Monday, April 30, 2012

Prodigal Ponderings

I've never liked the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15). I know it gives so many people hope and assurance of the abundant love and forgiveness of God as the father races to welcome home his dissolute son who had spurned him and thrown his life away. Problem is, I've always identified with the older brother in the story, the one who stayed home and was loyal and obedient, and that son doesn't come off looking very good.

It's clear in the Bible that the older son doesn't recognize the father's true character and wants to organize the world according to what he thinks is fair and what's not. He feels hurt and disappointed to see his father lavish love on the younger son when he returns from his life of debauchery. There's a "What about me?" quality in the older brother's response that resonates in my life.

As a kid, I wanted to be my parents' favorite, and I thought I deserved to be because I was a rule follower. When my siblings, especially my sister, did anything wrong, I'd be quick to point it out, thinking this would win me brownie points. Yes, once I even rang the neighbors' door bell to inform them, an older couple, that, "My sister picks her boogers and eats them!" For some reason, they gave me strange looks, and I walked home perturbed.

I tried to help around the house, not so much to ease my mother's burden, but to look good. A glance at an Easter picture of the three siblings from around this time will show you two kids smiling at the camera, and another looking at her siblings' baskets to see if there's been an equitable chocolate distribution.

I didn't understand at the time that we love our children differently, because they are unique, but that it wasn't some big contest.

Whatever I did could not make my parents love me more or love my siblings less. I wss keeping score in an exhausting game of tallying, but my parents weren't. This irked me, because I wanted to live in a world that made sense to me, with neat lines and graphs and deposits and withdrawals. I helped around the house. I could find my shoes. My homework sheets were uncrumpled. I did not want to live in a world where good things happened to "bad people", and in my protected suburban life as a 10 year old with an unfortunate Dorothy Hamill haircut and a year older sister who looked like Farrah Fawcett, I thought I knew who should land squarely in the "bad" category. Life was so unfair!

I learned that my parents were showing me what God's love was like. No amount of striving on my part made a difference, and it was, in fact, embittering and exhausting.

My way left no room for grace and forgiveness. My way put God in a little legalistic box of my making.

And even though I grew and changed (and my sister became my best friend!) I stayed pretty much on this course, wanting to be good and be obedient. It fit with my personality. A life on the wild side just seemed too stressful and out of character to me. When I'd hear about the younger son sowing his wild oats in the parable, well, actually being reduced to eating food out of a pig's trough, my heart would race and I felt like I would get a rash.

Now, after Jack's death, I wonder if deep down inside, I thought that following rules and being a "good girl" would/could/should protect my family and me from heartache. It seems so simplistic, so ridiculous, but I think my righteous indignation that good things happened to bad people (the younger son in the Bible) was really a desire to keep bad things from happening to good people (me, of course!)

So stupid, so flawed. So untrue.

I know that's not the way of this world. Horrible things happen to good people. Children in Africa being preyed upon by warlords. Kids with cancer. Sex slavery. Chronic illness. And on and on and on.

But in my little suburban world, where Dorothy Hamill and Farrah Fawcett may have given way foil highlights and Brazilian blowouts, but where much has stayed the same, I wonder if in trying to be good, or hoping to keep life "fair" I was grasping for control over something I never had any control over in the first place.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Little Birdie Told Me

Remember when my dear college friend told me during the weeks after the accident she kept seeing blue jays and having the overwhelming sense that Jack was okay? I thought it was neat because although she did not know it, Jack had always been associated with birds in our minds.

My friend did not know that Jack's first word was bird.

She didn't know he made up his very own baby sign language sign for "bird."

She didn't know we had a special group of birds that came to our kitchen window every winter that we lovingly called "our flock."

She didn't know that I got the kids a special Christmas ornament each year and that Jack's last one was a bird.

She didn't know Tim and I had used bird imagery when we spoke to Jack at his 6th grade dinner 3 months before.

She didn't know another friend would write an amazing poem about Jack, describing him as a "Rare Bird" or in Latin, the language he took at school, "Rara Avis."

...and she didn't know WHY this message of comfort for us would come through a BLUE JAY, of all birds.

