Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Grateful

On May 18th it was six years to the day since Ruby died. She was two months shy of her sixth birthday when she passed, so she's now been exploring new worlds longer than she explored this one. If anyone could learn all the lessons this world had to offer in such a short time, it would've been her.

I'm sure I'd barely recognize my peanut now at almost twelve years old, though she may not find me too familiar either. My hair is whiter by the day, and I've thought recently about just letting it all grow long and crazy with a Viking beard to match. She'd like that.

I'm remarkably peaceful these days, though I hesitate to say that and jinx it. My children's picture book, a fine tribute to her, is finally finished and available for purchase. I just returned from a wonderful trip and Kris and I are already planning our next adventure. I don't have much of a career, but I like writing more anyway, and I do have a summer job as a camp recreation director that I'm looking forward to starting after visiting my family next week. It might even include a football instruction component. I'm still healthy enough to squat and deadlift even if not as heavy as at my peak, though I'm no closer to coming to terms with the idea of a day in the future when lifting might not be possible. Maybe I'll just fight that inevitability until the end. I'm in what I think is a healthy and mutually supportive relationship and have been now for several years, though I think it's probably bad karma to talk much about that.

All to say I'm in a pretty good place even with a gaping hole that will never close and that I wouldn't close if I could. I guess one can be incomplete and grateful at the same time.

Here's another short Ruby-inspired verse I wrote when she was just a toddler and recently tinkered with a bit. It's as I remember her—adventurous, independent, and free-thinking. I may have this one illustrated too so don't steal it or I'll come looking.

The Baby Who Likes to Take Showers

Most babies prefer a bath, but a shower is fine for me.
I'm not sure of the reason. I just like what I like, you see?

While they’re content to sit and play,
I stomp and splash in the misty spray.

Illustration by Jacob Below
I know by heart the creaking of the stall's door
and come running—pitter pat—tiny feet across the floor.

My excitement I cannot contain,
though mommy pleads with me in vain.

“Wait, my sweet. You’re still in your jammies, and the water’s so cold.
How on earth did I get this baby so bold?”

If the mischievous cherub could talk, she might say,
'Tis true I'm not dressed for the occasion. Who cares? I'll come anyway.

I never sit for more than a minute.
Running; jumping; always pushing the limit.

It's been this way right from the start.
I came early, small but mighty, with such a big heart.

I’m not much for a nap either.
Might miss something; no time for a breather.

I’d rather wrestle with daddy at night
than lay down my head and give up the fight.

Why slow down? I’m the only baby covered in perspiration.
So in I jump; head first, no hesitation.

Mom, when you've had enough and it’s time to clean up, please plop me in the shower.
Water droplets running down my rosy cheeks give me a feeling of power.

I’m a big girl in this small body,
and showering is this baby’s own unique hobby.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

For a Little While

Others around me seem so carefree.
I have to wonder what the hell is wrong with me.

Their naive happiness seems a shallow goal.
Searching instead for a way to save my wretched soul.

My disillusionment easily justified.
In these fools I find no allies.

Ignorant and unable to see
Basic truths so obvious to me.

But perhaps there’s another turn of this phrase.
Surely they’re not all skipping along in a blissful haze.

Maybe it’s me who doesn’t really care.
Their trivial problems and insecurities I can’t bear.

When the daughter I love is dead in the ground,
Others whining and complaining just isn’t profound.

The thing they don’t get
Is that this day-to-day crap doesn’t matter one little bit.

Posting those perfect photos of a fake life.
Self-esteem hangs in the balance of those coveted likes.

It’s so easy to be an Insta-whore.
Just share another picture of a barely covered ass — such a bore.

Don’t forget to flash the bottom of those Louboutins.
Seen it all before; this tired act makes me yawn.

What they’ll find at the end of their time
Is that they’re a dozen a dime.

Praise from strangers they don’t even know.
As fickle as the direction a breeze may blow.

Gone at the first hint of trouble.
I’ll be the one to burst that pathetic bubble.

They keep right on ignoring those who really matter.
Consumed by social media’s incessant chatter.

Wasting precious time they can never replace.
All in this vain effort to win the rat race.

I dropped out long ago.
It wasn’t a hard decision to forgo.

I just had to be shown the light.
The key to it all hidden in plain sight.

Oh but what a stiff price to pay
To finally have something important to say.

This knowledge few will bother to heed.
Fame and fortune they think they need.

It’s those small moments that really matter the most.
Cherish them now rather than chasing a ghost.

That’s the big secret I’m trying to tell,
Though it doesn’t seem to matter how hard I yell.

My warning so easy to ignore.
They see me as a preachy bore.

Daughter gone yet my words ring hollow.
One bitter pill after another to swallow.

If only my simple truth they would hear,
Pain finds us all but guilt and regret might disappear.

My only choice now is to walk a few more miles.
Keep my fake smile plastered for a little while.

Just an Ordinary Day at the Park. That Smile Wasn't Fake.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Perspective, Five Years On

Dear Roo,

The five-year mark since you died is fast approaching. Hawaii didn't really exist for me before you died. I'd never been there, and I don't think I really even thought much about going.

But since you died, Hawaii has somehow played a big role in my life. By chance, I'll be there again this year on the actual date of your death, visiting the beautiful island of Kauai. Maybe that's as good a place for me as any on another tough day.

By this time next year, you'll have officially been gone longer than you were here. You moving further away from me like that is a scary proposition that's been repeated many times.

When they loaded you on the ambulance and shut the door, a small gap began to grow.

When they decided your condition was deteriorating and they needed to put you on the ventilator, it grew some more.

When they pulled your lifeless body from my arms, I felt you leaving.

