Birthday cakes

My birthday was this weekend.  I wanted very much for it to be the birthday that wasn’t and for the most part I accomplished that.  My ability to feel joy and to want to celebrate have been all but wiped out.  I had a heightened sense of anxiety because this weekend was also Bart’s 40th birthday which was a bigger deal before Nelson’s suicide.  I was actually really anticipating falling apart in the way I fell apart at the one month anniversary which is to say, I was expecting to be inconsolable.   Judd asked what I wanted to do for my birthday and I said NOTHING and meant it.  Bart called the day before and asked what I wanted to do for my birthday and I said NOTHING.  I don’t want it acknowledged.  I want it to just go by peacefully.  I don’t want to be an emotional wreck.  I want everyone to just ignore it.  I want to just join my regular life already in progress.

And then I got a text message from my friend Jenna.  I had run into Jenna at the grocery store earlier in the week.  She saw me in the produce section looking for leaf lettuce.  I don’t do the grocery shopping.  Grocery shopping is one of Judd’s things and I was uncomfortable and disoriented in the store.  I had been roaming the store over and over still looking for random things and not being able to figure out why I couldn’t find them.  I was near tears because I’m the pillar of emotional instability these days and then there was Jenna.  Let me explain that Jenna is one of those people that exudes light.  She is smiles.  I see Jenna and she reminds me of the color turquoise, bright turquoise.  Everyone should know a Jenna.  And so; there is Jenna asking how I am and saying I know your birthday is Friday what are you doing for it?  I was so stunned that she knew it was my birthday.  It was days away.  How does she do that?!  It doesn’t matter how many times I get to relive this life I will never be so in tune with my friends as to realize which of them have upcoming birthdays without numerous reminders.  But that’s the kind of person Jenna is.  She is inclusive and friendly and she remembers details about people and she asks questions with genuine interest and she knows who has a birthday four days from today.   And so after that brief encounter on Monday I get a text message from Jenna on Thursday night that simply said “I have a little something for you and will be bringing it by about 9am tomorrow if that’s ok.”  I reply “Oh you shouldn’t have” to which she replied “But I did.  See you at 9.”  And at 9am the next day she showed up with the most beautiful angel food cake.  It was all I could do to hug her and hold it together.  And that sort of set the tone for the day of my 49th birthday.

People went out of their way to be kind to me.  I had no less than three flower deliveries; one of which came with a visit from one of my dearest friends and was from my circle that I refer to as my “Primrose Moms”.  That evening my son asked me on a date.  How can you tell an eight year old no?

It is the strangest sensation to realize there are people in the world who are better at being human beings than you are.  It’s humbling and also oddly comforting.  I feel like before Nelson died I was living among these people and not noticing them.  They have all been illuminated so clearly for me now.  I have been spending lots of time thinking about these people in these last days and weeks.  I am thinking about the people who stood with us in the rain the night Nelson was found.  They stayed near us but quiet and didn’t interfere.  Some of them didn’t even know Nelson although many of them, I learned, did.  It was oddly comforting to realize that there were people willing to stand vigil with us so that we wouldn’t have to face the heartbreak alone.  It would have been easy for them to go but they did not.  It was an emotionally charged situation and it couldn’t have been easy for them and I am grateful they were there.

And then there were the numerous ‘doers’.  The people who immediately went to work to keep us afloat.  My friend Amy showed up the very next day with a care package of foods that she had thoughtfully selected for each member of our family.  Amy was also actively grieving her mother who had died just three weeks before and yet she came to my aid.  It is hard for me to get my head around.  When she arrived at the house I was asleep and didn’t even speak with her.  Sadly, I must confess I didn’t have the appetite to eat the Caesar salad she brought for me but I drank the hell out of the Diet Coke.  The night after my dad arrived a group of Bart and Kerry’s friends prepared a huge spread of food for all of us down in Petersburg.   Again, as seems to be a theme with me, I didn’t even see them.  I was so emotional that I stayed on another floor of the house pacing, pacing.   I later saw all the food and it was an overwhelming display of care and concern disguised as pastas and fresh bread and colorful side dishes.  My friend Jen left a care package on our front steps that included our favorite snacks, flowers and a lovely bracelet with the word “Hope” on it.   Yes, my world was extremely bleak and my friend brought me hope.  As I am writing this I am thinking that my thank you cards for all these people remain on my kitchen counter.  They have been written but not delivered.  See what I mean about being surrounded by better human beings? A neighbor friend left a bottle of wine and a card of support by my front door.  When I found it I must admit that I wondered if I would have been thoughtful enough to think to do the same?  Going forward, I strive to have that answer be yes.  It will take the rest of my life to repay all the kindnesses we have been shown.

The caregivers were also present immediately.  My friends, Chris and Karen were so remarkable.  The moment Chris heard about what was happening he came to our house and stayed with my son so that Judd could come to me.  He and Karen showed back up the very next day.  They were this gentle presence in our home that made me feel so comforted.  I don’t think they even know how much their visits meant to me.  They both have ‘clinical’ backgrounds and maybe that gives them an unfair advantage in the area of how to handle the survivors of tragedy but having the tools doesn’t mean you have to use them.  They could have held back but they waded in. Chris played on the floor with my shell-shocked son which is the sort of thing Nelson would have done.  It was just the thing my son needed and I will never forget it.  If you want to make a mother feel your love; tend to her child.  Chris and Karen have been relentless in their concern.  They call, they text, they show up.  They have listened, they have advised, they have encouraged and reassured.  With honesty I can say that I am not sure where I would be without them.  I hope they know what a difference they have made.