What she did know was that when she would see these certain blue jays in her yard, she would get the overwhelming sense that Jack was thriving. She would hear the words "Rare Bird" over and over in her mind. And she got a playful sense from Jack that there was a puzzle behind WHY it was a blue jay, rather than another bird. The boy did love puzzles.

I was kind of "huh?" when she told me about the blue jays beause I'd always considered them big, loud, and mean, not like Jack at all. I mean, how about a cute little songbird, even though Jack couldn't carry a tune? Or a tufted titmouse or downy woodpecker-- plain "Downys" we called them-- from our kitchen window flock? Or maybe a powerful hawk? I haven't told you that the morning after the accident, Tim, Margaret and I (separately) saw a HUGE hawklike creature that must have been at least 3 feet across, swooping down and around our house for hours in the maddeningly beautiful sunshine. "Did you see that huge bird?" I said. Yes, they had. We didn't think of it as a sign for anything except perhaps that our world had been turned to shit,o who the heck cared if huge birds were swooping around us? I mean, if one of the world's most careful kids could get swept away in a creek, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a Pterydactyl land on our carport at that point.

But back to the blue jay.

My friend puzzled and pondered...

Was it BLUE because vibrant blue ribbons and bows were soon associated with Jack? Maybe.

Jay as in "J" for Jack?? Perhaps.

Or was it for the baseball team the Blue Jays? NO...Jack was a Yankees fan.

Well, what about the traditional symbolism of the blue jay?

Talkative, able to mimic (acting!?),

Oh my yes. Sounds like someone I know and love.

Here's some additional info:

"Blue jay animal symbolism resonates truth, faithfulness, and solidarity because they are vigilant in their tasks. They also keep the same mate for life, which is symbolic of endurance, patience and loyalty. The jay is an excellent symbol for those wishing to honor their long-lasting bond between friends, family and lovers.

In the spiritual realm, the blue jay speaks of clarity and vision. In Native American symbolism (namely the Sioux Nation) the azure of the jay against the blue sky indicated a “double vision” or double clarity. This visual/spiritual “blue on blue” concept speaks of purity of the soul, truth of the heart, and clarity of thought."

I've also learned that the gradual color change on a a blue jay's feathers sometimes represents a link or bridge between Earth and Heaven. I definitely feel that Jack's life and death are linking a lot of us here to a there that it not so very far away. His death is showing us thin places between heaven and earth.

All of this symbolism resonates with me and helps me believe the blue jay (like the rainbows and sunsets and other birds!) is a generous and creative sign from God that our Rare Bird is thriving.

But my sister, who has seen numerous blue jays on her runs since the accident, pointed out another aspect of the bird that should not be overlooked --the cute little crest on its head.

Kind of like a "Jack hair floop," I suppose.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

From Tim

A year ago, Jack and I took a trip to San Diego for Spring Break, headed for the Legoland, the Mecca for Lego fans young and old. The trip was a late brithday present. I remember Jack asking why we were taking this big trip for his 12th birthday. "Shouldn't we wait until next year when I turn 13? That's a big birthday." I don't know why we decided to go last year. Maybe we were concerned that Legoland would not sound as cool to a 13-year old boy about to complete this first year of middle school. In any event, we made the trip, and I am so grateful that we did. We stayed with Anna's cousin Mark while in San Diego, and he was a great host. Jack and I drove to LA to watch the Dodgers, Jack's little league team last year. The game ended in dramatic fashion with a walk-off home run and high fives and fist pumps all around. But the next day was the big event: a day at Legoland. And it did not disappoint. Jack (and I) were in awe of the hundreds of Lego creations. While other kids sped by each display, Jack methodically examined each one, from every angle possible. I felt an urge to hurry him along, concerned that we would not be able to see everything in the park. But I backed off and let him enjoy the day at HIS pace. This day was for him. Jack made me take pictures of everything. At first I insisted that he get in each picture, learning from Anna that photos are much more fun to look at later when they have people in them. But after awhile I got tired of making Jack pose, so I just kept clicking away at the hundreds of Lego diplays, until the battery on my phone died. Recalling our trip a year later, I am so thankful that we shared that time together. It is one of my favorite memories of Jack and is special for me because it was just the two of us spending time doing the things that we liked to do the most. But at the same time, as I reflect on our trip a year later, I am so disappointed and angry that Jack and I won't have another opportunity to get away, just the two of us, and seize the day like we did in San Diego--at least not in this life. I love you, Jack.
P.S. From Anna-- As I drove the kids home from school that rainy Thursday in September, Jack asked again why we had given him his "big trip" when he was 12. I can't remember what I answered. Margaret then said she would be more than happy to wait until she was 13 if it meant we would let her go somewhere "really good" like the Bahamas!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Shower Power