When Mary and I sat by your casket, neither of us wanted them to shut it or to begin shoveling dirt on top. Both of those acts symbolized even more distance between us.

It's the same now with these damned milestones. Each passing birthday or holiday just seems to pull us further apart.

Even acknowledging your death date has that effect. What is it they call it to try and make parents feel better?... angelversary or something.

Fuck that. It's more insulting than comforting. You died. Why can't we just say that?

I don't know how I even made it this far without you. I still think about you every day - sometimes many times a day - and tell stories about you all the time.

I figure if I keep talking about you then maybe you're actually still here in some small way. I don't even remember these stories I'm telling all that well anymore, and I sometimes wonder which parts are true and which are made up.

I know you got up earlier than me one morning, quietly snuck into the kitchen, got the carton of eggs out of the refrigerator, and started rolling them around on the sofa cushion. I woke up to the sound of your giggling, and when I saw the egg carton I leapt from bed.

Holy shit!!! Did that baby get the eggs out of the fridge??? That's not going to be good at all!

Christ, I even made myself dizzy jumping up like that. There are reasons normal people have kids well before they're 38.

I was sure I was going to find a slimy mess of cracked eggs all over the floor. When I get to heaven, I'm going to want answers to a lot of big questions from somebody important. You know, all that stuff about why they needed you so soon.

But before I ask any of those, I just want to ask you, my little peanut, how the hell you managed to play with all those eggs without breaking any. That was weird!

You loved eggs like some kids love dolls. That story is true, and I can still picture you in your footie pajamas and that smoker's cough giggle of yours like it happened yesterday.

But I just don't know about some of these other stories. Did you really carry a gallon jug of cranberry juice by pinch gripping the lid with one hand or did I make that up? You were really strong, but I can barely do that myself after all these years of lifting weights.

If I made it up, I'm sorry. I don't need to invent stories to make you seem cooler or tougher than you already were.

You were tough with no embellishment needed. You really did shove that oxygen mask out of the way when your lungs were full of pneumonia so you could growl and make a muscle for me.

That happened, and I'll never forget it or you. But even if it didn't; even if every stupid story I tell is some product of my imagination; even if you were pretty much just an unremarkable child like every other who died before she had a chance to make any real mark on the world; you were still plenty good enough just the way you were. You were my child and that alone made you special to me.

I just love you and I miss you and I want to talk about you so maybe people will know you even when I can't remember anything to tell them. It's frustrating as hell that people I meet now never met you and will never know anything about you except through some dumb story I tell that might only be half right.

As anybody can see, I'm still struggling with lots of questions I'll never answer. I wallow and I'm angry and I think people who try to say something helpful usually haven't thought their comments through very well at all or they'd have realized how ignorant they really are on this subject and would have just kept their mouths shut. That stuff is probably never going to change.

But five years into this, I'm not quite so day to day with my struggle wondering if I'll be able to get out of bed. I've actually mustered the will to do just that something like 1,825 times and counting since you died.

I have a solid track record of gutting it out, touch wood. And so, I'm starting to look backwards at my journey so far and forward to what lies ahead. I guess I'm searching for a little perspective.

That word "perspective" usually makes my blood boil. The source, you see, is often some holier-than-thou asshole telling me I'm lacking it and that I need to look at things differently. Problem is, this so-called perspective mister high and mighty wants me to adopt almost always means I need to see things exclusively through his lens.

It's never, Hey, you're a little bit right but so am I and maybe we can meet in the middle. It's more like, You're an idiot. I'm all knowing. You better get with the program and see this shit my way.

Here's my concise little response to that:


That kind of all or nothing way of thinking is never persuasive to me. So, when I say someone has shown me a new perspective, it's a rare occurrence indeed.

My last blog post, Fine Again, was a bit of a hit that apparently resonated with a fair number of people and ended up my third most viewed. That was pretty gratifying - not simply for the views but because maybe I'm reaching a few people and helping them cope with their own losses.

In that post, I wrote about how someone can appear to be doing quite well and moving in a positive direction outwardly in the months and years after a traumatic loss even if they're struggling mightily internally. The world sees them as fine when they're anything but.

That message, and perhaps the caustic way I tend to put things, struck a chord with quite a few people. One of them was a friend I've known since childhood. Here's what he had to say about it:

Hey Chuck,

I've been reading your blogs and I've been wanting to say something to you for a while now. First, I can't even imagine the pain you went through and I'm not going to tell you I understand. However, I will tell you this, which is coming from my heart and being your lifelong friend. I want you to think about this from time to time. You had one thing I will never have in my lifetime and that was the opportunity to have a precious child and to experience what unconditional true love was all about. We're 48 now and I look back and wish that for one moment in my life, that I was you and I had a child - someone, who would love me no matter what; someone who would need me every day; someone who would want me around to laugh and play with. For one time, I just wanted to be able to hear that word when my child looked at me and said, "Daddy."

I know this doesn't compare to what you're feeling, but trust me, I envy the fact that you had the chance to experience that bond that only a parent can have with their child. I'll never get that chance, and knowing that kills me every day. I know you're upset and I don't blame you one bit, but when that pain comes over you just step back for me and take a moment to say, "I have memories that my buddy will never get a chance to experience in his life, no matter how brief it was, and one day I will get to see my little girl again and I will truly understand why God let this all happen."

I hope and pray you’re not offended by what I said, because that's not why I said it. I said it because I've never had the chance to even get to see the smile on my child's face at Christmas. I've spent them all alone. So, I hope and pray that you think about this when you’re feeling down and like shit. Just know that you had something I'll never get a chance to have - a child and all the glorious memories that come along with that.

God Bless!

Your Lifelong Buddy,

Incredibly Insightful Friend Whose Name I Removed Here

Whoa! I think I better just pump the breaks for a second, take all this in, and try to digest it.