My friend Jen, the friend who brought Hope?  She also helped focus me at the very moment I was really going off the rails.  It was the night of the big feast in Petersburg; the one that I heard through the floor because I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to join the gathering.  I was in a constant state of tears and I was overly fixated on the upcoming memorial.  The emphasis I was placing on finding the right thing to say was actually making me immobilized.  Earlier in the day I had heard the piece my sister had prepared and it was so sincere and tender and I realized I would never craft something so eloquent and I was bordering on panic.  I was also tasked with speaking first which gave me the sensation of having the enormous task of setting the tone.  I wasn’t sure of the tone to set.  I had terrible ideas about things to talk about.  I had to do so many course corrections that I was blind to my ‘true north’ feelings about Nelson.  I was well on my way to creating the worst memorial talk in history.   Trust me when I say this, it was going to be bad.  It was going to be awkward and would surely have made everyone uncomfortable. If I had given that talk I would have regretted it forever.  And then Jen texted me.  I don’t remember how we got to the subject of the memorial but I most certainly told her I was struggling and in a few, short sentences she reminded me of so many things about Nelson that I truly loved.  She said it so plainly and simply and its truth resonated with me and gave me a place to center myself.  The next morning I sat at my kitchen table and wrote my remembrance in one sitting.  Did I get it right?  I don’t know, but I felt good about it, I still do.  That is another gift that Jen gave me.

The funeral was packed.  Every room filled with people.  As I stood to speak I realized that I was looking at the faces of several of my friends who didn’t even know Nelson.  They had just come for me.  There was one friend who brought her son because they wanted to support my son.

We had an open mic at the funeral for anyone who wanted to speak.  It was overwhelming how many people did.  They came prepared to talk and tell stories.  One woman from the library where my brother worked for years read a children’s book to us.  It was magical.  My former husband spoke even though, as he explained it, he felt like a ghost there.  It was a lifetime ago.   The director of the library spoke and said there would be a brick at the library dedicated to Nelson. There were people there who I never even spoke to that day.  They were just there because they wanted to be there.  When you lose someone it means so much to see that other people cared for them so sincerely.  I will never forget the people who came.

After the funeral everyone gathered at Saucy’s in Petersburg.  The owners, family of Bart’s girlfriend Kerry, closed down the restaurant for the afternoon and fed us all.  It was humbling and important and terribly terribly kind.   The generosity was mind-blowing.  It was a generosity on a scale that might not have occurred to someone else to do.  Those McCormacks are good people.

And the kindnesses continue to this day.  My friends take my son on play dates when I’m too sad to rally.  My workout buddy calls me every week to nudge me.  People text for no reason other than to see if I’m okay and to remind me they are still there.  My coworkers urged me to stay out as long as I needed with a sincerity that took my breath.  The biggest and simplest kindness?  People remember.  They remember Nelson.  They remember what he meant to me.   They know when a birthday cake will mean everything and when a text message is worth a thousand words. And that in turn holds me in place on this earth.



Hi Ho Hi Ho

Here I am sitting at the back of the Midlothian Library while Nelson gets his Wednesday evening tutoring.  I’m trying to ignore the two young guys having a very bizarre and yet intense and maybe even well-informed conversation about world currency.  It’s not really a conversation.  One of them seems to be providing a lecture to the other.  At a common table at the library.  It’s fascinating.  The lecture recipient keeps leaning this way and that as if barely remaining in his seat but then he occasionally adds a comment or question which keeps his compadre going at a rapid pace.  Apparently, this guy has the onset of WWII boiled down to something about the free market and John Adams.  But I digress.

Tomorrow I am supposed to return to work.  I am not at all sure if I’ll manage it.  I have been on the verge of what I assume is a panic attack the last couple of days.  My chest has been aching today and I’ve been pretty close to tears for much of the day or else fighting off sleep which feels defensive in nature.  This business of work and grief has been very complex for me.  I have been out of the office for just over four weeks.  I feel like I need four more to be honest.  But my doctor wrote the note saying to me “you’ll need a month; at least”.  What she didn’t say was ‘come back and see me’.  So as this date on the calendar has been slowly creeping toward me like a lion in the tall grass I have been thinking “I don’t feel healthy.  I don’t feel ready.”  but simultaneously I also thought “I’m supposed to be able to go back now.  I need to go back now.”   I have this huge sense of obligation.  It seems to be coupled with these comments from others that going back to work will be a good distraction.  A good distraction???  I have so many reactions to this I don’t even quite know where to begin.  First, I suppose, is that work is not supposed to be a distraction.  It is something you are supposed to do and do well; in a fully committed manner.   I don’t want to go to work and mail it in.  It’s not the gym for God’s sake.  (that right thee was a joke.  A gym joke; get it?) AND more importantly, I have so many ways I would want to distract myself I don’t need to go to an office with people who aren’t my family and close friends to do that.  I want to write, paint, go to therapy, spend time reading with Nelson, crying and taking walks by water and checking on my father and siblings.  I want to buy an ash tree and plant it for my brother.  I want to sift through the corners of his home looking for answers in the Virginia heat.  Those are distractions that feel worthwhile at the moment.  I do believe that I will find my way back to interest in my work but not today; not yet.  If I had been physically injured no one would say to me go back to work and sit at a desk.  It will be good physical therapy for you.  My heart and my psyche are hurt.  I don’t need to be distracted  I need to be healed.   I need the world to make a bit more sense than it does right now.  Four weeks can’t get me past the loss of my brother of forty-four years.  It can’t sweep the trauma out of my mind.  And yet I feel guilty and weak for not being ready.  I feel like I have to expose my pain to get the time I need and that makes me resentful even if it isn’t entirely true.

