Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I'm Your Worst Nightmare

...or at least I know I’m living it right now. And I hate that. I want to inspire you, make you laugh, and make you feel better about this whole hard, wonderful mothering and life thing. But instead, the very thought of me breaks your heart. When I cross your mind during the day, or for some of you even in the middle of the night, it’s like a sucker punch to the gut, isn’t it?

I’d love to encourage you and charm you right now, but all I can say is, this grief thing? A million times worse than I ever could have expected or feared. I thought I’d done pretty well when my mom died when I was 18 and she was 46. You know-- kept putting one foot in front of the other, wrote a slew of thank you notes, and stayed true to the kind of upbringing she had given me.

But THIS? Dear God! This?

Where being home is untenable and being out is unbearable and the longing is unquenchable.

There are many glimmers of good things happening as a result of my little boy’s life, many, many good things such as families growing closer, people leaning on God, and a community loving on a broken family. I aim to share those things with you on this blog because, as my sister says, “I don’t believe God caused this to happen, but I believe He can redeem it.” Amen, Sister.

But do those good things make the aching abate; do they make us miss our wonderful little boy any less? Hell No. Would we rather have our boy back in place of all of the amazing transformation that is occurring as a result of his short but generous little life? Hell Yes.

By the way, does anyone else find it interesting that after almost 4 years of blogging in anonymity and using very proper language (except for an occasional reference to pantiliners) that now, when my “cover is blown” and people know who I am, I feel the need to curse more than ever before? And, now that my former English students know who I am, I can’t seem to stop beginning all of my sentences with “And and But?” Oh well. I really don’t give a crap.

The truth is, there has been so much going on here, by way of warnings and comfort and…otherworldliness…that it can only be from God. The foreboding both Tim and I got one week before the accident when we found out some important dynamics in our environs were shifting. The weird moment on our evacuation ride home from the beach when Margaret turned to Jack and told him she had a feeling he was going to die young (He just kept on reading Oliver Twist.) The unbelievably prescient Bible verse God gave Margaret six weeks before the accident. The list goes on and on. I do not know what to make of it, but it is surely something.

For those of you who were unable to be at Jack’s service or listen to it online , I want to make sure you know of something very special that happened the night he died. Our electricity was out because of the storms, and if I ever post the gut-wrenching account of what happened that horrific night, you’ll understand more about the role the lack of electricity played in Jack’s death. But it did serve as a measure of comfort as well.

I sat on the couch weeping, rocking, keening, and reading the Facebook posts that poured in all night. The electricity came on at about 2:30 in the morning and Tim came downstairs to plug in our cell phones. When he plugged mine in, instead of my password screen and regular app screen coming up, a Bible application, open to a particular verse, popped up. The only one who had ever used that app was Jack, for school last year, under a fair share of duress at Bible memory verse time. Here is the screen shot:

What comfort. What a gift. Thank you.

Then, this week, as the numbness started to wear off and the pain seeped into my bones, I plugged in my phone for charging and something else popped up. This image is from a different Bible memory app, also used only by Jack, almost a year ago. Here’s the screen shot:

Just a picture of Jesus, with the words, Follow Me.

Believe me. I’m trying. I’m trying. I won’t quit trying.

And on the past two Thursdays since his death-- in a month of rain and clouds and the kind of days that have elementary teachers turning toward the bottle at the thought of one more indoor recess-- at sunset, at the exact time that Jack was missing that horrible Thursday night, the rain stopped and we were met with the most amazing, vibrant, multi-colored sunsets we have ever seen. The sun set right over the paltry little creek bed, now almost dry, where Jack left this earth in a rush of raging water. Many friends in our town saw the sunsets and thought of Jack.

So there are feelings, nudges, and blessings, and we know God is part of all of this somehow. And I don’t want us to forget about that as we navigate this waking nightmare. So I’ll write what I can here.

