Author Archives: Becky Benson

About Becky Benson

Writer Becky A. Benson is the mother of two girls. She lives with her husband and family near Seattle Washington. Three Short Years Blog serves as an outlet for her life as it pertains to grief as a mother moving forward after unimaginable loss. It is based on her book: Three Short Years: Life Lessons in the Death of my Child, which is about her youngest daughter's life and death in battling Tay-Sachs Disease. You can purchase your copy here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Three+Short+Years+by+Becky+A.+Benson

When Love Dies Slowly

I’m going to call her, M.  I’ve known her for a long time.  When recounting the fallout over the ending of her marriage, something she never expected to happen in her life, M mentioned to me that she “holds space for those who held Space for her”.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this sentiment.  In the loss of our daughter I became a different person.  It all began with her terminal diagnosis.  In many ways I’m softer now.  I’m less rigid, more patient, but that wasn’t always the case.  For a while I was angry.  I was harsh.  I was unyielding.  I pushed people away.  Luckily, through it all there were those who were strong enough and committed to loving me through it, those who gave me time and grace.  Indeed, I hold space for those who held space for me.  M held space for me, and in the midst of it all she was fighting her own battle.  One no one around her knew she was fighting.

The themes of Grief, Love, and Life After Loss can stem form many situations, not just from physical death.  M found herself in a position dealing with all three of these in a way she never thought possible.  Like me, M tried to do her best to keep pushing forward in the midst of her situation without focusing on her grief, or on herself. She did everything possible to keep her carefully crafted walls in place.  The walls she had built to feel secure.  Slowly, but surely a crack emerged, and eventually her vulnerability began to show through.  Only then did she learn the way to make it through that grief was to face it head on.  Only when those walls finally came down did M find her freedom in not being contained by them any longer.

“What do I say about grief when it comes to the ending of a marriage? Lots, I say lots. There are so many layers and varied themes in my story…in anyone’s story. I’ll start with the backstory to give you some perspective, but I intend to focus on one theme throughout: grief. I come from a long legacy of lasting marriages. Both sets of my grandparents celebrated fifty years. and my own parents are coming up on that same milestone. I am proud of this legacy and had every intention of adding to it. So, divorce, when it came to my own marriage, was not in my vocabulary. It was unfathomable.

It all began when “good” Christian girl married “good” Christian boy. They had a huge, lovely wedding and went on what was to her, the most bewildering ten-day honeymoon. He barely touched her the entire time. She was baffled. Based on their belief culture, (read: they had saved themselves for marriage) she anticipated his response to being married would be sex, lots of sex, but strangely, that was not the case.

The pattern continued for the entirety of their marriage. Along with a lack of physical intimacy came a lack of emotional intimacy. He worked long hours, played online computer games, and slept more than most adults. They did not talk about feelings, he didn’t want to. They did not go on dates, he didn’t want to. If she asked for these things, or any things at all, he made it clear that he felt burdened and pressured. In disagreements she was always the one to take the blame and need to change to make things right between them. She felt like he was willing to throw her under the bus to get what he needed or just to be right. She did not feel valued by him, she did not feel like a priority in his life. They were not partners, and what friendship they had started with faded yearly. She felt she must be doing something terribly wrong. But, she kept trying to be the good little Christian wife. She would lean in, and he would pull away. She would lean in even more until she was worn out. He sometimes would give her just enough, just a trickle of love to keep her in the ring. She’d regroup and go again. She had committed herself before God, family, and friends that she would do this with everything she had. And, she was not a quitter.

Somewhere in there they got something right, and made two really amazing humans. She got busy being Mom, and that filled some voids in her life. Daily doses of affection can do amazing things for a person’s heart, so do appreciation, and fulfilled purpose. They can also help to mask other underlying issues, for a while anyway. Motherhood gave her all these things. She had hoped that her husband’s heart would be softened by the little people. Maybe it was, but there were no outward signs that it was softened towards her.

Right around the eleven-year mark, she started feeling something she had never felt before. Trapped. Desperate. She prayed a prayer to be released. Oh no! What had she done?! God certainly was NOT going to answer THAT prayer.  She re-committed herself to being the best little Christian wife she possibly could be. Guess what? It did not change things for the better. He detached even more. He kept rejecting her. He gaslighted her left and right (she just didn’t know what that was yet.) By thirteen years in, she felt another new thing: Done. She felt spent, drained, hopeless. Then, ugh, she found herself dwelling on thoughts of another man, a friend. What?! This was not her, not at all. She was shocked by herself. Of course she had been hit on before, flirted with by cute coworkers, even attracted to men who crossed her path, but never once had she considered anything romantic with any of those. She was NOT okay with this. It scared her. Once she realized just what she was doing, that her marriage was in such shambles that she’d even go there, she got herself into counseling.

