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The willow tree symbolizes fertility and new life; a healthy branch can be poked into the ground and it will root, even if it’s upside down. Seems cliche, talking about a willow in connection to grief, but I got here by way of the idea of the beetle that bores into willow trees. Called a Willow Borer, it damages willows so badly that some horticulturists simply recommend against planting it.
Willow Borers can live in the trees for years, boring into the wood and making the tree weep debris from the holes the beetle makes. Eventually the trees disintegrate from the inside out; branches split the tree or break off.
I’ve long identified with the willow for its flexibility in harsh storms. Other trees may break, but not the willow. Its unique makeup makes it supple and less prone to fracture.
I once likened grief to a wet, heavy woolen coat, but it’s not like that at all. You can’t shed grief like a coat. It’s more like the beetle that bores into the willow, only bones don’t weep. At least, not ones bleached dry by the elements.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get out from under the grief. I have a sense of stooped stiffness as I walk, and I wonder how evident it is. Has my own beetle made dust of my bones already, I wonder. But every time I sit down to focus on making something out of nothing I must be shoving a hope stick into the ground, I think.
I purposely shared my story with people this semester, shared even though I’ve become cynical and hollow and invisible, with the admonition that you must choose to walk the path that gives you joy because it will sustain you when you are caught out by tragedy. It’s the strongest counterargument against giving up that I know, a hope stick that may thrive come some random spring.
Once in a while I glimpse a tiny chartreuse sprig, but so far I’ve only managed to wither it with neglect because it’s easier to check out by bingeing Rizzoli and Isles or by playing Clash Royale on my phone. It’s easier to accept being invisible, to fly under the radar and disconnect, but there’s a symbiotic relationship between us humans that I feel obligated to show up for.
Curious, amazing thing about willow trees. They have healing properties that’ve been known for centuries. People have not only chewed on the leaves for pain relief, they have prized beavers, which munch on willow trees. Beavers were hunted to near extinction because people wanted their castor sacs.
Microbiologist Joanne Stolen writes,
“Both male and female beavers possess a pair of castor sacs and a pair of anal glands located in two cavities under the skin between the pelvis and the base of the tail. Beavers mark their territories by constructing scent mounds made of mud, debris and castoreum, a urine based substance excreted though the beavers castor sacs between the pelvis and base of the tail” (Stolen).
I want to know who first had the bright idea to poke around and test this substance secreted by beavers from their butt region. In fact, I Googled it, and this link was at the top of the page: Who figured out a beaver’s behind tastes like raspberry? They didn’t just observe but tasted?
This I find deeply amusing because it shows how freakily things are connected, and I can’t say no to hooking into the universe, no matter how sad I am. If healing can come from a beaver’s butt juice, I don’t need proof that my own authenticity could help someone else.
Several years ago on our way home from San Diego, Tom and I drove past a bunch of emergency personnel on the side of the road on the grade. A mangled car was visible down in the ditch, its roof crumpled like a tin can, its front end smashed in, and I wept. No way did anyone walk away from that mess, and someone’s mother was going to pick up the phone that night, unsuspecting. In that quick slip of time I mentally hugged the woman whose heart would be shattered. I never learned who the family was, but I still feel that visceral sorrow for her.
I’m sorry she’ll never know this.
Tonight I got to know that someone had that reaction on my behalf, and it was the most perfect gift of comfort. It’s been seven years since Jake disappeared, and I feel like I’m made of old twigs.
This person was introduced to me as the pastor at the church Jake used to attend, and when I learned that he’d been there 19 years, I asked if he’d known Jake, that he was my son. He sucked in his breath and said, “Yes!” Then he rushed over to hug me, and he said, “I knew you were out there!”
Someone had grieved on my behalf. Back when I was spreading baking powder on Jake’s porch to see if I’d catch his footprints, someone I didn’t know had wondered how I was, had grieved for me. And today, after a stretch of black, hollow weeks, I got to know it.
This grief is like a wayward, fractious dog who’s decided to just be dead floppy weight rather than get his butt in the car so we can go home from the park. It’s a jerk.
Jake hasn’t been found, may never be found. Every time a dead body is found or bones in the desert have surfaced or an unknown John Doe shows up in a hospital anywhere – anywhere, you understand – I wonder if it’s him.
So. I am here.