And we don’t want you to forget about us, either. All four of us. Our sweet Jack and the three left here to mourn, and miss him, and figure things out.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Not-So Outrageous Fortunes

We were eating Chinese food supplied by my friend Michele last night. With all the love pouring in from friends during this wretched, wretched time, I will not be cooking again until nearly 2012.

Having 3 at our table for four was excruciating, as we tried out our "new normal" for one of the very first times.

We talked about the beef and broccoli, and I said how Jack would have probably done his whole dramatic fake throw-up thing if we made him eat it. Margaret defended him, saying that during all of those years of forced broccoli consumption, it had been REAL throw up. Ewwwww. Kind of like when we made her eat quiche.

I guess you can imagine our dinner table has not always been as...sedate...as it was last night.

Fortune cookie time came, and Margaret opened hers first.

It was a tad too "alternative lifestyle-ish" for her 10 year old sensibilities, so she passed it on to her dad:

I hope so, I sure do. Please pray for us.

Then came Margaret's new one:

Yes, Dear God, yes please.

And mine? Sounds about right.

Then we told Margaret about how, when we were dating, Tim and I got two of the EXACT SAME FORTUNE COOKIE MESSAGES one night.

They read, "Being Faithful to a Trust, Brings its Own Reward." We thought that was pretty cool and that maybe, just maybe, after nearly FIVE YEARS OF DATING it meant this whole "Tim and Anna" thing could work for the long haul.

We asked Margaret if she thought that sounded romantic.

"Romantic? I'd just call that budget cuts at the old fortune cookie factory!"

It's good to have laughter amidst all of these tears.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to Contribute in Jack's Name

Thank you so much for your love and support. I am almost, almost but-not-quite-yet ready to get back on here and write and rant and process and share and cry with you, my friends.

But first, I know a lot of you have been asking for ways to make the world a better place in Jack’s name. In addition to one of Jack’s favorite charities, Operation Christmas Child at Samaritan’s Purse –- (there is a button on the second page of the donation process to select a memorial card), there will be a scholarship set up in Jack’s memory at Dominion Christian School. If you would like to contribute to this fund, please send a donation to:

Dominion Christian School
10922 Vale Road
Oakton, VA 22124

There is an additional fund that our family will be able to use for future projects in memory of Jack. We are excited to include Margaret in these decisions. Any contributions to this fund may be sent to:

Jack Harris Donaldson Memorial Fund
Apple Federal Credit Union
PO Box 1200
Fairfax, VA 22038-1200

Thank you for your loving support during this heartbreaking time. Above all else, we are grateful and dependent upon your prayers as we figure out how to live and breathe. Your outpouring of love has been amazing, and we are thankful that so many of you have been touched by Jack’s life.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Listen to your Auntie

Read at Jack's Memorial Service on Monday:

This is a message from Anna's Sister, Jack and Margaret's Auntie.

There is much more to say about Jack than I can possibly take the time for today. School friends remember him as smart and kind and funny and the life of the party. I’d like to tell you about the Jack I knew and loved and will celebrate for the rest of my life.

I have always marveled about how smart Jack was – he was an artist, a brilliant reader, a mathematician, and a serious student of the Bible. He was so gifted in so many ways. He loved creating stories and solving mental puzzles. During our last visit he and his mom solved a logic puzzle that the rest of the family had to Google to solve.

And as most of us know, Jack loved his Legos. Jack’s passion for Legos was bigger than life – they were not just a toy to him, but a creative element and a very likely future career. Even when he was very young, he built complicated sets that would challenge adults. My kids and I always thought that Jack would become an engineer or an architect. He was curious, careful, methodical, and tenacious in his studies and his relationships.

He was always conscious of doing the right thing, even when everyone around him didn't see things his way. In that way he could be very serious. But he also had a lightness about him. I understand that he could get silly at school, but the Jack I knew was the kid I would want my kids to hang around to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Things weren’t always easy for Jack, but as he grew into himself, he settled into a place of joy that I pray each one of us will find again someday. He was an authentically joyful person. We know that joy is different from happiness. I am not trying to paint Jack as constantly giddy. I am talking about a deeper joy despite circumstances. What a lesson. Jack found joy in school, his friends, baseball, his church and above all his family.