We have two showers in our house. The one in our teensy master bathroom rocks! All four of us used it, although not at the same time, ever since the kids graduated from baths. Even Shadow got her rare shampoos in there.

The shower had the perfect water pressure—hard, but not, “I think I just lost a nipple down the drain” hard. Super, duper hot-- just on the edge of scalding. My sister called it “glorious” and invoked her sisterly privilege to use it when she visited.

Sometimes, when we were in a hurry, I’d see if the kids would use the other, perfectly serviceable shower, and occasionally Margaret would oblige, but Jack would not. The kids’ shower was newer, their bathroom brighter and more spacious, but the water pressure and showering experience just could NOT compare.

So a few weeks ago I noticed a leak. We now have a ripped up ceiling, and our master bedroom shower needs to be replaced. We have neither the funds nor the energy to deal with it right now. Tile shopping and grout color selection? No thank you.

So the three of us have been traipsing up to the kids’ shower. We balked at first, and Margaret is taking even fewer showers than USUAL, which is saying something, but, we have adapted.

While at first I couldn’t imagine using another shower, my desire to be able to go out in public broke down any lingering resistance. And now, after several weeks, the morning routine and sub-par skin-sloughing have become part of my day.

It made me think of Jack. Well, doesn’t everything?

Our new daily living has become a poor substitution for the life we wanted for our family. We trudge along, in a world that seems off-kilter, trying to adapt and make the most of what lies before us. We do it, but that doesn’t mean we like it. It doesn’t mean we don’t consider what came before to be far, far superior.

But we do it, out of necessity, and bit by bit we get used to it. It has been so long since the accident, I’ve got to say it would seem a little strange to have Jack come racing down the stairs today. To tell us about how the middle school dance went. To talk Margaret into playing outside.

Because we have started to adapt to his absence.

I suppose one can get used to almost anything.

But that doesn’t mean I’m okay with it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Anna of Green Gables?

So I’m going to Margaret’s class today to read aloud from Anne of Green Gables and lead a brief discussion with the girls. Due to trauma and lack of energy, I was the last mom to sign up this year. Most moms have gone twice already.

Well guess what? My chapters do not deal with Anne Shirley dyeing her red hair green, accidentally getting her best friend drunk, or yelling at her busy-body neighbor. No sirree. Imagine my delight when I finally got to Chapters 36 and 37 yesterday afternoon-- my chapters -- and learned I get to read about Matthew, Anne’s beloved adopted father, dying.


Matthew falls down dead in front of Anne and Marilla, and despite their attempts to revive him, he receives the “seal of the Great Presence.”

Soooooo, you may want to pray for me, well for ALL of us, around 11:40-12 today. Margaret and I struggle to talk about grief and our feelings about it in the privacy of our own home, so all bets are off for a public discussion of Anne’s reaction to losing her champion, her biggest cheerleader, her Matthew.

No, the impact of Matthew’s death does not merit just a quick mention—it is described, quite eloquently, for the majority of the chapter—ranging from how Anne and Marilla feel, to what it’s like when time moves on without him.

Who knows? Perhaps I’ll just read the chapters without comment, throw a few cupcakes at the girls, and make a run for it. My tears make people uncomfortable, but they come quickly and flow freely these days. It won’t help that I’m already so very sad this week as Jack’s class is on an exciting 3 day field trip to the Chesapeake Bay. With lots of soda, chips, and middle school-ness. Aargh. Will the tears flow?

Maybe I'll dress in period costume ("fancy garb" as Jack would call it) just to throw things off and increase poor Margaret's mortification.

