Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wishing you a happy Thanksgiving. I am thankful for YOU!

I am over on Modern Loss today writing about our first Thanksgiving without Jack, which I was not able to write about until now. For those of you experiencing a similar first today, you are in my heart.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Red Dress

I was a few weeks into my freshman year when I got the call from a senior I didn’t know, inviting me to a semi-formal party. I told him I wanted to meet him first, so we met on campus and chatted a while, before agreeing he would pick me up the next Friday for the event.
I asked how he found my name and number, and he explained that he and his friends had picked dates out of the book of incoming freshman students. Not FACEBOOK, but a face book, a slim booklet that included each freshman’s head shot, hometown, and campus phone number. I had sent my high school senior portrait in over the summer to be included. Apparently, when a bunch of upperclassmen were combing through the pictures, my face caught a young man named Brian’s eye. On Friday I put on a red silk dress, another holdover from high school days, and went to the party.

Those first few weeks of college had been exhilarating, with the heady intensity of summer camp. There were so many people to meet in my co-ed dorm, classes, campus Christian groups, friends of friends from back home, and during sorority rush. I was seventeen years old, and in those early weeks I had kissed more boys (3) than I had in all of my years of high school combined (1). Going to a party with someone I had just met did not feel strange in any way. I felt flattered, and it seemed like just one more way of saying yes to the college experience.

Things would eventually slow down as some of the early friendships flamed out, and we settled into lasting relationships, some of which are still strong 27 years later. My kissing stats would diminish considerably, too, as I began dating a friend from another college.

But what happened on that date?

Well, I met Brian’s friends. We danced for a while, with me slipping around in my black suede pumps on the beer-covered linoleum floor. It was loud and hot in the party room. If he had asked if I wanted to go upstairs to his room, I would have said yes, welcoming a quiet place to hang out and talk. Yes, talk. Not that I didn’t find him attractive. He was at least 6’2”, blond, and strong—a college athlete. But he never asked, so when the party ended, he walked me home, and we kissed a bit under the buzz of a fluorescent light outside my dorm.

You may have read the Rolling Stone article last week about another freshman girl, in another red dress, at another Virginia college. Her date with an upperclassman ended much differently than mine did. It is a long, difficult read, but it is well worth your time.

It will likely disgust you, and make you think. The story has gained a lot of traction in the past few days and has resulted in UVA suspending all sorority and fraternity activity while the allegations of sex abuse on campus are investigated.

The article made me reflect on my college years and how grateful I am that with all of the parties I went to, no one treated me with anything other than respect. Some of my friends would have vastly different experiences to share. You could say that I made good decisions when it came to alcohol, hung out with the right crowd, and somehow let it be known what my standards were. Maybe those things came into play, maybe not, but they shouldn’t matter in whether someone is sexually assaulted or not.

Sexual assault is wrong.


The article reminded me of that long-forgotten date, my red dress, and an upperclassman who had picked my face out of a book.  The key difference between the two stories is that my date was not a rapist. He and his friends did not plan and collude how to brutalize me and then go about their college years with impunity.

As a mother, I wouldn’t be thrilled if my daughter went out with someone who picked her from a book  (website) because of her looks, and quite possibly because of her youth and vulnerability. I was only 16 years old when that picture Brian saw was taken. But my daughter and your daughter would have every right to do so and not be harmed! Of course I will try to instill in her the self-confidence I had, the idea spending time with me was worth it because of who I was, not what I could provide physically.  I will tell her to keep her phone on her, to never leave a drink unattended, to use the buddy system.

But I realize it was not my self-confidence or safety rituals that kept me safe. It was the young men I spent time with. And that seems to come down to luck more than anything. I barely knew these guys. They, too, were in fraternities. They, too, were often immature and sometimes ruled by mob mentality—abusing alcohol and at one point taking searing hot coat hangers and branding their skin with fraternity letters.

I don’t know how those young men were raised differently than the ones who rape.

Than the ones who look at women as worthless, but then go home to spend Thanksgiving break with their mothers and sisters.

Who are never held accountable for their brutality, but then go on to get married and have their own little boys and girls to raise. It feels hopeless.

There is so much darkness in these situations, and it can play out for generations.

So I am grateful for the Rolling Stone article, because it will shed light on sexual assault, get us talking, and hopefully send a message to rapists that what they are doing is not okay.

And I don’t think my daughter should have to be counted as LUCKY if she somehow manages to avoid this kind of evil.  It’s what she and every girl deserves.