Lyrics in English here: https://lyricfluent.com/lyrics/bomba_estereo_soy_yo_english
I dreamt of Jake last night. He’d come home and then left on a trip, and had stopped to stay in a small town somewhere up north where it’s green. It seemed like normal times but felt a little off, like I knew in my dream that I was dreaming.
In my dream, I said to him that I thought I’d move closer to him, and asked, “Do you want family closer, or no?” He said, “Oh, yes!” And it was settled.
I ‘ve been puttering around this morning thinking about Jake and how I feel like I saw Jake, physically, in person, for real. My waking self didn’t know the difference right away.
I still reach out to him in my dreams, hoping to make sense of the space between us, and in the back of my mind is the notion that he left because of me.
But even in my dream I couldn’t bring myself to ask if he wanted me close.
And I wonder if I will only ever see him in a dream. What if that’s the only place he actually exists?
There’ve been times when I wondered if I’d imagined his entire existence. But no, I HAD A SON NAMED JAKE.
Grief doesn’t diminish; it settles deeply into your bones like hidden mold, but somehow it doesn’t get into the hippocampus. Grief is invisible but it stinks like mold; I reek with grief and I’m the only one who can smell it. But that’s its nature.
This, I think, is why my empathy is sharper, my tolerance broader. I can’t smell your grief, but I know it’s there. You’re suffering as much as I am. Maybe more.
April 10th, 2022, around 3:00pm, a kitten died.
He was a determined package of what, 5 ounces? Determined, and loud, and with a penchant for climbing out of his box and wandering with no apparent aim. He responded to our voices but I think he was always searching for his mama because no matter how many rice socks we warmed for him, they would never be Mama.
I wept when he died, and I ache when I think of his will to be part of the world. It’s been almost a week since he went limp in our hands and I’m as sad as if I’d just …
When Jake was born four years after I relinquished my heart, my first baby, for adoption, I said, “I get to keep this one. I get to keep him.” I said this every day, and I meant it. He was mine, and I got to keep him, and I was wrong, wasn’t I.
We don’t get to say what we keep.
But what I weep for with this kitten is not about Jake, either. It’s about how it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you still cannot control one ounce of soul. Or five ounces.
I’m reminded of Byron Katie’s words, “It was supposed to happen because it did.” Not that it was inevitable, just that it did happen, and dwelling on it changes nothing but your level of energy. So what do I do with this grief?
What do you do with grief?
I used to think of it as a wet wool overcoat that I could take off and hang in a closet. Now I think of it as a very expensive fragrance.
It smells like Opium perfume to me. One of my last memories of my mother as she grew weaker from the cancer that took her was of her joy in rubbing Opium-scented lotion on her belly. She told me then she’d have bathed in it if she could. I’ve worn it since she died.
But grief is also like Jessica McClintock perfume. People draw closer to find where the scent is coming from; they want to know what it is. This scent carries loss, regret, and empathy for me, and I apply it with the same gleeful joy my mother had for Opium.
Grief draws others to us because loss is universal even though the path is singular. It sucks; it’s exhausting; it’s lonely. But isn’t it also a pure expression of love? I am so glad you were here and wish you still were because your presence mattered.
As long as I breathe the fragrance will be there. I’ve come to accept that I may never know what happened to my son. I may never know the why or any details or if he’s okay and is living his best life with a wife and children and all of those things are loss to me.
The only thing anyone can keep is the fragrance. If we choose.
I was interviewed about this situation a few months ago, and I won’t be able to breathe right till it gets published. That Jake is still in the public’s mind means a lot to me, but dredging up everything wrecked me. I’m riding a relentless keen. Sneaky at first, and distant, and then you think, “Oh, shit.” You ask me if I’m ok, and I’ll tell you this: I’m as ok as someone surfing a tsunami.
But I do present well.
I’m more than Jake’s mom, and other things are also important to me. I can’t wallow AND show up, and although most days I choose to show up, I’m getting tired.
I’d really love to take a train vacation–just me, my laptop, and a sleeper car for what, two weeks? I don’t know if they have that kind of getaway where you don’t have to get off the train, you just ride the train from California to New York and back again and no hotels in between. (If you know, please do comment and tell me about it.)
Eh, but not like this.
What keeps me afloat is all the other things my life is about. I read or heard somewhere that suffering is optional. Sure, life events can sting you, but then they’re in the past, and it’s how you think about them that hurts you. It’s what you make them mean that hurts you. The events themselves are in the past–they’re not happening over and over except in your head.