She told her “good” Christian husband about all of it; about the other man in her thoughts, about the counseling, about the hopelessness and the brokenness of their marriage. He was blank, initially. He listened in silence with zero emotion shown. She made demands. He needed to get into counseling, and then they would eventually go together. He got angry as if her asking for him to get counseling implied that he held some blame. She could see it in his eyes: blame and contempt. Why should he go to counseling when she was the one with the problem? But he did go.

Right away counseling uncovered the landmine that decimated her heart and explained everything simultaneously. She was married to a sex/pornography addict. His counselor identified it in his first session, and he told his wife about it that same evening. Her husband said he was flabbergasted. How did the counselor know, she wondered?! Why hadn’t she known?! She was in shock. Waves of disgust and self-loathing descended upon her unexpectedly as she would go about her life in the days just after his revelation. The ick factor was huge for her. At their first joint counseling session, the female counselor, unprompted, identified his addiction as well. This time he was angry. Why would that woman say such a thing about him?! (Side note: men who regularly partake in pornography tend to objectify and undervalue women in general. Notice the difference in his responses to being found out.) As counseling progressed, he walked a fine line of rationalizing/defending his behavior and owning up to it. He did enough to look like he was working, but not enough to actually change. He had been addicted since he was fourteen. At this point he was over forty. It was his coping mechanism. It was his release, his escape. It was the most nurtured, and deeply hidden piece of his identity. It was one that needed to protect at all cost.

        She understood that no marriage was perfect. She knew one person isn’t solely responsible for a breakdown of this proportion, but by this time, all the deception and lies, all the rejection, all the detachment, all the holding his wife in contempt, they were all byproducts of his addiction. She could see, in hindsight, the signs that should have clued her in years ago. She was an unwitting enabler. When he blamed the dirty movies that would pop up in Netflix’s “recently watched” tab on a glitch in the system or the sweet teenage babysitter; that should have been a red flag. When she found Archie McPhee figurines posed in a variety of sex acts each time she and the kids would pick him up from work and he would quickly knock it off the shelf to keep her from seeing; that should have been a red flag. When he would turn down sex with his wife and then fifteen minutes later disappear into the bathroom with his phone for forty-five minutes; that should have been a red flag.

Again, she tried to be proactive, but after much counseling, studying, support grouping, separating, praying, and soul-searching, she decided she couldn’t do any more. She couldn’t fix this. She called for divorce. There was fallout…so much fallout. He blamed her and shamed her, threatened suicide, got angry, but never once took ownership of what he had done to their marriage. She was criticized by several people. She was shunned by a few. Her kids didn’t understand. Mainly, sorting through her own feelings was the hardest part. Guilt. Hope. Uncertainty. Smallness. Heartbreak. Grief.

Grief. The big one. Overarching all the feelings was her grief.
My grief.

        I was grieving my marriage long before my divorce. Or, I should’ve been
grieving it, because it was dying since the get-go. I don’t know if it’s the way I was raised, the way I’m wired, or the years of being objectified and undervalued, but I did not feel worthy of my grief. I did not allow myself to grieve. I would tell myself, “Hey, look around! There are so many people who have legitimate reasons to grieve.” I just got stuck with in a horrendous marriage. That doesn’t compare to losing a loved one, or a limb. He didn’t beat me. He was never blatantly awful to me, just subtly awful. Do you see that? That’s what I do. I minimize my grief. It was my coping mechanism. It’s too hard to feel. I don’t deserve it. My life is not hard enough for me to deserve grief. All told, my life is pretty good…if you ignore a few little moments here and there:

• a cross-country move leaving my childhood friend/sister behind
• rehoming a beloved dog
• a miscarriage
• rehoming another dog
• a fourteen-year long marriage that was empty, lonely, and devoid of affection
• grappling with my husband’s porn addiction and mental illness
• a divorce
• the loss of independence that comes with a smaller income
• watching my children’s lives be turned upside down

Don’t let me lie to you like I lied to myself. Those things deserve to be grieved. Along with the loss of love, the loss of trust, the loss of one’s sexuality and sexual identity, the loss of a plan or a goal. And sometimes, hard times bring the loss of friends. That happened too, and needed to be grieved.

