Journey, Day 1

Yesterday was my son’s 27th birthday, the first June 28th in that many years without him in the world.  I cried several times the day before, particularly when reading my ex-husband Larry’s Facebook post, which quoted lyrics from Forever Young and ended with “Happy Birthday, son.”  larry and kyle turning 25Sometimes witnessing the pain of the other people who love and miss Kyle hurts as much or more than my own pain.  (This photo is of Larry and Kyle celebrating Kyle’s recovery and the new life he was launching in Amherst on his 25th birthday…Just two years ago, one of the many days when everything seemed possible.)

Fortunately, on the morning of Kyle’s actual birthday, I did have something to celebrate, thanks to the wise forethought of my daughter Jamie, who had insisted we start our road trip from Chicago to Portland that day.  She sent me a message in advance of the trip outlining the intentions she wanted us to set for the journey:

  • to be honest and authentic, naming our feelings when they needed attention;
  • to connect to a higher power through nature;
  • to stay present, practicing mindfulness and gratitude;
  • to stay open to new experiences, including unexpected changes in plans;
  • to practice self-care and body-love (hydration, nourishment, stretches);
  • to lead with loving-kindness in all our interactions with ourselves, one another and everyone we encounter along the way;
  • to honor Kyle every day.

How could I not be excited with an agenda as thoughtfully outlined as that? (Honestly, who even cares where we go if that’s what we’ll be doing?) Also, I marvel at how this list demonstrates how much growth can come from trauma and loss.  Jamie and I have had to work so hard to get through this past year that we’ve adopted many healthy new habits — daily yoga; more art, writing and reflecting; therapy; deep breathing; prayer; even flossing — or, as I sometimes say, “self care like a mother-fucking job.”  We had to build new spiritual muscles just to carry us through each day.

With all that said, I know we both feel a painful conflict between our relentless grief and our efforts to be joyful, present and grateful.  So one of the best parts of this trip, starting as it did on such a heart-breaking day, is how much our dissonance eases when we’re with each other — because no matter how much we are laughing, singing, dancing, and celebrating, we both know without having to say it out loud that we are simultaneously feeling deep grief.  Having our painfully discordant feelings silently recognized and reflected in one another is a comfort.

More specifically, yesterday was a long day of driving through flat midwestern plains — the longest drive we’ll have for the week.  But paying attention to all Jamie’s careful intentions made the day a pleasure anyway. Jamie packed us a cooler full of delicious fresh food, which we fed one another by hand in the car. Our stop for yoga overlooking a beautiful vista kept us feeling stretched and refreshed despite the super cramped car.  The sun stayed out until almost 10 p. m. (how is this possible?)– so I didn’t ever have to drive in the dark, even after 12 hours on the road.  And then, even though we arrived at South Dakota’s only gay bar an hour after most customers had left, we decided to honor Kyle by dancing as he did: fearlessly and for maximum fun.  Jamie danced with his spirit, and we missed him like crazy, just like we do every day.  Happy Birthday, son.



“The wheel of what if/ starts turning and never stops.” — Mary Jo Bang in Elegy

45th-hamp-seal-on-podium-e1498578760252.jpgToday is my last day of work at Hampshire College, my work home and community for the past nine years. I’ve packed my boxes (peanut butter, family photos, notebooks, cards) and written most of my goodbyes, but I am still supposed to ask about 10 more people to make a gift before June 30th – and just writing that phrase leaves me exhausted. I am such a diligent good girl that I have been continuing to present proposals and close major gifts right up until the last day, but I think I might have hit my wall, particularly with people I’ve already asked and am now supposed to nudge. Fuck it; I

My always-positive boss, Clay (though just for 4 more hours), and my then-girlfriend /now-wife, Renee, at a Hampshire bowling party.

don’t have the resilience for follow-up; if I did, I wouldn’t be leaving this mostly excellent job.

My heart is beating hard at the idea that I will leave any assigned task unfinished. I cannot even imagine what retirement – with its lack of assigned tasks – is going to feel like. As I was writing this, the Hampshire Fund director sent me a list of 44 people she would like me to call this morning. I am laughing and shaking a little, both at how absurd that is and at how unable I feel to say no – or to make those calls.

Last night I packed for the road trip I’m starting with Jamie tomorrow; we are leaving Chicago on the morning of Kyle’s 27th birthday, the first of his birthdays where he won’t be getting any older. I am excited for this adventure with my daughter, and for the relief of not having to meet any more fund-raising quotas or professional expectations — but I felt sick with sadness as I packed Kyle’s sleeping bag and Kyle’s tent into Kyle’s backpack, and this morning I still have a sadness hangover just thinking about how I buried my face in his sleeping bag hoping for one last whiff of him. (There was none, but I’m still hoping when I unroll it to sleep in it, maybe…) We three loved being in nature together, and it is in his honor Jamie insisted we start our trip on his birthday; I hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be, how strongly I would feel his absence as we set out.

