Friday, August 31, 2012


I used to say that I was as shallow as a puddle. My friends would disagree, and I knew shallow wasn't really the word I was looking for, but I meant that I just didn't seem to experience things as deeply as others did. Sure, I cried at the drop of a hat from any perceived injustice-- an over plucked eyebrow, or another Friday night home in front of Falcon Crest-- but I also felt a steady undercurrent of hope and stability running through my life.

When I observed my friends, some of their highs were so high, their lows so low. They were SO! IN! LOVE! Everything mattered. They seemed passionate about guys, God, and life in general, which made me wonder, again and again, if I was missing something.

I never craved drama or excitement; in fact I tended to run the other way. Jerry Springer was certainly not a show I could watch...far too nervous-making. I felt like I needed an Advil and a Silkwood shower after seeing that kind of raw, shouting, chair throwing emotion laid bare.

Binge drinking, college drama, or jealous girl fights? No thank you. Just take the guy-- please-- it's not worth it to me.

I think I was drawn to an equally Steady-Eddie in my husband Tim, because although I was pretty sure we'd never wear each other's blood vials around our necks a la Angelina and Billy-Bob, or engage in all-night love fests, we were also unlikely to have all-night screaming matches or engage in name calling, unless the occasional whispered "Ass" out of earshot of the kids counts.

It seems weird to me that parts of my life story are dramatic.

But even in that drama, the way I've faced things remains pretty compatible with how I've always been. So, I often wonder, am I too restrained and repressed, or is this just how God made me?

Because I don't want to try to circumnavigate the pain of life by just quietly plodding through it! When my mom dropped dead so many years ago, I bought new pens and immediately started writing thank you notes. My siblings and I did not cry or moan together. We held it so far in as if merely saying the word "Mom" would transport us to a scary place of despair from which we could never return.

And when Jack disappeared into the creek, just seconds beyond my grasp, I knew I could scream and rail, but I didn't. Not really. Because what else is there to do as you sit in your dark kitchen with your friends, knowing in your heart that your son is dead, except put out cheese and crackers for your neighbor with low blood sugar because everyone missed dinner and it's going to be one hell of a long night?

Call it shock, call it denial, call it peace. I do not know.

I guess my biggest fear as an even-keel person, is that I will somehow plod, plod, plod through life like a robot. I DO NOT want to be this way simply because it is more socially acceptable, less messy, and quieter!

I want to make sure I let myself feel, if I even know how to.

At least on some level, I'm certain I do.

I know how it felt to have Margaret's dimply, toddler arms wrapped around my neck, giving my back an extra little pat because she knew I liked it. The world felt calm and safe and delicious. I know how it felt to mother Jack-- and how my delight in his depth and character made my heart grow larger in a way I can still feel when I think about him. How after 20 years I can still conjure a rush of love when I remind myself that a man who handles raw chicken for you, puts feta on your salads when you would have just settled for lettuce, and hands you two vitamins in the morning is far sexier than someone who lives life on the edge.

And I realize that writing is one way I let myself feel.

I may be doing ordinary things on a given day-- shopping for school supplies, doing time in the hell that is Abercrombie, working, or sweeping up dog hair in the kitchen (again!)--but through pausing and writing I'm letting myself "go there" in my grief.

It may not be dramatic. But it helps me. I just know does.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Thank You!

Many thanks to my beautiful, generous friend Jill Perlman, a Stella and Dot stylist, for donating her entire $1,600 in profits to Samaritan's Purse in Jack's honor. And a big thank you to all of YOU who bought and bought and bought beautiful jewelry either in person or online to make that total so whopping high! Your generosity will help provide food and water to needy people around the world. I am humbled and grateful.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Monday Musings: Changes

Jack was one of the brightest kids I've ever met, and although I know it is not always the case, his stellar test scores and grades attested for that.

He was a whiz. He was a high achiever.

But he was also a cutup in class-- as much as you can be in the small, laced-up, private school environment he loved.

