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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.
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.
Part 1: October 21, 2018
I’m still not in. Not mentally. Not in my body. Not in my sanity.
Rollercoaster is a cliche. “Being on a roller-coaster” doesn’t fit any experience like this because 1) you choose to get on roller-coasters, and 2) you can get off.
I’m on fire and grey-cold.
You know how your skin feels when you have a sunburn, like layers have been scorched off and the tips of your nerves are exposed and if someone breathes on you you go through the roof? My soul feels like that. The weight of a gaze like hot breath on seared skin. The weight of words in the air. The weight of my thoughts. It’s ridiculous to try to make this tangible, but I need words for everything.
I am waiting for final confirmation that the body found in Ocotillo is not Jake. I got my preliminary answer to this far faster than I expected because my husband called the right person, not the person I pointed him toward. He got nowhere by calling the coroner so he called someone he knew–and I had an answer that evening. Dental records do not match. Thank God for smart husbands.
I myself called the coroner. Got an answering machine, left a message. Called the officer on Jake’s case. Emailed the missing persons’ case manager for the unidentified body. Neither the coroner nor the case manager returned my messages, but the officer did, and he thinks that he should have the confirmation by tomorrow. Or negation. We shall see.
I am coping with quilting, of course. It works because the emotion part of the brain hibernates while the rational part is focused on something else.
Part 2: October 24, 2018
My phone died this morning just as the police officer was about to either confirm or deny that the remains were Jake’s. All he got out before I lost him was, “I just want to let you know–.”
I could not get re-connected to a power source for an hour, and during that hour I realized two things:
- “I just want to let you know” is different from “I’m calling to inform you.” Somehow I knew this immediately, but it took me a bit to figure out why I wasn’t in full-blown panic. “I just want to let you know” is informal–I just wanna let you know your car trunk is open/your fly is open/your dog is running wild in the streets again/your cat has made my flowerbed a toilet/the check is in the mail/I won’t be there today. Such benign things. I just want to let you know.”I’m calling to inform you” is formal and menacing–I’m calling to inform you that your bank account is overdrawn/your car needs a new engine/your mother is in the hospital/there’s been an accident/those are your son’s remains.
Words mattered hard today. In this case they kept me from throwing up or running off the road.
- It’s a bad idea not to carry a charging cord everywhere when you’re waiting for news. I’m always waiting, really, so this is a timely reminder to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I’ll just stick them with every set of reading glasses I have.
The remains that’ve given me fretful sleep do not belong to Jake, but DOJ is still going to run a DNA test. I don’t know why they’re doing that except as a final check, but I’ll take it. The coroner’s office is also going to request another set of remains be compared to my DNA, and possibly others that they’ve found in the past two years. While I’m relieved these weren’t Jake’s remains, I’m now sick with the old lurking dread that his actual remains will surface.
I’ll be adding to this post but for now I’ll leave you with this:
If you struggle with what to say to someone who is suffering, this page has some helpful info.
I’m sharing Brene Brown’s video here, too, so I have it in my media files. If you want to connect with me, to help in any way, I ask that you watch this video. It will help others, too.
I’m not here right now.
I’m mentally out in the desert, trying to retrace the steps I imagine my son must have taken in the last months of his life. Weeks?
I don’t know he’s dead yet, but signs are pointing to it.
I don’t know what shoes he was wearing, I don’t know that it’s his remains that have been found, but the possibility…the possibility has opened up a new door I have never considered.
Through that door I see the of-course truth. Information flyers would not be seen in the desert. Who looks at flyers in the desert? No one. The desert has no trees to nail flyers to, and even so, the one out there was seeking to escape and would have ignored them anyway. Of course he wasn’t found. No one looked for him there. Not even his mother. I did not look for my son in the desert. I am the mother who let her son die of thirst and hunger in the desert.
I am not here right now. I am watching my son die, over and over.
I am driving myself crazy, of course. I am in of-course land.
Of course he didn’t hitch a ride and get out of dodge.
Of course he just kept walking away from town–I drove him away by making everyone look for him and he had no transportation. He had to walk.
But those shoes…. Did he own Adidas? Or was he still wearing those tight boots?
Of course it’s not my fault he was grieving and needed space. Of course it’s my fault he had no place to land, that he wasn’t found safe.
Of course I didn’t know, should have known he was wandering in the desert hoping to die. And then he did. Did he?
