Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Something Stole My Laughter

In 1984, Neue Constantin Film and Warner Bros. released a film called The NeverEnding Story. It’s about a magical land, Fantasia, destroyed by The Nothing. The Nothing was just…nothing. Despair. Hopelessness. All-consuming darkness.

I know this feeling. I know it all too well.

I’ve lost many people in my family. From the time I was a child I knew what death was. Death took my brother before I was ever born. Death stole my favorite grandmother when I was 11, my aunt when I was 18, my cousin and my grandfather both when I was 20, my other grandmother when I was 26.

Yes, I knew what death was. I knew its finality, its permanence. Grief though…I never knew grief was permanent. I know this now.

Of course I grieved for each of those losses. Those were my family members that died, and I loved them. Family means more to me than anything else and I will defend my family to the death. But I couldn’t defend them from Death.

With each of those deaths, I felt loss and grief. I cried, I felt the hole that was left behind. But then something monstrous happened, something so massive that it left behind more than a hole.

It left behind Nothing.

My son died.

My son. “Grief” is too weak to describe what happened. Despair. Hopelessness. All-consuming darkness. This was my Nothing. It had come to destroy me. My family was there for me. My sister in North Carolina even flew in. Family supported me, encouraged me, looked after Violet, and kept me alive.

We held the funeral. The tiny white coffin was rolled out of the Cathedral and into the waiting hearse, and we followed it to the cemetery. Then there was the reception, and a couple of days after that everyone went back to their usual lives. I didn’t have a usual life anymore. After the flurry of sympathy and “I’m so sorry’s” and company and food, I was left with the tatters of my old life and an empty room where my baby should be. My life had suddenly been divided into “before” and “after” and I had to find a way to live in the “after”.

I got the feeling I wasn’t supposed to talk about my son. Just saying his name seemed to make people freeze. Didn’t they understand? I needed to talk about him. It wasn’t going to hurt me to talk about him. It was going to hurt me to pretend he hadn’t existed, that it hadn’t all happened. Please, for the love of God, talk about him. Give me the chance to speak his name again. I will never again get to take his picture. I will never get to feel his breath, or his hand wrapped around my finger. At least let me say his name. Don’t take that away from me, too.

People kept telling me to smile, that I shouldn’t look so serious or so down all the time. Forgive me. I just fucking buried my child. You’re right. I ought to be grinning from ear to ear. I think, if nothing else, I had earned the right be sad. How dare someone try to limit the time of another’s grief? There was no stopping mine. It settled over my mind like a layer of wet wool: dense, uncomfortable, dreary, and damp.

I was a terrible teacher that semester. I began a long-term relationship with Xanax in order to keep the PTSD flashes minimized. I mothered the child that was left to me as best I could, though I became extremely paranoid. I woke up several times a night to make sure she was still breathing.

But life, as they callously say, goes on: without mercy, without pause, without waiting for us to be ready. We carve out a new way of life to go with the new normal that we have to accept. I found a happiness I could sustain. I made a good life for myself, my child, and my new husband. The last time I felt absolute joy was when my husband and I heard the heartbeat of the baby we were expecting. We heard the heartbeat on February 14, 2004: Valentine’s Day. On February 18, 2004, due to complications of pneumonia and medication post back-surgery, my husband was dead.

I have lost the ability to feel joy.

I still have glad times. My kids make me happy. Welcoming that baby without my husband was a bittersweet moment. My family makes me smile. But I cannot feel joy. In fact, I feel a distinct absence of joy, as if there is an empty slot on my emotional bookshelf where it has been checked out and I’m just waiting for it to return. I know what it is, and I long for it.

This is the only way Emma has ever known her big brother.

