And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.
-Maya Angelou

Saturday, April 15, 2017

I Loved Him Home



Last weekend I attended a retreat for mothers whose children have died from congenital heart disease and other chronic illnesses. I didn't search out this retreat, you could say it found me and I said "Yes". The Restoring a Mother's Heart retreat is put on by the Ethan M. Lindberg Foundation, a foundation established by Jessica and Erik Lindberg to honor the life of their son, Ethan. Ethan was born with congenital heart disease and he died on June 12, 2012 at the age of seven. Jessica and Erik have four sons. Ethan is their oldest son. Last December, Jessica contacted me via Facebook to share with me that she had read my blog and was touched by Jack's story and understood the grief of living with the death of a child. Jessica also shared with me that her youngest son, Bodey, who is two years old, was born with a Congenital Muscular Dystrophy. I never asked Jessica how she found Jack's blog, but I'm guessing it was from the Cure CMD website. After Jessica and I connected via Facebook, I discovered the link to her Foundation and read every page on the website. I clicked on the tab titled "Retreat" and found these words:

During our time together we will encourage you to cultivate your infinite relationship with your child. We will ask our hearts' deep questions and share practical tools to navigate this journey. This retreat is an invitation to continue your infinite relationship with your child. As a participant, you will be reminded that your story, while painful, is certainly not over. And in fact, it has great purpose. Come share, learn, care for yourself and feel the support of a community of women who understand. 

As soon as I read those words, my heart said "you need to do this."  

The weekend was spent in the presence of beautiful mothers from all across the country. We shared our children with each other, we laughed, we cried, we meditated, we listened, we reflected, and we ate (a lot!) We were students and we were teachers. I came away from the weekend feeling validated and honored. I also came away with work to do. One of the messages that resounded with me is that while Jack's story may be over, mine is not. Three years after Jack's death and I still struggle with "who am I and what am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?" That's where I need to put in my work. I need to find and focus on my purpose and that's not easy when it doesn't include Jack - at least not in the way it included Jack for the 15 years of our lives together. 

The speakers were all incredible and spoke from experience and with love. One of the speakers was Tom Zuba. Shortly after Jack died, I bought Tom's book Permission to Mourn. A New Way to Do Grief. When I first read it, I had a hard time connecting to his words. When I found out that Tom was speaking at the retreat, I pulled out the book and read it again. The second time around, so much of what Tom wrote resonated with me. I was in a much different place three months after Jack died than I am now - three years later. Tom has experienced incredible loss in his life and he knows of what he speaks. It was a privilege to listen and learn from him.

On the second day of the retreat, one of the sessions lead by Tom dealt with God (or Spirit or Light or whatever you may believe) and how He was present (or not) when our child died. The answers to this question were as varied as the experiences we each had surrounding our child's death. I came away from this session with my most profound take-away from the retreat.

When I think back over Jack's life, I don't think there was ever a time I was angry with God. In those first few months of Jack's life, I prayed fervently that Jack would be strong enough to get off the ventilator. When my prayers weren't answered, I wasn't angry, I was resigned. By the time Jack was born, I was well beyond Plan B for my life, so it wasn't a big surprise that I didn't get what I prayed for. I wasn't happy about the hand that Jack and I (and our family) had been dealt, but it never rose to the level of being angry with God. Instead, for the majority of Jack's life I decided that I'd just "take it from here" since God clearly wasn't going to help out (how very wrong I was in this belief!) I was under the illusion that I was in control and that I'd just have to get Jack walking, talking, eating and breathing without the ventilator all on my own. This illusion of control most certainly preserved my sanity. Then in 2012 Jack began suffering from kidney stones and the downward spiral began. I still had my "I'm in control" hat on as I navigated Jack's care and talked with doctors in St. Louis, doctors in Phoenix, former doctors, current doctors and made sure that Jack had the best care possible. But it wasn't enough. Jack continued to suffer and I couldn't stop it. I reached the point where I literally fell to my knees begging God for guidance and to release Jack from his pain. I never felt compelled to ask God to "fix" Jack because I knew it wasn't possible. Jack was born with a devastating neuromuscular disease, he wasn't going to get better. I needed God's guidance as Mark and I made the most difficult decisions any parents should have to make for their child. I believe that those difficult decisions were God-driven decisions. Jack was suffering and when he died I felt with all my heart that God was with us every step of the way

When I shared my thoughts on this question as it pertained to my experiences with Jack, I heard the words "you loved him home." Those words touched me to my core. Yes, with God's grace and guidance, I did love Jack Home. Three years after Jack died, I finally heard the words that give me peace. I didn't choose to let Jack die; I chose to LOVE HIM HOME. 