That's about where I am five years into this thing. I still miss her like hell, but my eyes also don't turn red with rage anymore when someone coming from a genuine place of empathy gently points out to me how lucky I was to even know her at all. I'm closer to being ready to hear those words.

Even now though, maybe that sort of message couldn't come from just anyone. You have to earn the right to say something like that to somebody who's hurting.

In order for me to accept those hard to hear but oh so true words, I really have to know the person saying them. I almost have to have shared the unique bond of growing up with them in West Virginia to be open to their viewpoint.

This post started as a letter to my precious little one, and I want to finish that.

Dear Roo,

Perspective is elusive when the one thing you couldn't bear losing is lost, but I'm trying.

I've had a really interesting life these past five years. Things haven't always gone my way, but I've taken some chances and done some cool things I never even dreamt of doing.

You'd be proud of the way I leapt with both feet just like you so often did. For maybe one of the rare periods in my life, I don't have many regrets over missed opportunities.

And if I could do you over, I wouldn't change that either. My friend is 100% right.

Even if I could get rid of all the pain by not knowing you at all, I'd never choose that path. I'd choose you, just the way it went, with every bit of heartache.

Maybe the memories are starting to fade and get jumbled in my mind or whatever, but that doesn't really matter at all. I knew a kind of love many people will never experience.

I remember that feeling as if you never left. And when you occupy this much space inside my heart, maybe you never did.

Love Always,
Dad

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Fine Again

I suppose I have no one to blame. I took a few important steps the past six months that outwardly have me on a much better path.

I bought a gym. I started a contract job as a part-time Strength & Conditioning Coach for a university here in Philadelphia. Shit, I actually showed up for Thanksgiving dinner and ate half a turkey by myself.

I even got a few essays published on topics unrelated to grief. One of these pieces had the word "Happy" in the title.

Ergo, I must be happy. I guess I'm doing fine now. I started acting a little normal, at least to the extent I haven't booked my third relocation ticket to Hawaii yet, so I can't really blame folks for treating me like I'm normal.

Except that I do. I mean really, what the actual fuck is wrong with you dumb shits??? You think because I finally grew some balls and quit that shitty desk job that somehow makes it all better???

Yeah sure, I teach people how to lift weights for a living, and that's certainly an improvement over whatever paper pushing charade I was faking my way through before, but my kid is still dead. And I still think about that not just every once in a while but basically between every goddamned set.

So pardon my dismay when all of a sudden I'm being invited to holiday gatherings and asked what I'm bringing to the present exchange. A bag of feces; that's what I'm bringing. I'll show up to your white elephant with a pile of my own shit and I'll hurl it around the room in protest of collective stupidity like a chimp throwing a tantrum.

Jesus H. Christ, did you forget I'm the guy who wrote a diatribe about ruining Christmas? What? You thought that wasn't real? You thought I was just hurt and didn't mean it and that it would all pass one day when the tears stopped flowing? Nope, I fucking meant it, and you can still shove that candy cane straight up your ass - crooked end first.

You know what goes on at many of those gatherings you're so eager to get me to attend? Your kids giggle, open presents, and run around showing off. My kid rots in the ground silently. See the difference?

So no, I'm not interested in coming to the holiday party, and I'm definitely not exchanging presents. You can buy presents for your own damned kids.

Here I am at the only holiday gathering I'm likely to attend
this year - the annual candle lighting ceremony for dead babies.
As for you yourself... well, you're a goddamned adult, with a job, living in a developed country. Go out and buy your own stupid ass present. Go buy 50 of them for all I care.

I don't really see how that'd be much different from any other time. We're a nation of "treats" and "deserves," and from my point of view we treat ourselves liberally, not just on holidays but regular old days too, to all this stuff we supposedly deserve because we work so hard.

To each his own. I don't care what you think life owes you or what you buy. I used to think maybe life owed me a little more time with the daughter I loved, but it doesn't.

So do whatever the hell you want on Christmas, but just save me the trouble of handing me a gift card to some overpriced department store so I'm compelled to hand you one of exactly equal value to a different overpriced department store. And if, heaven forbid, my lame gift card doesn't quite measure up to yours, you get the added holiday joy of gossiping to anyone within earshot about what a cheapskate I am.

I'm not really a cheapskate, though. I'm just a bitter dick, and a sensible one at that. I'd rather give my money to a homeless guy on the street than to you. At least he needs help.

When did we start measuring our love by how much money we spend anyway? Money isn't where you find love. It's about that precious time I naively thought I was owed and would get.

I love cold weather and snow because if you're lucky you get stuck in the house once in a while with your family while a big storm rages. They have few choices other than to snuggle up under a blanket and watch a movie with you. Time sort of stops for a bit and you just enjoy being together.

I'd give anything for time to do something simple like that with Ruby. I'd scooch up as close to her as I could get and squeeze her tightly. That'd be worth more than any stupid present.

I did get my mom a card and a small gift. She raised me. She loves me. She puts up with me. She deserves to be remembered even if I don't feel like doing anything.

I got my girlfriend a small gift and made us a dinner reservation. She didn't cause any of this. She just has to endure it every year.

I wrote a card for my nephews. I told them I love them very much but that their parents can shop for them. I might have messed up there. They're little and they probably won't understand that I can't walk in the toy store.

Roo only said a few words. One of them was "toy." All children love toys.

Remember the island of misfit toys from the Christmas special? Roo had like six or seven talking Elmo dolls. Why so many? Because we're rich idiots? No. I wish.

She thought they could swim because of this one DVD where Elmo goes swimming, so she kept throwing them in the pool or in the bath tub. She was quick and we couldn't save them. So we just kept buying her new ones at sixty sickening bucks a pop every time she shorted one out.