Humor is what my family has always relied on to move through hard times. Less than a year ago, on December 29, 2013, my youngest daughter and I returned to our home only to find it fully engulfed in flames. We lost everything. Everything. We had left only what we were wearing. The house was not salvageable, nor were any of the contents. The city ordered it destroyed. Were it not for an irreverent sense of humor, the support of my family, the incredible people I work with, and my community, I would have crossed over to the dark place. I was teetering on the edge with this blow. There are only so many times a person can bounce back before the bounce just isn’t there anymore.

They never could tell us the cause of the fire.

Utter devastation. Total loss. There is nothing left.


Bones tried to help Violet cope. It wasn't easy processing the enormity of this personal disaster.
We stayed with family as we tried to get back on our feet.

I’ve been on antidepressants for a long time. (Am I allowed to say that openly, or are we still repressing that sort of thing and pretending that it doesn’t exist?) But there’s a problem. They aren’t working anymore. The darkness is creeping in again and covering everything that should be light. What do you do when the very medicine you take for a mental illness no longer helps that mental illness? And what do you do when no one around you will talk to you about how you feel? “Oh no, you can’t say that! You can’t talk about that, dear.” It’s taboo. It’s uncomfortable. But don’t you see? That’s the very reason we have to talk about it. Everyone should be able to talk about it, to feel safe talking about it, to seek help without feeling judged.

There are so many different ways I could describe how I feel, but I fear they will come across as just a jumble of images:
  • I’m surrounded by an invisible glass box. It separates me from everyone and everything so that nothing touches me as acutely as it should. Sounds aren’t as sharp, emotions are less intense, and life – overall – is less engaging. Most of all, that glass box keeps others from reaching me and keeps me from reaching them. I’m isolated.
  • I’m covered by a veil. This veil dims the entire world so that everything looks darker than it really is. There is a part of me that knows, rationally, that the sun is shining and it is bright and beautiful outside, but still everything looks dark and dim.
  • I feel like I’m always wearing a mask. I call getting ready for work “putting on my stage make-up” because to go out in public I often feel like I am playing the role of the happy, cheerful me. But I am not truly that person. It’s an act, a mask. I cannot be “me” and show the sadness that coils up inside me. Who wants to be around the girl who is unhappy? So I arrange my face into a mask of cheerfulness; I assume a smile, and people remark on what a happy person I am. They do not see the pain behind the smile.
  • There are so many versions of me in my head all telling me how wrong I am. I’m wrong to be unhappy. I’m wrong for wanting some alone time and not spending every minute I have with my children. I’m wrong about being wrong. I’m wrong in every choice I’ve ever made in my life. I’m wrong. I’m wrong about everything. And the fact that these thoughts are constantly sniping at me in my own head means they never go away. I can’t turn the power off. I can’t change the station. I can’t drown them out. I have no way of shutting them up. So they just go on and on and on.
I don’t expect to be Stepford-wife bright and shiny all the time. A) I’m not a wife, and B) I’m not a bright and shiny kind of person. But I don’t think living the way I’m living is actually living either. My kids deserve a real mom: someone who does more than considers the day a win if she wakes up in the morning.

I am an introvert by nature, but being an introvert does not mean a person is depressed. The depression is separate. The depression is a mental illness. And I am not ashamed to admit that. There are people who try to make me feel ashamed for it. “Just cheer up!” they tell me. As if it were that simple. “Do some yoga, or go for a run. You’ll feel a million times better!” I am not denying that there is a correlation between a healthy body and a healthy mind, but clinical depression won’t go away with a little downward-dog. I’ve tried.

I don’t have “people” because I’m not good at making or maintaining friendships. I want to. I try to. It sounds so silly to say at my age, but I don’t really know how to make friends. That isn’t meant as a “poor pitiful me” but simply to explain my sense of isolation. I laughed it off for a while: “I’m too cool for other people to handle; that’s what it is.”

But when the room is empty, laughter rings hollow. I don’t know where my laughter went, but I miss it. I do so love to laugh. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Birthday Boy

"There is no grief like the grief that does not speak." - Henry Wordsworth

Today is my son’s birthday.