We didn't really witness this, because of his quiet side at home, but we'd hear from other families that entertaining "Jack Stories" were part of their dinnertime routines.

Last summer Jack and I talked about middle school, and he shared that he wanted to be seen as more than just a funny guy. His wit and charm had been there from birth, but some of his clowning around had started as a way for this extreme introvert to fit in or find an identity. He didn't think he needed that anymore. While at home, on the ball fields, and at scouts we saw a more serious Jack, at the school he loved he had been a foil, sometimes a follower, and often a clown.

Entering middle school, Jack was interested in letting his more thoughtful, serious side show. He and I talked about how hard it is to change your image, particularly when you are in the same old setting, and when people like who you are. I proposed switching Jack to a large public school. Jack lobbied hard to stay where he was, and knowing that even in his small school, middle school would be different enough and would present more growth opportunities for him, we agreed.

So on that fateful Thursday, the second day of school, we drove home and I heard how excited Jack was about the coming year. How great he thought his Math, Bible, and English classes would be. How he loved his classmates.

Then he started telling me about a funny skit he and his friend made up that day. In the left turn lane, waiting to pull into our neighborhood, I looked at him in the rear view mirror. My eyes narrowed and I said sharply, "Jack!" That one word contained a bit of exasperation, maybe some venom, and certainly a big dose of expectation. Oh to be firstborn and have to carry the weight of it all!

That one word said: "Jack, I thought you were going to rein it in this year! What about our talk? Will others ever have the chance to truly see the Jack WE KNOW AND LOVE?"

He responded immediately with his rapid-fire speech: "No Mom No! I know what you're thinking! It wasn't like that at all. It was free time. It was great. Seriously, this is going to be the BEST YEAR EVER!"

We pulled into the neighborhood, continued our conversation about the future, and I truly felt we had made the best decision for Jack. He felt so positive about his friends, his teachers, his identity. I knew it would be his chance to grow and lead and flourish!

Well, you know how this story ends, but it got me thinking today about expectations and changes.

It takes a brave, strong person to change, especially if others aren't ready for it or don't understand it.

I've already shared that Tim and I have had to adjust our expectations of one another since Jack's death. I've turned more inward, and my inward husband has become increasingly social and physically fit. My couch potato-ness has reach new heights (depths?) while he is running, rowing and playing team sports to keep sane. We have to accept this in each other.

Sometimes we are given a change of perspective, and that changes US. This isn't always comfortable to those around us.

A mom who decides to stop drinking might feel marginalized at neighborhood events. Adopting a healthier diet or lifestyle could come off as rigid or weird. You may have changed your family priorities in light of some new perspective gained, but it has left your social circle wondering "Why?"

I have heard from many people who have changed as a result of Jack's accident.

They are closer to God. They are mad at God. Some have found more motiviation in their work. Some think their jobs are meaningless. They are praying more. Hugging more. Worrying less. Spending more time with their families. Ending unheathy friendships and habits. Trying to find more meaning in this life.

When you see things in a new way, turning back to the old way is an option, but it squanders whatever wisdom has been gained. And this wisdom is usually gained at a high cost.

For example, I was an ardent meeting-goer in my previous life, but at this point there is no way I'm going to get all up in arms about the minutiae of church business or youth sports, or whatever. I mean, seriously, if it's not about LOVE or LIFE or DEATH or HEAVEN, it seems like bull to me at this point. I want to keep this eternal perspective, even though I wish I'd never been given it in the first place. I don't want to squander it. Does that make sense?

Jack was ready to make some changes, but we never really got to see how that would turn out.

What about you? Do you have some changes you are pondering? I'd love to hear more.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

You're My Pal

It all started with the lobster.

Last August we were in NC at the beach. We took a day trip to an aquarium and enjoyed being out of the sun, seeing something new, and being together. Things started out a little dicey, as Margaret wasn't in the best mood, but a quick talking to from Tim, and the hilarious sight of two box turtles mating turned her frown to a smile.