All Roo's toys were misfit toys. I think that's why she loved me. I'm a misfit and she knew it.

And now I'm really a misfit. Before I was just kind of a weird guy who thought lifting heavy stuff was more fun than drinking, though drinking isn't too bad either. Now I'm the social pariah who hates Christmas.

Yeah, well, I only hate it because I'd have loved it so much with her. When I let myself, I picture what it might be like, but it just messes me up worse to linger there for too long.

It's better for me to just hate Christmas and get through it than to dwell too much on what might have been. It's probably that way for most parents who've lost a child.

So try to let us do that. If we decline the party invitation or pass on the present exchange, give us a fucking pass even if we're twenty years removed and you don't get it. You're not going to get it because you haven't lived it, but you can still have compassion. You can realize it's not always about you and your happiness. Sometimes it's about another's survival.

When you treat me like I'm fine and that your normal should be my normal, I don't know if that's what you naively believe or if you just can't deal with the ugliness of my pain. Either way, I feel even more alone.

The reality is that I'm not fine, even as I take steps to build a new life. Most days, I'm still just barely hanging on and stumbling through as best I can while missing my daughter and wondering if I'll ever see her again. I doubt anyone who has lost a child is ever really fine again.




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Where Grief Leads

Grief leads a lot of places, and you don’t want to go to most of them. I’ve written blog posts about how my daughter’s death led me on a Roller Coaster and Down in a Hole.

I think it will probably always lead me to these dark places. Rather than fight to not go there, I’ve decided to just make darkness a part of who I am - to live with it and do the best I can. I choose to walk around inside-out and vulnerable.

For me, that works much better than burying my truth. I’ve buried enough already. So, rather than hiding it or sugar coating it with nonsense like “time heals all wounds” or “everything happens for a reason,” I embrace my darkness in hopes I can help someone.

Such idiotic statements had to be made by someone who doesn’t know anything about losing a child anyway. By sharing what this journey is really like, maybe someone out there who is experiencing the intense pain and hopelessness of child loss - a pain which doesn’t ease even long enough for you to catch your breath - won’t feel quite so alone.

Maybe they’ll even be comforted knowing someone else is enduring a similar experience. Maybe they’ll hang on and fight to see what’s next.

Because there is a “what’s next.” Until we’ve drawn our last breath, new challenges, new experiences, and new mysteries will continue to unfold whether we’re ready for them to or not.

Life might not be at all what we pictured, but there’s more to the story than just the darkness. In fact, maybe darkness and light can’t exist without each other.


Perhaps out of desperation, grief also led me to Just Try. It led me to realize she’s Gone, she’s never coming back, and I have to grab all the good moments and cherish them right here and now, before they too pass like she did.

And guess what? I have something really good to share. It’s so good I’m still almost scared to speak of it for fear of jinxing it.

Time to just blurt it out. My girlfriend and I are buying a gym and will be the official owners on August first! We’re scared shitless, too, and we barely even comprehend how we got here.

Roo died May 18, 2013, just shy of her sixth birthday and a little over four years ago. Life has been a whirlwind since then, as my mind and events have spun at a rapid pace.

I met Christina at a seminar in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, only a few months later. I don’t even know why I went. My friend Marty didn’t need me there; he’s a training guru. He probably dragged me along out of pity.

As you might imagine, I was mostly a disaster and have no idea why she liked me, but she did or she didn’t but decided to fake it and see if things might improve. I’m not sure they did at first, except in little glimpses.

One of those glimpses occurred when she asked me to vacation with her on Maui. It was a gorgeous week, and I loved soaking in her knowledge of the islands she’d been amassing over many visits dating back to her childhood.

Sometimes I vacillate between almost irrational self-confidence and crippling self-doubt. For some reason still unknown to me, in this instance I was supremely confident I could land a job in Hawaii and said as much aloud.

I'd been a professional fundraiser for nonprofit organizations for the last ten years and needed to get out of the small town where my daughter died and start something new. Where better to do that than Hawaii?

It took a few tries but I soon made good on my claim, landing a fundraising position at a Honolulu homeless shelter. Having known me all of six months, Kris picked up and moved with me. She probably figured I needed a caretaker for the inevitable crash.

Hawaii offered plenty to like, but I only lasted a year in the job. Turns out I still hated being a fundraiser, even in paradise.

The best thing about Hawaii wasn’t the gorgeous scenery; it was a crash course in getting to know Kris. Dating someone is easy when you only see them on weekends and have the whole week to look forward to it. Try being around them every moment you’re not working and with no other relationships to divert attention. You find out a few things about compatability real fast.

One thing I learned is that we’re both way into this strength training thing. One of our happy places is in a gym, sweating and straining and forgetting everything else for an hour or two.

Maybe to fill some time and maybe because it’s where our energy gravitated, we talked incessantly about our dream of opening a gym. When we weren’t talking, I’d ask her what she was doing and she’d look up from her laptop to reply, “Working on my business plan.” I’d never seen so many danged spreadsheets.

She even took the step to rent time at a small gym and begin teaching a kettlebell class in hopes of building a following, but I didn’t last long enough in my job to allow her to grow it. We also trained at two independent gyms with interesting operating models that seemed insignificant at the time but would become important later.

Okay, so maybe not everything happens for a reason, but maybe some things do. I’m still trying to work that one out in my mind and arrive at a conclusion that isn’t a cop out.

The problem I’m having is that you can’t say the good stuff happens for a reason without acknowledging the bad stuff, even the really bad stuff, does too. Serial killers and war lords rampage for a reason? Children die for a reason?