        So, what happens when we minimize our grief? Give it a brief nod and then go on with life? What happens to that grief that doesn’t get acknowledged? That doesn’t get truly felt? I believe it eats us up in a variety of ways. I believe it can be responsible for physical ailments. I believe it can be responsible for the inability to move on with life in a healthy balanced way. I believe it skews our view of the world and of the people in it. When I minimized my grief, when I didn’t allow myself to feel what I felt it ate me up. Literally. I lost a large amount of weight quickly which, on my small frame led to other health issues. I lost sleep. I lost my temper. I lost my focus.

        My faith wavered. This was a first for me. Nothing had shaken my faith
before, and it was scary. Unresolved grief can weaken the faith. I mentioned the title “good Christian” several times. It’s because I am a Christian, and I try to be good. I really try. I love Jesus and He loves me. But, questioning the state of my marriage and my beliefs about marriage certainly made me look long and hard at my faith.

I eventually came back around…to the grieving. It took time. It took coaching and it took some really great counseling. It took me learning my worth. I did that by trying to see myself through God’s eyes. It took me humbling myself to realize that I am not strong enough to avoid feeling. I couldn’t stuff it down inside myself any longer. (Side note: Isn’t it funny how pride can make us feel unworthy and overly confident at the same time? That’s another discussion, though.) It took me learning that when the wave of grief comes crashing down on me, the best thing to do is ride it. To go with it wherever it takes me. If I’m driving down the freeway when looms the icky realization that he preferred online sex with airbrushed, silicone-filled porn stars over sex with his wife, then I will pull over and scream and cry if I feel like it. It’s okay. Feel it. Feel all of it, and feel it fully. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

        Then what? Feel it all forever? For me, the waves gradually became smaller and more spread out. They still come sometimes. I acknowledge them, feel them. But, I don’t dwell. I won’t wallow. That gives the hurt too much power. I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely “over it.” My filters have certainly changed. For instance, Hugh Hefner’s recent passing was a personal trigger for me. Previous to all this, I would have hardly noticed. I certainly did not grieve him, but how he is praised for the legacy he left behind sure did a number on me. It brought a wave of pent up grief and unresolved anger crashing down on me. I still get triggered, which usually brings one of these waves. The difference is they’re manageable now. I no longer need to pull over on the side of freeways to scream-cry. And, the grief no longer fills me. Since I’ve learned to let it pass through, the space it took up has been freed to hold other things. Joy. Love. Wonder. Patience.

        And where is this “good” Christian girl now? As I said, I am divorced. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t say it’s like pulling the plug on a loved one who’s brain dead, but it shares these similarities: technically my marriage was still alive, but in all respects other than technicalities, it was dead. And, I had to let go of the hope I had held for so long that it would eventually be what God had intended marriage to be. So, now I have found happiness again. I put all the weight back on, and then some… My kids are okay. I am remarried, happily so. I am married to a man who understands grief and feelings and intimacy. He’s faced his own losses, dealt with them, been honest about them, felt all the feelings, and grew from them. He shares his struggles with me. I feel safe sharing mine with him. We verbalize that we have it as a goal to talk about whatever we need to talk about, to stay connected, to be partners, to be lovers, and to be friends, to hold each other accountable, and to keep our faith as the keystone of our marriage. It’s a very good thing. It is real and honest and ugly at times, but that’s how I believe it’s supposed to be.

Halcyon 1

        A word about pornography: For me, pornography was a betrayal. It was an act of infidelity. It was secrecy and lies. It was cheating. It went against everything we “good” Christians believe and hold virtuous in our marriages. But, ultimately, it was my now ex-husband’s unwillingness to recognize this that lead to the demise of our marriage.”

For more information about how pornography use kills love, please visit fightthenewdrug.org

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Running Away and Joining the Circus (and Finding Myself in the Process)

I first met my dear friend, Shelly Ogden in the most unfortunate setting; the hallway of a hotel in St. Petersburg, FL after our first session of the NTSAD Annual Family Conference in 2010.  We were both attending for the first time.  Miss Elliott, who had infantile Tay-Sachs and Kaleb, who had infantile Sandhoff were nearly the same age, and had both recently been diagnosed.  What I remember most clearly is Shelly stopping me in the hallway and telling me that she just wanted me to know that I was saying all the same things in that session that she was feeling, but couldn’t bring herself to say.