Thank you Jessica. Thank you Tom, Lexi and Sara. And thank you to each and every brave mother who had the courage to show up and share her heart, her words, her pain and her love. Our stories are not over. Indeed, they are not.

Onward. 





Thursday, March 2, 2017

Onward




"Onward"

I use that word a lot. I had a friend tell me that he doesn't like that word. He doesn't want to push onward, he wants to stay in the present and feel deeply and fully the emotions of the moment. To me, "onward" doesn't mean to not be in the present or to move on or to get over it. Rather, it means to Get.Up. and Put.One.Foot.In.Front.Of.The.Other. If I didn't encourage myself to push onward, I don't think I'd ever get out of bed.

I know that you never get over or move on from the grief of losing a child (or anyone you love deeply, for that matter). But lately I feel like I'm spending so much of my time looking back instead of looking to the future. This fourth year without Jack has been a particularly tough year so far - it seems more difficult than last year was. I've been going back and reviewing the last years of Jack's life - the difficult years. (The history detailed in Jack's blog is both a blessing and a curse.) I haven't felt much like marching onward.

If you follow me on Facebook you know that almost everything I post has to do with Jack. I share pictures of the good years, the good memories, the happy Jack. It's as if I'm trying to remind myself that, yes, there were good years. Why is it that I can only focus on the hard stuff and question everything I did and didn't do instead of focusing on the good stuff? I guess because my child died. Because when your child dies you can't help but wonder what you did wrong or could have done differently. Because when you spend fifteen years giving every fiber of your mind, body and soul to keep your child alive, he's not supposed to die.

I think the obvious reason I spend so much time in the past is because that's where Jack is. Old pictures and memories are all I have of him. You have no idea how much I wish I could share current pictures of Jack. I know he's still with me - he's in my heart and his spirit drives me in everything I do each and every day. But sometimes that's not enough. I ache to touch him and look into those beautiful, soulful eyes. And because I can't touch him, I have to settle with seeing him in pictures. In the past. It's all I've got.

For all of you who continue to share Jack with me, who enjoy looking back with me and who continue to let me know how much he touched you and how much you miss him - I cannot thank you enough. You truly give me the strength to continue to Get.Up. and Put.One.Foot.In.Front.Of.The.Other.

There are times I wish that "onward" did mean moving on and getting over it. I'd love to stop hurting. But that's not the case and never will be the case. I will never get over, move on or stop hurting from the loss of Jack.

But with the love and support of friends, and by the grace of God and the hope of heaven . . .

Onward it is.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

I Planted Flowers Today (and an Update of Sorts)


(my serenity garden in the back yard)

It's starting to cool off here in the Southwest. The mornings are cool, which is about as close as we get to Fall weather here. The crisp mornings and the store displays usher in the impending holiday season. Since Jack died, November 4th (Jack's Birthday) through January 5th (Jack's death day) has been a time to simply get through. My heart could barely acknowledge the holiday season, let alone celebrate it.

But today, I planted flowers. Well, technically, I potted flowers. And, I bought two pumpkins and I decorated our front entry way. My heart feels ready to acknowledge and celebrate the holidays this year. While it's a rare day that the tears don't fall because I miss Jack so very much, I am now able to balance grief with joy and recognize that it's okay to feel both.

Life is hard and life is good.

And, for the first time in almost three years, I planted flowers today.


**********************************************


Update of Sorts:

The Book. 

Early September, I handed off my parent stories to my co-author and he's now working on his part. I still have work to do and more stories to gather, but the pressure to get the bulk of my part done is off. The book is a work in progress and we are still tossing around ideas of what all will be included. But it will definitely include stories of physician encounters from the parents perspective and stories of encounters with families/patients from the physicians perspective. I'm excited for the finished project, although we are still a ways out from that point. Stay tuned. 

Jack's 18th Birthday. 

Hard as it is to believe, this November 4th is Jack's 18th birthday. I remember thinking about all the things I'd need to get in place once Jack turned 18 (guardianship paperwork, SSI). I never really imagined Jack wouldn't be here. While my first instinct is to escape out of town on Jack's birthday, what I'm going to do instead is honor his birthday by hosting The Willow Tree Foundation's second Mom's Day Retreat. In addition to local moms, several out-of-state  moms will be joining us. This year's retreat is truly representative of the many beautiful parent connections Jack has gifted me with through the years. I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to November 4th this year.