Meanwhile, as I’m writing this the guy with way too much information about world currency is now talking about his job as a cheese monger at a local grocer.   That’s right, a cheese monger.  He’s equally as passionate about this subject.  He’s happy and proud and talking at length about the arm’s length of responsiblities he has making sure the cheese is fresh and properly displayed and cubed if needed.  Yes, he said cubed if needed.    I find myself wishing that I could have a job where I stood and cubed cheese.  I think I might be able to do that tomorrow.  Hi everyone, I’m back.  If you need me I’ll be elbow deep in a rich munster.  Pass me my hairnet.    Except, cancel that.  I just heard this guy say he’s concentrating on his career now and maybe he’ll date in his thirties.  Cheese mongering may be too intense for me at the moment.

So the reality is that I am expected to turn on my computer and begin working tomorrow morning.  I have taken no actions to postpone that or communicate my reservations to anyone so in all the ways that matter the train has left the station on this matter.  It is time to give myself a pep talk and a permission slip to fail if needed.  Just maybe not too profoundly or publicly.

This man.

The acts of kindness began simultaneously to the tragedy.  Think about that for a moment.  Something terrible happened to me and my family and instantly there were people who mobilized to support us.  Instantly.  I started this post thinking I would write about that but this may turn into something different.  You’ll have to bear with me.

My brother, Bart called me somewhere around 8:30 or 9pm on Wednesday night June 14th.  I was just sitting down to watch This is Us on television.  I had been binge watching the family drama.  I haven’t been able to turn it on since.  Judd had just walked in from going grocery shopping.  He was telling me how expensive the shopping trip had been; marveling at the amount of salmon he had purchased.   My son, Nelson had gone to bed easily and I was feeling relaxed and happy.  I had texted my friend Kim to confirm that I would be at the gym at 6 the next morning and would in fact pick her up for the class.  Everything was feeling good.  I was taking it all for granted.

That’s the beauty of life before tragedy.  You can take it for granted.  But tragedy is a haymaker punch that lands square when your head is turned, laughing in a bar.   Bart’s call was the sucker punch.  I almost hung up when I answered and he didn’t start speaking right away.  I thought he had dialed me accidentally.  I had even remarked to Judd “Hey, I think Bart butt dialed me!” and laughed.  But then Bart was on the line but with a weird sing song voice saying “Something has happened.  There is a large police presence at 408.”  I’m standing and moving and saying “I’m coming” before I have really processed what he is saying.  The need to GET THERE was so strong.  I just began to move.  I had my keys and my purse and was standing in the kitchen when he sort of lilted “There is a deceased body in the back yard.”  My knees buckled.  I know I wailed.  Before that night I didn’t realize those things were actually involuntary.   And then I was in the car telling Judd to stay; I didn’t need him to drive me.  Stay with our son.

I drove the thirty minutes in the rain to my brother’s house.  I called a couple of people on the way.  One was my workout buddy.  I won’t be there tomorrow.  I think my brother is dead.  One was my work friend.  Something has happened. I think my brother killed himself.  I won’t be there tomorrow.  One was my friend Chris.  I don’t actually remember what I said to him. Probably I said he killed himself Chris.  My fears have come true.  And then I called  Bart again.  Are you alone?  No, there are lots of police here.  Where is Kerry?  Is Kerry there?  No, she isn’t.  I left her a message.  I’m coming Bart.  I’m coming.

By the time I arrived the street was crowded with cars.  Police cars.  All running as if they were preparing to leave at any second.  I’m met by a police officer who asks why I am there.  Why am I there?  Because my world just ended.  But out loud I say I am here because that is my brother’s house.  He shows me where to park.  I can’t figure out how to put my car in reverse.  I’m sure he wonders how I got myself there.  I am wondering too.  He is at my car door as I get out explaining he is the police chaplain.  I think his name was Mike?  I ask him Did someone hurt my brother?  He says he doesn’t think so.  He sounds sad. Did he hurt himself?  We are investigating now ma’am.  So yes.  He did.  But how??  We aren’t gun owners!  None of us.  Our mother wouldn’t even let us own water guns for God’s sake.  He says nothing.  He tells me that he advises me not to go into the backyard.  Don’t look he says.  I am suggesting you not look.    And the suggestion, while kind and probably prudent also opens the door of my imagination.  How horrible is it back there that you think I will not be able to recover from the sight?  I numbly walk down the street to be in front of the house.  It is dark.  It is misting and everywhere is wet from rain.  There are two officers standing in front of the front door which is wide open.  There are lights on in the living room.  I sense there are police inside the house too.  Periodically the flash from the police camera is visible both inside the house and from behind the house too. The front yard is big.  The front door feels a million miles away from where we stand on the street.  And it’s so quiet.  No one is saying anything.  I find Bart.  He is pacing and distraught.  He wants to be in that backyard badly.  He has a real need to see, to validate, to ensure that we are really facing the death of our brother.  How do we know it’s him?  HOW indeed.  I tell him we shouldn’t go look even when they allow us to go.  We should not.  We won’t be able to unsee it.  That was something else the chaplain had said.  You won’t be able to unsee it.  At some point I ask Bart to not go look- for me.  Do it for me, I say.  And to that he agrees.  And I cry so hard because this is a decision he doesn’t want to make and he is doing it for me.  (Reference acts of kindness mentioned above.  This was the first of so many.)