The thing about living with these rare diseases, and impending loss is how instantly, and how intimately the bonds we parents forge are.  Both Miss Elliott and Kaleb died in 2012, and while Miss Elliott died in February, Kaleb died on October 3; Miss Elliott’s birthday.  Shelly texted me early that morning to let me know that Kaleb must have wanted to go be with her to help her celebrate.  I was gutted for her.

And the thing about outliving your medically fragile child, is that in many cases you’re suddenly, nearly completely lost.  When your everyday life revolves around continuous care, medications, positioning, appointments, therapies, etc., the silence can be deafening.  Constricting in your lungs like a lack of air leaving you writing in pain, desolation, and despair.

As Shelly shares below, though she couldn’t run away from the pain she was feeling, she was desperate to find a reason to be, and to find meaning, and value in her life.  She was desperate to find Shelly again.  And she did so, by looking in the last place she would have expected to go searching:

“I ran away and joined the circus after the death of my son. Okay, not really, but let me explain. Kaleb had infantile Sandoff disease and died just eight days after his fourth birthday. Grief can consume you, especially when you are grieving the loss of a child, if you let it, and I was determined that I was not going to let it. I never wanted my surviving child, Christopher, to feel like his life was less important, so I decided to show up for him, and continue to live for Kaleb, who didn’t get that chance. Even when I didn’t want to do it. Even when it was a struggle to make myself do it. I owe that much to the rest of my family – and also to Kaleb.

Ogden Family

      After his funeral, when family went home, and Dave went back to work I had nothing. I felt lost. I felt like I was wandering without a purpose. I’d go window shopping to kill time but even that was too hard. I’d see a mom walking with her son and I’d literally have to run out of the store or risk breaking down in front of everyone. I then found myself making daily trips to the cemetery because that is where I felt close to him, and because I couldn’t stand being inside our empty house. On my way back from one of those trips, I stopped into a women’s only dance studio and bought a membership. I decided it was time to start taking care of myself. I thought I’d start off easy and attend an aerial yoga class, but when I got there, the instructor warned me that what I was about to take was an aerial silks class. I was already there, and I didn’t know the difference, so I decided I’d stay.

Little did I know what I was in for. I am a retired law enforcement officer, and I’ve been through some tough training but this class was the most physically demanding Shelly Aerialthing I’d ever done. First and foremost, I am afraid of heights which was a challenge. The silks physically hurt my feet, and my forearms, hands, and biceps felt like they were one fire. My entire body was screaming, but for one hour I found that I could focus on something other than the pain in my heart, and that was an amazing feeling. One thing I have discovered, as I dove head first into the world of circus arts, is that the more I learn to “fly” the closer I feel to Kaleb, I no longer feel the need to visit the cemetery every day.

The friends I have made in the aerial world are some of the most supportive and caring people I have ever met, and they’ve changed the way I look at a lot of things. My first instructor, Jessie, played such an instrumental part in my healing process. There are countless times when she would sit with me and just let me cry on her shoulder, which was very therapeutic. She’d encourage me to join class when I was ready during those difficult days where I felt like I was constantly on the verge of tears, and I always felt better out of class.

This past August, I asked my current instructor, Lauriel, to choreograph a piece for me to Danny Gokey’s “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again”. I told her I wasn’t the kind of person who could perform in front of an audience, but I wanted to record this piece and post it on social media in honor of Kaleb’s angelversary. I explained that this anniversary would mean that Kaleb would be gone, longer than he lived. What she came up with was even better than what I expected, and was packed with so much emotion. I was so proud of what she had done and when I finally got it recorded we sat together hugging each other and crying. The release of having finished it, was more than just finally recording the piece, but the emotion of the song and the action that was put into the routine all hit me at the end.

I have always been the quiet observer, the wall flower if you will. I like to see everything going on around me, but I prefer to stay out of the lime light, until recently Shelly Circuswhen Lauriel talked me into performing. I stepped out of my comfort zone and become a performer equipped with identification that titled me “Talent”. So, for one night, I joined the circus, and the spotlight was on me. It was oddly both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I was bolstered by the fact that my oldest son and husband were in the audience to support me and I know Kaleb was in the air right next to me.

I’ve decided to continue to live even when my world has been turned upside down. It was a choice I had to make, and it didn’t come easy. Some days the grief is crippling, but I think about the life Kaleb had to live, one that left him paralyzed, in silence, tormented by seizures, unable to enjoy the taste of food, and he reminds me, if he can do that, I can do this – I can live fully and honor him. I have discovered that in order to navigate through life after the loss of a child you have to find your “thing,” your passion. My faith gives me hope, my family gives me a reason, and my aerial world gives me wings.’