He so loved his Sister, Margaret. He knew Margaret was special…full of light and life and love. He knew he was blessed to be her brother. Jack never teased Margaret like other brothers do- he never took his little Sister for granted. He was Margaret’s partner, her playmate, her best friend, her protector and her comforter. She was all of these things to him, too. Margaret’s loss is immeasurable.

Jack was also such a gift to his cousins. He and Isaac loved late night talks about anything and everything. He wow-ed his cousin Caroline with his intelligence and humor. Jack was a great listener. He cared about them and who they were and what they loved. He became genuinely excited about their interests. He often put his own ideas and desires on the back burner to allow others center stage. And doing this made him happy, not jealous. This was the source of Jack’s unique joy – it came from his unusual ability to internalize the joy of others and keep it for himself. To let it become a part of him. He did not express envy in the face of others’ success, or boredom when people expressed interests he didn’t share. He was able to take on the joy of others and keep it for himself. Instead of allowing the joys and successes of others to diminish him, he allowed it to fill him up. Jack also was the joy of everyone who loved him.

This tremendous loss is ours, not Jack’s. I am confident that Jack is blessed and whole and perfect and finally getting all of his questions answered at the feet of his Savior. My prayer is that God will somehow redeem OUR loss in this life. I am desperate to find ways for Jack’s legacy to live on in my life. I am determined to find redemption in this heartbreak. …I am aiming high. In Jack’s honor, I want to-

Be kind. Jack was a gentle, loving and kind soul.

Pay attention. To details, to other people’s feelings, to God’s work in my life and in the world.

Quiet time is time well-spent. Jack asked good questions and took this time to think through good answers. He also knew that some questions would not be answered in this life, but that contemplation has value anyway.

Play. Be creative, experiment, think things through from every angle and share my gifts with the world. When I enjoy something, I want to enjoy it BIG. And play together. Throw a ball in the yard, even if the to-do list beckons. Snuggle and chat at bedtime, even if it is late.

Never give up. Focus on my call, my art, my joy, my task and see it through.

Be patient. Good things are worth waiting for.

Internalize the joy of others. I pray that God will help me learn to do what Jack did…. To find my own joy in the joy of others. I want to relish other people’s happiness regardless of my own circumstances, like Jack did. My beloved nephew Jack was unimaginably selfless for a 12 year old. Jack found the secret to lasting joy. Borrow it from others and keep it forever.

In closing, I will tell you one last lesson we can learn from Jack’s life. I believe that Jack’s ability to find joy was a gift given to him by his parents. There is no parent on Earth who loves his or her child more than Tim and Anna love Jack and Margaret. Not a day of Jack’s life passed that they failed to tell him how much they loved him, how proud they were to be his parents. There is no child who felt more secure in his parents love than Jack did. He was taken from us too early, but somehow Anna and Tim filled a lifetime of love into Jack’s twelve years.

So Please- for our Jack –

Be Kind.
Pay Attention.
Never Give Up.
Share Others' Joy.

And every day- tell your loved ones how treasured they are.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


We'll talk. We'll talk about the regrets and what-ifs and the senses of foreboding. We'll talk about an ache so deep that it can't be named. We'll talk about the excruciating pain of looking at neighborhood kids playing outside my window today, on a day that is impossibly, infuriationgly sunny. And the feeling that I want to hug those kids so tightly, or scream at them because they are alive and my kid is dead. Or both. We'll talk about backpacks still on hooks and clothes in the laundry basket and favorite foods in the fridge. We'll talk about how my kids' blog names were different from their real names so no one would come murder us in our beds. We'll talk about how I really don't give a shit about that now. We'll talk about news cameras. We'll talk about neigbhors holding us up when we couldn't stand. But for today, my friends, when THERE ARE NO WORDS, I'll share with you what I read at Jack's service yesterday. Because, though spread far and wide, though we may not have met in person, you ARE my friends, my people. And when I was speaking in the church, I was speaking to you too. I love you.