As the rain melts my clothes in to a damp weight on my body and the quiet becomes too much I begin to notice how many people are standing on the street.  There are Nelson’s neighbors but there are also lots of people I don’t recognize.  I learn later they were friends from my brother’s job.  Someone told me the Director of the library stood there quietly in front of the house for a very long time.  There were friends of Bart there.  Suddenly, Judd was there.  Chris had hung up with me and gone to my house.  He was sitting in my living room while my son slept so that Judd could be there to hold me up.  And then Kerry was there with her friend Ella and together they both held me up.  I saw people not adequately dressed; barefoot just there.  Not leaving.  Holding us up with invisible hands.   The fragility of proxemics.

At some point there are murmurings that there was a note left.  Someone has seen it.  Someone who is not a police officer; because the police officers won’t confirm anything.  The investigation is on going ma’am.  We hear that the note was addressed to all of the family; including our mother.  We are told it says “I am sorry”.  Beyond that we are not told.  We can not be allowed to see it or read it.  In a moment of pure pitiful grief I begged the young officer who was our point person to just read it to me.  Please.  Just read it to me.  He does not.

I call my father.  I call my sister.  I deliver unthinkable news.  I will never forget the sound my father made.

We were out there for hours waiting for someone to come to do something I am not even sure what.  Confirm the death?  It is not the medical examiner but it is someone affiliated?  I never really understood.  And he’s delayed and we remain standing in the rain on the street.  And all the quiet friends stay.  Finally we are led up the sidewalk to talk to the coroner or whoever it is we have been waiting on.  And I am confused and rattled because I recognize the man.  I had just met him at a few months before at a bar in Petersburg.  Bart had introduced us because who doesn’t Bart know? He was a retired police detective or something from Prince George?  Dinwiddie?  I know you!  I say before I can stop myself.  Yes he says.  I say I met you at Thanksgiving.  Yes, he confirms.  And then I don’t know why but I hug him.  He confirms that Nelson is dead.  He tells us that he hung himself in the high tower in the backyard.  He says to Bart, You know he was sick for a long time.  Bart says well I don’t know about a long time.  Mr. King says  again, a long time.  He tells us that now the waiting is for the funeral home.  Have we picked one?  I think there is only one in Colonial Heights and I feel confused at the idea of choice.

Finally they arrive.  A man too young for the job and a woman even younger.  He hands me a card and asks if we have any thoughts about a service or the handling of the remains.  No.  No, we don’t.  Please call us in a few years.  We’ll have all the answers by then.  We are moved back to the street.  Bart again agrees not to go to the backyard.  I lean against him.  I thank him profusely.  It takes a long time to do whatever business is involved in the removing of a person from their place of death.  It felt unbearable.  I was starting to rant against the police.  I told them they had to see that I was a human being and I was trying with all my heart to not disintegrate and they had to tell me something.  They had to have humanity.  I could see the younger officers struggling for what to do but staying on script and sticking to protocol in the end.  By the end of the night one of the officers asked if there was anything else we needed and I told him I was tired of being mad at him so I had nothing more to ask or request.  No more.  I couldn’t bear to have him tell me he couldn’t tell me one more thing. He just nodded his head.

And then my brother’s body was brought down the long front yard to the waiting hearse.  It was wrapped in black and strapped to a gurney.  By now it was very late and very dark and the yard was uneven terrain and I could feel the anxiety of the funeral directors as they tried to navigate the situation.  And then I had tunnel vision.  And I was staring at this shape on this gurney and trying to reconcile that it was Nelson.  His body shape seemed too short somehow and yet too long at the same time.  I kept whispering wait.  Wait.   They waited.  They both stepped back from him.  Did Bart come over?  I don’t know.  I couldn’t see or hear anything.  I had such an overwhelming sadness.  It hasn’t left.  I put my head down to where his chest was.  I rested there and whispered to him.  I struggled with the enormity of the situation.  I am sorry and I forgive you.  I am sorry and I forgive you.  I am sorry and I forgive you.  I will miss you the rest of my life.