Maybe some events are just random and some are about opportunities that present themselves and our free will in taking advantage of them or taking a pass. That’s all I have for now.

Anyway, when I couldn’t make Hawaii work, I moved back to Pennsylvania for a series of missteps as I tried to maintain an income to support myself. I had two, maybe three, fundraising jobs in a little over a year. The fact I don’t even know how to count these follies tells you all you need to know.

When a second opportunity arose in Hawaii, I had nothing compelling enough happening at the time not to jump again. So it was back to paradise in fall 2016 for another fundraising job; this time at a health center.

Kris was in a good administrative job by this time and had learned her lesson about my whims. She decided to "wait and see" how the new gig panned out before joining me.

Good thing she did, because I was back in Pennsylvania in seven short months. Duh, I hated it again and wasn't raising any money.

When I returned this time, we still talked about the gym but didn't really see it as a realistic option. Instead, I started focusing my efforts on writing. To finally get out of fundraising, I'd build a small portfolio of published works and apply for communications jobs.

Though I didn't get any offers as a full-time writer - a blessing in disguise - I did manage to get five articles published in the span of a few months. True to form, I like writing what I want to write, not what some twit tells me to write so he can make money while I do his bidding.

While I click-clacked away at the keyboard, a great opportunity dropped into our laps. My friend was closing his gym to focus on other pursuits, and we saw a potential opportunity to make the prospect of owning a small business a little less daunting. This gym, you see, was already turning a small profit.

On top of this, our financial picture had improved with my latest Hawaii jaunt. Kris had paid down some debt; the health center had given me a small severance package (probably to get rid of me without a hassle); I was eligible to collect a few months of unemployment at fairly generous Hawaii rates; and Pennsylvania now had an option for domestic partners to count as family members for health insurance purposes.

These details might sound rather mundane, but I point them out for a reason. People often gloss over the story of how they travelled from point A to B, sort of implying they’re so much smarter and harder working than the rest of us.

I’m not saying I’m not smart and hard working, particularly when I’m immersed in a project that interests me, but I also had plenty of luck and timing to help me along here. I may have made a few of my own breaks, but I didn’t make them all. As a good friend pointed out, however, plenty of less deserving people have had more luck so maybe it was just time for me to cash a decent hand.

If I was in complete control though, don’t you think I’d have made this move years ago? The health insurance component, over which I had absolutely no control, was particularly critical for me to even think about working for myself, as I've been diabetic for over a decade and take some astronomically expensive drugs.

All this to say, if we squeezed and if Kris held onto her job for the time being, we felt we'd have just enough money to buy the gym and pursue our dream. Serendipitously, I was also offered a job as a part-time strength and conditioning coach this fall at the University of Pennsylvania.

That added bit of good fortune will help with gym expenses and will also give me some cachet as a trainer. The dominoes had fallen into place, making the next logical move obvious even to a guy with the intuition of a shower caddie.

So here we are, though we’re still making sense of how we got here. In four short years, my precious daughter had died; I'd fallen in love with someone who shares my dreams; I'd moved to Hawaii and back twice; I'd found a small voice as a writer (I co-wrote a book somewhere in there, too); and I'd stumbled into an opportunity to finally do something I'm passionate about rather than just trudge to work to collect a paycheck.

All we had to do is reach out and grab it... and scrape together a tidy sum of money to make that happen. Courage, fear, or desperation? Maybe they're all the same sometimes.

Everyone’s grief journey is different. A big part of mine has been my quest to lead a more authentic life. So here I am throwing caution to the wind and starting over with something brand new.

I’m just as scared as anyone else of taking chances. Emptying my bank account to buy a gym has kept me awake many nights and will probably keep me awake many more. Since the rug was ripped right out from under my vision of how I pictured the next couple decades of my life, I’m also probably a little more determined than most people to try to “get it right,” whatever “it” is.

The page turned and the next chapter began, whether I wanted it to or not. When I threw out the manuscript and started over, I detested the thought of beginning with, “After he buried his child, he kept right on doing the same boring job and being miserable about it. The only thing that had changed was that he no longer had a reason to justify enduring the drudgery.”

Believe what you want about fate and the amount of control we have over our own destinies. I’m just trying to write part of the story myself and have a hand in how it develops, rather than letting someone else write the entire thing for me.

Maybe I also have a little less to lose than most people in making a change. For sure some important people in my life will be impacted if I fail, but I’m not throwing away a college fund or dragging an entire family down with me.

For many years, I almost led some kind of split existence. By day, I was a mid-level manager. I was okay at it but just okay. I certainly never excelled, and most of the stiff way in which I conducted myself in order to fit in with corporate culture felt fake and oppressive.

After hours, I became a different person. I trained with weights and wrote about training. I swore when I felt like it. I could be louder and sillier and rougher around the edges without offending my gym friends. I tried to help people along the way, and I just generally felt more like the “real me.”

I think about Ruby every day. My lasting impression of her is the immediate sense I always had when I was in her presence of how much she loved her life. She attacked every little activity with everything in her and was always present right in the moment - a lesson we all could heed rather than trudging through our lives like zombies or slaves to our social media accounts.

Her infectious laugh immediately let you know she was fully engaged in whatever she was doing. Even small tasks, like inspecting a bug no bigger than a speck of dust as it crawled across the concrete, would capture her full attention. Her little forehead would bead with sweat from her determination to learn to eat solid foods; a skill most of us take for granted but one that didn't come easily for her because of some of her developmental delays.

A lot of my thoughts now revolve not so much around specific memories, although I certainly smile and agonize all at once over those on occasion too, but around what she might think if she could see me. I guess she'd see me trying to move forward and live a good life to honor her, but she might also giggle at my sideways and backwards stumbles.