I think he must be dead, and I am just waiting confirmation. What a miserable place to be in, this in-between knowing and guessing. I am thinking the worst because it makes sense. Hope doesn’t make sense.
I cannot sleep. I know I must, but my brain will not shut up.
I am trying to figure out how to live the rest of my life with a dead son. Others have done it, so I think it can be done, but it does not feel possible right now.
His mental health was worse than I suspected. I don’t know how I can forgive myself for letting him down.
Of course life goes on.
Of course the sun will rise in a few hours, unfairly, indifferently, brightly.
Of course students will turn work in.
Of course my stomach will rumble.
Of course Jake’s unit could use wet wipes on deployment.
Of course I’m tired.
Of course he died.
In the news today it was reported that a body was found near Glamis, or partial remains. Now I don’t remember and I don’t have the heart to go back and look it up because I rabbit-trailed over to the Missing Person’s site and found an unfortunately promising lead.
This: https://www.namus.gov/UnidentifiedPersons/Case#/17369/details is what I found.
If you scroll to the bottom, you will see, after
Condition of Remains
Not recognizable – Partial remains with soft tissues
Clothing and Accessories
Item Description Accessories
So if these are Jake’s remains, he was at least wearing shoes that fit.
How will I breathe?
I also do not want to know.
There’s no meaning in this hideous suffering, only in doing something useful.
The only hope I have is that they ran the DNA through a database and came up with nothing.
I am sick with hope.
I should have kept looking for him.
I should have guessed he would have walked till he dropped.
My hold on equanimity is precarious. I’m fixated on “Jake’s totally off the grid, if he’s alive and well.”
The implication is that he probably is not alive.
This supposition does not bring closure because there’s no body.
When others suppose your son could be dead, it only just barely penetrates your awareness. You can think the thoughts, but the actual possibility sits on the periphery, like the time your mother told you her cancer had metastasized and you were surprised when she died because you had this membrane of denial protecting you.
Except that membrane now has a couple of tears in it, and images of what could have happened to your son ooze in and take root and grow until all you see in your mind are barrels of acid, withered, leathery flesh, white bones, ragged t-shirts and holey shoes, a lone skeleton propped against a tree in meager shade.
It’s not just that he is dead. It’s how he died. Where he died. If he died.
When your son might be dead, you grieve and hope simultaneously.
The boy I swore to protect, my beloved young son–vibrant, lifeless, vibrant, lifeless, vibrant, lifeless.
I saw a license plate frame two days ago that tore the membrane: The best mothers graduate to be grandmothers.
Another mom’s celebration just tore my denial veil.
And again, I’m reminded of my mother. When she wrote about my decision to give a baby up for adoption many years ago, she described “grandmother empties.” But adoption is not death.
A disappearance is not death, and neither is another person’s supposition.
This is a comfort, this tiny flickering flame.
It’s wondrous that it has not been doused. It’s like one of those unkillable candles that you hate to have on your birthday cake.
I don’t usually tell people I’m praying for them because I think practical help is a better way to show love and support. But I accept and respect that others are praying for me because I sense this. I’m a strong person, but I can’t manufacture inner peace. I can meditate, but we’ve seen where my thoughts go. I’m dealing with monstrous grief and I have questionable coping skills and I have this inextinguishable flame. If you are praying for me, thank you.
I have no idea what will transpire. I cannot affect the physical outcome. I’m helpless, and I’m a reminder that we all are. But Viktor Frankl reminds me that I have the freedom to find meaning in the midst of my suffering. He states that even in the most miserable circumstances life has meaning. And he himself lived this truth when he was in a concentration camp. I’m living it now. Just as Jake is irreplaceable, so am I.
I have found that making quilts grounds me, so that’s what I do in my spare time.
Here is one I completed for my beloved Aunt Nancy:
Today I heard from my P.I. friend that “Jake’s totally off the grid, if he’s alive and well. I remember that last year all of the P.I.s that helped us were shocked to see how nothing is current in any database, even the one a lot of us think is the best.”
If he’s alive and well.
Jake is certainly capable of going completely off-grid intentionally. Was capable?
noun, plural lim·bos.
- [not applicable]
- a place or state of oblivion to which persons or things are regarded as being relegated when cast aside,forgotten, past, or out of date: My youthful hopes are
in the limbo of lost dreams. I am in limbo.
- an intermediate, transitional, or midway state or place.
Transitional. This is a transition from…what? To what?