Wednesday, March 27, 2013


When I started teaching, I was just 5 years older than my oldest students. Despite student teaching and subbing, I knew little about teenagers aside from my own stint as one in the very school where I now taught. How wise I thought I sounded when I’d stand up at back to school night speaking to the tired 40-somethings who sat yawning in the one-armed desks in front of me.  I had a know -it -all attitude and truly thought my students’ lives revolved around 10th grade English class.

And then there were the boys.  They were loud. One disruptive boy could send the whole lesson plan down the toilet. Their papers were crumpled, and they forgot to turn things in. “Miss Whiston, everyone knows you don’t like boys very much,” a particularly gutsy student told me one day. What? That was ridiculous!  

Sure, I kept a professional distance from the boys because I was a young teacher and I didn’t want any tinge of impropriety on my career. Word on the street was that at least two of my young colleagues were teetering on the edge of that very precipice at the time, and I wanted no part of it. It was just easier to get close to the girls. I understood them. They liked me. They kept track of what outfits I wore, noting to me in a most “helpful” way when I got to my first clothing repeat. I could read their handwriting. They cared about their grades.  Pulling late night sessions in the windowless yearbook office was easier with girls around, too.

Oh. Crap. I guess the accusation was correct.

But as I got my teaching legs and that 5 year age difference crept up to more than a decade, I became much more at ease around the boys. I loved how the brightest, most awkward ones would stand by my desk, jostling each other to be the first to tell me something. Maybe they’d encountered one of our vocabulary words out in the world. Maybe they had a pun to share. Girls were not yet digging these boys, so they weren’t self- conscious about being brown-nosers hanging around the teacher’s desk. By the time I stopped teaching, the afternoon before Jack was born, I was as comfortable with the boys as the girls.

Jack. At our 20 week sonogram, the technician announced, “It’s a boy.” What?! I got teary, and not in a good way. I didn’t know what I would do with a boy. My fondest childhood memories were of special moments with my mother, and I hoped having a girl would mean we could somehow put balm on the painful scar of losing my mom too young.

What if this baby… this boy…and I couldn’t share those experiences together? I like words. I don’t like running around. I’m totally cool with potty humor, but I wish someone would just go ahead and paint the football neon orange so I could at least pretend to follow the plays. Besides, isn’t it much more fun to talk about the outfits and the cheerleaders' moves and the band than actually watch a game? And the lists of baby names scrawled in my high school notebooks were all for girls. For some crazy reason, I’d convinced myself that only another vagina was going to come out of this vagina.

My sister, 9 months ahead of me on the parenting journey said, “At first you’ll pray to God for A child. After he’s born, you’ll realize you had prayed to God for THIS child.”

And she was right.

Jack and I were made for each other. He wasn’t rough and tumble. He was charming and funny. He loved words and word play. He was loyal and smart. Our bond strengthened during long days together while Tim worked full-time and went to law school, but it somehow felt as if it had been there since the beginning of time. I read to him incessantly. Our house was small. Our world was small. No cable tv, no smart phones, no blogs. Sometimes it felt too small, but most days it felt just right. Just mom and Jack, seeing what the day held.

As I grew as a mother, and grew to love Jack even more as I got to know him, I thought back to my teaching days. I knew I would be a better teacher now that I was a mom. That doesn’t mean all teachers have to be moms, but I think parenting gave me important perspective on  homework and balance and boys that I sorely lacked before. I sent up a silent apology to all of those frazzled moms of boys for assigning their sons  Pride and Prejudice over summer vacation and so many touchy-feely journal entries.

I thought of the quirky boys who encircled my desk. The ones who would come up with weird facts and present them to me as a gift. Who, despite the surging of hormones and the burgeoning  facial hair, still seemed like enthusiastic little boys inside.  They reminded me of Jack, and I loved them.

I hoped that when Jack grew into himself and took his own charming quirkiness off to high school, he would encounter teachers who got a kick out of him the way I did. Teachers who would see his brains and his charm and his bursts of enthusiasm as a plus not just  a hindrance to the day’s schedule.

In 6th grade, I got a glimpse of this possibility. His science class was studying rocks. On his science teacher’s  birthday, he found an ugly hunk of rock on the playground. After recess, he presented it to her with flourish, saying, “Here. I found you a Common Rock for your birthday.”

And his teacher, seeing that this common rock came from an uncommon boy, took it home and put it on her mantel.


Monday, March 25, 2013


Some really neat things happened around Jack's birthday.

Tim and three friends ran a 5k in his honor, and one of our neighbors ran a 1/2 marathon.

On Saint Patrick's Day, the night before his birthday, we gathered at a Mexican restaurant with a big group of Jack's best friends and their families. Don't you think Mexican food when you think St. Paddy's?