UPDATE: If you have followed this story in the news, you now know that the article was completely discredited and that the victim in the story made up the assault. I am leaving this post up because the topic of college sexual assault is very real and so important, but I am disappointed that a sham of a story that should have been fact-checked could set victim's rights back on campuses. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Dream

The first winter after we lost Jack, my friend Courtney shared a dream with me. If you have read Rare Bird or followed this blog for a while, you remember how she and other friends experienced signs, visions, and dreams regarding Jack during those first few months. I was no longer surprised, so I just took it in.

I was disappointed that this dream didn't have to do with Jack, but with me.

In it, Courtney saw me walking beside a creek. Not THE creek in the woods behind our neighbors' house, but a different one, on a bright day. I had bare feet and I walked in about an inch of water that saturated the grass beside the creek. Then, I lay down face-first in the grass, getting wet all over. People walking with me tried to tell me to get up, saying that I didn't need to get myself wet, telling me I might become muddy. But I stayed on the ground, wet but not muddy, and continued to splash the crystal clear water. Before long, another woman whom Courtney knew, in pain and also grieving, traced my footsteps, following me.

Courtney and I both interpreted this dream to mean that I was letting myself feel my grief, and while that might have seemed too messy or uncomfortable for others who so wanted to spare me pain, it was something I was going to do anyway. And there were others, even people I didn't know, who came behind me, observing.

I didn't realize at that point that my grief journey would be a public one, first through this blog, and eventually a book. I didn't have any sort of mission to demystify grief, or to peel back the curtain as to what survival could look like. I just wanted to get through the holidays without giving up. I wanted to shake the cobwebs of shock and horror out of my head, and write from my heart. I wanted write about my fierce longing for Jack, a longing that grew out of great love.

I don't know if I will write about grief forever.

There are other things to be discussed, of course. Light topics such as fleece-lined tights (yay!) and the making and eating of scones. Heavier topics such as our failure to live better, as lights in the darkness, even when we know better.  

I never planned to lose Jack. I never planned to write about grief. In my first years of  blogging, when people asked me what kind of writer I was, I  would answer, "A Life Blogger" because I wasn't sure if my writing was more about my kids, decorating, my faith, or candy corn.

And even in writing so much about death, I guess that's what I still am. I write about LIFE. And I hope I can do justice to those dear ones who come after me, watching.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What I've Been Up To, and A Shopping Re-Cap

Recently, I heard about an opportunity for bloggers to tour a thrift store, buy fabulous items, and then feature them on their blogs. This would be followed by a delicious lunch at one of my favorite restaurants. And the thrift store in question was not just any thrift store, but my home away from home for the past 9 years! Where I got my kitchen chairs, dining room set, and pretty much every other piece of furniture in my house except my mattress. Where I got the jeans and vest I'm wearing as I type! The blog outing was right up my alley, but I can't go because of a prior commitment that day.

You see, I have not been overly busy, but since Rare Book came, I've been spending time connecting with people about grief and the book. I have been speaking to book clubs and small groups and getting together with individuals who want to talk/process. Without the pressure of a deadline, my calendar has more breathing room than before, and a typical day while Margaret is at school often looks like this. Wed: Susan, Jennifer. Thursday: Panera--Joan. I have been taking things slowly, cherishing these opportunities to spend time with people face to face, hear stories, and connect. I have also been open to opportunities to speak to larger groups, and that's something I definitely want to pursue, but I have been cherishing these small pockets of connection all fall long.

On the morning of the thrift store outing, I will be speaking to a group of Presbyterian educators on "Ways the Church Can Better Support Families in Trauma." I am really looking forward to it, and I have a feeling I'll be listening as much as talking, drawing upon their expertise on a topic that is so important.  Perhaps it will lead to a blog post that can be a resource.

Since I couldn't go to the thrift store outing, I popped over there on Monday instead. I found a cute shirt and dress for myself and then I saw them...

Pink HUNTER rain boots!

Could it be? Margaret is very brand-aware, and I've been searching for used Hunter Boots on my forays for over two years. I picked one up and checked the size. Perfect! I quickly stashed them in my cart and covered them up with my other clothes. They were listed at 12.99, but with a discount coupon, they ended up being $9.00. I felt triumphant! Sure I threw in a couple of items I didn't need, and that served to jack up my total, but I had dropped off a big box of donations on my way into the store, so I was feeling a little giddy.

I decided to text Margaret a picture of the boots when I got home, because I knew she would be so excited. Lining them up on the kitchen counter, I could tell something was amiss. Why was one boot taller than the other? I picked up both boots and checked the sizes. Are you kidding me? They didn't match. Someone must have donated TWO pairs of pink boots, and they had become mismatched in the process. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

My shopper's high quickly led to buyer's remorse. And it wasn't like I could re-sell them, unless I found a very specific buyer, with a size 2 and a size 3 foot. Perhaps not impossible, but well out of my realm and energy level.

Margaret's eyes lit up when she saw them! "No way! Thanks, Mom!" and then, "Wait. What's wrong?"

I told her about the size issue. She could not believe it either. But with some padding of one foot and some tandem-tugging and scrunching on the other, we managed to get her into them. And she wore them until bedtime. Victory!

Boy, those boots took me on a roller coaster ride on Monday, but ended with a happy and excited girl who just needs a rainy day so she can wear them before her foot grows too much. Whew.

Speaking of excited, an article I wrote for Woman's Day (Dec Issue) is out now! Please check it out when you are at the grocery store. I love how the article turned out. It is a heartfelt shout-out to all of the people (YOU!) who have lifted us up since our family's tragedy. You are our Unexpected Blessings.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Little Thinking about Drinking

I grew up in a dry household.

While I was vaguely aware that some of my friends' parents drank, that was simply not part of our world. Occasionally, my mom and dad were invited to a neighbor's house for a cocktail, but they always politely declined.

When we entertained, it was for church groups or our neighborhood Christmas caroling party, with hot chocolate for the kids and tea and coffee for the grown-ups. There was no liquor cabinet to break into, and our holiday meals involved goblets filled with ice water. I never had the expeirnce that many of my friends did-- happily mixing drinks for their parents' friends at parties, and emptying the ashtrays the next day.

Mom's one foray to the dark side came when she decided to make a trifle for dessert one holiday dinner. I knew what was up, because nothing escaped my eagle eyes, and I saw her unpack some cooking sherry from a grocery bag. The alcohol-laced dessert did not go over well with my dad and his Methodist parents. Mom was pissed. This was the 70's, and she and Ann B. Davis were experimenting with souffl├ęs and other exotic dishes to liven up their tuna casserole-heavy meal rotations, but her trifle never made it out of the gate.

A wonderful result of my parents' abstaining from alcohol was that I knew I would always encounter the same mom and dad, no matter what time of day or time of year or day of the week it was. Tired, busy, grumpy parents? Sure. But the same mom and dad, with the same judgment, and the same personalities. There was a lot of security in that.

Tim's parents drank in moderation, sharing an occasional bottle of wine with dinner or having a beer now and then.

When we got married and started a family, Tim and I never discussed our philosophy on drinking, but we didn't do a lot of drinking, either.

At first it was because we were broke.

Then it was because we had school work to do each evening.

After that came the cycle of pregnant, nursing, pregnant, nursing.

Tim kept a few beers in the fridge, but we never got into the habit of drinking. I was often alone with the kids, late into the night, and I wanted to be sober in case of an emergency.

Soon, much of our social life took place at church events, and our play dates were most often in public places like the park and the pool, where there was no alcohol..

Beach trips, camping, block parties, and the occasional "significant" birthday parties were an exception, where we'd stock up on beer and Mike's Hard Lemonades.

Looking back, I realize that if I had wanted to drink in front of the kids when they were little, they might not have noticed a thing, but it just rarely came up during our 30's.

Our social life since we hit our forties centers more around alcohol, and that just happens to coincide with our daughter's teen years. We have  a "beer fridge" in the basement, friends who enjoy fine wine and craft beers with us, and there are probably 50 beautiful wineries in close driving distance from our home.

Recently, we had friends over and a few of the dads drank too much. Margaret spoke up and said, "You can't drive home," which is exactly what we had told her to say to a friend who had been drinking. But several adults dismissed her, saying they were fine. This was telling her not to trust her own judgment.

She was taking it all in. That's what kids do.

Tim and I never made a conscious choice to drink or not to drink, but with our very occasional drinking, I think our kids got used to the same kind of consistency in our home that I had in mine growing up.

But I wonder what's next?

With all of the social drinking among our friends, are we teaching that any good moment, memory, or celebration requires alcohol? Christmases and celebrations of my youth may have been less raucous than at others' houses, but we still had a good time.

Don't get me wrong: there's not a ton of excessive drinking. My friends and I are old enough to know how much is too much, and we value our (elusive) sleep enough to know that a restless night and an ugly hangover just aren't worth it.

But it seems as if alcohol is everywhere, and we aren't talking about it very much.

We talk about NOT DOING DRUGS, but we seem far quieter on the way alcoholism can destroy families. It doesn't take much of a look at anyone's family tree to see that. We talk about medicine abuse, but not about how alcohol is a form of self-medicating.

I also wonder about the impact of saying things like, "Mommy really needs a drink," and "That's 'Mommy Juice'" or having "Mommy Play dates" with sippy cups for the kids and Solo cups for the moms.

And with social media, as we capture our social lives and share them farther and wider than ever before, is it starting to look like life is one big alcohol-fueled party?

What is that saying to our kids?

I don't have the answers; I just know they are watching.

They always do.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Not "Just" an Aunt

I'm off to see my sister, Liz, for an overnight visit.

Two years ago she moved much closer to us, but we still don't make the time to see each other as much as we would like. School and work and routine conspire against us. Many nights she'll be at home on her computer, and I'll be sitting on the couch watching tv 2 hours away, when we could be doing it "together."

When we are in the same room, we're the queens of parallel play.

Our interests rarely intersect, but it's nice to be near each other, no matter what's going on. She thinks running marathons and going to bed by nine is the way to go. I'm all about staying up late, sleeping in, and my running shoes are just to pair with my yoga pants when it grows too cold for flip-flops. Not that I even do yoga.

Oh, and did I tell you she's a yoga instructor?

She likes gadgets and technology, and is the sole reason there are any digital photos of my kids before 2006. She is also the queen of comfortable shoes and makes my sensible Aerosoles and LifeStrides look like Jimmy Choos.

She is also far more generous than I am. She'll find something she likes, a lot, and will buy one, then two, then....

L: "I got this great deal on puffy vests from Old Navy! I got one in this color and that color and I want to get one for you..."
A: "But I'm not sure I need another puffy vest..."
L: "Your puffy vest is on its way! Puffy vests for all the land!"

I'm more of a "I really like this shirt, and I hope I don't have to give it to someone off my back" kind of girl.

So we are quite different. But we are extremely close.

I met with a lovely writer this week to talk about writing and grief, and she and I talked about our losing Jack, and her losing her beloved nephew. As she began to share about her grief, she made sure to preface it with, "Please know I am not trying to compare losing my nephew to losing my child," but she went on to describe their years of closeness and the gaping hole his death left in her life.

Her preface was kind and sensitive, but in this case totally unnecessary; I have never doubted for one second how devastated my own sister is over the loss of Jack, and how his death changed everything.

She was there when he took his first breath.

She spent a few years as "Auntie Yiz" when Jack couldn't pronounce his "L's" and eventually just became "Auntie."  She was generous with my kids, staying up to date on their interests and getting a kick out of their personalities, even across the miles.

Sure, we regret times we did not make the effort to travel to see each other as often as we could have. We regret how we judged each other's parenting, both of us in the trenches with little ones at the same time, bringing the same childhood background but different personalities to our mothering as we do to everything else.

I know that when we lost Jack, Liz lost BIG.

Aunts (and uncles and best friends and neighbors) are sometimes thrust into caregiving roles at the very moment their own worlds have suddenly fallen apart. I think of Liz driving 5 hours through the darkness to get to us as soon as she heard Jack was missing. Of serving as a gate-keeper in dealing with the press and the outpouring of love, grief, and support that was coming our way while her brain was fractured and her heart broken. Of trying to support us the best way she could, while worrying about her own children and how they would survive their cousin's tragic death.

She wrote a speech about what she had learned from Jack, which captured his essence, to be read at his funeral. She had to try to put her own grief aside almost immediately, in the effort to HELP and to PROTECT us. What a burden those first hours, days, and weeks were to her. She was in triage mode, as we all were.

And those of us who grieve know that after those busy times, come quieter times, when you must figure out how to go on. She had to learn how to keep mothering in the face of loss, even when looking at her son, Jack's best friend, was so painful. How to encourage us to still get together, even though Jack's absence made those first visits horrific.

How to deal with the anger and bitterness.

How to try to make peace with God.

Liz did her grief work while she ran and ran and ran, logging in an unbelievable number of miles that first year.

I did my grief work while writing, showing up at this computer day after day.

Yes, her grief is different than mine, but an Auntie's loss is real.

The death of a child, the death of anyone, extends beyond just one household. Yes, you can eventually turn your focus back to the ones in your care, under your roof, or on your insurance plan, but the eyes with which you gaze on them see with a different perspective than before. Your heart is not the same either. There has been a shift. You know the fragility of life. You feel the absence that one person can leave. You realize that the present you are looking at could have and should have been different.

Grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles  and neighbors suffer. They need love and support for themselves, even as they are trying to give it to the parents and siblings of those who have died. They need time to reassess in the wake of a tragedy, to find ways to cope, to plumb the depths of their despair, to examine their beliefs to try to make sense of what feels senseless.

They may not get as much grace and latitude as those "closer" to the death do, but they need it just as much. They still cry in their beds at night.

And are more than "just" anyone.