How long did I stand like that?  Bent over with my head on my brother’s still chest?  I think it was probably minutes.  It was terribly quiet.  Finally I became aware that everyone was standing around us; silently.  The police, our friends, the funeral people, the neighbors.  They were waiting for me to step away and let him go.  And then I was aware that once I did step back they would all go back to the business of their lives.  This was potentially going to be just a thing that happened on their shift or the reason they called in late for work the next day or the gossip they would be mongering out over a beer at some point. And to me suddenly that was a big part of the tragedy.  They didn’t understand the void that had been created in the universe.  They didn’t recognize the magnitude of the loss of this one life; this very special life.   The idea that for even just one person standing there that night that they could be thinking ‘it was just some guy who killed himself’ was more than I could stand.  I didn’t care how many times they had been to scenes like this.  This one was different.  This was Nelson.  I had to make sure they knew that.  And so I made them all wait and I straightened up but I kept my hand on his body so they couldn’t go about the business of taking him from me.  And I said to the dark sky “this man is precious to me.”  I have never said anything so true in all my life.  This man is precious to me.  He is not a statistic.  He is not an anecdote.  He is precious to me.  I named my 8 year old son after this man.  I told everyone there that they needed to go home and say I love you to the people who matter.  They needed to take nothing for granted.

So this isn’t about kindness after all.  I will write about that.  Soon.  But, clearly what I needed at this moment was to recount the enormity of that moment.  That moment where I had to step back and let my brother be taken in the back of a hearse.  I thought of that moment as the thing that started the clocks moving again, the beginning of people rejoining their lives already in progress.  The waiting was over and while the waiting was hard this was even more unbearable.  It meant that the transition was done.  The loss of Nelson official.  The grieving was begun.

One Month

I am still here.  One month later and I am still here; devastated.  Is this going to get easier?  Last night I cried myself to sleep and I woke up in tears again.  I feel sick to my stomach.  I don’t want to be around anyone and I can’t seem to concentrate on anything but being sad.  I’m getting to be very efficient at being sad.

I have moments where I say to myself “He is never coming back.” and then all the air goes sweeping out of my chest and I feel dizzy at the thought of it.  How can this be?!  My every worst fear in life has come true with the loss of Nelson.  I feel like I may never be okay again.  I know rationally that today is extra hard because we’ve reached the one month milestone….  but really each day is a milestone worth saying out loud.  Each day without him is one more I wish I didn’t have to face.  The idea of doing this forever is so overwhelming.

It’s been a rough week.  As I write this, it is Friday.  NelsonCooper is with Ava for the weekend.  I took him to our halfway meeting point yesterday.  It has been really hard being apart from him.  He called last night and left me a message because he was sad.  We facetimed at 11pm.  He told me that he had been texting Nelson’s phone number.  He has been crying a lot this week.  He goes to his room and just weeps.  I have also heard him through his closed-door talking to Nelson Oscar.  It is the sort of raw hurt you never want to see your child experiencing.  I can’t fix this.  Nelson will no longer be the sweet boy who was untouched by deep hurt ever again.  I suspect I will be angry about this at some point.  It is not fair.   Judd and I had a conversation earlier this week about it and we acknowledge that we need to bring our best parenting to the table right now because the way we help him through this will make all the difference.  We have the potential to lose Nelson right now – to put him on the road of a sad, glum adolescent without the emotional tools to deal with all that has happened.  I don’t want that.  I hate it is a possibility.

Nelson has begun his therapy sessions.  It has been quite a kick in the teeth for me.  His therapist makes me feel judged.  She asked me if I was second guessing the decision to tell Nelson that Uncle Nelson had hung himself because in her words “Eight year olds have hung themselves”.   I fell apart.  My friend, Chris reminded me that I have no experience dealing with these things and I am doing the best I can.  I can’t second guess myself.  What’s done is done.  Nelson is angry about going to counseling.  He says he thinks his sadness is private and only for the family.  He also got very angry that this woman told him he didn’t have to take care of me.  She’s not the God BOSS OF ME he said.  #truth.

I keep ruminating about change.  The fact that this has changed me.  I am changed.  I am in the process of changing.  I know the desirable thing is to try to harness the changing process and find myself somewhere healthy when the changing is done but the fact remains this has been a trauma and trauma has a way of yanking the best changing plans out of your hands and flinging them to a place outside of your reach or control.  And that is where I find myself now; feeling out of control.   I went to work today to update my computer.  I am due to go back to work next Thursday.  I don’t want to go back.  I am not ready.  When I pulled into the parking lot I felt like I might vomit in my car.  I was in tears most of the hour and a half I was there.  All I could talk about with my colleagues is Nelson.  I know that won’t always be the case and I know the prevalent logic is to get back to your normal routines as quickly as you can to ‘distract’ yourself.  But why is that the way to heal?  Why is that the way to move through the darkest days of my life?

This writing is a mess.  It is as unfocused as I am.  Enough for now.  I miss you Nelson.  Very, very much.



Benny and Joon

We had friends, Kim and Jeremy,  invite us to their beach house for the weekend.  They have a place in Duck.  We went for a long weekend last July 4th but returned home in time to go see fireworks with Nelson Oscar.  It was just one of those things that had become habit.  I asked him to go to see fireworks and he said yes.  I held my breath and asked again the next year and again he said yes.  I’m not sure how many years he came with us but it felt like several.  It was enough that the 4th was going to be a big deal for me.  And it was.  I ended up not going to see any fireworks this year and sat at home alone and cried instead.  It sounds pathetic but I could not rally.  The idea that we would go and do normal things just didn’t resonate with me.  Anyway.