We approached a huge glass tank and Jack thrust out a finger, pointed to a lobster, and said in a funny voice, "You're my PAL!" We laughed, and as we passed window after window, teeming with fish and ocean creatures, we each picked a "Pal." By the end, we had a lot a pals, and we headed back to the beach house.

Less than two weeks later, with Jack gone, our minds reeled with how to cultivate his legacy, how to hang onto him in a way we weren't able to do physically since he was so cruelly swept away from us. Margaret, on her own volition, did a google search looking for organizations that either donated Legos to needy kids or helped to "save the lobsters," because legos and lobsters reminded her of her brother.

I was reminded of how our friend Glennon, on her amazing blog, called her sister her lobster. It was something about how lobsters take care of each other and all that. Sounded like Jack and Margaret to me.

So, with all this in mind, I bought Margaret a stuffed lobster from the thrift store, wrapped it up, and gave it to her "From Jack" on our first quiet Christmas morning as a family of three. She loved it, and the lobster has accompanied her as she's had to do hard things, like go to grief camp.

Last Sunday, we went to an open house in our town. This is one of my favorite activities, which is only mildly tolerated by the rest of the family. The historic house was devoid of furniture or decoration. When we got up to a tiny second floor office, we saw a huge, and I mean HUGE stuffed lobster sitting there. It was a bit dirty and had a yard sale price tag attached to its claw. We're talking so big that you could just tell whichever mom had managed to wrest it away from her kids and get it out of her house had probably felt the walls expand a little at that moment.

We laughed at the improbability of seeing the lobster there, in an otherwise empty house, and Margaret looked at me like... PLEASE?!? I didn't know if I could muster up the courage to ask the real estate agent if the lobster was for sale, or if I even wanted to. I mean, I've spent many moments in my own house bagging up annoying stuffed animals-- which have somehow managed to breed in the recesses of my kids' rooms-- and smuggling them out of the house under cover of darkness. If the lady did say yes, we'd end up with a HUGE lobster in our house.

But here's the thing. Margaret considered this lobster sighting a smile from Jack, so I wanted to do something. I tried to shove it off on Tim, but he looked at me like I had three heads. Remember how I've said no one in our relationship can speak up and return pants? Prime example.

"The worst thing that could happen is that she'll say no," Margaret said.

Okay, kid.

I went down the stairs and said, "The house is nice but what we really liked was that stuffed lobster upstairs. My daughter collects them, so if you want to get rid of that one, we'd be happy to buy it from you." She responded, warmly enough, but did not bite. "Oh, I picked that up at a yard sale to stage the house." Ummm... interesting decor choice, to say the least, but it was clear the lobster was staying.

After we left, I thought about it some more.

I thought about all the times I could have spoken up for my kids over the years, in tiny ways like this one, and big ways. Whether for Jack in preschool when his teacher, clearly irritated with him, would say in front of everyone, "He's just too smart for his own good," or even on that horrible September night when I went home to my kitchen to wait because I'd been told to. I just quietly went home. I mean what kid of mother DOES that?

I had ingrained in the kids, and in myself, "You get what you get and you don't get upset," you never ask for special favors, and you don't make a fuss about anything; but while that seemed appropriate when doling out popsicle flavors, was that the message I wanted to teach them about EVERYTHING?

What about Life? Love? Lobsters?

So I set my awkward feelings aside and found the realtor's email address. I secretly wrote her about our situation and asked if she might be willing to sell us the stuffed lobster when the vacant house sold.

It wasn't a big move, but it took me out of my comfort zone. The agent responded immediately and graciously. Because of her generosity. in a few short days an enormous yard sale stuffed lobster, hopefully not riddled with head lice, will show up on our doorstep at no charge!

I hope Margaret will look at her new pal and see it really DIDN'T hurt to ask.