Later today – after friends take me out for drinks to “celebrate my retirement” at The Moan and Dove — I will go home and transfer some of Kyle’s ashes into a watertight container Jamie has asked me to bring her so she and Kyle’s old girlfriend, Steph, can sprinkle a part of him around the base of Mt. Rainier. The schism between festive celebrations and aching bottomless grief is particularly stark today.

At home, I have a photo of Kyle climbing Mt. Ranier wearing the pack I stuffed last night, kyle on mt ranierand I keep thinking that was the peak he reached in life: he was so proud to have done that climb, and in that moment he was literally on top of the world. (Here’s the photo where he’s reached the top, the one my dear friend Barb put at the end of his memorial video.)  What happened after he reached this peak to bring him so low?

I know his disease was inherited, a genetic time bomb that had already been set in motion. But why was it dormant then? Why was he able to live a normal, happy adult life – teaching and mountain climbing and drinking beers with friends and reveling in nature and bike riding and taking care of foster kittens with his girlfriend and giving speeches for City Year and planning to study neurobiology when he went back to school the following fall – only to descend shortly thereafter into insane crack addiction. I know the why- and how-could-it-have-been-otherwise questions are useless circles; when I catch myself getting caught in these loops, I must take a deep breath and shake them out of my head. But today my mind is stuck there.

I am reminded of Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, a book-length poem to her son who died of addiction. There’s a line she wrote that haunts me, “The wheel of what if/ starts turning and never stops.” Here’s one of the poems in that book, though not the one I referenced:



_RLS6062Last year, 16 days after my wedding, my brilliant 26-year-old son died of an overdose.  (Poor kid carried the burden of everyone calling him “brilliant” all his life — and now here I am saddling him with that as a first adjective even in death. Here’s hoping he no longer minds; I hope we get at least that much of a break when we go.)

Everything in my life centers on my loss.  My life was split in two between the life I had prior to Kyle’s death, and this life where he is unbelievably gone forever and I am still figuring out how to proceed.  The me who is typing this is still evolving into her full humanity and has decided to do it out in the open with this blog – a blog I launched informally on Facebook in the early days and months, though without thinking of it as a blog; it just seemed like the only place to pour my feelings, a sympathetic community, witness to my ongoing pain. Having my grief seen seemed vital.

Having my son’s death be the most important and central thing that’s ever happened to me feels awful; I don’t want this to be true. I want to be a writer first, or an activist, or some kind of changemaker…  Yet if you are meeting me through this blog, the fact of my son’s death must be my first self-descriptor.  If I didn’t start with, “I am the mother of a dead son,” I’d be censoring myself, which I do enough in the real world. I want to try to avoid that on this blog.

I am other things, too, but sadly they all feel ash-pale in comparison to the throbbing colors of my new identity as mother of a dead man.  But I am also a wife – a newlywed, in fact – and a happy one, with a life full (still!) of romance and passion, love and laughter.  I know I am blessed beyond measure that this is true. I pushed myself to resume making love with my wife within days of Kyle’s death. I know she was surprised, but also grateful I could provide her this proof that the best thing in our lives was not going to be destroyed by the worst thing that ever happened to us. (And yes, it was the worst that ever happened to her, too, because the woman she married just 16 days earlier was stolen from her the day Kyle died and replaced with a relentlessly distracted reproduction.)

I am also still a mother to two alive children and three alive grandchildren: to a foster daughter, Amy, who is as old as my wife (which is the least complicated element in my relationship with that daughter) and to a daughter, Jamie, born two years after my dead son. See how Jamie is described in comparison to my son – and his death? She was always second, and always living her life in contrast to his, which is harder now that her brother is dead. Worse, she has lost her best friend, the person who knew her best (better than I knew her, though I’m getting to know her more since Kyle died, now that she and I are open to learning who she is rather than trying to push her toward being something imaginary.)

I am also undergoing huge changes on the other side of being an adult child: I am the daughter of an aging (and raging-against-aging) mom who just moved here to Western Mass. This is the first time we’ve lived closer than 2500 miles apart in more than 35 years.  We’re emotionally very close, and we visited one another several times a year all the years we were apart. But now she is 25 minutes away and needing a lot of help with getting settled in, which I want to give her, but which I am also finding overwhelming. My son was living with my mother when he died. (Apropos of nothing, just to make clear my mind is always finding connections back to Kyle, no matter the subject.)

Finally,  I have also been a fund-raiser for Hampshire College for nearly a decade, and have worked in some job or another, usually more than one at a time, for 40 years, but I’m retiring Tuesday (in two days) and I wanted to launch this blog before I went so I could tell people as I said goodbye that they should check out my blog..  So here you go: I’ve started.