I’m sure I still do things that would disappoint her, but I also think I’m closer to being on a path that would make her happy for me. She knew me. We had a bond that is difficult to explain. If anyone could understand what I’m trying to do and where this grief has led me, it would be her.

One day, it will all lead back to you. But not now.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Gone

Today marks the four-year anniversary of Roo's death. To me, anniversaries are occasions to celebrate, so maybe that's the wrong term. Her life is a celebration of innocence and exuberance, but there's nothing to celebrate about the grim details of her final days.

I was going to let the day pass without writing anything. I was blocked and feel like I've said most everything I have to say. There's no point writing, or doing anything else, if a sense of obligation is your driving motivation.

You've heard my thoughts on how grieving the loss of a child is different from grieving any other loss - how it stays with you always; how it negatively impacts relationships with family and friends; how things that used to be tolerable, like a dead end job, suddenly become completely revolting.

I've also written about how you're damned if you do and damned if you don't when trying to comfort bereaved parents. Case in point: I received one phone call today inquiring how I'm doing. ONE. My only child - my soul - died, and one friend thinks enough of me to remember the date and check in on me.

It doesn't really matter. I didn't pick that lone call up anyway. I didn't want it, and I didn't want your stupid call either. If I did pick it up, I'd have bitten the caller's head off just for fun. But you can bet I made a mental note of that single call, and I won't forget the gesture.

In addition to feeling like I didn't really have anything new to say, the week was also progressing in a positive direction. My new t-shirt business isn't going gangbusters, but there's a steady buzz of interest. My training has certainly been going well. Maybe I could just let the day slip on by without harping on it.

Then things started rapidly deteriorating. On Tuesday, Kris' parents' seven-year-old beagle died completely unexpectedly. Beagles don't die at seven.

I was in the house that morning with the dog while everyone else was at work. I wasn't paying close attention, but I didn't notice anything abnormal.

I left around noon, and Kris' mom came home for lunch shortly thereafter and found KC dragging her hind legs. They went to the vet, and he put her down early that evening.

We dug a little grave in the dark while the cat meowed forlornly in the background, placed her body in the hole, covered it with dirt, said a few brief words, and that was that. Here one minute and gone the next.

By morning, most evidence of the dog's existence had been put away. Gone were the gates used to keep her from wandering into random rooms and ransacking them in her never-ending quest for food. Her leash no longer hung from the door. Gone also were her bed and toys.

In truth, I felt more guilt than any other emotion. I mostly ignored KC and certainly never bonded with her. To say I'll miss her would be a lie. To say I regret treating her largely with apathy would be far more accurate.

I wonder sometimes if losing Ruby has made it more difficult for me to feel empathy for what I consider to be lesser losses. It may have, or maybe I'm just not much of an animal person. No point dwelling on questions for which I have no answers.

Kris' mom was by far closer to the dog than anyone else. KC was her pet. She walked her daily, made sure she was fed, talked to her in a silly voice, and did all the things you'd expect.

I felt bad for her. This next statement sounds odd, but I was relieved to feel something. I may not have loved the dog myself, but at least I related to her owner's loss. The ability to grasp another's pain hasn't completely left me. A heart still beats.

I scuffed through the next day-and-a-half, processing that KC suddenly wasn't here anymore. Several times going to the kitchen I caught myself stepping over the dog gate that wasn't there. Leaving an upstairs room I shut the door, realized I no longer needed to worry about keeping her out, and reopened it.

Nothing too earth-shattering for me here. They were even already talking about adopting a new pet, so maybe I'd soon be back to these slightly annoying routines. Maybe I'd even try to pet the new one once in a while instead of just breezing by. I got this, I thought.

Then I awoke to this morning's news of Chris Cornell's passing. I love Soundgarden's music and most of the music that came out of Seattle's early 1990's heyday. And now he and my daughter are oddly linked in my mind forever.

Any group that managed not one hit song, but two, with "Black" in the title leaps to the top of my list. We were a match made maybe somewhere darker than heaven, but a match nonetheless. Before I get too teary-eyed, however, perhaps I should share something I posted a few months ago in the wake of another celebrity's death.


Ah yes, more feel-good sentiments from yours truly. Seems I hate your dog and your celebrity crush. Well now... that's not entirely true. If you went into a tailspin about Patrick Swayze, I didn't have much love for you. If you lamented his loss reasonably, and are willing to admit Roadhouse is way better than Ghost, I feel you a little.

In that spirit, I'll share my favorite Cornell story. Anybody remember Temple of the Dog? Cornell put this group together in 1991 with a couple Soundgarden band mates and a couple guys who would soon form Pearl Jam. They released only one album, but that lone gem contains one of my favorite songs, Hunger Strike.

Cornell, gifted as he was, was actually having trouble with some of the vocals during rehearsals. Eddie Vedder, with his signature booming baritone, jumped in and turned it into a duet. Egos took a backseat to collaboration, and a great rock song was born. Have a listen:

Temple of the Dog - Hunger Strike

Temple actually toured a bit in 2016 to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of Hunger Strike's release. That's how a proper anniversary is supposed to work; not by placing flowers on a child's grave or writing some dreary shit to try and keep her memory alive. Too bad I didn't make it to one of Temple's reunion shows.

Too bad I didn't make it to one of Temple's reunion shows. That's worth repeating, so I did. Too bad I didn't pet that damn dog. See what I'm getting at here?

KC didn't give us a bit of warning. One minute she was being the little pest she always was - sniffing around for food, turning over waste baskets, and eating dead bugs. The next minute she was gone.

Cornell didn't give any warning either unless something comes out later. Sure, he had his struggles with drug addiction like all those guys did, but he seemed to have made it through that. Hell, he played a show that was, from the accounts I read, completely normal just hours before his apparent suicide.

