“You need to suck it up” – words, spoken to me by one of my older cousins about a week after my son died, that rock me now as much as they did two years ago. Pain is weakness leaving your body! Real men rise above the pain! Men don’t cry, they water their beards! All of these sayings are nothing more than euphemisms that hide the truth about men and our “strength”. The reality is that many men’s greatest weakness is the facade they build to demonstrate their “strength”; a paper armor that cloaks weakness yet offers no protection.
I am done hiding my feelings behind the paper veil. It is only weighing me down and keeping me from truly healing. The truth is I am weak. I cry, a lot. In fact I am crying right now. I cry myself to sleep at night when no one is awake to hear my sobbing. I cry in the shower where my tears are but a drop in the torrent. I weep in the middle of the day only to feign a yawn or blame it on an imaginary irritant. It happens in plain sight, yet my mastery of the art of camouflage conceals it perfectly. I know the facade works – every comment regarding my apparent “strength” confirms its effectiveness. I don’t want to hide behind that veneer anymore. I am tearing off the armor.
Two years later and I am still broken into little pieces and no, I am not “over” it. It hurts more than I can possibly describe. There are times where the pain of losing my little boy literally causes me to stagger, forcing me to right myself. I sometimes want to run away and hide – and often do by distracting myself with mindless activities like playing video games or watching movies. My ultimate distraction? The foundation that Samantha and I founded in Rees’ name. The more I do with the foundation, the less my mind focuses on Rees. It’s ironic that something we made in his name is the very vehicle I use to escape his memory. I am constantly on the run from my feelings. I don’t want to run anymore.
I am jealous. Every story shared by friends about their son’s milestones is a reminder of moments I will never have with my little boy. Every birthday party, communion, graduation, wedding, or other milestone event reminds me of what I will miss out on with Rees. Seeing fathers smiling with their sons invariably causes me to wonder what those moments would be like if only Rees was still here. The truth is it hurts more than you can imagine, but the only way I can avoid the pain is to avoid being with the people I love. I can’t cut myself off from others and I can’t help how I feel. I am stuck being jealous for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be jealous anymore.
I am angry. So many things that used to be mild irritants now cause a rage to boil within me. Hearing people complain about the minutiae of life’s little annoyances now stirs something primal in me. The perspective forced upon me by Richie’s death makes hearing people complain about things of no consequence almost unbearable. I often find myself wanting to shake people and tell them to get a grip and think about the things that really matter. I find myself ignoring things that I should do, but I just don’t want to be bothered with because I feel those actions have very little consequence. This of course affects my relationship with those around me, as they cannot wrap their heads around the fact that no, I am not going to drop everything and do X, because in the long run, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t want to be angry anymore.
I am lonely. Losing a child isolates you in a way that is difficult to describe. People are put off by grief, especially if it goes beyond the arbitrary expiration date we often seem to place on the grieving process. Friends and family try so hard to get you come back to a “normal” that is simply out of reach. These attempts are concentrated in the beginning, but wane as time goes on and eventually dropped all together. Friends and family eventually just settle back into a belief that time will heal this process and eventually believe that you are “ok”. I am not ok. I never will be. I wish I could say that “I’m over it”, but the truth is that will never come to pass. My love for my son was limitless, and the pain of losing him is commensurate. I completely understand why others think that I am fine, or that I should be over it – but the fact remains that I never will be, and I know this alienates people who simply cannot understand it. I don’t want to be lonely anymore.
I am restless. Losing Rees shattered my unfounded belief that the world follows a specific set of rules and orders. Children are supposed to outlive their parents. Children spend a lifetime coming to grips with the eventuality of an empty chair where their parents once sat. I saw this play out this weekend as I watched my family say goodbye to my Aunt Carol. Her four children were at her side as she slowly succumbed to the cancer throughout her body. In talking with my cousins I saw the realization of that fear of the inevitable coupled with the acceptance of the natural order of things. Even though she was only 66, there was an air of acknowledgement that this is what we as children spend our whole lives preparing for. Children build a natural foundation designed to bear the burden of that loss because we expect it to happen. Losing a child affords the grieving parent nothing on which to buttress our distress. The loss of a child upends the natural order and calls into question every other aspect of life we assume to be a given. This disruption permeates every decision, every action and every emotion going forward. It creates an acute awareness of threats lurking around us and makes you anticipate the dropping of the next shoe. It is unnerving. I don’t want to be restless anymore.
I am different. Losing a child creates profound changes in the heart and soul of grieving parents, but there is an almost imperceptible change on the outside that occurs as well. Look at the eyes of any grieving parent and you will see it – especially if you have a photo of that person “before”. The eyes are said to be the windows to our soul and when that soul is shattered, the eyes reveal the fissures. Last night, as I was looking at pictures of my wife, I noticed it. Her smile before losing Rees was different than after. In almost every picture from the past two years her eyes belie the pain she is hiding within. It stands out to me like a scarlet letter emblazoned on her soul. It’s a look that is shared by almost every grieving parent and once you see it, you cannot ever “unsee” it. I hate seeing the pain on her face, and I know she feels the same about me. The hint of sadness behind her eyes is a reminder that we will never be the same again – and I hate being reminded about it. I want to be same… I don’t want to be different anymore.
I don’t want to run, be angry, restless, different or lonely anymore but I have no choice. My favorite movie told me I need to “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”. I don’t want to die, but it is almost as if I am to afraid to truly live – that doing so would leave behind even more of Rees’ pieces. I know now, perhaps more than most, that life does not ever follow the script we write for ourselves. In fact, I don’t think there is script at all. Life is improvised. We never know what the next moment is going to bring and the past is something we leave behind every moment. The only thing I have is right now. Right now I was supposed to have Rees by my side, but that just isn’t possible. If I can’t have him beside me I will simply move forward with the pieces that remain behind as reminders of what could have been. I am what I am, take it or leave it. In many ways I died along with Rees in that pond, but that was a different person. I need to accept the new person I am, baggage and all. I will not stop moving forward until the day comes where my body can no longer keep up with my soul’s will. Until then, I will spend my remaining time making others lives better in memory of my little boy. I will fight to prevent other children from suffering the same fate as Richie. I will pick up the pieces along way and proudly make them a part of me. I don’t want to be the person I was… he’s gone. I just need to be the best me I can be right here and now. I don’t need to adhere to some social stereotype that says I need to suck it up and hide how I truly feel. I don’t want to be anyone else but me – and that’s a real man.