“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask, ‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling, what if you fly?”
Erin Hanson

 

Adorned In Grief

What was odd is that it wasn’t chilly.  It was a February morning in Seattle and I remember not being cold.  All the more odd because I’m always cold.  Always.  I can’t remember if it was sunny, but I know it wasn’t raining.  Again, odd for Seattle on a February morning.  February 12, 2012, to be exact.

I was wearing a black cotton spaghetti strap, v-neck dress with a satin lining that flowed over me knees.  I’m not sure where I got it, because it was already in my closet and I hadn’t worn it often.  It was a summer dress.  I wore a black shawl over my shoulders and black patent leather heels.  No pantyhose.  Does convention still call for them?  I was young enough not to care.  I put on a black 1920s style cloche hat to hide my face.  I had gotten it on vacation a couple of years earlier.  I didn’t want to look at anyone and I didn’t want them looking at me.  I wanted to shrink into that hat completely.

I can’t remember most of it, the funeral.  I do remember someone telling me it was beautiful.  I wanted to punch them in the face.  I remember someone else telling my they had never seen a coffin so small.  Again, mental face punch.  Then, someone told me I was beautiful.  Actually several people did.  But someone told me it was the most beautiful I had ever looked.  Really?  At my daughter’s funeral?  Jerk. 

I don’t even remember who it was.  I just remember thinking that maybe I was little more beautiful at my senior prom…or my wedding…or basically any other day than this.

They just wanted to be nice.  I know they did.  I don’t blame them.  I don’t even count it as ignorant or outplaced.  I was simply being swallowed alive in that moment by the death and subsequent burial of my daughter.  All-in-all, I think I’ve held it together pretty well.

There were so many people there.  I felt their eyes all over me and it burned.  I didn’t look around.  I will never know who actually was there, or how many people in total, but I know the cemetery was full.

Our preacher said some words.  I think my brother lead a prayer.  I said nothing.  I watched as they lowered my daughter’s body into the hole previously dug for her.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  Was that it?  Was it over?  What did I do now?  Just leave?  How?  How could I just go?  Once I left, that was it.  Never a reason to return.  The last that remained of her physical being was gone from me forever.  How could it be?  How, after the years of caring for her day in and out, providing for her every need twenty-four hours a day, could I just go?

What mother leaves her baby cold in the ground and just walks away?

One face stood out to me.  A friend, who was a light in the darkness of my day.  She didn’t speak.  She simply walked up to me and her searching eyes said everything there were no words for as she pressed her lips together and stared into my soul.  I was grateful for her understanding, and though our eyes met, I was silent in my reply.

I don’t have the dress anymore.  I don’t know where it went.  Did I give it away to Goodwill?  I think I did, but I don’t remember doing so.  I knew I would never wear it again.  The shoes and shawl are both gone.  I will never wear the hat again, either, but it I still have.  I see it in the back of my closet, a grim reminder of the one and only time it adorned my head.  I don’t take it out.  Sometimes it topples over when I’m digging for a pair of shorts or an old purse.  And I remember.

Headstone

Onward, Soldier. Onward In Love.

The dark does not my steps impede
Your memory, now the guiding light through my crucible
My drive, steeled by the absence of your beating heart
to seek out a world of love and hope
They must connect;
future born of past
in order to become new
To rise after the fall
To toil evermore
Growing
Searching
Reaping for all mankind

Us

Love Them and Let Them Grow

“If I know Becky,” my dad says, “she’s going to spend the next two weeks saying to herself, ‘Is she ok?  Is she having a good time?  Is everything going alright’?  She needs me!  And if I know Skylar,” he continues, “she’ll just be having a great time, being the life of the party, leading everyone around.”

He’s right.  On both accounts.

It’s day one of her two weeks at sleep away camp.  I miss her.  I was on the verge of tears last night as she’s never been away from home this long.  I am thinking all those things my dad said I would think.  I’m also wondering how I get through these two weeks without her.  I always do.  I’m a worrier.  More accurately, I’m a planner.  I like things orderly and under control.  I like to be able to anticipate the next move.

One common theme I hear from many parents who have lost a child is that they don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.  Problems no longer seem so big, so daunting.  Not after the unimaginable loss they’ve suffered.  I wish I could say that was the case for me, but conversely, it had just seemed to make me into someone who now finds themselves acting neurotic.  Suddenly everything seems to be an issue.  Little things feel like big things.  I struggle to keep every moving part in its place.  I want consistency.

