

I hear him say Mom called this morning.  My first thought is something has happened with my father. But, it’s not Dad.  It’s my cousin Richard.  Richard was taken to the hospital and left his body last night. This is surprising and sad, but not shocking.  Richard hasn’t been well.  Mom has been telling me how his appearance has changed over the recent weeks.  He’s barely been able to walk he’s been so tired. He’s been weak and lethargic. Richard is 13 years my senior, 69.  Since he was young Richard has struggled with mental issues, bipolar disorder I think.  He’s been in and out of mental hospitals for decades. He would swing from exuberant where he would spend money like water and talk a mile a minutes to times when he would barely talk at all. Mostly he was quiet and shy in groups of people which is nearly always when I saw him, at a family gathering. So, my impression of Richard is one where he barely spoke a word. I regret not getting to know him better. Even though we grew up in the same city and I was close with his younger sister who was closer to my age, when I would have sleepovers at their house I barely saw Richard. Richard was great with dogs. When I think of him, I think of the many dogs he owned over the years. I suspect he was more comfortable with them than with people.

Richard always lived with my Aunt Lil. When he was younger, I thought of it as her taking care of him. As he grew older, it was him being there for her. Her other kids got married, moved away, and had their own kids. But, Richard was dedicated to Aunt LIl.  As she aged into her 70s, 80s, and 90s and began having health challenges, Richard was the one that everyone counted on being there to take care of her.  Finally, in the last few months, everyone admitted that even Richard couldn’t handle it anymore and just a few weeks ago, Aunt Lil moved into assisted living. Shockingly, to me anyway, she likes it there and says if she had known how it would be she would have gone earlier. This, she says after years of resistance. My understanding however is Richard did not handle it well. I suspect her departure from their house gave him permission to end his struggles here.

This time of year is difficult for people who are bipolar. The waning light, I believe triggers their brain chemistry to be more off balance than normal.  As Aunt Lil has been doing well in her new surroundings, Richard was struggling.  The family, my mother, his brothers and sister, grew concerned and did all they could do, even convincing him to accept help that he would normally accept and even making a doctor’s appointment for him.  He was taken to the hospital just a few days before he passed, but he left on his own accord, refusing treatment. Nothing could be done.  No one could have done any more for him.  My belief is Richard was just done. Tired.  Ready to go Home.  With his mission of caring for Aunt Lil complete, I think he was ready to go.

As I continue my walk, I cry many tears for my family, for his surviving brothers and sister, Butch, Malcolm, and Michelle.  I cry for the pain I know this will cause Aunt Lil.  She has already had one child transition before her. But, I rejoiced for Richard.  As one who believes in soul planning, I admire someone like Richard who would come here and take on the challenges he took on. In spite of his illness he had a career as an educator.  He was always there for his mother.  My uncle, his father, passed many years ago. Richard stepped up when that happened. He was a good brother to his sisters and his brothers.

I don’t hear spirits talking to me, but as I walk, I get the impression that Richard is saying to me that he, after all of these years in this body, he is finally free of the fog that had clouded his brain. I imagine him as he stepped out of his body into his new life. I see him being greeted by Joan, his sister, one of the sweetest souls who has ever graced this Earth and I am filled with joy thinking of their reunion.  I imagine after such a challenging life, he’ll be in a rest and rehab facility or just taking a well deserved nap for a while.

I saw a post on Facebook saying that another one was “gone”.  Well, yes and no. Richard has stepped out of his body.  For us with this limited perspective, he is “gone”. But, from his perspective, he’s still right here. He has only gone where we will all go.  He’s finished his mission sooner than we have finished ours. Job well done, cuz.

In November 2017  Tywana and I appeared on the homeschooling podcast Brave Writer.

“Today’s guests have experienced one of life’s most harrowing events: losing a child. Brian and Tywana Smith are fellow homeschoolers and, more importantly, dear friends of Julie’s.

They came on the show to share their story and offer support in the hopes of encouraging others who live, as Tywana describes, with ‘one foot in the spiritual world with Shayna and one foot in the physical world.'”

Ah… Ohio in the fall.  If you don’t like the weather, just wait a day.  27 years ago today, Tywana and I made our relationship official just about 100 miles from here in Lexington, KY.  Much like today, the previous week had been cold and rainy, but a warm front had come through and our wedding day was unusually warm. Today, it is literally 30º warmer than it was just about two days ago. We had no idea what life had in store for us when we took those vows, but we were willing to face it together.

One of the Bible verses we chose for our ceremony and to base our marriage on is Ecclesiastes 4:12 “Though one may be overpowered,two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”  In our marriage, we viewed God as that third cord. I remember an illustration. I can’t recall where it is from, if I came up with it or it was taught to us, but we pictured ourselves as vertices on a triangle with God at the top and each of us at one corner on the base. As long as we grew toward God, we would be growing toward each other.