I am not planning a birthday party. There will be no Harry Potter invitations or Minecraft-themed goodies adoring my tables. He will not hastily wipe off my kiss when I hug him and tell him happy birthday in front of all his friends. I will not see a lop-sided smile over a pile of presents just waiting to be torn open.

My son is dead.

He would have been 12 today.

There will be a birthday cake. We make one every year, his sisters and I. We sing him “Happy Birthday” and have birthday cake. Sometimes I take a slice to the cemetery but even after all this time I am not always quite up to it.

There is a private torment that occurs for the parents who have lost children, regardless of the age of those children. Perhaps they were young, perhaps they were adults. It doesn’t matter. When a child dies before the parents, it feels wrong. Sam was only three months old when he died from SIDS. The doctors told me there was nothing I could have done to prevent it. Such things are hollow comfort to a grieving parent. The rational part of my mind understands the doctors’ words, but the guilt will never leave me. It consumes me, little by little, and eventually it will eat me alive.

I can still remember how it felt to hold him. He was a schlumper. When I held him, he didn’t use his arms: they hung by his sides and his whole body weight just sort of sagged – schlumped – down. And he always nuzzled into my neck, sort of buried his head into it as if he wanted to hibernate.

I think about him all the time. I wonder if he would be tall. And if he and his sisters would be close. I think he would have big feet. I don’t know why. I just do. I wish I could have just one more picture of him. I wonder if he would wear his hair long or short. I’ll never know what his voice will sound like. I’ll never get to hear him say my name. And I’ll never get to say, “I have a son” again.

But because of today, I get to say I had a son. And he was beautiful. Happy birthday, Sam. I miss you.


My beautiful boy, my heart is with you. Save a place for us.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Family Screw-Up


“Don’t judge me by my past; I don’t live there anymore.” - unknown

I care a lot about people. I’m actually a very sensitive person, but I don’t usually show a lot of emotion. I tend to wrap myself more in a defensive layer of sarcasm. Kind of like verbal brambles. See, I don’t always say the right thing. Or I don’t always say the right thing in the right way. And sometimes when I try to do the right thing, I just make things even worse.

I’m sort of the family screw-up.

I did pretty well making my way through high school. I was obnoxiously, boringly good. But then came college and I discovered a few things like “personality”, and “fun”, and “stupidity”. Not only did I begin college at the age of 17, I went away to college. I was a very sheltered child from Tyler, a smallish city in East Texas, who was suddenly living in a progressive dorm in Austin.

I didn’t handle it well.

After a few wasteful semesters at UT, I dropped out of college. I didn’t know why I was there (in other words, “what I wanted to be when I grew up”). I was a failure. My parents were disappointed. Instead of getting to say, “Oh, Karen is studying at UT” they now had to sidestep the fact that I dropped out and say, “Karen is spending some time at home. Her grandfather is sick.” It was true. Pépére was ill, but that’s not why I came home. Knowing I had disappointed my parents was one of the worst feelings in the world. And this was just the beginning.

It took two years before I went back to school. During that time, I worked as a waitress, bartender, and cook. I had ample opportunity to “get my head on straight”. When I returned to academia, I knew without a doubt what I wanted to study: English. I was focused. I was determined. I was in school fall, spring, and summer. As soon as I graduated with my BA, I immediately began working on my master’s degree in English. Now when people asked my mom, “How’s Karen doing?” She could answer, “Oh, she’s working on her master’s degree!” One of the few moments I made her proud, and it felt so good.

But I couldn’t even give her that moment of pride without messing it up.

I made the stupid decision to elope while I was working on my degree. I think my husband (this was husband #1) and I both knew when we were doing it that it was the wrong choice to make, but once the decision had been made and the plane tickets bought, neither of us knew how to get out of it at that point. So we went through with it.

My mom didn’t talk to me for two weeks.