I must say, I think L.M. Montgomery, who wrote Anne of Green Gables, pegs certain aspects of grief very well. Here’s an example:

Anne :

“I’m not afraid. I haven’t been alone one minute since it happened and I want to be. I want to be quite silent and quiet and try to realize it. I CAN’T realize it. Half the time it seems to me that Matthew can’t be dead; and the other half it seems as if he must have been dead for a long time and I’ve had this horrible dull ache ever since.”

“…and then Avonlea settled back to its usual placidity and even at Green Gables affairs slipped into their old groove and work was done and duties fulfilled with regularity as before, although always with the aching sense of loss in all familiar things. Anne, new to grief, thought it almost sad that it could be so—that they COULD go in the old way without Matthew.”

Amen, Sister.

Friday blessings to you all.


It went very well. Thank you for your encouragement. I was able to read the chapters without crying and also make just a few comments based on Anne's experience:

1. People grieve differently.

2. It is sometimes hard to enjoy life after someone has died because you can feel disloyal doing so, but the person who died would want you to live life fully.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I'm featured on the cast page of Listen To Your Mother DC today. I hope you'll check it out!

And if you are local and would like to attend the show on May 6, tickets are on sale now. Click here for details.

I hope your day is a blessing!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Home Run

Tim told me our local little league would like to name a sportsmanship award for Jack. Right after I spit out my tea, I paused to think about whether this would be an appropriate way to honor our son. You see, sportsmanship did not come naturally for Jack.

But really, I cannot think of a more fitting tribute.

A lot of things came very easily for Jack--talking at a ridiculously young age, reading, math, Latin, logic, art, acting, and earning stellar grades.

But when Jack was young, we wondered if he would EVER be able to play a team sport. Sure, he had intense, laser-like focus, but the happy-go-lucky camaraderie of being on a team? Not in evidence. You could see this at his cub scout meetings where he would sit quietly while the other boys, who knew each other from school, would be squirming and giving each other wedgies. I blamed some of this on Tim, also an introverted, “mild mannered reporter” who hasn’t so much as once (voluntarily) farted in front of me in the past 20 years! I mean, if a dad doesn’t teach a son about lugees and farts, how is he ever supposed to fit in as a guys’-guy? “You and Margaret are good at being around people,” Jack would say. “Dad and I don’t really know what to do.”

And there were other issues.

You know the kid who might have fun at a party, or might leave wailing at the injustice of it all? Well I do. He lived in our house for a time.

Or the one who walked around by himself for a few years during recess because he didn’t know how to integrate himself into games?

The one who cried easily and bitterly when things weren’t “just so?”

Uh huh.

But around second grade, after I had decided Jack would be relegated to staying home doing origami with me, his love of baseball took off, fueled by sharing an obsession with his dad.
Jack did well in baseball, and was blessed to have warm, compassionate coaches he admired --the coarse, tough as nails types didn’t appeal to him.

But who can EVER forget that 4 month period (unfortunately spanning part of both a basketball and a baseball season) when Jack would go crazy about close losses. I’ve told you my guy was quirky, right?

Close wins, great.

Big losses, fine.

Close losses?

Oh dear.

My laid-back friend and mother of four said as she watched Jack freak the freak out after one close loss, “Don’t worry, gifted kids are just more sensitive, Anna.” Love you, Jen. Margaret said, “Mom, I feel kind of sorry for him and kind of embarrassed for us.” Amen, Sister. A sportsmanship award seemed as likely as being given a free trip to Fiji.

But here’s the thing: Jack grew and changed. Birthday parties became a pleasure. Recess found Jack not only playing games, but commentating them like a sportscaster, using crazy nicknames he made up for all his classmates, who loved and accepted him. He was a leader and inventor of neighborhood games which they still play today. Jack became more flexible and more forgiving of himself and others. All of this seemed like an impossibility to us in earlier years.

My point is, while it may seem ironic to name a sportsmanship award after someone who didn’t always exhibit it, the fact that Jack’s sportsmanship was so hard fought makes it all the more precious.

Jack’s final season of baseball illustrated this.

Here’s what he faced in a more competitive environment than before: Reduced playing time. An adjustment to a different sized field. A slew of kids who were bigger, stronger, faster , more talented and in many cases YOUNGER than he was. Practices every day, when often Jack would rather be home playing with friends or practicing for the school play.