I haven't written much about the days leading up to Roo's hospitalization for pneumonia. Those final days, and her week-long hospital stay that ended with her death are sort of a blur in my mind. That I might recount something inaccurately has made me reluctant to talk much about it.

One thing I do remember clearly is the feeling of optimism I was starting to have about Roo's development in her final days. She had a lot of catching up to do, but I remember seeing little signs it was starting to happen.

I found some journal notes I made literally hours after she died. I was frantically writing down all kinds of memories, scared to death I'd forget them and her along with them.

In my notes, I wrote about our last day together at a local park. She loved going there to chase the ducks, swing as long and high as I would push her, and swish her hands in water streaming from a large fountain I probably shouldn't have been letting her anywhere near.

She was apparently so giddy to go that she went and sat in her buggy while I washed our breakfast dishes. I don't remember that, so I'm glad I wrote it down.

Here's the hopeful part... I wrote that she was learning to listen better and held my finger patiently as we walked across the large field together rather than excitedly running ahead toward the swing set. If you'd ever met Roo, you'd know what a monumental accomplishment any sort of self-restraint represented.

I didn't write a single word in that journal about ragged breathing or lethargy. I know I didn't see any signs of her deteriorating condition just days before she was so sick she had to be ventilated.

Maybe she was so tough she hid the fact she couldn't breathe so she could play some more. Maybe we all just missed it. Maybe it just overtook her out of nowhere. Like I said, no point dwelling on questions for which I have no answers.

A daughter, a dog, and a damn fine musician. I was trying to get another "D" in there for alliteration and couldn't come up with one, so I threw in a swear word. Any excuse will do, I suppose.

All three were here one day and gone the next. None of them gave us any closure. They just went away. They were gone, nearly literally, in the blink of an eye.

Is there some trip you've been meaning to take?

Do you have some silly grudge you need to settle with an old friend?

Is there someone you just want to hug or spend time with who you miss?

And man, if you have kids, do you spend time with them? I'm not talking about basics like feeding and bathing and shuffling to and from activities and doing homework.

That's baseline. That's shit you have to do. As a matter of fact, fuck the homework once in a while.

I'm talking about really being present and spending time together. You know... talking to them, listening to what they have to say, playing a silly game together, and just getting to know who they are and what makes them tick.

I could continue, but I'm sure you get the idea. Now comes the cliche. Maybe I really don't have anything new to say, but this simple message is one that bears repeating.

We can't buy time back, so don't wait for a more convenient day. Whatever it is you're not doing even though that little voice inside your head is telling you to, start listening.

Do that thing now. There is no tomorrow. There's only today.

I love you. I wish we had more time.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Just Try

Oftentimes, turmoil in one area of our lives can lead to upheaval in other areas as well. Why is that? Is it simply that bad luck really does come in threes?

Probably not. I’m guessing the snowball effect of bad luck, at least in the case of child loss, can be traced to our mental state in the weeks, months, and even years after the loss.

We’re not ourselves. Or at least we’re not our former selves. And this can lead to some unintended outcomes.

Relationships are the big one. Relationships change after the loss of a child. And I mean all of them - romance, friendships, employment - it’s all different.

Sometimes the different nature of our relationships after the loss of a child can actually bring a small measure of comfort into our lives. For example, some marriages are strengthened by child loss, as couples cling to each other for support.

Some friendships get “more real” in a hurry, as bereaved parents are often willing speak their minds more freely. With seemingly little left to lose, we’re more willing to tell others how we really feel; how we may have been hurt or betrayed by past actions. This new openness sometimes brings long-festering issues out in the open and allows meaningful discussion that leads to healing and a closer bond between friends.

Unfortunately, sometimes relationships go the other direction. A spouse or romantic partner may feel alienated by our grief. A frayed relationship may completely unravel with this added stressor.

Friends may not appreciate our candor and may be hurt by it. Even if we don’t overtly do or say anything, friction often develops with friends and family simply because we’re not the old us.

Almost four years into my grief journey, I’m still sorting out these relationships. I’ve lost some and held on to some. The jury is still out on others, I suppose.

In at least one area of my life - employment - I had some significant issues lurking beneath the surface that I was able to keep tamped down while Ruby was still here. Like a good soldier, I trudged to a job that wasn’t a good fit, because I had mouths to feed. I made it work.

After she was gone, the incentive to walk this line was gone, and I began to seek something else. I sought it not once, but twice, by moving all the way from the East Coast to Hawaii. I might despise fundraising - all the fake smiling and fake relationships - but surely I’d despise it a little less in paradise, right?

Umm, no. And I’m so thick-headed I had to earn double frequent flier miles to learn this lesson.

In 2014, barely six months after Ruby died, I packed up my few belongings and moved to Honolulu to be Development Director for Oahu’s largest homeless shelter. If I was looking for some kind of downshift from the hectic pace of East Coast life, I sure as hell wasn’t going to find it working for a social cause as polarizing as homelessness.

We were in the news nearly every damned day for something! And most of it didn’t make my job as a fundraiser any easier.

Oh, did I mention I brought my brand new girlfriend out here with me? Yep, did that too. Sign me up for Mensa!

Needless to say, it didn’t work out so well. I was a nervous wreck. All I really wanted to do was shut that stupid office door and cry over my daughter. I wasn’t ready to handle PR crisis after PR crisis.

So I didn’t. I packed my stuff up after a year and went back to Philadelphia.

Only things didn’t go so well there, either. In a tough big city employment pool, I was just another small fish. I get that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but could I just get a small patch of green somewhere???

