Grief: My Annual Visitor

stormI am a pretty positive person, in general. So when I woke yesterday with a sense that something terrible was going to happen in my world , I was worried. I couldn’t shake it. I prayed, said positive quotes in my thoughts….It wasn’t going anywhere. It was a physical sense…it unnerved me. It was more than a gut feeling….it was like the rumbling of thunder in the distance with ominous clouds I could feel coming my way, no doubt about it.

Am I losing it? What’s wrong with me? Age?

I called my husband, Dave, to see if he got safely to work. Texted my adult kids and made sure I locked the door before I left my daughter, Hannah sleeping in the house. I drove very carefully to work. I felt like I suddenly understood with clarity what “they” meant by a “sense of  impending doom”.

That… or I needed sleep. I decided that waking up against my will at 4:00 in the morning was the culprit. I got to work and the feeling passed. Life goes on.

Only, when I got back home, it was back. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and worried….about something I couldn’t name.  I finally heard Hannah and Dave come in from late nights at work. I went in to chat with Hannah on the end of her bed….”Is everything okay? I’m worried.”  “Ummmm, yes?? Why?” “I’m not sure, just a gut feeling that something is wrong….” She patted my head.  I went back to my bed. On my way, I looked at the clock  and realized I had been up 21 hours… this hormones? I am almost 50.  I did  finally go to sleep and ended up sleeping 7.5 hours which is average for me….then…I woke up.

My eyes popped opened and my breath was literally taken away. It’s here. The Grief Train came rolling through my brain as I screamed in my head and It landed behind my eyes and the tears came rolling out. The no-facial-malformation-cry, saved just for Cory’s Suffering&Death Days Grief…just a steady flow of tears down the sides of my cheeks. I could feel my ears getting wet as I lay listless. I know I am powerless over this Thing that has visited me the past two years with a vengeance in September and October. Then It retreats sometime in early November. For anyone who might not know, we watched my son’s immeasurable suffering  in the ICU for 2 months and then he died on October 31 of 2013. It was every bit as tragic as one might imagine, but Life in general is no longer tragic. This form of Grief, though, is. It feels tragic when It arrives. It’s something beyond my daily life that I have no control over. It is the unwanted house guest, that I can’t tell when to come or when to go. I do manage it, though…this Grief is nocturnal. So, it leaves me be while I work. If this reads a little like a horror movie, it’s because sometimes in September…when it’s almost October….it is.

Most other days of the year, Grief pops in like a Grandpa with a sense of humor, soft worn skin, and gives me tidbits of wisdom. I feel comfortable with the Grandpa Grief. He isn’t usually pushy, and is often surrounded with beauty and memories and even smiles as I remember and miss Cory. I am comforted to talk, walk, and rock with Grandpa Grief, reminiscing about the good ole days. I cry, but it’s happy, grateful tears about what we had and wishes that I’d had him longer and warm longings for him.  This Grief makes me feel close to Cory, keeps my memory  of him alive, and I’m thankful for it.

But in September, It, this intense painful thing that seems truly beyond Grief, arrives in a hostile manner, uninvited. No beauty or warmth surrounding It. It’s primal and intrusive….it’s the Doom my body and brain warned me was coming.

I laid in bed for two hours, drowning in the feeling of my heart sitting on the outside my chest. A mental slideshow of  Cory’s short life  played over and over again in my head. Then I made a decision.

“Hey there, Grief….It….the Thing. You’re back. I know, because it’s almost October, you’re back. I just wanted to have a little chat. I’m changing the rules. We are doing this a little differently this year….

Instead of dreading you, I will welcome you.

Instead of fearing you, I will embrace you.

Instead of running from you, we will dance.

Instead of escaping the pain you bring, I will feel.

Instead of staying in bed, I will get up.

Instead of pretending you don’t exist, I will acknowledge your presence.

Instead of being angry with you, I will be gentle with me.

Instead of drowning, I will swim.

Hopefully, this time around I can give you the attention you must need so you don’t have to be louder every time you arrive for an annual visit.

…so that maybe next year when you arrive, you might come in like a wind instead of a storm. And maybe someday, you’ll only be a breeze when you announce your arrival. And maybe some almost-October, you’ll be a rainbow.”….One can Hope.

It’s Saturday. I could stay in the bed all day. But instead, I pulled myself up, breathed deeply and did normal things. Planned things. Unimportant things. Me and Grief hung out together all day long, and my only  decision was to keep moving. We got in the shower and cried some anguish I-can’t-do-this tears. I got dressed, fed the dogs, and walked out the front door. Into the sunshine and felt a sense of okay-I-can-do-this. Then moments later in the car the tears came again to the songs on the Christian radio station, reminding me to pray. “I’m trying. Please give me strength to do the normal things today.”

As I drove in the car wash, the song “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan came on from my Iphone playlist…..oh, timing. And I felt Grandpa Grief holding my heart as I bawled my way through the psychedelic colored soap raining on my car. Cory loved the carwash when he was little. I laughed through my tears at the memory of the cuteness of his little self. When he was a toddler, I would reach my arm all the way back to hold his chubby fingers propped on his carseat while we drove….He was blond and beautiful and healthy.