Grand Canyon Rim To Rim.

For those not on Facebook, we did get our permit and I did hike the Grand Canyon down the North Rim and out the South Rim, with a two day stay at the bottom of the Canyon before we hiked out. It was beautiful and it was hard. I hiked with friends from St. Louis, Colorado and Minnesota. It involved teamwork and patience and perseverance. We were told that only 1% of the visitors to the Grand Canyon ever hike Rim to Rim. I'm glad I did it, but I don't feel compelled to ever do it again! 

Here are some pictures.

North Rim - tents set up for the night
The North Rim is beautiful - we wish we could have spent more time there



Ready to set out 


Starting point - North Kaibab Trailhead


Heading down North Kaibab


miles and miles of switchbacks 


first of several bridges we encountered


narrow trail - kind of important to stay focused on where you are going



Canyon Willow


Botton of the Canyon - Bright Angel Creek (our campground was just a few yards from the creek - so relaxing to listen to the creek at night)



Onward!


view from my tent 


this is how I spent our day of rest - resting with my feet in the creek! 


crossing the Colorado River on the way out Bright Angel Trail




At the finish! 



Hiking out was a lot more challenging (obviously) than hiking down, so I didn't get many pictures of the hike out. 
__________________________________


Well, that's the update of sorts. I realize I don't write much anymore, but I'm not one to write just to write. (Although this post might be pushing it as far as being of any substance.) I have three other children and there's a lot going on in my life that keeps me busy and stressed, but it's not all that exciting or appropriate to write about. Jack was and will always be my inspiration for writing. For the last year and a half, he's been my inspiration as I've focused on writing my book. I'm not sure if I'll ever get back to real blogging again. I guess that will be up to Jack! 

Inching Onward! 


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Hope Matters

I've secluded myself in a hotel room this weekend to work on writing stories for our book. Today I wrote one of my own stories. As I sit here reading it, it makes me cry. It makes me cry not only because of the importance of the message, but because I realize how incredibly fortunate we were to have some of the most amazing doctors care for Jack. They are not just amazing clinicians, they are amazing human beings. 

I really miss them. 

I want to share with you what I wrote today because, no matter the situation, hope matters.















I was sitting at my desk at work when my cell phone rang. I knew I had to answer it because my six-month old son, Jack, was in the Pediatric ICU (PICU) at our Children’s Hospital, where he had been for the last two months. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him or why he couldn’t wean off the hospital ventilator and breathe on his own. They were in the process of conducting a series of tests and, at the moment, he was stable, which made it possible for me to work a few hours each day.

I answered my phone fearful it might be a call from the hospital. On the line was the neurologist who was caring for Jack in the PICU. A week prior, a muscle biopsy was taken from Jack’s thigh to test for various known neuromuscular diseases. One of the diseases they were testing for was called Merosin Deficient Congenital Muscular Dystrophy (MDC1A). I was told up front by the neurologist that we did not want Jack to be positive for MDC1A because it was a devastating disease that would confine Jack to a wheelchair.

In a genuinely relieved voice, the neurologist told me that Jack did not have MDC1A. She was happy. I was happy. Although, I wasn’t convinced Jack had a muscle disease at all. He had a rough start to life – born seven weeks premature and then, when he was two months old, he had surgery to correct a congenital cardiac anomaly. He just needed time to grow and get stronger. The suggestion that he had a muscle disease wasn’t in my realm of possibilities.

After the neurologist shared the good news, I pushed her to give me answers I wanted to hear regarding Jack’s prognosis. Knowing now that Jack didn’t have MDC1A, I boldly said to her, “You can’t tell me that Jack won’t ever walk.”

This neurologist has years of experience specializing in neuromuscular diseases at one of the top medical institutions in the country. I suspect she had a good idea about Jack’s prognosis based on her evaluation of him, even if his specific disease was not yet identified. However, rather than tell me it was unlikely Jack would ever walk, she said to me, “I can tell you that I don’t have another patient exactly like Jack.” And she left it at that.

The impact of that simple statement was profound. What the neurologist gave me that day was hope. By not laying out all the possible negative scenarios for what Jack’s future might hold, she didn’t steal my hope that day.