Some parents of child loss have told me that they actually find they are distancing themselves from their children.  It’s a psychological need to guard their hearts.  Hearts that can’t handle another loss like the one they’ve already suffered.  A preemptive attempt to soften any oncoming blows.

I understand this thought process. My reaction after the loss of our Miss Elliott, however has been to grip everything tighter.  To hold on a little longer.  To savor every second, even after it’s gone.  Feeble, I know, but nonetheless, if I could will time to stop I would never let another second tick by.  I’d live in this current moment forever.

The struggle is to find balance.  I haven’t (yet) let the neuroticism take over.  I actively try to make sure that I’m allowing her to grow and thrive, and experience life on her own terms…well, sort of.  Evaluating every day to ask myself; was I too strict, too permissive, etc.  What’s the magic formula?

My husband tells me it’s the worry that let’s you know you’re a good mother, because really, when you break it down, worrying (within reason) just means you care.

First Day

First day of kindergarten, eight years ago.  Ready to take on the world from day-one.

 

She’s strong and outgoing, and like my dad said, she’ll probably be running the place by the time the week is out. We joked that there’ll be no tearful phone calls home in the middle of the night asking us to come pick her up.  And I’m proud.  Proud of her strong will, gumption, and tenacity.  Proud of her unbroken spirit, outspoken opinions, and every-present resiliency.

After the summer she’ll be going into eighth grade.  I only have one more year until she’s in high school.  How did it happen?  Where did the time go?

The most important lesson my parents have taught me that carries over into my own parenthood is just to “love them”.  In the end it’s the only thing you really do have control over.  Just love them, and let them grow.

 

 

A Grieving Parent’s Growing Pains

“Good night”, she said.  “I love you.”

“Good night.  I love you too my sweetheart”, I replied.  I was reading on my bed when she came in.  I watched her walk away and marveled at the amazing young woman she has become.  And I questioned how it happened, when.

I blinked and here we are.

We spent the weekend attending various graduation parties.  Life is in full bloom for these new young adults.  Their wide eyes begging to take on everything in sight.  The increasing pace of their beating hearts palpable to anyone near them as they overflow with the anxiousness to take that first step in their new journey.  Laughter and joy abounds.  Their parents, an incompatible mix of immense pride, yet also the lingering pangs of sadness over that fact that they will soon be leaving, the fact that they are no longer needed the way they once were.

“Five years and we’ll be here ourselves”, I tell my husband.  I can hardly believe it.  Just stop I plead with Time.  Just wait.  Just give me a little longer.  Where did it go?  Was I even present for it?  I can’t remember it, I think to myself.  Where was I?  What was I doing?  When had she stopped being a little girl?  Have I done enough, taught her enough, instilled in her our values so she adopts them as her own?

I become misty eyed, feeling like every mother must, in losing my little girl to womanhood.  I know my time with her is limited.  And I know that she, like every other child who grows up, must want the freedom and ability to experience life on her own terms, too.

Then, on the other hand, I’m grateful for every bit of it because she’s growing and flourishing.  When I look at her, I see all the same magic and inspiration I see in the eyes of those graduating seniors.  And I want her to have every bit of goodness and opportunity the world can offer.

I try my best to prepare her.  I’ve never wanted to fill her head with fairytales. I tell her it will be hard, she’ll have to fight for what she wants, push through her trials, and to neverSkylar take a back seat. I encourage her to purse her dreams, with the understanding that being smart, while she is (astonishingly so), isn’t enough on its own so she knows she has to be willing to go out there and go after what she wants instead of sitting around waiting for it her find its way to her.

As much as it pains me (but of course I’m proud of her and happy for it) to see my child changing before my eyes; becoming her own person, blossoming into a being all her own; not needing me, I know that the alternative is far worse.  I know from experience.  And there is deep sadness.  The hole in my heart reserved for our Miss Elliott, gone more than five years now opens a little wider in these moments.  In the undeniable moments that reaffirm each time we live through them that there will never be these milestones and celebrations for her.

I will never know who she would have grown into being.  What she would have accomplished.  Whose lives she would have changed.  She will always be three years old.

As the gap between my girls continues to widen exponentially, I can only hope she will carry her sister’s memory with her as she navigates the roads of life.  When she has no siblings at home to share secrets with, fight with, turn to, or champion one another I can only hope that in her heart she feels a connection to her sister and knows she’s not an only child, even if she has to live this life as one.