So Jake is missing and that’s done. He isn’t going missing over and over. He’s just still not found. And I’m afraid I’ll learn something horrible happened to him and while this will shatter me, it will only happen once for real, and then all the other times I’ll be imagining scenarios in my head. So would I do that to punish myself? Or could I distance myself enough to recognize my son’s free will and natural and logical consequences?
That is the question. Always has been, perhaps.
I keep coming back to the fact that we are to raise our children and then let them go. Many days I feel it is rotten and unfair that I get to do this to such an extreme degree. To not know if he is okay is excruciating. Is he okay or is he dead or is he suffering or is he . . . what?
You know, when I gave my baby up for adoption many years ago, I was so thankful that I got to know where he was. This knowledge was a painful yet peaceful treasure. But now, this son I thought I got to keep, he’s nowhere to be found and I’m made aware that although we hold eternity in our hearts, we have no power over anything but our own selves.
Same as it ever was.
This magnet is on my fridge:
It has a hilarious, sad weight to it that reminds me of Nicholson’s line, “What if this is as good as it gets?” Its fatalism reminds me of a bottomless well where you can never hear a dropped rock splash.
That well has been home for a while; I’ve been straining to hear for years now.
I noticed a couple weeks ago that I related a story about Jake like nothing was wrong, and for a minute, the world seemed a bit bent, like a funhouse mirror that I’d stepped into. The disorientation passed; I’m living a new normal with one phantom son. It’s a one-person Wonderland, a mansion of many rooms. I know. I’m not alone in this place, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still a solitary confinement.
But this, yes, this is as good as it gets. For now, and perhaps always. This is as good as it gets, and I’m doing the best that I can just like everyone else, and some days it’s terrifying. The world should be a better place but it does no good to rail at it. Nothing changes unless we do, unless we identify something we love and make more of it, whether it’s a physical item or an environment we want to live in.
Lavigne’s song for Alice in Wonderland is both whiny and defiant. She’s giving the finger to all who tell her not to cry. I mean, look at the still of the video below. Doesn’t it look like she’s about to give us the bird?
I’m not going to cry, dammit, even though I’m in this weird hellhole in the middle of the earth.
I found myself in Wonderland
Get back on my feet, on the ground
Is this real?
Is this pretend?
I’ll take a stand until the end
…I’ll get by
When the world’s crashing down
When I fall and hit the ground
I will turn myself around
Don’t you try to stop me
… I won’t cry
What sticks with me from the film is Alice’s battle at the end and the things she says that give her strength to beat the Jabberwocky are six impossible things that she has come to believe.
I’m gathering mine. What are yours?
I hope you’ll share in the comments.
My youngest son spent the anniversary weekend (April 30/May 1 – aptly named May Day) with me. He took time off from work and was intent on being with me as I walked through the shadows. This continues to comfort me as I navigate life in general.
Another anniversary now: From Thanksgiving on the holiday season is a wrecking ball. Family images in ads, in stores, –and the word joy – suffocate me. And Jake’s birthday is December 6.
I am conscious that I am not alone in these verklempt holidays. Souls are sodden with grief for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is the pandemic. This thing has traumatized us in ways that are difficult to articulate, and in some ways, the trauma feels counterfeit if you didn’t lose anyone. Motivation’s at an all-time low for many people I know, and simply showing up for anything is strenuous. I’ve heard many people say, bewildered, “Why is everything so hard?” We are changed forever: we sanitize carts, door knobs, tables and chairs. We go rigid when we hear a cough, and when we cough we hasten to assure everyone, “It’s not COVID!” Our perspective has tilted, and it will reverberate in the same way the Great Depression did for those who lived through it.
I believe that my experience with Jake’s disappearance gave me tools that served me through the pandemic, and I’ve seen that others have found their way through the last year and a half in the same way, so I know this is true: creation is the way through. We are literally making something out of nothing, which is hugely symbolic. We have a void, a nothingness, and we’re ripping creations out of that void and putting them out into the world. This is no easy birth: it’s messy and violent and awe-inspiring.
I’m not O.K. You’re not O.K. But were we ever?