Jack was ultimately diagnosed with a rare form of congenital muscular dystrophy when he was seven years old. Jack never walked. He never breathed on his own without the support of a ventilator and he never ate food by mouth. However, on that day I made my bold proclamation to the neurologist, had I been told that Jack would never walk, talk, eat or breathe on his own, I don’t know that I would have been able to get myself out of bed every day. By not taking away my hope, this doctor allowed me to believe that everything I did with Jack during his early years – trialing him off the ventilator, putting him in his stander, trying to get him to eat by mouth – were all worth the effort. She allowed me to accept Jack’s ultimate destiny in my own time and on my own terms. And in doing so, she allowed me to give Jack every possible chance to reach his full potential within his limitations.

The importance of hope cannot be overstated. Having hope does not mean having an unrealistic understanding of your child’s prognosis. We live the truth day in and day out. Parents are able to distinguish between hope and wishful thinking. Hope is what allows you to take a chance on the future. It’s what gave me, as the parent of a child with a devastating life-limiting disease, the strength to get up each day and “keep on keeping on.”

How information is conveyed by a physician can go a long way in preserving hope. By choosing words that didn’t steal my hope when Jack was six months old, Jack’s neurologist was instrumental in ensuring that Jack had the best quality of life for the fifteen years that he lived.


Hope matters.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Blog Silence

I realize it's been months since I've written anything on the blog. I've started several blog posts, but can't seem to finish them. Lately, I've felt the pull to sit down and blog. So, here I am. 

I left off in early January and the two year mark without our sweet Jack. 

The first weekend in February I attended a three-day religious/spiritual retreat for women that was put on by my friend Jenny's Catholic Church in St. Louis. Jenny went on the retreat the year before and listening to her share how impactful the weekend was for her, it didn't take much to convince me to sign up. To say I was profoundly moved and uplifted is an understatement. The weekend had Jack written all over it. There was a part of the retreat when family and friends came to sing and celebrate with us. Of course, being from out of town, my family wasn't there. It was a bit overwhelming and I was just taking it all in when Jenny tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to someone in the crowd. I looked in the direction she pointed and there was Jack's neurologist. She showed up to support me. I was so moved and humbled by her act of kindness. To quote my friend, Jean - Why me?

During one of our longer break times, I went outside to walk around the grounds. At the entrance of the retreat center was a willow tree. 

It's a little anemic because it's Winter, but I promise it is a willow tree. 



At one point I look up to the clouds and saw this -
a heart.



Then, on the last day of the retreat as we were waiting to enter the church for mass, I met a woman who was part of the team that facilitated the weekend. She mentioned to Jenny that she recognized me, but she couldn't place me. Jenny filled her in on who I was. Come to find out that she was part of the pain management team that cared for Jack at St. Louis Children's Hospital when he had his spinal fusion surgery in 2006. She knew who Jack was and remembered him. Another Wow! moment. 

I suppose some will say that we "see" the signs we want to see and there's nothing more to it than that. But I can tell you that I went to the retreat with no expectations, but with an open heart and open mind. The weekend exceeded anything I could have ever imagined. I left feeling uplifted and loved. They told us at the end of the retreat that we had to be prepared to "come down from the mountain." I carried the awesomeness of that weekend with me for a long time. But, I think it's safe to say, I've now come down from the mountain. 

I prefer the top of the mountain.

I'm spending most of my weekends working on my book and another writing project. Several people have mentioned to me that they thought I'm writing a book about "Jack's Journey." I'm not. I'm collaborating on a book with one of Jack's former doctors. My part of the book involves writing parent stories involving physician encounters that had a significant impact on them (both positive and not-so-positive). I'm writing stories about my own encounters with doctors over the years, and I'm getting stories from other parents of medically fragile/complex children. Once I finish my first group of stories, I'll get them to my co-author and he will write the physician's side of the encounter. Obviously, he isn't the actual physician involved in the story, but he will write based on his many years of experience. The idea is definitely unique. I think it will be a great opportunity to educate both physicians and parents. I hope to finish my first round of stories within the next month or two. It's taking me much longer than I want to finish my part, but I'm trying to exercise patience. Not one of my stronger attributes.

I was also invited to help write a chapter in a book for medical professionals that deals with the management of neuromuscular diseases in children. Our chapter is the parents' perspective. The section I'm working on is "preparing for death." It sounds worse than it is. I'm writing about advance directives. It's all research based, so I've read many journal articles to support what I write. Incidentally, anyone who thinks lawyers write to make things unintelligible clearly haven't read medical journals!