I hope she will use her loss to propel her to reach new heights in both love and life.  I know that she is by far more compassionate and understanding of others and their own plights, at such a younger age than she would have otherwise been.  And while I would have never asked to place this burden on her, as a grief counselor once told me:

“We must be good stewards of our grief.”

     In that spirit I will not wallow in my sadness,  I will not stunt her own growth and development, but I will use it to further advance my daughter’s dreams and aspirations as she grows and matures, to the best of my ability, in honor of a beautiful life cut far to short.  In honor of the live I have, and always will for both my beautiful girls.

Pain, Power, and Finding Love on A Mountain Top

       McKenzie Johnson is someone to look up to, though she, herself would be uncomfortable with the moniker of role model, it’s true.  I admire so much about this woman and what she has overcome in her life.  A grief counselor once told me that we need to be good stewards of our grief, meaning that instead of allowing it to swallow us up and tear us down, we can use our experiences to help others facing similar trials. And likewise, Mac is a good steward of her pain, even through the struggle of overcoming addiction. 

       In my opinion it’s the individuals who have been through various forms of hardship who have the most to offer.  It’s one thing to live your whole life on top, but it’s quite another to be writhing in the depths of despair at some point, and to choose to claw your way up to the top instead. That’s just what Mac does, every day.  She literally climbs mountains, and somewhere along the way she found her voice, herself, and even though she wasn’t looking for it, she found love. 

 Mac2

       “Just over a year ago I wrote my first guest piece here, Numbing the Pain.  In the past year a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same.  My mom still has cancer, I am still in recovery, I still find it hard to show emotions to those closest to me, my past still haunts me from time to time. I have climbed Kilimanjaro; and found love doing so, I am building a home, I have become an aunt, I have left my job for the time being. I have stepped into many unknowns, and all my expectations have been blown away, like they usually are.  

       I was reading an interview with Pamela Abalu and her parting statement was, “fear is imagination used for the wrong purpose”. How true that is.  When you have a loved one with cancer, and you yourself have the disease of addiction, there is a lot of fear. In fact, I think fear drives us all in ways we may not even realize.  After almost five years of being sober my fears have evolved from say, wondering if I would wake up the next morning, to am I enough, have I done enough, am I treating my loved ones in way that I am proud of, will anyone find out that I am making it up as I go along? 

       They say addiction is a family disease, and it’s true, I know it from experience.  I know now the many ways in which this disease of mine affected the people I love most. And I only know this after finally being forced to acknowledge it in treatment. I would say cancer is also a family disease, affecting all those around the one with the symptoms.

       Mom has always understood me as a being, knowing things about me before I was ready to acknowledge them myself.  In my teenage years, before I was an active alcoholic, I was deep in an eating disorder, anorexia and bulimia.  One day she pulled the car over in our neighborhood, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I know what you’re doing to yourself, do you want help?” I said “Yes,” I still see my therapist she found for me.  The same one who many years later would look me straight in the eye and say “You would benefit from inpatient treatment.” And I did.  I see her tomorrow.  Mom would hand write me letters in college, saying that if I ever needed help with drinking that they were there.  I would throw them away.  I wish so badly I had one of those now.  Mac6Mom is the type of person who if I cry, she cries, and not just because I’m her daughter.  She’s most empathetic person I know.  She will move mountains for people and causes she cares about.

       She is soon to start her fourth treatment in five years, this time a deadly yet potentially curative cocktail of chemo, immunotherapy and a stem cell transplant.  There is nothing easy about what the next six months or more will have in store for us. There is nothing to really prepare any of us.  There have been days where I thought I would implode. Around treatment time my depression and anxiety flare up, my thoughts of alcohol increase, fear is a constant companion. Work has been hard to manage, a new relationship has helped so much although has its own stressor of distance.  But the process for me this time has been different; I have been more present, going to appointments, helping make decisions, telling mom the sometimes-hard truth that she does not like to hear, and looking at things from a different perspective.  I’m focused.

       Sometimes, the closeness of others and the reality it brings is still difficult for me to swallow so I show my love in different ways, like raising (a considerable amount of) money for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society again this year through the Big Climb.  Events like these help me to channel my energy and desire to help in a positive and productive way, as much for myself as for the one I’m helping.  I cannot say that I am a natural caretaker or the best person to be at your bedside, but I am a good decision maker, can ask hard questions and maybe push my mom a little more in areas others wouldn’t, just as she’s pushed me. She can be tougher than she knows.  I’ve learned that I can be, too, but I still won’t cry in front of her.