The carwash seemed in slow motion as I had the memory movies of my baby and young- child Cory playing in my head. As the gigantic brushes enveloped my car, I felt all the immense, intense, like-nothing-else-before agape love that my early-20’s self felt toward my first child. I saw him laughing, and running in the grass, and squealing on the swing. I felt him laying on my chest, crawling in bed next to me, his little arms around my neck…..


Sometimes I need  flashing signs to remind me.

I left and drove toward the shoe store. Every red light, and slow slow traffic just solidified my perception that the world was moving in slow motion. As I passed a church and pulled to yet another stop at a red light, I caught sight of thousands of small American flags in the grass….oh my goodness. Tomorrow is 9/11. That must be 3000 flags, which means 3000 mothers and fathers. Tomorrow is Their Day. My compassion tears came on full force as I stared at all of the flags that represented someone’s lost child that left this world through no fault of their own. Moms, like me, who lost an adult child before themselves and are trying to push through life belonging to the Club we never asked to join.

BEEEEEP! I was jolted by the car behind me honking. The light was green. I quickly pulled into the church parking lot and sat and took all those flags in. I wondered what their names are…I could picture men and women in their suits. Maybe a young wife who was visiting Daddy with their child on the 18th floor. And I thought about the nightmare calls their parents received or the remains that were never found for other parents….

It’s so interesting that I still say, “I can’t imagine…”

I prayed for the families who were left here, without their child or brother or sister….So much will never make any sense.

I pulled out of the parking lot, wiped my face off with the paper towels I brought to clean my car windows with, and headed back into traffic. I started to head home and give up. My prior year’s comforts of my bed and some wine sounded much more appealing than pushing through my venture with “It” on my back. I prayed again….replacing shoes for Hannah that our cute, chewy puppy ate the backs off of was the last thing on my to-do list. I can do that. I think I can, I think I can….I thought of The Little Engine That Could children’s book. Then I laughed out loud at how ridiculous it was that I had to cheerlead myself on to go to the shoe store. “Stop this”, I corrected myself in my head. And I said out loud, “This is silly.” I sucked it up and walked into Rack Room shoes.

I caught myself in the mirror….no make-up, red face, puffy eyes and my Tenacious Fortitude shirt with Cory Jay Powell’s name on the back–the memory shirts representing Cory’s fight for his life and his love of vocabulary. “Team Cory” wore them to raise awareness for the need for bone-marrow donors for those who suffer from blood cancers…I wear it because I love him. As I looked through the shoes, I pleasantly remembered that every time Cory would come home as a young adult…from college or California or from his life adventures…I would insist on buying him new shoes. He was the most unmaterialistic human being I have ever known…. and always had worn out, holes-in-the-toes tennis shoes. “They’re fine, Mom, see??” and he’d show me the soles that obviously, to him, still had life in them. I realized, right there standing in front of the size 11 men’s shoes, that this attitude carried him through Cancer.

I walked to the check out and the older lady with a smile, greeted me so kindly. “How are you today?” “Fine”, I said, but I knew by the looks of me she probably didn’t believe me. As she rung things up and I fished through my purse for my credit card, she said, “Tenacious?” I smiled and said, “Yes.”

I don’t ever mind talking about Cory.  I love to talk about him, just like any of my children, and by now, do so with ease. But I know it can make “new” people I meet feel upset, awkward, or uncomfortable only because they are so compassionate. I think it makes their heart skip a beat, because it’s every parent’s nightmare, really, and they just don’t know what to say. So it’s not something I bring up with just anyone… but for their sake, not mine.

She said,”I know something about Tenacious. Why are you Tenacious?”

“Oh, I’m not Tenacious. It’s for my son. He had 2 cancer battles and was quite a fighter.”

I watched for the shocked look in her face, and was ready to say something to comfort her discomfort, but she didn’t bat an eye.

She simply said, “I lost my son to cancer, too”. Now I was the one tearing up.

I did know what to say…”I’m so sorry. How old was he?”

“He was 6.” …My heart dropped into my stomach. I can’t imagine….

“And he was such a little fighter, but the brain tumor took over.”

“Oh, my goodness….How did you know? What were his symptoms?”, I said.

Her response helped me know she wanted to talk about her baby, how proud she was of him. And like describing her son’s first goal in his first soccer game, she proceeded to tell me…”Well, he came home and his eyes weren’t right, kind of crossing and he was wobbly for a few days. I knew something was wrong. And we went to the doctor and they thought it was dehydration. After a week of giving him enough water to float, we took him back. They found the tumor and they told us we would have 6 months with him. In the middle of chemo treatments, he still insisted on going to school! He just kept going! He was something else, marching and eventually wheeling around with his little bald head. He fought until the end. It’s been 20 years now.”

“It’s been 3 for me….thank you for sharing that with me. Cancer is terrible…it’s amazing how strong they are.” I said, and we gave one another a smile of solidarity.