Friday, August 17, 2012


In anticipation of our one year Crap-iversary coming up in September, we plan to order more Jack car magnets like the ones we had made last fall. The blue ribbon reminds us of the beautiful ribbons hung up around our town, and even around the country, after the accident. Jack's Bible verse reminds us that, "With God, Nothing is Impossible."

If you would like one, I would be honored to mail it to you. This is a gift. If you would like to make a smallish($5?) donation to Jack's Memorial Fund in order to defay the cost of the magnet and shipping, that would be fine but it is not necessary.

This is the fund we use to make donations to various charities in Jack's name, and Margaret is the driving force behind all of those decisions.

Here's the address:

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

So, if you would like a "Jack Magnet," just email me your address at and I'll have one made for you.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Weird? Well, Life is Weird.

When it comes to An Inch of Gray, several good friends have asked, although not using these exact words, if it feels weird “getting popular” on the back of my dead son. I, too, have thought about that, but my answer is, um, NO.

Not at all.

There are several reasons I don't find it weird:

1. With my healthy (and perhaps delusional) sense of self-esteem, I believe that if any of my amazing readers and I had run into each other, say, at the Dollar Store or in Target before the accident happened-- blog or no blog-- we would have hit it off.

The circumstances through which many of us were brought together are not ideal (!) but the community we’ve formed is real and significant and important. I also know that while one year ago I wasn’t looking for "popularity,” true friendships have been born out of this tragedy, even among people so far flung we won’t get to meet until, well, you know.

2. Jack would love it! He was proud of me and proud of my writing, even though he didn’t think I was very funny, and he didn’t want me to write anything personal or embarrassing about him on the blog. As a preschooler, he also thought I should run for president someday. He changed his mind about that.

Remember how my sister’s eulogy of Jack said one of the things she learned from him was to “Share Others’ Joy?” Well, while I’m not experiencing gobs of joy right now, it's clear I do gain something very significant from writing this blog, interacting with readers, and seeing something special at work here. I think Jack would be very happy about that as well as getting to see the list of readers in the sidebar grow.

Through writing, I’m able to process important feelings, which helps keep me from having too many meltdowns like the one I had at McDonalds on Saturday. Picture a crying woman waiting for her chicken sandwich. She takes a step forward, at which time her Large Diet Coke flies through the air, spews over the feet and legs of 5-6 customers and crashes to the floor. Follow this with frantic mopping with one measly napkin, copious amounts of weeping, and finally an ungraceful stagger to the car. What kid wouldn't want his/her mom to have a positive outlet to keep the wailing at bay?

3. I felt called to grow through writing and blogging long before the accident, but I wasn’t sure what form that would take. Last August, I shared with Jack at the kitchen table that, out of fear, I had turned down the chance to sell my painted furniture in a friend's store on a permanent basis. I was pretty bummed. I lamented that the woman who had accepted the job had surpassed me in blog readers in 2 short weeks when I’d been blogging for 4 years! Not really sharing others’ joy? I know.

“Aww, Mom, why are you telling me this? That’s really kind of depressing,” he said. I told him I didn’t want him to let fear of failure, or even fear of success, make his decisions for him. I wanted him to learn from my (many) mistakes. So one year ago, I was hoping to accept new challenges and grow through writing almost exclusively about chalk paint, dumpster diving, and decorating, and that would have been lovely. Oh so lovely. I was convinced that was the next step.

But that is not the direction life, or this blog, has headed.

So now, instead of letting fear make my decisions about my writing, or worrying that there’s something odd or unseemly about the way it has spread, I embrace it with a grateful heart.

Grateful that this blog was already in place because I can’t fathom having had the energy or gumption to start one after the accident, and grateful that I had already witnessed first-hand how love and support could flow through the blog world.

Grateful that through Twitter and Facebook and blogs, news of our loss and Jack's impact has spread far beyond our little town.

Grateful for friends, new and old, met and unmet, praying for us and rooting for us as a family, even though it might be painful to do at times.