The protective mom in me wanted him to play down a level.

No way. He was so stinking excited, and he chose the harder path.

And then, after several years of doing well in baseball, he found himself struggling to make a hit, to make plays in the field. But his shoulders didn’t sag, game after game. He did not complain about going to practice every day, as he might have in year’s past. He never railed against the injustice of it all--why could Joe and Kevin hit home runs, when Jack couldn’t even connect with the ball anymore? He calmly talked about his progress, or lack thereof, during our bedtime chats, and I silently prayed that his season would turn around. Didn’t happen. But he didn’t let it ruin his attitude, his season, or his love of the game.

I know I’m not writing about anything extraordinary. Kids play on teams all the time. They make sacrifices. They suck it up. But for Jack, an intense and sensitive kid, all of this was hard fought and notable. It was just ONE more way that we saw this amazing kid growing through struggle and growing into the best person he could be.

Here’s what we saw all season: a great attitude. Someone who threw himself into practice. Someone who helped carry the ball bucket. Someone who held his head high, even as the people on the bench and in the stands may have been thinking, “Oh, boy. Jack’s up again.”

After the season ended, he signed up for baseball camp, so that he could improve his game for fall baseball—a team he got to play with in only one scrimmage before the accident. I don’t know what, if anything, the other boys remember about Jack from that one measly game. Was it the fact, as one of his old coaches said, that “Jack was the only player who looked like he could fit inside his bat bag”? It surely wasn’t powerhouse hitting, but perhaps a big smile, a quiet nature, and, we hope, good sportsmanship.

Be Kind
Pay Attention
Never Give Up
Share Others’ Joy

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Exquisite Pain

Thank you for all of the supportive comments following my post about "What You Can Do to Help a Grieving Family." As I said, I am learning from YOU, not the other way around. I am certainly no expert on helping people, as I often give in to awkwardness, helplessness, and/or lethargy instead of reaching out.

Just this week, for instance, a card I sent to a mom in our town who recently lost her son got bounced back to me because of an insufficient address. I don't know if she is receiving the kind of support we are. I doubt it. I want to tend to her, comfort her, grieve with her, but I'm showing my suck-tastic colors by not doing it as week after week passes.

I want to share a note from a reader about the difficulty of reaching out to grieving people. It may be the most beautifully written, spot-on statement I've read. So even though the incredible writing may intimidate and humble me to such a degree that I'll never type another word here, I still want to share it with you today:

"Grief, for those standing at a distance, seems too sacred to approach with common hands, and comfort a priestly duty. Consoling is utterly impossible, and surely a job for some expert who knows the flavor of agony, or some close family member who has a right to speak.

That is how the outsider feels; but grief is a lowly, deep, and violent wound, and the pain so exquisite that every kindness has the potential to be, not consolation for such loss, but perhaps a cushion against the writhing.

I'm so sorry. I wish there was more.

Thanks for what you teach, what you share."


Listen to Your Mother!

I am honored to be taking part in Listen to Your Mother DC on May 6. LTYM features live readings by local writers. The pieces we will read touch on various aspects of motherhood. As you can imagine, my piece will deal with our unexpected loss of Jack.

LTYM was started in Madison, Wisconsin several years ago by the fabulous Ann Imig of Ann's Rants. It went national last year, and will be in 10 cities this year!

Each show contributes to a charitable cause. LTYM D.C.'s contribution will go to the Susan Niebur IBC Research Fund, set up in honor of an amazing D.C. blogger who lost her battle with Inflammatory Breast Cancer this fall.

The show is at 2pm on Sunday, May 6 at the Syntetic Theater in Crystal City. If you are local, I'd love to see you there. Unless I'm in the fetal position backstage. But either way, it'll be a great show!

LTYM DC tickets are on sale here.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Friday Photos

Thought I'd catch you up a little bit on some of the spring happenings at Casa Donaldson.

Margaret and friends made a Peeps Cake, 200x the size of a regular Peep. She found the recipe in her Food Network Magazine.

So it doesn't look EXACTLY like the magazine picture...