27 years of being together is not easy.  The first few years were tough as we adjusted to not living each living our own separate lives, but in creating a life together. Then came Kayla, another cord.  Then Shayna. I have a special bond with each girl, loving them equally but differently.  Kayla is like me in that she’s serious, wants to do things the right way, and puts others first.  Kayla and I like old movies (the old rom coms are the only rom coms worth watching).  We share a love for the Beatles and all things hippie.  Shayna is like me in her competitiveness. We loved to play video games or go out in the backyard and toss a frisbee, a football, or bump a volleyball. She wouldn’t watch a movie made before 1990 and nothing with romance. But, we shared action movies.  Shayna was shy around many people, but in the right in environment, she would become the jokester.  Shayna loved to teach people and to lead by example.  She had a tongue that could praise you one minutes and cut like a knife the next. These are the things we shared.    Our strand had become five cords and quite strong indeed with each of the four us playing our roles and with God interweaving in there.

When tragedy struck, it left all of us devastated, of course.  My views of God had changed over the years, being no less a part of my life but now I’d use the word Source or Spirit because I don’t see God as a man anymore.  I sometimes even used the word Mission because it’s the Mission that anchors me into this reality in addition to my attachments to Kayla and Tywana.  These past 863 days have not been easy. It’s been Hell on Earth.  The lack of Shayna’s physical presence and even Kayla’s physical presence as she lives 180 mile away has tested me and our marriage like it and I haven’t been tested since the early days. The depression I deal with, the financial stress that overwhelms me at times do not make this an easy road to travel.  But, travel it we have. Tywana and are remain dedicated to each other, to Kayla, to Shayna (who we know is still here with us), and yes, to the Mission.

Today, I sit and reflect back over 27 years and I can easily recall that spring-like day in Lexington, KY when I said “I do” to my partner for the remainder of my days here. I remember looking at Kayla for the first time.  I remember the stress of thinking we were going to lose Shayna before we ever laid eyes on her as she made her coming into the world quite the adventure.  And I remember all the ups and downs of the 27 trips around the sun we have had since that day.

I am grateful for having found a partner who was strong enough and willing  to endure all that we have endured. I am grateful for the two wonderful human beings who have come through us. I am grateful that we have been successful on our Mission to this point. I am grateful for the confidence i have in Spirit to guide and and keep me safe, even when it appears all is in jeopardy.  And I am grateful for the Love that binds us one to another.  I cannot say I want 27 more trips around the sun. But, I look forward to the rest of whatever may come.  I love you, Tywana.  I love you, Kayla. And I love you, Shayna.

As I open the door to step out for my walk this morning, it’s dark. In early November, in Ohio, before the time change, it’s pretty much still dark at 7:30 AM, particularly on a cloudy rainy day.  My weather app, which gives precipitation forecasts down to the minute, says light to moderate rain will start in 51 minutes.  I walk for an hour and twenty minutes. So, I’m going to get wet. How wet is yet to be seen.

I make my way out on my path and somewhere past the halfway point, the rain begins to fall.  It’s OK. I knew it was coming.  My pants are getting damp.  Rain is running down my face. My hands are getting numb. I’ve made the turn for home, it’s just one step at a time. If I just keep going, I’ll get home soon enough. I think of how nice it’ll be when I finally get home and can get into a hot shower.

Suddenly, a passing car stops beside me. It’s a woman, by herself, with a dog in the back seat. She’s saying something.  I stop my podcast, take out my ear phones and say “I’m sorry?”.  I figure she’s asking for directions somewhere.  She repeats herself “Would you like a ride home? Are you OK?”  Wow.  I can’t believe she stopped to ask. I’m a bit taken aback.  It is cold. It is raining. I could be home in less than two minutes from here.  “No.  I’m good. Thank you very much for asking.”  She rolls up her window continues on her way and makes the next right disappearing up Gregg Drive.

I’ve set a course.  When I left the house, my goal was 10,000 steps- minimum. I knew it was going to be dark, but it would get lighter. I knew it would rain.  I knew the rain would be cold. But, I also knew that I only had to endure for the course I had set out and it’d feel so good being back home, warm and dry with 10,000 steps done. I had a plan.  As I continue on my walk I remember how my daily walk is a metaphor for life.  I very often don’t feel like taking that first step, but once I’m on the path, there is no turning back. There are no shortcuts if I want to accomplish my goal. As I walk along, I take my usual circuitous route up and down the various cul de sacs instead of just making the beeline for home which would get me home much sooner and much drier but shy of my goal of 7 miles and 10,000 steps.

Finally, I make the final turn for home, up the hill, arrive at the front door and step into the warm house.