Then, as I scooped up my bag, she said in a motherly way, “Remember, you are Tenacious, too.”

Not one customer came to check out while we chatted about our sons. I walked out of the glass doors with a sense of awe and gratefulness for the Angel behind the counter at Rack Room Shoes. I passed the 3000 flags on my way home and wished I could listen to every mom and dad about tell me about their sons and daughters, too.

I’d just decided to do normal things. Planned things. Unimportant things. Me and Grief hung together all day long, and it was okay. I felt exhausted, but as I laid my head back on the same pillow I was on when the Terror Train came rolling in this morning, I felt Peace.

Turns out this is a better way.












Our Neighbor in the ICU, Jonathon

Cory was doing better (relatively, of course). “Well” meant, first and foremost, he was Alive…..weeks after they said he wouldn’t be. He was showing signs of healing. He was cognitive and clear-minded. We had just written a “schedule” of our daily routine on a white-board, made up of waking up, sponge baths, prayer/meditation, reading, physical therapy assignments, occupational therapy assignments, times of ENT doctors coming in, times of BMT doctors coming in, times of Infectious Disease doctors coming in, times of rounds and visitors, times of  meds.

I met Amy in the “parent-room” of Floor 5, Pediatric ICU at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. A place where there was constant coffee, on Tuesday’s pizza provided by LaRosa’s, and lots of Tears on cell-phones. It didn’t even phase you to see a parent on a couch in the Parent Room Sobbing and sharing on their cell phones the all familiar words of blood counts & breath counts & open eyes & words said & inputs & outputs….. Sometimes, we talked to one another, sometimes we didn’t. Usually, you just walked by to fill your coffee like you were walking in the mall seeing anyone on their phone, because it was just the way it is in the ICU. But everyone had the same Despondent look in their eyes….it’s like nothing else, and we (Cory’s Parents) would talk of it often. Passing parents in the hallway…everyone had the same Look. A look of sadness, desperation, hopelessness and hopefulness all mixed up.

Anyway, Amy was actually more upbeat than others (she’d just arrived, that’s why)…her son was 24 (a year younger than Cory), had a bone-marrow transplant 11 days before (Cory was going on 74 days), and had lung issues, so was sent to ICU because needed to be on a ventilator. They were from Kentucky, and her husband and she shared their pans of Lasagna and Tuna Casserole with me. They had the cutest Kentucky accents with a smile with every word they said. They uplifted me just while they talked.

We passed each other daily for about a week, in the hallway, the cafeteria, the elevator, or the Parent Room. “How’s he doing?”….and we would get all the STATS(which we both completely understood because we had a crash course in nursing against-our-will).

Then one day, an ordinary PICU day,

Cory had just fallen asleep. I got up to go get more warm blankets, to refill my cup with ice, simple things, opened the sliding doors to Cory’s room and sensed EMERGENCY.  Nurses from who-knows-where and doctors and lots and lots of people were flooding the room next door…(in the same room they all came flooding in when I’d arrived with Cory  in the ICU.)

Bur this was Amy’s baby. Everyone running, machines rolling in….I knew to shut our sliding glass door and stay in. It’s slow-motion from this moment on…..

I turned to the right, and through the small rectangle  window that  connected  our rooms, or maybe it was just outside our room? I can’t remember exactly, but doesn’t matter….

My eyes wide open and shocked seeing the mass of people in that room and the doctor take the paddles and place them on his chest and the words I couldn’t hear. His body jerked and arched, then relaxed, then jerked and then relaxed, and again jerked and relaxed. I turned away, sat on the floor and cried.paddles

How is my child still alive after 82 days and hers is dying after 18? How? Why? Whaaaat? I  prayed the Our Father 3 times. I prayed, “Let their baby live” 12 times. I panic-prayed.

It breaks my heart still. I would give those days to any parent, sibling, or person in an instant if I could. Really would give my whole life for that.

And seeing the paddle stuff in real life on a real human being, on a real Amy’s child….is NOT like seeing it on TV.

I stood back up. Thank Be  that someone shut those blinds. I went and stared at Cory with my heart racing and tears flowing for at least an hour. I was afraid to step back out of the room.

He died. Take that in….Jonathon died. He lived 24  years. Twenty-Four. I was barely getting started at 24. Thanks, Cancer.

I knew he died, because the next morning the room was empty, the bed was made to crisp, and there was no Amy or Jonathon to be found. I missed her, I wanted to hug her, and she was just…gone…and I only knew her first name–Mom.

The “survivors guilt” was overwhelming. And still, in a way, is. I had over a month more with my son….30 more days of conversation, and touch, and physical therapy, and prayer, and hugs and kisses….that she didn’t.

I had told Cory about his neighbor when they were admitted. To give him a sense of Solidarity or that he wasn’t the only 20-something year old in the pediatric ICU of a children’s hospital that had cancer, then a bone marrow transplant, then complications that sent them to the PICU.

I didn’t tell him about his neighbors outcome, and I prayed he wouldn’t ask. He never did.