When the marriage inevitably failed two years later, I was left on my own with my babies. Then my life fragmented, like glass that has a spiderweb of breaks but has not yet fallen to pieces: my son died from SIDS. He was three months old.

Don’t dwell. Keep moving forward. At least you still have Violet. You can have another baby. The world doesn’t stop for grief. Think happy thoughts. At least he didn’t suffer. I heard all of these after my baby died. As if any of these things mattered in those moments. I failed at being a mom, at the most basic task that is given to us as moms: keeping our children alive.

Eleven years later, the breaks are still there. It is with sheer willpower that I am holding the pieces together.

A year and a half after my divorce, I married “the one who got away”. He was wonderfully imperfect. Delightfully quirky. We had dated before, but when he moved to Florida we ended the relationship. Things rekindled, we married, and now Violet and I were moving to Florida to start a new life. My mother had a very close bond with Violet, and now I was ripping that apart. Even when I was trying to do something good, I was hurting someone.

After Curt died (read “Silver Linings" if you’re confused), Mom flew to Florida to help me pack up my life there. I was almost incapable of functioning. I wanted to return to Texas (I had nothing to stay in Florida for), so there was a lot of packing to do. I had to take care of Violet, and I was three months pregnant. I was having flashbacks of losing my son, Sam. The grief was crushing. It was one of those times where I just wasn’t able to handle being the adult. I needed my mom.

So once again, I had tried to make a life for myself, and once again, I couldn’t.

It took a long time, many years, before I dipped back in the dating waters. When I did, it didn’t go well. There was the alcoholic stalker. That was fun. Then there was the guy who seemed to like my kids more than he liked me. I nipped that in the bud…way too creepy for me. Then there was the one whom I thought was great, but he turned out to be a bigamist, con-man, and a serial cheater.

I don’t date now.

But even with all that, I could at least pride myself on the fact that I was able to provide my children with a good home, a home they could be proud of and always feel safe in.

Until the fire, that is.

On December 29, 2013 we came home from a happy early dinner out to find our home engulfed in flames. Total devastation. Complete destruction. We had no home left at all. We woke up that morning with our home, our possessions, and our security intact. By that evening we were homeless and our entire secure foundation had shifted. What had I missed, when I bought this house, that would cause it to suddenly erupt in flames like that? How had I managed to screw up something this enormous? I didn’t deserve to be the adult, to be the mom. It was time to withdraw and recover. We went to live with mom and dad for a few months while we got our feet back under us and found a new house to live in, a new life to build.

I am the youngest of five children. My parents can be very proud of the fact that all five of us kids graduated from college. I am not the favorite. I am not the most successful. I am not the most talented. I accept all of these things because I do know that I am loved, if greatly overshadowed. One of my siblings made history as her town’s first female chief of police. Another of my sisters is amazing at her job (she teaches maths), she made getting her master’s look easy (and I know it wasn’t), and somehow her past mistakes have all become positives (how did she manage that?). My brother’s writing talent absolutely dwarfs my own and he’s one of the funniest people I know in real life. My other sister is so creative that she puts Pinterest to shame, she’s a great mom, and she has one of the greatest marriages I’ve seen since my parents’ own. And then there’s me.

No matter what I have achieved, it is my past mistakes that are often discussed, joked about, and tossed up for grabs, like raw meat in a lion’s den, not my more recent accomplishments: I have had to rebuild my life many times after it imploded, and I have done so successfully. I have an earned master’s degree that I use to support myself and my children; I am a respected professor at my college. I am a dedicated member of Andi’s Army, helping to fight for the reform of Compassionate Drug Use. I love my family and will fight for them no matter what it takes. I am a survivor.

Maybe someday, in my family’s minds, I’ll be allowed to grow up, cast off the dubious choices made in youth, and be the adult I already am, the adult that the rest of the world sees. Maybe someday my shenanigans from the past won’t be the first thing that come to people’s minds, and my success in the present will be. But until then, I am what I have always been: I am the family screw-up.