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.
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 thing 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 when 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?”