"It’s impossible to sum up what Jack meant to us, and I know you understand that. Some of you knew him from school days where he was lively and fun and, if rumors are correct, where he may have driven at least one preschool teacher into early retirement. Some knew him through church, scouts and baseball, where he was quiet and reserved. Many of you are family and friends, who were able to see other sides to him, and some of you never had the chance to meet Jack at all. Thank you to those who have shared Jack stories with us. Please keep them coming.

Now we’d like to share a tiny bit of what he was like with us, in our family, in our HOME.

Jack was a witty, creative, sensitive and loving son. He loved the rituals of family life, whether it was holiday traditions such as going on a poem scavenger hunt to find his “big” present each Christmas, eating our annual Christmas Eve lunch at Chevy’s Mexican restaurant, staying until the very, very, very end of the Halloween Parade no matter the weather, or enjoying ice cream for breakfast on the first snow day of the year.

But he also enjoyed the simple, everyday rituals of family life such as always sitting in the same place in the balcony Sundays at church (POINT TO BALCONY), and discussing the Yankees box scores in the paper with his dad each morning. He loved the four of us squeezed together on the couch, our dog Shadow at our feet, as we watched our favorite shows. On weekends at dinner he would just say, “Tonight?” which was shorthand for “What are we going to do together tonight?” Jack loved this family. When he asked whether he could do something that we didn’t want him to, we just said, “That’s not what Donaldsons do.” And he didn’t argue about it. Not once.

You already know Jack’s passion was Legos, but he also enjoyed board games, doodling, logic puzzles, hot wheels cars and using his imagination to create clever games with his little sister. Those of you from school, fondly remember the games he made up just for YOU, and the strange, new words and phrases he introduced into your vocabulary like STEBE and “What the Johnny?” Thank you for letting Jack be Jack. He loved you.

You will hear a lot today in conversations about how funny Jack was, and he did keep us laughing at home, but you may be surprised to hear he was not a natural clown or even an optimist. Jack faced personal challenges that made certain situations quite difficult for him. Sometimes he wanted to be a more happy- go-lucky kid, like those he saw around him. I’ll never forget when he said to me, “Mom, “I know I’m a glass half-empty kind of guy, but I’m trying to be more glass half-full.” And he never quit trying.

I remember telling him, when he was very upset about something, “Your emotions may seem too powerful to you, and that is hard, but they are part of what makes you YOU. I love you, I love the way you are made, and I am proud to be your mom.” During these times of struggle he never said, “Why me?” but instead leaned on his special verse from the Bible, “Nothing is Impossible With God.”

Jack loved his neighborhood, and was a homebody at heart. We decided to cancel our pool membership because Jack just couldn’t be bothered with going ALL THE WAY across town to the pool. When his dad and I talked of getting a new house someday, Jack said we shouldn’t, because we could never find a neighborhood as nice as ours. His happiest memories this summer were playing with the neighborhood kids and his sister, whether it was soccer in the Smith’s yard, playing Manhunt at night, having lemonade stands, or swimming in the neighbors’ pools. I think he would be proud of how our neighborhood has come together to show so much love to our broken little family during this horrible week.

Jack was a great big brother to Margaret. One of his favorite things about our annual beach trip was getting to share a room with her. He thought she was cool. He appreciated how she wasn’t a “girly girl” and would gladly play pretty much whatever he dictated. They had very different, yet complimentary personalities—vivacious Margaret and more serious Jack, a little like their Mom and Dad, you know?

Often, when he wanted to see if someone in the neighborhood could play, he brought Margaret out as a scout to do the talking for him. She also tried to help keep him organized by helping him turn in permission slips that otherwise would have sat in his backpack for a month. I think they knew each other better than most siblings do. Margaret was constantly giving Jack unsolicited advice about his hair. Speaking of hair, let’s pause to remember Jack’s great head of hair. Margaret and I liked for him to keep it short, so we could always see that cute little part in the front that we called “Jack’s Floop.”