How am I doing? I miss Jack as much today as I did the moment I walked out of Ryan House without him. There are still hard days and many hard moments. There are also good days and many good moments. The blanket of grief is ever present, but it's not as heavy today as it was a year ago. I'm learning to live life without Jack. I do best when I'm active. Hiking has been my lifeline. If things go according to plan, I will be able to cross hiking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim off my bucket list in the near future. With thousands of people vying for a limited number of backpacking permits, we can only hope we get one of the coveted permits. We should know within the next month.

I had surgery a week and a half ago to have my gallbladder removed. It's been bothering me for over a year and I decided to just get it out because I didn't want to risk having an emergent situation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The first few days after surgery when pain was an issue (I'm fine now), all I could think of was Jack and all the painful surgeries and procedures we put him through. There were many tears ... not for my pain, but for Jack's. I still struggle with focusing on the hard times and all the ways I feel like I failed Jack. It brings me to my knees every time. I can't seem to shift my focus to the good memories. I'm not sure when or if I'll ever get there.  

On that note, I think I've rambled on long enough. Consider yourself randomly updated.  

Until next time,

Inching Onward



Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Postscript

Yesterday the rain fell continuously for most of the day. Then around 4pm there was a break in the rain, so I went for a long solitary walk along the beach. At one point, I looked up and saw this:





A hole in the sky. 

Jack is most certainly looking down on me. 

All is well.

Onward. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Two Years


Two years. It's incomprehensible that it's been two years since I held my sweet boy in my arms as he took his last breath on this earth. Mark and I both feel that the more time that passes, the further away from Jack we feel. And that is hard. People will say to me that Jack isn't gone, he's still in my heart. But the reality is, I don't feel Jack in my heart. I just feel a huge emptiness. I think part of why there is such emptiness is because I don't have memories of things Jack did or things he said that I can recall to bring me joy. My memories are all just my best guess of what Jack was thinking, feeling, and "saying." I don't really know what Jack thought of me, his life circumstances or the decisions we made for him. The further out I get from having the reassurance of those soulful eyes, the more doubt creeps in. It will be my lifetime struggle to keep the doubt at bay. 

I still cry every time I think of Jack, and I think of Jack every day. I mostly think of Jack when I look up at the sky. The clouds and limitlessness of the sky make me think of heaven and I wonder what it's like, how it feels and what the Jack on the other side looks like. I know he is with God and the one thing I can say with certainty is that as much as I miss him, I don't ever wish him back here. The tears that fall are for me and my loss. When I shift my focus from myself to Jack, the tears quickly dry because I truly find peace in knowing that Jack is in the most amazing place, he is healed and he is infinitely happy.

Despite the feelings of distance and emptiness, I do talk to Jack. I tell him I miss him. Every so often, I'll ask him to send me a sign, something to let me know that he hears me. For the most part, he ignores me, but every once in a while he comes through. Or at least I'd like to believe that he heard me. I do a lot of thinking and reflecting on my forty minute drive to and from the office. I work in a somewhat rural community and the view along my commute consists of open desert surrounded by mountains and a wide open sky. About a month ago, as I was driving into work it was an unusually cloudy morning with the sun's rays shining through the openings in the clouds. As I looked up at the sky, I pleaded with Jack to send me a sign. I really needed one heading into the difficult holiday season. Shortly after I got into the office, an email came across my phone from my friend Angie, who was also one of Jack's nurses that cared for him one day a week for several years. Angie moved to Minnesota shortly before Jack died, but she always had a very strong connection to Jack and was one of the few people who really got him and treated him like a typical kid. In her email, Angie sent me a link to a NPR story that was part of NPR's series called "StoryCorps" - a program that allows people to record, share and preserve stories about their lives. The story Angie linked was from a woman sharing memories of her grandmother. As I listened to the story, the author shared these words:

"She used to tell me that the sky was black velvet and the stars were holes that had been punched in the ceiling of heaven. And that was how our loved ones looked down at us and saw if we were doing wrong, or if we were doing right, or just check in on us every so often. So every time I look up at the sky, she's there."

Angie's email to me said "Listen to this story. I thought of Jack looking down at you through the holes in the fabric sky."

I sat there at my desk and cried. Jack gave me my sign. He assured me that, yes, every time I look up at the sky he's there, looking down on me. 

Two years. I love him and I miss him, but I know I'll see him again. In the meantime, I'll continue to look up and know he's there and he hears me. 

Onward my friends.