I had a quick trip to Richmond on a blustery day with my college friends. Here we are in my friend's fabulous clothing store, "Heidi Story," in the heart of Carytown.
Jack's classmates planted a butterfly bush in his memory in our back yard for us to enjoy while we eat dinner on our porch. I love those kids. One of the girls even made Picklesicles-- popsicles made out of pickle juice, because Jack had told her how we did that once.

We watched the Yankees game on tv on Opening Day. So NOT the same without Jack, but the Yankees jersey I bought for Shadow helped keep the mood upbeat, at least for the people in the room.
Margaret made egg-shaped funfetti cakes. Can you tell I've been eating a lot of sweets lately? I am enjoying her new hobby.
We had a very quick girls' trip to Philly with our dear neighbors. Saw the Liberty Bell and the Betsy Ross House, but tried not to do "too many historical things" per the girls' request.
We also watched too much tv and made multiple trips to the mall with thumping music and shirtless Abercrombie teens.

I haven't thought much about the HOLY in Holy Week this year. Just trying to get through, I think. But I wanted you to know we are here and we are okay.

And even though the trappings of Easter are so painful this year-- one Easter basket to fill, no egg toss, etc, the real meaning of Easter is the only reason we can keep going.

Life doesn't end.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cicada Springtime

When Jack was turning 5 and Margaret was 2, we had the 17 year Cicadas here in Virginia. The only time I’d experienced them before was, well, 17 years earlier when I was a teenager. I didn’t give them much attention then, just flicked them off my towel when they interfered with “laying out” in my bikini in the backyard.

In 2004, however, I was in my 30’s and I got into cicadas BIG-TIME. I knew it would be the only time they would appear during my kids’ childhood, and I wanted to make the most of it. So while some drivers were freaking out and running into lampposts when wayward cicadas got into their cars, I was letting Jack give his "favorite" ones rides to and from the preschool playground so they could have “a change of scenery.”

We would search our tree trunks for signs of cicadas emerging from their shells, or exoskeletons. It was a-ma-zing to see that in action! We put up with the incessant noise of their mating calls, because we found the red-eyed creatures so fascinating. Jack held the live ones cupped loosely in his hands, and collected hundreds of empty shells in an old spaghetti sauce jar.

I remember looking out the kitchen door one day at his stricken face. He clutched his jar tightly as a live cicada crawled up his neck toward his ear. “It crawled all the way up me but I couldn’t get it or I’d ‘dwop’ my exo'skeya'tons!” he said, in his serious little voice after I’d scooped the huge insect off his scrawny little neck. That jar still sits on the dresser in Jack’s room; in fact, it freaked out a German exchange student who slept in there last August. She had never seen such a thing and was afraid “the creatures” were alive.

So we made the most of the cicadas. We bought Jack a cicada t-shirt, which he wore for the next 5 years. We discussed how some people were celebrating our cicada spring by eating them…covered with chocolate…but we never tried that. I took my all-time favorite picture of Jack covered with the cicada shells. The entertainment value the bugs brought to this stay at home mom and her kids during those long spring days was well worth the time I had to spend later, shoveling rotting cicada carcasses into the trash can with a snow shovel.

You see, the cicadas didn’t live long. They came out of the ground, molted, courted, mated, laid eggs, and died. Start to finish? 4-6 weeks. I remember talking to the kids about what I considered to be the cicadas’ pathetic life cycle. I mean who wants to wait underground for SEVENTEEN YEARS just to come out, sing a few songs, lay some eggs, and then DIE?????

We did the math and figured out that Margaret would be 19 and Jack 21 when they came back. And Good Lord, I would be in my FIFTIES! It would be a very long wait, but I enjoyed thinking that in 2021 we would reminisce about our Cicada Springtime.

But now Jack won’t be here to see them, and I’m probably going to need to hibernate underground at bit myself that spring just to get through the ordeal. Because never in a million years did it cross my mind that both my kids would not be around to see the cicadas again. I mean, I worried a bit about myself, since my mom died at 46, but I barely even allowed myself to go THERE in my mind.

And Jack’s short time on earth, followed by what is going to seem like a hell of a long wait for his mom, dad, sister, family and friends to endure until we are together again, makes 17 years not seem so bad.