Grateful that so many people have been willing to open themselves up to what they read here and ponder the hard questions in life and delight in the mysteries too.

Grateful and humbled that somehow through a mom's simple words on a screen, our story-- our most unwelcome, shitty, yet ultimately hopeful story-- could somehow help someone else, even just a little bit, even while it is helping us.


Thank you!

THANK YOU for your willingness to be in this with us.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Looking Back, Looking Forward

We didn’t ride in limos to the funeral. It never crossed my mind. I just hiked up my gray dress and climbed into my brother’s new pickup truck with Tim and Margaret by my side. Running late because our printer ran out of ink and I couldn’t get a clear copy of the eulogy I had written, we pulled into the church parking lot just a few minutes before the service started. Someone had used an orange cone to save a space for us.

“Oh crap,” I thought, “We forgot to have a visitation.” Following my mother’s service, many years ago, I regretted not providing a place for people to come together and talk about her and process her sudden death at age 46. I told myself I’d remember that for future reference. Except this was the future, and I’d forgotten. Darn. Why didn’t we think to open up the social hall of the church over the weekend for people to laugh and cry and “Why?” and “What if?” about a boy swept away in a creek? I realize now, that although we forgot to plan a formal opportunity to do so, pockets of people were in living rooms, cul de sacs, on phones, and even the aisles of the grocery store doing just that. Talking, wondering, processing.

I guess there was simply no time for thoughts of limos, visitation, or even putting a picture of Jack in the paper with his obituary (a regret of mine) because we were just in survival mode, plodding through the shitty hours, unable to slow things down or turn back time, much as we wanted to. Reeling at the short amount of time between letting a healthy boy go out to play in the rain on a Thursday, and somehow celebrating his short life on Monday. Getting through. Getting it done.

I also didn’t think of explaining to Margaret what goes on at a funeral, even though she’d never attended one before. “We’ll sing a few hymns, and then the pastors will say nice things about Jack. There will no body or coffin there. When we walk in and out, everyone will look at us. Afterward, Dad and I will be busy talking to people, but you can hang out in my office or outside with your friends if it seems like too much.” I didn’t think of having that conversation until much later. Grief books suggest such a conversation, but I didn't start reading those until after the funeral.

And a limo? Didn’t dawn on me until several months later. Limos are great ways to transport relatives, especially those from out of town, to a funeral or a cemetery so no one has to worry about driving or directions.

But we aren’t fancy people. In fact, I drove myself to my own wedding in a 1987 minivan, wearing shorts and a button front shirt to avoid messing up the veil affixed to my head. No hoopla. It was low key, limo-less, and I regretted that a teeny bit at the time.

But not for Jack’s funeral. I am now so glad we forgot! Because Margaret likes fashion, fun, and the good life, and someday that girl WILL have the chance to ride in a limo. To prom, to her wedding, to a fabulous movie premiere… somewhere. Somewhere other than her brother’s funeral.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

I Wanted

My mom had 3 kids in 4 years.

Our closeness in age did not make for conflict-free sibling relationships, but did steep us in a family culture that decades later I can't describe adequately but I can conjure up in an instant by remembering a song, a smell, the sound of the squeaky manual pencil sharpener mounted on the side of our kitchen cabinet, or the crusty feel of not-very-clean shag carpet under my feet.

Much of the time I thought of my brother and sister as my adversaries, conspiring somehow to take what was rightfully mine and rob me of my much deserved joy. Yes, I was a dramatic child.

But I loved that I always had siblings around testing the waters, just ahead of me in school and life. My feather-haired, smart-alecky sister an 8th grader to my 7th, or my good-natured, good-old-boy of a brother who was a senior in high school when I was a freshman.

Sure, they never wanted to let me ride along in their friends's cars to school, so I took the bus a lot. Mom had to listen to my whine-filled reasoning, "but we're all going the the same exact place!" Occasionally, she would force them to include me, but sitting in the back of a 70's panel truck with my brother and his friends, or in a Datsun with a bunch of older girls as they pulled into 7-11 on an early morning Diet Coke run didn't feel as great as it would have had I been included on my own (feeble) merits.