We were so happy to have the kids in the same school so they could be together and share those memories. It’s something that helped keep our family close. We were looking forward to 2 more years with them together at school. This year I asked if Jack would tutor Margaret in Latin. I offered to pay him $1 to tutor her, and pay her $1 to PUT UP with him as a tutor.

The most tender part of the day for Jack and his dad was their evening catch in the yard when they talked about his Lego creations, their fantasy baseball team, and the Yankees.

The most tender part of the day for Jack and me was bedtime, when we would snuggle in the dark. This is when he would open up and really talk about important issues. Each night, whether it had been a great day or a hard day, ended with my telling Jack how much we loved him and how very proud we were to be his parents.

And we were, ALWAYS-- he was so quirky, and tender and gentle toward us. The whole family got excited about what Jack was excited about, whether it was playing Macbeth in the school play, or trying to predict who would win America’s Got Talent.

Our time with Jack was too, too short, but I’d like to tell you a story about some bonus time I got with Jack that I cherished. One summer I was driving Jack to camp in Pennsylvania. When we pulled up at the gates, there was no one there. NO ONE. I looked at Jack and I was about to cry, because I had gotten the day wrong! He gave me a HUGE smile—a cross between “my mom is a nutcase” and “hey, this is pretty cool!” We got to spend a day and ½ hanging out in a little Pennsylvania town together, having rare one on one time, and we even went to Frank Llyod Wright’s Fallingwater, a dream for Jack, the budding architect. Bonus time. Precious time.

You’ve heard that Jack was a deep thinker. He wondered about a lot of things. In fact, as a five year old he said the first thing he would ask God when he died was why the heck He created mosquitoes. I think he knows now. The rest of us will just have to wait.

I want to tell you that the concept of eternity scared Jack. It just seemed, well, a little too long to him. Then, 2 years ago at summer camp, he had a conversation with his counselor. They discussed heaven and eternity in a way that helped Jack to stop being afraid. In fact, he was excited about heaven! He didn’t understand why people were afraid to die because he truly believed that there was no better place.

Sometimes at funerals, people tend to portray the person who died as perfect. Jack, who consistently insisted on the truth, would not have approved. We would all agree that Jack was NOT a perfect person, nor are you, nor am I. We do not have to be. But we do know Jack was an amazing, generous, gentle, loving child who blessed our lives and was the PERFECT son for this family.

Our handsome Jack, our sweet boy, died in a tragic, senseless accident. We all wish we could turn back the clock. Our hearts are breaking for what could have been.

But you know what? We truly believe our homebody Jack is HOME now, in a better HOME than any of us could ever imagine."

For more about the service, please see my friend Glennon's blog.

Friday, September 2, 2011


My friend Kathy is a planner. When we get together for girls’ weekends, she has incredible restaurant suggestions for us. She knows which art exhibits are coming to town. She and her husband actually go on vacations together because she researches and plans and budgets for them, rather than sitting around wondering, “Why don’t we ever dooooo anything?” Kathy plans; Kathy achieves.

For Kathy, planning meant college, and law school, and marriage, and 2 kids. Which did happen, but not the way she planned.

When her second daughter, Charlotte, was a baby, Kathy noticed that it took Charlotte longer to do things than it had with her first daughter. Those of us a few more years into motherhood told her not to worry, that Charlotte was just fine. I must admit we probably thought Kathy just didn’t get the whole “babies develop at different rates” thing. We may have thought Kathy needed to relax a little.

But Kathy knew. She knew something was different about Charlotte. Kathy spent hours and hours teaching Charlotte to crawl and walk, when other babies did that on their own. When cutie-pie Charlotte started talking, but then lost those words shortly thereafter, Kathy’s friends and family finally began to fathom what Kathy had been trying to tell us all along.