I am tracking sharks now. I have no idea where Jake is, but I have a shark I’m tracking that gives me a weird serenity and sense of hilarity. I’m tracking one shark for each of my three sons here: https://myfahlo.com/collections/save-the-sharks
We find our way, don’t we? It is hard, but here we are.
When Jake went to boot camp years ago for National Guard, I binge-watched Criminal Minds. I’m not sure if this was a step down or sideways from my binge-reading Hamilton’s Anita Blake series when he moved out, but it does follow a pattern: stories carry me through, and the more intense, the better the forgetting.
Stories still carry me through, but my ability to handle the unknown in them has vaporized. I have no tolerance for suspense because I live in that space. Until Jake went missing I was a no-spoilers girl; now I read the ends of books and fast-forward through movies to make sure I know who doesn’t die.
In the minutes after I gave birth to Jake I said, “I get to keep him.” Four years earlier I had given a baby boy up for adoption and the experience was fresh in my brain. Today, Jake is gone and my firstborn, who lives in another state, is in my life. My youngest son, also in another state, is off Facebook and living a normal, mostly pre-internet life. My children are far away, and I have mother-empties.
Vacuum, space in which there is no matter or in which the pressure is so low that any particles in the space do not affect any processes being carried on there. https://www.britannica.com/science/vacuum-physics
But life isn’t a vacuum. You hold your breath, sure, but it doesn’t affect anything but your own self. The upside is that you’re controlling that one thing for a minute or two, until you can’t.
Life is also not punishment and it doesn’t punish you for sucking. It’s taken me a thousand-plus days to figure this out. Life doesn’t punish me, I do.
Again I am in the in-between place of knowing/not knowing, going/stopping, looking ahead/looking back. All these places are one for me.
When I was a kid, my mother gave me a small paperback with Joseph Conrad’s short story, Silent Snow, Secret Snow and Heart of Darkness. It was too boring for my nine-year-old brain, but when I opened it a few months ago I felt as though I could inhabit it. And I wondered if Jake’s world looks like Paul’s, with “a secret screen of new snow between himself and the world.”
Paul, the narrator, describes his encroaching fog as delicious: “The thing was above all a secret, something to be preciously concealed from Mother and Father; and to that very fact it owed an enormous part of its deliciousness…it was also a sense of protection. It was as if, in some delightful way, his secret gave him a fortress, a wall behind which he could retreat into heavenly seclusion.” He’s thinking about the pleasurable feeling of dissociation, when you pull away from your self–not yourself, your self. You pull your self out of the present.
I looked up the synopsis and saw that there’s speculation that the story may be about schizophrenia, which made me think of my son’s mental health before he disappeared. I’d begged and cajoled him to see a mental health professional, to no avail. Many times since he’s been gone I have pictured him in a disheveled, crazy-eyed state, with matted hair and fleas in his beard.
But more and more now, it feels like he may be actively choosing to be gone, which creates a new narrative for me. I’m frequently tempted to blame myself, and I imagine others likely do, too, because sons don’t leave good mothers, now do they?
Well, yeah, actually, they do.
They go off on their adventures and make new lives, and if we’re lucky they reconnect with us.
This cold weather + Jake’s ill-fitting boots starts the spiral–I see it coming like a distant swirl that looks like a nonthreatening dust devil but which turns out to be very tornado-y. But not today.
Life goes on. Life-altering events are mulched over and the diamond bits are buried. The pain doesn’t go away, it’s just part of the soil.
Life’s as short as it ever was and I am thankful to be alive. I’ll be virtually holding my breath as I wait to hear back on PhD programs I’ve applied to, and I’m going to read and write more. I’ll finish quilts and start new craft projects and take walks in this in-between place, and I’ll hope. If there’s one thing that 2020 taught me, it’s that the act of creation is the way through.
One benefit of being busy with work and school is that you have no mulling minutes. Everything’s coagulated beneath the surface, cold and solid.
But a congealed bloodclot at any stage is really only a blockage that prevents hemorrhaging.
I don’t have time for a break of any kind: no heartbreak, especially. And I think this squeezed space is part of what fuels my impatience with my schedule.
I think I want time to mull, but I don’t. I don’t.
What does Jake look like now? Has he given up wearing shoes that are too tight? Does he wear shoes? Does he even exist? It seems like a mother should sense these things, and I don’t sense anything. I have no knowing in my bones, just this soft scab that will not bear picking at.
Jake’s birthday is coming up. It’s just another day, without him.