People came and went as schedules permitted, ate dinner, visited, and looked at family albums. Three of Jack's classmates drew amazing portraits of him to give to us. I know that when I was their age, I was struggling to make a line drawing of a SHOE in art class, so the skill and love that comes through these drawings is astounding!

We were supposed to leave the restaurant at 8, but we stayed until closing time, sharing stories and laughing a lot.

On his birthday, which was snowy and cold, Auntie Liz ran 14 miles in his honor, while I nursed about 14 cups of tea. Two of my friends joined her for the first 5 miles, their hair covered with ice, the wet snow still coming down.

Friends decided to do 14 acts of kindness, and  we got to hear the stories pour in: of Lego sets given to children in the hospital, toiletries donated to women's shelters on the west coast, and even of grace extended to someone who had done something very hurtful.

Two of Jack and Margaret's friends went with their mom to a local grocery store and waited by the bakery. Each time someone came to pick up a birthday cake, they gave out a gift card for 14 dollars to help pay for the cake and then told Jack's story. This took guts and creativity, and one of the recipients was so touched she went home, Googled our story, and re-donated the money to Samaritan's Purse in honor of Jack. So many acts of kindness, so much love.

One of the neatest stories came out of a rural high school in West Virginia where my brother works. Our friend, an English teacher, developed a lesson plan around specific posts on this blog. The students were so moved that they decided on their own to commit to doing 14 acts of kindness for Jack's birthday. In all, these amazing teenagers committed to doing 3,000 acts of kindness in Jack's name! For example, one boy gave a veteran a ride and spent time visiting with him at a fast food restaurant.  A girl put positive quotations and affirmations in every drive-thru bag at the McDonalds where she works, spreading love up and down a major highway. Forty other English teachers from all over downloaded the lesson plan to use with their own students.

Each signature on this poster represents a student who will be doing these acts of kindness! Isn't that beautiful?

When this same English teacher was on a school trip 3 hours from home a few days later, a stranger offered to pay for her coffee. "Why?" she asked. "Well, I'm doing these 14 acts of kindness in memory of a boy..." The love was spreading!

These acts helped motivate Tim, Margaret, and me to do 14 of our own, and it helped us think beyond ourselves for a little while. We made "blessing bags" for our cars-- Ziploc bags filled with snacks, new socks, toiletries and a few dollars, to have ready when we encounter someone in need.

Cards, beautiful Lego keychains made by a friend, 14 luminaria on our door step, a stained glass window for our wall, flowers, and prayers from all over the internet, helped us get through the day.

Thank you so much!

My favorite jewelry designer, of Holly Lane Designs, created a beautiful pendant with Jack's favorite Bible verse on it. The Mobius Strip design is a perfect nod to Jack's love of puzzles, as well as God's ability to make the impossible possible.

The rest of the week, I was in birthday recovery mode, which I've noticed is pretty common after a major holiday. The buildup and anticipation are the worst, with our feeling weepy, irritable, and hopeless, and then it gets a little better afterward. Kind of like PMS for grief.

Five days after Jack's birthday, 8 family members and I went to a restaurant after Margaret's soccer tournament. The bill was NOT small. When it came, the waiter said it had already been paid for. "What?" We looked around, confused. Surely there had been a mistake.

"No," the waiter said, "Someone paid and said it was for Jack's mom.'"


Life is hard. Life is good.

So grateful for all the lights that flicker in the darkness.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Jack's Birthday

Today is Jack's 14th birthday.

He arrived 2 weeks early, and left way too soon. We are doing well today, with lots of love and even a little bit of snow on the ground. I'm over at Momastery writing about how it's still possible to be an irritable shrew even in the midst of life and death and God and love.

Love you all!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hop on the Bus, Gus

Yesterday I dropped Margaret off to board a bus for a Middle School church retreat.  She was anxious about being so far from home and so was I, but after some deep breathing she bravely climbed on the bus with her friends. I hope it will be an exciting, meaningful weekend for her.  
As the parents prayed in the parking lot for safe travels and for God to bless the retreat, tears streamed down my face.  I tried to hide them behind my sunglasses so Margaret would be neither freaked out nor embarrassed as she looked out the bus window. Of course she saw me. My friend Jenn gave me a hug and said, “She’s going to be fine.” I buried my head in her shoulder and choked out, “I’m not crying about Margaret.” She answered, “I know.”

So many moments that should be easy and joyful are so damn hard. Yesterday was just one small example, of the little battles and struggles that weave their way through every single day of loss. It’s as if our brains are operating on two tracks, and integration of these tracks could take a lifetime. One track is the here and now of living and loving and school and work, but there is always the parallel track of loss and what could have been yet will not be. Jack should have been on the bus with Margaret. The moms standing next to me talking about 8th grade boys and how they always want to wear shorts in the winter should have been hearing me tell my own stories about Jack heading out to school or the retreat foolishly underdressed. I want my own 8th grade boy stories about how fast they grow and how much they eat, but I don’t. Won’t.