So we got this invitation and my first inclination was to say no.  No, no no.  I can’t spend a weekend acting like everything is fine or crying in front of people I don’t know well enough to cry in front of all weekend.  They have kids too; a son Nelson’s age and a daughter who is five, I think.  Good people, like-minded and I know the invitation was an act of kindness to our family but it was a hard invitation to accept.

Nelson and I drove down Friday morning.  The ride was sweet and lovely.  We went down Route 460 which is an easy, nostalgic drive.  I thought about Nelson a lot.  Route 460 is mostly country road sprinkled with small towns that somehow reminds me of North Dakota and summer car trips with my mom and dad.  Nelson Cooper read books to me and played on his ipad.  I listened to a book that made me cry.

Nelson was also worried about the weekend.  He told me on Thursday night when I picked him up from camp that he had seen a little boy crying at camp for some unspecified reason and Nelson said he couldn’t go near him because he was worried he would start crying and not be able to stop.  He was concerned about crying in front of his buddy, Luke.  We talked about it and agreed that we might just have to cry and that we could search each other out as needed for comfort.  I also assured him that if it was too difficult we could come home.  I’m not sure I told him this but I had decided that we would go mostly because I feel like we have to try to accept kindnesses when they are offered and we need to try to remain engaged in our lives as much as possible.  I haven’t been back to work yet and am not maintaining routines very well.  I sense that I could easily slip into isolation so I have to try to say yes to opportunity.

Nelson and I arrived a bit after 1pm.  Our friends were in their swimming pool so we suited up and joined them for a bit.  They fed us lunch and in general made us feel really good about  being there.  We headed to the actual beach later in the afternoon.  Jeremy was kind enough to feel my pale girl pain and got me squared away with an umbrella.  And then Nelson got to play.  I had been dreading the idea of going to the beach this summer because Nelson and Nelson were such good beach buddies and I kept having these visions of Nelson Cooper standing at the water’s edge alone.  Having the opportunity to watch Nelson play with friends helped me release that image at least for the time being.  And I found myself feeling relaxed and able to talk about something other than Nelson Oscar’s death for a bit.  I had pangs of guilt when I’d realize that I was just engaging in normal conversation but I was able to hold myself together and remain present which were both big accomplishments in my mind.  We stayed on the beach for hours and enjoyed the ‘golden hours’ where the light turns beautiful and the sun and swim crowd slowly slip away leaving most of the beach to us alone.

Judd arrived that evening after we had a dinner prepared by Kim and Jeremy.  They teased me for my chicken and cheese dinner but it was perfect and carb free.  Tasty and keto for the win. And the best part?  Jeremy was on the back deck grilling the chicken.  It was well past dusk.  He called me to come to the deck.  ‘Look there’, he said pointing to a grouping of trees directly across from us.  ‘Do you know see that?  It’s one of the owls.’ he explained.  They have two owls that they have named Bennie and Joon.  Bennie and Joon – from the movie.  Bennie the brother looking after his complicated sister Joon.  Irony.  It had a happy ending.  Hollywood.  But there it was an owl which all by itself reminds me of my brother.  To twinge this moment even more Nelson Oscar – an owl lover -had actually seen these owls himself a couple of years ago when we happened to be at the beach at the same time as Kim and Jeremy and spent an evening at an outdoors concert with them and then went to their place to make smores.  It was a lot to mentally digest and I didn’t tell them all these connections of course but I stood there on the deck barely breathing watching that owl until he flew away.  It was gorgeous and sad.

The kids went to bed close to 10pm.  The day just got away from us.  We ended the night putting together a puzzle.  I was pretty drained by this point and just sort of sat watching and trying to appreciate the company and the fact that I was there.  

I won’t lie, I cried myself to sleep ruminating on possible triggers for Nelson’s suicide and had nightmares all night but the next day I was able to pull myself up and get dressed and walk to the bookstore with Judd, Jeremy and the kids.  It was super hot and humid (Yay North Carolina!) and was drenched with sweat and a bit dizzy if I’m to be honest but we went to the bookstore and got Judd coffee and books for the kids and a “Happiness Project’ adult coloring book for me because I could use some happiness.  We walked the elaborate series of board walks along the sound and looked at birds and turtles.  I was just another beach goer taking in the town of Duck culture and it felt good.  I did think about Nelson Oscar often and had moments where my breath would catch in my throat but I also had moments where I could talk with genuine interest about owls and the community of Duck and the endless things that fascinate the kids.

We went to the beach for the afternoon.  The water was cold, cold, cold.  I think Judd got in once and I touched it with my toes.  Nelson spent almost the entire afternoon in the surf.  It’s not so bad he said.  He’s 8 and clearly not to be trusted.  Kim brought lunch for everyone down to the beach – file the act under kindness because she specifically brought me a Caesar salad and cheese and salami because my eating habits aren’t normal.  We all need friends like this.

