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It’s a thin line
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.
It’s not about the kitten
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.
Almost 6 years of not knowing
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.
Doing the best we can against the Jabberwocky
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.
Wrecking ball holidays for all
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.
January 2021 – 1705 days.
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.
No time for a break
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.
A briefly anonymous man was featured on the news up in San Francisco. He’d been found at 170 Pacific Avenue in San Francisco. 6’2″, 350+ lbs.
An acquaintance on Facebook alerted me to the news clip, and when I saw the photo I was convinced my son had been found.
I’ve blown this image up 300% to look for some clue for yea or nay, and his best friend does not think it’s Jake, but I can’t unsee the strong resemblance. It’s difficult because his face is swollen, and I can’t see his eyes, yet his eyebrows, nose, and beard are uncannily similar.
So I contacted his former commander in the National Guard, the officer who has been diligent on his case, the San Francisco hospital contact, the San Francisco Sheriff’s office, and the NamUs database volunteer.
DOJ has identified this man based on his fingerprints; this man’s name is not Jake Furrer. I am not satisfied with this, but I don’t know if this can be pressed much further than what I have already done.
Here is my quandary: I’ve said before that my longing to know where Jake is is not more important than his right to privacy. How loving is it to chase someone to the ends of the earth when they don’t want to be found? What would love do? Would love keep chasing? Some would argue yes. Love does not give up. But if I keep chasing, who am I serving? He was not a child when he disappeared. His mental state has been my chief worry, but what if he simply felt he could not safely be himself here in the Valley?
I’ve been told numerous times that not finding a corpse is unusual. My problem with that is how easy it is to be anonymous if you really want to. It’s easy for a scraggly, smelly person to die unnoticed on the streets anywhere because they are unseen. My son could be one of them.
The words in the email from the hospital spokesperson had a sense of finality to them. I begged that they check for a tattoo or scar, but they’ve got those fingerprints, and they’re very sorry about my missing son.
How very tired and broken I am over this. Despair leaches me. I’m not angry with God, but I wonder why I must bear so much.
I’m not the only person to wonder this. Not the only person to suffer so. I’ve been thinking of moms whose children have killing diseases, dads who can’t see their kids, little ones who are trapped in abusive homes. The weight of the world crushes us. What are we to do about it?
I will tell you how people have helped me: they don’t forget. Oh, maybe for a little while, but they come back and they ask, have you found Jake yet? They tell me they’re praying for all of us, that they think of Jake often.
Today people checked on me.
Nothing assuages the grief, but the connecting comforts me. I will always have an open sore, but people will always be the salve.
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.
The October 2018 Files
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.
HOW TO SHOW EMPATHY – WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY
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.