Doctors’ visits, profound fear and sadness, whispered words like “autism,” and feelings of hopelessness entered Kathy’s well-planned life. No one knew what was causing Charlotte’s delays. And no one in our small sphere of friends even had the context to deal with what was to come. You see we were still in the pregnancy and potty training stages where we talked about lack of sleep, chafed nipples and pre-school spats. Depression, OCD, divorce, bullying, learning disabilities and other messy topics hadn’t yet entered our lexicons.

And then came Rett.

Charlotte was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmenal disorder that affects girls almost exclusively. It is characterized by normal early growth and development, followed by a slowing of development, loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability. Rett girls cannot speak. Many are in wheelchairs. Every two hours a girl is born with Rett Syndrome.Who knew?

As Kathy said, “We were circling the drain.” The sense of loss for the life Charlotte could have led was staggering. The stress of making decisions for Charlotte’s care was enormous. This was not what Kathy planned for her precious little girl. Kathy felt doomed to a life of sadness.

But slowly the fog began to lift. The planner in Kathy used those skills to educate her family about Charlotte. She helped organize events to fund Rett research. She marshaled her talents to get Charlotte an array of help from amazing teachers and specialists. She plugged into a school system with vast early intervention resources, which even placed Charlotte in a special-needs preschool class right next door to her big sister’s kindergarten.

And most importantly, Kathy bonded with other moms with children with severe challenges and realized she was not alone. And do you know what she saw when she looked at these women? They laughed. They cried. They ran. They had sex with their husbands. They drank wine. They went to Disney. They had more kids.

More kids? “Two and then Through” became a thing of the past. On the practical side, Kathy and her husband did not want their older daughter to bear the sole responsibility for Charlotte’s care when she grew older. So Kathy and her husband jettisoned their plan for two kids and well, forged ahead, if you know what I mean.

But if Kathy hadn’t already learned some lessons about planning before, she did now, when the doctor told her she would soon give birth to not one, but TWO beautiful, healthy girls. Twins!

An orderly life of work and play and 2 kids, is now the busy, bustling life of a house of 4 girls. A happy house that rings with laughter, and tutus and art tables and…. personality!

Charlotte is cherished by her sisters and their friends. Through her, they are learning about differences and love. The twins, even at age 3, already nurture and care for big sis Charlotte. She has a calm, content demeanor. She loves the water, going to school and camp, and her adoration of Troy Bolton from High School Musical went unabated for years. She likes to steal food off her sisters’ plates, which makes the whole family smile.

Kathy would never have envisioned this house full of girls for herself. Just as she would not have envisioned having to share her house with home health aides and specialists and large-sized diapers. Planning and structure are still there, because they are so needed, but so is a degree of acceptance and relinquishing control beyond Kathy’s expectations. This acceptance has led to a rich life and the kind of life lesson none of us asks for but some of us get.

As Kathy wrote to me, “...I am grateful that Charlotte taught me never to give in to sadness. And because of Charlotte being who she is, we now have these two creatures who make me laugh every day. It is hard to imagine not having the twins, but I know for a fact that I never would have tried for another baby if Charlotte had been a typical child…I am sure people feel sorry for me because of Charlotte’s diagnosis. And I know for a fact that people feel sorry for me because I had twins. They are probably so thankful that they are not me. And that’s OK. But I know for a fact that I am lucky. I have four daughters and I love them all with my whole heart. And they are all wonderful and needy and loving and frustrating and sweet and annoying. None of them are “perfect”—except to me!”

Kathy prays that medical research and breakthroughs will help Charlotte and other girls with Rett, and she hopes you and I will be a part of that.

To learn more about Rett Syndrome, or to make a donation for much-needed medical research, please visit the International Rett Syndrome Foundation.

And today, in whatever situation you find yourself, when you may be thinking as Kathy did, and as I sometimes do, “This is NOT the life I signed up for,” remember that you are never alone.