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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.
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.
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.
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.
I get to see my missing son when I sleep.
He looked like Jake, but his voice was childish, like when he was 7 years old. I thought in the dream that it was because his circumstances had made him more childish–he spoke of what gas stations would let him pick off the ground, and of people shoving him away from them with such force that I saw that he winced when he touched himself.
He stashed little boxes inside his shirt to hold food and treasures, and although he had politely declined food when I bought a sandwich for myself, when I couldn’t finish it he eagerly accepted it from me then, and I saw how he had altered, and the grief woke me up.
And now I’m awake, and I’m cognizant that this Jake is a construct of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am perhaps losing the sound of his actual voice.
I fell asleep in the wee hours thinking that Jake could be mad at me, that he is staying away because he does not want me in his life. Apparently my subconscious mind rejects that notion, or just cannot deal with it.
I have never dreamt of finding his lifeless body. I suppose I think it often enough when I’m awake that my subconscious knows I’ve got that covered.
I remember a fellow writer asking me why I thought all these horrible things. Why not assume he is happy?
Jake could be happy and at peace and relieved to have his own life away from family. He could be happy without me in his life. How unpleasant for me, thinking that. Of course it makes better sense to his mom that he’s miserable and helpless without her. Or dead. How self-centered and self-serving.
I want him to be happy, to make friends, have a family. I wish I could be part of it, but the best solace is in assuming he is alive and thriving.
I’ll be grieving for myself, of course, but I’m clearer now.
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.
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: