Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Christmas Thoughts, With Gobs of Photos from Last Christmas

I’m guessing you may be worried. It has been more than a week and you haven’t really heard from me. I know I’d be worried about you if the tables were turned. The truth is, I just don’t know where to start in describing Christmas. And now it’s New Year’s, and the symbolism of leaving Jack in one year, yet moving on to the next weighs heavy on us, even as we stayed up to watch the ball drop and hang out with friends. While I’m just not sure what to write, there is a great deal to share, of that I am certain.

First and foremost, I want you to know we made it through Christmas! I hope you are proud of us; I know I sure am. There was a lot of laughter in our home. Rituals and traditions including “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Christmas Eve church. We made it fun for Margaret. Our niece flew in to keep her company, and the house sounded like it used to, with running up and down the stairs, the Wii turned on for the first time since August, and rooms being used again.

In the days leading up to Christmas we felt surrounded by love: through this blog, Facebook, and throughout our town. People stopped by in person and checked in virtually to let us know we were not alone. People sent letters and packages. I must say I am learning so much from you about how to reach out to others in difficult times and how to acknowledge pain.

In trying to train Jack and Margaret, but especially Tim, I have always said, “People just need to be acknowledged.” Never in a cheap, “I’m sorry you feel that way” kind of way, but in an “I’m sorry. This sucks. What you are dealing with is very hard” kind of way. I’ve been working on this with Tim for almost 20 years. He comes from the “If I mention a problem it will draw attention to it, but if I ignore it, perhaps it will go away” school of wishful thinking. Over the years he has learned that a little acknowledgment goes a long way.

With our current situation, we have been blessed to be able to experience your acknowledgment of our loss, and even the world’s loss, in relationship to Jack’s death. This does not take away the sting, the anger, or the disappointment we feel at our son being gone, but it helps. It makes us feel connected to others rather than separated from them. Even as I feel like a broken, alien species, out of sync with the person I was a few short months ago, I have never felt more connected to the world’s suffering and to the world than I do today.

A Christmas tree lovingly placed by unseen hands beside the bridge/drainage ditch where they found my little boy says, “Something happened here. Something changed for a family, and for a town.” That is an acknowledgement, a connection from person to person, family to family. As lights, ornaments and even presents appeared at that tree, day after day, the message we got was, “Jack is not forgotten. Jack counts.”

Seeing blue ribbons pop up around town and in the blogworld says, “This Christmas is different from last year.”

An evening drinking wine, way too much wine, with neighborhood friends and sharing stories of that horrible day, trying to make sense of what happened and talking about how God has been at work through this situation says, “This is not small. We need to talk. Jack’s life and death are not small matters.”

Spending time with my sister, someone who knew Jack better than almost anyone else, and who was able to sum up so much about his character, even in the brutal, crazed days immediately following the accident, was a needed time of acknowledgment for both of us.

Time with Auntie was well spent—ranging from being upbeat when the kids were around, to finding quiet moments together when we could just look at each other and say, “What the hell is going on here?” except we said a word other than hell. We were able to acknowledge that if there could ever be a poster child for “Kid least likely to get swept away by a frickin’ neighborhood creek” that boy would be Jack. Acknowledgment of the sheer lunacy of this situation.

We veered from pigging out on chocolate and discussing the year-end double issue of People Magazine to weeping for what her son lost, in losing his best friend Jack. We shared that while Jack will never be faced with heartbreak or drugs or depression, and how we can see God drawing people closer as a result of Jack’s death, we would trade it all in a second if we could.

We were able to acknowledge our regret of not spending enough time together in the past while also acknowledging that spending time together now is ridiculously hard for all of us.

In all, Christmas was okay. It was survivable. We made it. We felt your love and fervent prayers the entire time. Thank you for walking beside us.

Some things, however, remained unspoken, unacknowledged. Like the way my sister was able to loan me her son for a few minutes, his head in my lap as we snuggled on the couch. These moments meant I could pray for him as he tries to figure out how to go on without his cousin. But I could also close my eyes and pretend, just for a few seconds, that the boy I held, and probably squeezed a little too tightly, was my boy, not hers.

Friday, December 30, 2011

At Which Point We Call Our Son a "Trunk Tool"

The night of December 23rd, Tim was in despair.

He prayed that he, too, would see a sign letting him know Jack was okay.

The morning of the 24th, while Margaret and I slept, Tim decided to do a
crossword puzzle. He pulled out one of the spare Washington Post puzzles he
keeps in his bag. Geek-ish, I know. The puzzle was from Valentine’s Day 2011. Yeah, a 10 month old puzzle.

And the answer to 1 Across?


Do I understand this? No, but I sure do love my puzzle boy.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Card Outtakes

Today we venture to the dark underbelly of those perfect family Christmas card photos. I give to you the Donaldson family, circa 2005:

Come on people, the clock is ticking!

Uh-oh, Mom put on her crazy eyes!
Focus, people, focus!

Maybe, maybe... Oh crap, Jack, what are you looking at?

Trying to keep my eyes open enough for ALL of us. Is Hillary Clinton in this family?

We're losing the women-folk!

Maybe? Not terrible?

Really? How hard is this supposed to be?


Are those smiles or tears? Not sure. I can't see past Mom's pointy nose.

Could we just photoshop Margaret's face on?

I'm thinking there's no turning back at this point.

A winner??? Nope. Unless boogies, tears, and Mom's double chin=Christmas cheer.

Forget those little people. How 'bout just Mom and Dad?

Better yet? Or is that a wee bit self-centered?

We ended up giving up that day, and going with just the cute kids:

Merry Christmas! Much love to you. Please keep praying for us.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Almost Wordless Post: One Year Ago Today...

...we took the kids to Winston-Salem for the first time to show them where Tim and I met. We stayed with dear friends in Greensboro, saw a Wake Forest basketball game, and went geocaching. We showed the kids the exact spot where we met and 5 years later got engaged. Then we went to our favorite Mexican restaurant.

I realized today that I never put the pics in our 2010 album because it had already been sent to myPublisher, yet I forgot to put them in this year's album too. It was such a great trip for the four of us. So hard to believe how much things have changed. I guess I'll make prints of some of these pictures eventually, but for now I wanted to share them with you.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Spirit of Christmas Past and Present

When Tim and I met with our counselor today, we talked about which Christmas traditions we wanted to keep this year, and which ones we would alter. Of course "want" is not the right word, because we really just want our old lives back, but you know what I mean.

We've been following Margaret's lead on Christmas, and she wants it to be as much like "before" as possible. Thus, our trees are up, the house is decorated, I've completed our 2011 photo album, and we'll be going to Chevy's for Christmas Eve lunch, which could or could not be a hellish experience.

Since the accident, I have discovered I prefer to lean into my grief, rather than try to avoid it. For me this means spending time with people who are willing and able to talk about Jack. I figure I probably have about 40 (!) or so years left on this earth to talk about other things, but for now, if someone isn't willing to talk about what happened, or to process with me, or to at least acknowledge our loss, I really don't have the time or inclination.

I don't mean that every waking moment has to be about Jack's death, for we still have school and jobs and housekeeping and small talk, but I consider grieving Jack to be significant, important work and I want to face it instead of avoiding it.

Christmas has been like this, too. Going through the homemade ornaments and remembering the story surrounding each one is a way of leaning into grief and experiencing it, rather than trying to pretend that by leaving them boxed up, we didn't lose our sweet son. Yes, it is hard to see them, to touch them, but the ornaments provide a natural springboard to be able to talk about Jack.

When we hold up his preschool "Peanut Jesus" (a peanut in its shell, swaddled with toilet paper and nestled in a mini raisin box) or his pathetic reindeer ornament which is really just a bare clothespin with a googly eye stuck on it-- Rudolph the One-eyed Cyclops-- we are acknowledging and feeling our huge loss while celebrating great memories.

One tradition that is definitely a keeper is the Christmas morning scavenger hunt, passed down from Tim's family. Tim writes a poem that goes from one clue to the next and eventually leads the kids to a final, "big" present. One year found us all down at the mailbox in our pj's, having been led there by poetic clues which had the kids plug certain coordinates into a handheld GPS. Another time the kids had to open a certain computer file to find their next clue. And so on and so on...

Big presents ranged from an electronic keyboard to the air hockey table that Tim and I spent most of Christmas Eve assembling. I went through a dozen sugar cookies during the frustrating process before giving up around 2 a.m. Tim stuck with it, aided by about 4 rum and cokes. Christmas morning our neighbor had to sneak into the basement under the pretense of borrowing a tool to help us turn the table, now fully assembled but upside down, onto its feet.

We have a lot of sweet videos of the kids, always together, traipsing upstairs and down, inside and out of the house, Jack reading clues at lightning speed. Tim usually stays up pretty late working on the poems and I vacillate from being a bit annoyed that this is his contribution to Christmas, as I plan and shop and wrap and hide, to being grateful that this is his contribution to Christmas because it is so meaningful for our family. I predict there will be some tender late-night tears this year as Tim writes his clues for a sister instead of a sister/brother duo.

A month or so ago I found a little stack of paper scraps in the guest room with rhyming clues written on them. I asked Margaret what they were and she said they were from a scavenger hunt her brother had made for her just for the heck of it one random day. Here are the clues, in or out of order:

To find your clue step inside,
Go upstairs I have not lied.