       In being more present for my mom and family, work has seen me through more than a few breakdowns recently. Again, being vulnerable in front of people who are not my loved ones is far easier for me than showing those who should be closest to me what I am feeling.  I run a team that does over a million dollars in sales a year, I was assisting on teams doing over six million a year before I got my own.  I have always put immense pressure on myself to be the best at everything I take on, my therapist would say I am a perfectionist, and I am not ok with being “ok”.  I have a hard time saying “no,” and an even harder time asking for help. That’s part of the reason I climb.  To get my mind frame out of focusing on the constant pressures I inflict on myself, to get out of my head, to just breathe. 

Mac5

        Having a partner to balance and support me, to point things out that I miss, to have a different outlook on things; a healthy perspective has made a world of difference.  I know that I should not go through this alone, but I have a disease that wants me to isolate, that will creep in through any vulnerability.  If I have learned anything in recovery, it is that we cannot do it alone.  This time I didn’t.  I asked for help, maybe a little too late after one too many things were put on my plate, but I did and I am proud. 

       The last and only other time I took a significant amount of time away from work was when I went to treatment for my alcoholism.  All in all, I was there for five and a half months. I then chose to live in the nearby community for a few months after that.  It was the best, and hardest decision I have ever made. If you would have asked me a few months ago what could possibly take me away from work, my answer would have been, The Pacific Crest Trail or travelling the world for a year, but what has taken me away is that I am taking this time to take care of myself, and my mom.  I don’t want to have to go to treatment again, I never want to have to tell my family I relapsed.  I have a constant fear of this, and it is  truly terrifying for me.

       I was never the little girl who dreamed of finding a husband, getting married, and having kids.  I have always been independent and self-sufficient, almost to a fault, living my life in near protest of it, almost as if I had something to prove.  Or maybe just something to hide. I always knew that if I did happen to find that person it would have to a partnership, and someone who understood my independence, wasn’t scared of my past, could live with my current lifestyle of not being around alcohol, could draw my thoughts and feelings out, allow me to cry, to be the tough one, to celebrate my success and not be intimidated by it, make me want to share my life, and let me climb the mountains I love so much. 

       I found him, on the tallest mountain in Africa.  When we first met I thought he was handsome, kind, quietly confident, self-assured and aware, and I remember not being able to tell how old he was.  Over the next few days I was stuck by his patience, his ease with the locals, culture and language.  He led our group of four incredibly independent, strong, wickedly funny, successful women without so much as breaking a proverbial sweat.  We were on the mountain for seven days. He later told me he knew he loved me at camp two.  But at camp two I was busy trying not to let my feelings show, maybe so I didn’t even have to acknowledge them myself. That day we all took a popular little side trip from camp.  It was very busy and I was having some anxiety being around so many people, and the hike made it worse, I think he noticed that.  When we returned to camp I heard him say to another guide, “I’m going to take her on a separate hike, she’s very active.” That awareness and kindness wasn’t lost on me. Our little hikes became a theme for the rest of the climb.  This is where we really got to know each other, just the two of us, on little side trails on Kilimanjaro.

        Mac3After the climb, we convinced him to join us all on safari.  Following that, we both happened to have tickets to Zanzibar, so there we were able to spend our first time alone together. I have never had something feel so easy, right. In the following months, that has not changed, though so many things have not been easy.  He was working and living at Crystal Mountain, me in Seattle. And now he is in Alaska, and me, in Seattle.  But he has never once shied away from me, as I have with him, first because of our age difference (he is considerably younger than me), then distance, then because anytime I let someone get close, I try to push them away.

       I know I am clearly still struggling with my ability to be vulnerable and at times I have even been willing to lose something that I care about so much because of it.  That part of me has never made sense, and I am working today on why I can’t get over this wall or break it down.  This is a theme not only with my partner, but family as well.  I am never easy, add in my mom’s treatment regimen, the usual family dynamics, significant distance in a brand new relationship, all the opposite of easy. Yet he has never wavered, showing me his emotions, love and support all along the way, and not only for me, but for my family as well. I love him enough to cry in front of him, to ask for his opinion when making big decisions, to make us a priority, above myself. He gives me another reason not to drink, not to stay in my depressive tendencies, or act on them. He may not have experienced anxiety, or any of these other issues personally, but he cares enough to stand by me through them. And now I can let him which to be quite honest, feels foreign and scary and certainly does not come naturally. Just as I have to work on my sobriety, myself, my mental and emotional well-being, I have to work on allowing someone to love me, as I am.  And believing that they will”

 

All photos courtesy of McKenzie Johnson