I thought that patch came in the form of a second chance in Hawaii. I landed a job doing fundraising for another social services agency. It must be destiny, right? You don’t get two pretty good jobs in Hawaii with no significant connections if you’re not supposed to be here, right?

That’s what I thought, anyway. So back on the plane I climbed in September of 2016. Only this time, the girlfriend and I decided to play it smart. I’d come out here and check it out - make sure it was a good fit - and after a few months I’d give her the go-ahead to quit her job and join me.

That day never came. I got fired after six short months. They said it wasn’t for performance - that they had an unexpected and significant financial crisis - but who knows.

I’m still distracted. I’m still not passionate or even really enthusiastic about fundraising. Building those relationships is a process that takes time - probably longer than six months - but the fact remains that I wasn’t raising much money yet.

So now I’m flying back to Philadelphia to start over again. Is it really even starting over if you didn’t get started? Probably not. I guess I’m flying back to Philadelphia to start.

Do I have any positive takeaway from this mess? Sometimes even a realist like me (okay, fine, pessimist) needs to see something positive - just a little sliver of hope.

Well, for one, I’ve finally accepted that fundraising is no longer the path for me, and any moment of clarity is a win when you’re typically as decision-paralyzed as I am. I just don’t have the energy to continue faking it in any area of my life - not in my relationships and not in my so-called career.

I don’t know what’s next, but it’s going to have to be something for which I have genuine interest. I like to write. I like fitness. I’m really good at thumb wrestling. We’ll see.

And the girlfriend… her name is Christina and shockingly, she’s still around! I don’t even know how or why sometimes, but I feel lucky. And I feel like I’ve been careless with our relationship with all this bouncing around the world.

I’m going to try to change that when I get back. I might not find career stability for a while, but I’m going to have to find a way to be present so that something in my life can grow.

This is my grief journey - the first four years of it anyway. I’m not in the habit of giving advice. I’d rather just share my experience and let you take what you will from it.

I’m sure some “expert” will say not to shake up your life too much the first couple of years after you lose a child. That sounds like pretty reasonable advice.

At the same time, I’m grateful for my time in Hawaii… both times. I’m grateful for the friends I made, the lessons I learned, and the beauty I saw. I’m grateful I shared the first experience here with Kris and that she got to visit me twice on this go-round.

Just by expressing gratefulness, something that doesn’t come particularly naturally to me after losing Ruby, I think I’m slowly making peace with some of my mistakes. I’m gradually letting just a smidgen of bitterness go and telling myself I’m allowed to have hope.

I’m certain I’ve pissed a few people off. But my daughter’s not mad at me. She’s looking down or up or sideways or whatever you believe, and she knows her dumb dad is trying, even if he moves at a snail’s pace. That’s all I can do.

Here’s my pathetic attempt at giving some miniscule piece of advice after saying that’s not really my thing. Don’t shoot yourself in the face?

Well, sort of, and now you see why I don’t give advice. I’m kind of terrible at it.

I saw this show about a state-sponsored program in Thailand where prisoners can be released by winning a Muay Thai fight. This guy fighting for his freedom had stabbed a complete stranger in the neck with a knife - a man he’d never met before - and killed him.

He won the stupid fucking fight and was set free with an absolute pardon, wiping his record clean. They showed the slain man’s mother sitting at his grave thumbing through pictures of him.

Watching this, I realized something profound, for me anyway, about why bereaved parents have such a hard time fitting into the world. We cling to the past with every fiber of our beings. Any little memory is cherished and replayed over and over in our minds as we try to extract every little detail about our child. The past is our lifeblood.

But we live in a world where the future is everything, so much so that a cold-blooded murderer’s life has more value than the life he took. That’s over. Bury it and move on.

There’s no bringing the dead one back, so let’s give the one who’s still alive and who happens to have a five-year-old son a chance at redemption even if he clearly doesn’t deserve it and there’s zero evidence he’ll use it well. And, let’s throw salt in the wound by rewarding a violent murderer’s skill at inflicting more violence.

That’s when it hit me. The future is everything in our world. The past is nothing.

No one really cares what happened to my kid. I can get 100 social media likes for a picture of myself posing with a giant cheeseburger dripping with grease that I’m about to stuff in my fat fucking face. Post a picture of my kid - especially something real where she was in the hospital looking sickly - and no one gives a fuck.

This future-centric world is the world in which I have to live. I can point out how I disagree with this perspective until I’m blue in the face, but it won’t change anything. The past is really just an impediment to forward momentum. Experience a profound loss and you’ll find this out, too.

I’ll remember her, and I’ll do my best to keep those memories alive for others, but it won’t work for anyone except the small circle who loved her. And even most of them won’t care as much as me and her mom.

So where does my great Muay Thai revelation leave me? That they should have put me in the ring with that guy and not called the fight until someone was dead? Yeah, maybe. That this world really can make you feel like shooting yourself in the face sometimes? Yeah, that too.

But remember that gratefulness and hope I was just getting to the point of allowing to creep into my thinking? Maybe I’m ready to cling to that a little, too. Maybe a few of you are as well.

I think I’m onto something with this not shooting yourself in the face thing. I just need to polish it up a little bit. How about this?... Drag yourself out of bed and just try something.

That may not sound like much, but it’s everything when doing it takes every ounce of energy and will to live you can muster. When the voice inside your head screams, “I’m not going to shoot myself in the face, but I really wish someone would do it for me,” getting out of bed and trying is indeed monumental.

Even doing the wrong thing is better than giving up hope and trying nothing. Move to Hawaii and back twice in three years if you have to. You tried something. Gold star for you.

Even if you don’t know what the point of trying is since the one who made trying important is gone...

Even if the past often seems more important than the future…

Even if your decisions seem doomed to fail before you implement them…

Just try.