Your next clue is out back,
Look under a pot and that's the fact.

Go back inside and take a peek
Under the bed where the dog sleeps.

Now that you have found this clue,
I think Margaret's bedroom will do.

For your next find go back downstairs,
Look near shells your clue is there.

Almost here you're getting hot,
Go to the kitchen and look in a pot.

To find your last one,
Go to the basement for some GAME FUN.

This is your last clue,
In the guest room there's something for you.

I asked Margaret what her prize was at the end of Jack's little game. She has absolutely no idea.

I guess just like with the now-dusty air hockey table, keyboard, and whatever else we gave the kids over the years, the thrill of the hunt, or the process, meant even more than the prize itself.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why B Normal?

In elementary school, I liked being a little bit different. For instance, I lived in a cool house. Not a fancy house, but a great big, drafty 100-year-old farmhouse surrounded by 60’s colonials and ranches and split-levels. I loved how I would hear people say at school, “The Underground Railroad runs right through that old house’s basement!” or, “That house was a hospital in the Civil War!” and I’d think, "Well, not exactly," but I loved how it made me feel a little bit different, or special. I found that being a bookworm and playing by myself most of the time set me apart, too, but I didn’t mind. Why put down “Gone with the Wind” just to fit in?

When junior high arrived, I didn’t want to be different in ANY way. I longed to be invited to boy-girl parties, and have feathered hair and Jordache jeans just like everyone else. Problem is, due to body type, and braces, and general “Anna-ness,” I couldn’t pull that off. Ever. I later came to see that being different in junior high probably protected me from a lot of dicey situations, but I certainly saw no value in that at the time.

As I got older, I managed to both fit in and be a little bit different at the same time. During high school and college, I had friends from a lot of different groups, and that worked for me. As a result of straddling different groups, I never felt completely enmeshed in any one, but that's how I liked it. In college, for instance, I’d go to frat parties with my sorority sisters and have a blast, but I wouldn’t necessarily join them in doing beer slides or drinking grain alcohol out of trashcans. I liked being a little bit different, and besides, some people are born to be designated drivers.

As a young mom, I wanted to be different enough as in, “Wow, her kids are GENIUSES, and so stinkin’ CUTE!” while also hoping certain issues I was going through were the exact same for other moms, such as, “My daughter won’t put socks on if she’s already brushed her teeth” or, “My son picks his boogies and eats them during every preschool concert!” Often, I didn't accept my kids' differences, or quirks, and tried to make them conform to what I thought was normal. But always, I tried to be real, encouraging other moms that we were all in this together and could do this hard, wonderful thing called mothering.

After I put my kids in private school, I sometimes felt too different, because I wanted to be part of two communities at once. I didn’t want to miss out on neighborhood/town connections, and I didn’t want people to think I was Judgy McJudge Pants for having my kids in a different school. I just wanted to fit in and have people like me. Sound a little like junior high, just without the mullet? Perhaps.

Faith-wise, I’ve always been comfortable being the woman who goes to church a lot and loves God, but not necessarily comfortable enough to talk about it or stand out as different.

So sometimes I’ve wanted to be a little different, sometimes not. But now? As the parent of a dead child? I don’t just feel different, I feel like an alien. This life, this world, doesn’t seem to fit me anymore. I can’t believe I look remotely normal when I walk down the street or drive in my car, because I feel so “off”-- so stricken-- with a new reality that I consider completely, utterly, unacceptable.
This is NOT the way things are supposed to be. Those previous "differences" in my life? Were infinitesimal in scope and fell neatly within the parameters of “normal.” This is not normal.

I don’t want to be the mom of a dead son. Not my Jack. Margaret does not want to be that sister, and I hate that this sad distinction will follow my zany, sparkling girl. And Tim? Quiet, affable Tim, whose most traumatic life event to date had been finding out, at an embarrassingly late age, that Santa wasn’t real? This kind of pain, this heartache, sets him apart in a way that he never could have imagined, not in his worst nightmares.

Because it is just not right.

We’re supposed to be talking about Jack going to HIS first boy-girl party and, unlike me, he was cute enough to actually score an invite. We’re supposed to talk about the school play or video game ratings, or S.E.X. We are not supposed to talk about whether we are getting grief counseling, when we’ll pick out a headstone, or how we’re going to change our Christmas traditions this year.

No. No. No!

This all too different, too brutal, too strange.

I must admit, that underneath this formerly stable, predictable life ran a current, planted in early childhood in the mind of a reader of books, that her life would somehow be different from those around her. But what did that look like to a young dreamer's mind? Perhaps becoming an actress, winning the lottery, or cracking a case a la Nancy Drew. Doing something unusual. I can't pin it down, but there certainly was a niggling desire to be different in some more significant way.

But THIS? This is NOT what I imagined.