Grievers function within society, and most days it appears pretty seamless. We volunteer at school. We shop. We stand around in prayer circles. People need to feel okay being open and natural around us, so as not to drive us even further apart from the world. We are not aliens, even though it feels that way. But there is a constant undercurrent of loss, a schism in our brains, which we gradually learn to adapt to. Most days we are able to operate on the level of the here and now, but sometimes the other part leaks out in church parking lots, and that’s okay too.

There must be safe places to be able to bring the loss to the forefront, to open the pressure valve of pain a little bit, without worrying about seeming completely hopeless or obsessive. I remember when Tim and I walked into our first (and last for now) meeting for bereaved parents just a few weeks after the accident. We came out so depressed and depleted. You see, we were still in a state of shock about Jack’s death, but also a state of being tenderly held up by the spirit of God. We sought hope and meaning in Jack’s death, and were so earnest in our desire to “be okay!” for Jack’s  sake  and ours. To see these parents who were still suffering  greatly many years after their children died, gave us a window into despair we didn’t want to see. Surely we would feel better than they did at 5 years out!

I didn’t realize then that the meeting was their safe place, as this blog is mine. Their pain and desire to tell their stories didn’t mean they weren’t functioning in society, holding jobs and taking care of their families. It just meant that in the day in and day out of living with and adapting to the two track existence of life and loss, those meetings were one place to openly talk about the one track that is less visible, but very present.

I wonder if my dear friends on this blog worry that I’m obsessed with Jack and our loss. It would be natural to think that, and I too have wondered that about others who have loved and lost. It’s a natural concern. We want our friends to get better. We want them to thrive. We wonder if it’s healthy to talk so much about the one who is gone.

When I write about grief, you don’t see much about the soccer carpool and Girl Scout cookies and math homework (gah!) and shoe shopping and school projects, and cooking (double gah!) but they are here. I promise.

 It’s okay to worry. This is a worrisome situation.

But in days filled with soccer carpools and Girl Scout cookies and the like, this is a space I have like no other, a place to do the hard work of grieving that might so easily be swallowed up by those other things, and my TV watching schedule. Here, I can turn over ideas in my head, hold them up to the light, and examine them. I can cry out in the missing, the longing for the boy who should be with me in body, not just in spirit. And you show up to lift me, again and again, and to root for us.
In the examining and crying out, I’m hoping that someone else can be helped, either in her grief, or in supporting someone who is grieving. I don’t know how that works, through words on a screen, but I’m just trusting God on this one.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Speak My Name

On Wednesdays Mom and I delivered Meals on Wheels around town. Since I was the youngest of three kids born in four years, my hobbies consisted of running errands and going to the dry cleaners rather than taking music or art classes. I still kind of like errands. One of our last stops was at Leighton White’s house. He lived alone in raised brick rambler with a large, meticulously kept green yard. The peacock blue carpet in his living room was vacuumed with precision, lines all going the same direction, and not a speck of dust settled on the few figurines that sat on his shelves.

He could have been 60 or 40 or even 35, because I was only a little girl, and to me old was old. Most of our deliveries were quick, but the stop at Leighton’s house took a little longer because he’d want to chat a while. My mom understood that with some of our clients, the visiting was more important than the food we delivered. Each week Leighton, a developmentally delayed adult, would talk about his late mother. “Did you ever know a Miriam White?” he would ask us. We told him we hadn’t. He told us blue was her favorite color, “Like the blue in this rug.” She loved the tomatoes he grew in the yard. He still kept the grass neat the way she liked.

I wondered why he repeated himself so much. “Did his mom just die?” I asked my mother. “No, she’s been gone for many years” she replied. Our brief visits became a way for Leighton to keep his mother’s memory alive, just as his orderly way of living was his way of showing her, if she could still see him, that he remembered the way she had raised him to live. It could be that raising Leighton had been one of the greatest worries of her life. Or her greatest joy. Probably both. She may have fretted, “What will happen to him I die?” But every day Leighton was getting up, putting on his crisp navy blue farmer’s work shirt and pants and continuing to live, despite missing her terribly.

In speaking her name aloud  into the silence of his empty house, and  to a housewife and a young girl who stopped by, Leighton was not only able to celebrate who she was, but also who HE was in relation to her. He was still Miriam White’s son. That was important.

You may know me as Anna the blogger, the sister, the friend, but when you  stop me in the grocery store to talk about Jack, or when you use his name in a comment,  it helps me to still be “Jack’s mom.” Thank you.