Judd taught the kids how to do word searches and soduku puzzles and I watched Jeremy fly his drone.  Each family is so unique and their habits and routines so their own.  It was both comforting and foreign to be able to lean in to another family group and just go with their rhythm for a while.  Part of their rhythm is to take advantage of the restaurants and bars in Duck.  Kim made us a dinner reservation at the Paper Canoe a place Judd and I didn’t even know existed despite vacationing in Duck for many, many years.  She arranged pizza and a babysitter for the kids.   We rode to the restaurant in the Jeep with the top down.  I held my hair in place like a rock star vomiting.  I ordered the chicken because it came with sugar snap peas.  They were insanely good.  Judd and Jeremy both got shrimp and grits and loved them. Kim had an overcooked steak and sat in front of an overly efficient air conditioner.  We talked college years, dating and neighbors.  It felt easy and good.

Leaving dinner we were greeted with a rapidly darkening sky and thunder rumbling a little too close by for comfort.  We raced back to their house to stow the jeep and jump into Judd’s new car.  We hightailed it over to their favorite cocktails and sunset spot and made it under the covered outdoor bar area with seconds to spare before the sky opened up.  Needless to say, no sunset.  But they had a nightcap and I had an ice water and we sat outside and watched the lightning all around us and counted down the thunderclaps.  We talked books and raising kids in this complicated world.  I told them about my planned rock garden for Nelson Oscar and we took (stole) a rock from the landscaping of the outdoor bar for this purpose.  Later Jeremy would give me two more rocks from the river rocks lining the side of his beach house.  How are awesome are these people!?

This morning we went back to the boardwalk to replace the Geocache box their family maintains.  Geocaching is a not something we have ever done and we got an education about all the experiences we could be having.  I think Judd may just give it a try.

Nelson did great this weekend and for the most part his biggest concerns revolved around getting sunscreen in his eyes.  This morning he did tell me that while in bed last night he was thinking about Uncle Nelson and had gotten very sad and wanted to cry.  I asked him if he had and he said he was scared to start crying because Luke was already asleep in the next bed.  We had a long hug.

It will be a long time before we are able to really go and let go for a weekend without feeling the loss and hurt that is still so fresh and real for us but this weekend gave us a safe and comforting place to practice the motions of normal life – the kind of normal life that involves friendship, food, laughter and ocean waves.  Tonight I sit here feeling sad but also grateful.

Yeah, he’s my husband.

So there was this woman yesterday that I wanted to throttle but didn’t.  You’re welcome airport woman.  You’re welcome.

She’s still on my mind which in some ways really pisses me off because she shouldn’t be- but my brain is not my own these days and I don’t seem to have any control over who comes to visit.  Yeah, so I’m ruminating about her.

It was a brief interaction and it went like this:
Lovely Virginia family of three enter Portland airport shop for ‘plane treats’ for the 8 year old member of family and Diet Coke for the 48 year old member.  Don’t judge me.  I don’t care what is in Diet Coke these days.  It’s delicious.  And life is crap right now so I take delicious where I can get it.

The shop is pretty standard stuff except for this really amazing end cap full of Oregon chocolate.  Who doesn’t want to load up on Oregon chocolate to take home?  I don’t know.  We were fixing to load the f-up.  I’m having this pretty in depth conversation with the 8 year old son about it when I notice this woman standing next to us.  Not just standing.  Staring.  At us.  It went on long enough that it got awkward.  Thanks for that lady.  I look around trying to figure it all out and I realize she is the store clerk and we are blocking one of possibly 14 ways for her to get to her register.  She isn’t looking at us in a ‘can I be of help’ sort of way before you jump to that conclusion by the way.  She is definitely giving us her well rehearsed glare that I can only assume she bestows on customers who annoy her on the regular.  At first I was so startled to realize she was standing there and appeared to plan to remain there until we moved that I gave a little “Oh!” and pulled the 8 year old away from the product I’m assuming her employer would like us to buy so that she could get to the register via her clearly preferred route.  But about one nano second later I was annoyed.  Like, inside voice coming out my mouth annoyed.  And I mumbled something.  Something stupid.  Not bad just stupid.  And in all honesty not loud enough for her to hear.

This is where I should probably point out that under normal circumstances where I’m not dealing with the traumatic death of one of my favorite people on the planet that I’m not quite so reactionary but I don’t want to be disingenuous so let’s just move on.

I go back to the task at hand of loading up armfuls of empty calories for the plane when the husband comes by and remarks that the cashier is grouchy.  AHA!  If JUDD thinks she is grouchy then she is grouchy.  I haven’t contaminated Judd so thoroughly yet and he can be trusted to be objective.

By now we have enough food to put a dent in the 8-year-old’s college fund.  Judd is at the register holding his wallet and casting about for an escape hatch.  I throw him a life ring and say “I’ll get this stuff…..” and look down at my own armful of Diet Coke and sweet and sour gummy worms.  (What did we agree about not judging?) and so he proceeds with his transaction.

About now, I become aware that the cashier would rather we just combine all this into one transaction.  On some levels I get it.  I’ve been the cashier.  Each customer is its own creepy thing you have to do.  If everyone is together can’t you just check out together?  In another universe and on another day when you hadn’t forced me to step aside so you could go through in such a passive aggressive way you would be exactly right cashier lady.  But not today.  Not today.  Before she gave Judd his total she actually came to a full stop and looked at the items I was holding for a full beat.  She moved her hand to gesture ‘this stuff too?’ because why bother speaking to us?  And I said “Oh no, I’ll pay for these separately.”  Sweet smile – because I’m the bigger person.