But even when I didn't belong, I knew I belonged to something. We were the Whiston kids. We were family. I knew if I needed something, my brother or sister would defend me-- would "have my back"-- even though we didn't know the phrase back then.

And as I remember being excited and intrigued as my brother got his first "girlfriend" in 6th grade, watching him play football in the high school stadium on hormone-charged, electric fall nights, or swapping Forenza sweaters with my sister and her cool friends, I realize more than ever, how much Margaret has lost in losing Jack.

For Margaret and Jack were as close as any brother and sister I have known. They had their own language. Private jokes. Each spring when the school yearbook came out, they would stretch out on the floor, heads together, dissecting it page by page, photo by photo, no teacher or student left undiscussed. In school, we knew whatever projects Jack did, or books he read, Margaret would encounter a short two years later, probably with much less complaining. Jack knew he was, to use his words, "The Practice Child," as we tried to figure out how to draw boundaries and parent through any particular stage. He blazed the trail, and Margaret followed.

I counted on Jack figuring out middle school first. Then high school. I wanted his friends to come over and hang out around our kitchen table, the same table where my brother and his friends attempted to eat spaghetti through their noses more than 25 years ago. I knew that if Margaret would get used to having boys around, she would see them as a cadre of protective older brothers-- not just as conquests or conquerors-- but people.

You see, my brother and his friends were the ones who vetted my dates. They were the ones who showed me that guys were not some rare, exotic species that I needed to put on a pedestal or work too hard to impress. Instead, they hung out at our house. They played games. They made me laugh. They sat on a stool in our kitchen as my mom cut their hair. I counted on this same easy familiarity being one of the many benefits Margaret would experience by having Jack for an older brother. Jack could help de-mystify boys for her, just as my brother did for me.

Plus, I wanted Jack and Margaret to keep sharing secrets and experiences, because unlike friends, siblings know how far is too far afield from a family's culture and values. They know a family belongs together. I pictured funny, yet fundamentally straight-laced Jack being the cute older brother driving Margaret and her friends to youth group on Sunday nights. I wanted him to be the brother who knew, even if it meant cutting his own fun short, that he needed to get his little sister out of there if a high school party got dicey.

I wanted. I wanted. I wanted.

Yes, the loss of 12 year old Jack is painful and devastating, particularly when thinking of how much his lttle sister misses him today. But the Jack I'm mourning today is 17 year old Jack for 15 year old Margaret.

Monday, August 6, 2012

BlogHer 2012

I'm back from BlogHer in New York City. Thanks for your prayers and positive thoughts! I'm tired today, and I miss my roommate and all the other lovely ladies already. Let me tell you it was SUCH a gift to be able to look people in the eye and thank them for caring about our lives, our son, our story.

I've decided BlogHer is a lot like getting frisky with my husband:

I kind of dread it.

It takes a while to get into it.

I'm really glad I did it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Still Standing!

I am sorry I've been gone for so long. Lack of blogging makes me feel blah, and I can't wait until we can catch up fully. I'd say my lack of writing is akin to when a runner doesn't get a chance to run, but you know I have zero real-world experience in that department so it's pure speculation.

I'm doing 3 relatively short but back-to-back trips, the final one of which starts tomorrow. Lest someone out there on the internet thinks it would be an ideal time to empty our house of all worldly possessions, I'll point out that Tim and our attack labrador will be guarding the house.

While I hadn't planned on going to the BlogHer conference this year, my desire to hug people who have loved on us for the past 11 months is far stronger than my fear that my clothes will look stupid or that I'll cry if anyone says anything nice to me. Or mean to me. Or anything at all.

Sooooo, just checking in to say I miss you.

We are still standing. And laughing. And remembering.

We can feel your prayers.

Can't wait to catch up!

And if you are going to BlogHer, come get that hug.