Judd completes the transaction and herds himself and 8-year-old out the door.  I put my items down in front of cashier lady.  She looks at my stuff like it is covered in Zika and before she touches any of it she says to me, “Sorry, I thought you were together.”  I give her a genuine smile (seriously – genuine).  “Yes we are together but I am paying for this stuff… sorry we’re weird like that I guess.”  She levels me with a really ugly look and says “I thought he was your husband.” To which I say (admittedly confused) “he is.”  She starts to ring me up with the speed of an arctic glacier and then stops (STOPS!)  waits a second and says  without looking at me “You’re very weird.”

Record scratches to silence………

Did this woman just say I was weird???

“What?” incredulous me says.

“He’s your husband and he didn’t pay for this.  It’s weird.”

And then……  well, I can’t actually remember what then because I think I blacked out or went into a feminist fugue or something.  I have no idea what I said but I remember my lips moving and I also remember feeling like I was really holding myself in check *proud moment* and then, blink, I was out of the store on the concourse again looking for our gate and shaking my head in amazement.

And ever since then I have been having periodic flashbacks where I rewrite the ending.

I’m Tony Soprano during that moment of calm right before he reaches out and chokes some lacky.  You know it’s coming and everyone in the vicinity holds their breath and takes a slow step backwards.

I’m Merryl Streep delivering a Devil Wears Prada level verbal smack down.

I’m me but meaner and I look at her and say “Shhhh, you’re stuck here and I’m not.” and I walk away cool like ice.

I run the scenarios 100 different ways until I’m actually tired of the exercise.  And I feel better and I realize I still bought Oregon chocolate.  Let me repeat.  I bought Oregon chocolate.  Life is not all bad.FullSizeRender

The more things change

On the night of June 14th my world was upended with the news that my brother, Nelson, had been found deceased in his backyard. That was the word everyone was using: deceased. I don’t even understand that word. The prefix ‘de’ means negative or remove and cease means to stop or bring to an end. Either part of the word seems descriptive enough but together it is unbearable.

Today’s kick to the teeth is sponsored by the medical examiner’s office which estimates it will take a month to complete their final report. Why does it matter? Because until that report is complete the detective assigned to the case can’t release anything collected from the scene and that my friends, includes Nelson’s suicide note; which by the way was addressed to his family not the detective.  How is that for some insult on injury? When I think about the fact that Nelson took time to address us before he took his life and yet we will be the last to see it…. well. It is a painful, breath catching thing.  Is his note pinched under the clasp of some clipboard? Is it in a file? Is it languishing in the middle of some pile of paper? And just as I am losing myself in the sorrow of these questions the real question comes barging in; knocking the others out of the way. And of course that question is “What does it matter?”  What will be changed when we know what the note says? Will he be sitting with me again? Will his voice be back in my home? Will his text messages light up my phone? Will I find him washing Christmas dishes at the sink?  Or will I be more sad than I am right this very minute because either the note will say too little or maybe too much? 

I am afraid of who I will be if after all of this we don’t end up with the note in our hands.  But in some ways I’m even more scared of who I will be if we do end up with it.  Will the thin scab provided by time be ripped away, forcing me to start over?  What if it says something that shatters my heart the rest of the way?

I had similar feelings when my brother Bart and I were at the funeral home and were told we had to identify the body.  I was so full of dread and the pull of avoidance so strong.  Had we not been told just two nights before not to go to the backyard because we would never be able to un-see?  Why were we suddenly equipped for the task now?  I was caught off guard not realizing this would be required of us.  In taunt television crime dramas no one ever identified bodies at a funeral home!!!

My initial response is so self protective but almost as quickly I realize that if I refuse then Bart will have to do it alone.  (There is no version of things that involves us saying no thank you to this step of the process. )  So if I leave it to Bart alone he will have to suffer something the rest of us will not. It will be his to carry with no one to look to in order to say ‘you know what I saw. You relate. ‘ And that -that realization solidified things for me. We would have to do this together. I could not abandon him to the task.  And so we did it together.  Sort of. In the end, my body was shaking so much that Bart looked first while I held his hand and braced for him to collapse.  Somehow he did not.  He gave me some words about what to expect and then I looked too – slowly.

The actual identification was done with a picture.  It was covered by another piece of paper and left for us on the funeral home meeting room’s table.  I ended up sliding the cover sheet down slowly, incrementally.  I don’t know what I thought that would accomplish but it seemed more tolerable than seeing the entire image all in one gut wrenching moment.  First I could see just his hair, then his forehead and then his beautiful eyes; closed as if sleeping.  I moved the paper down to his chin.

There he was.  My brother I love so very much.  While the image itself did not end up traumatizing me, having to face the image did.  I was one person before I got the call from Bart that Nelson was dead I was another afterwards.  I changed again when I had to call and tell my father.  Telling my sister was another version of me.  Further and further I move from the woman I was.  I can’t even see her anymore.   Looking at his face in that photograph left an indelible mark.  And I know with certainty that while the waiting for access to the suicide note is some of the most agonizing waiting I’ve ever done the reading of the note will not bring me peace.  It will just be more change crawling all over the person I used to be.  Robbing me of the unknowing.  I wish I was strong enough not to want the note.  Strong enough to leave it unread.  But I am not.  Knowing Nelson meant to communicate some final thing to us compels me.  My changing incomplete.