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How to deal

I have to get up early tomorrow and do range duty as Chief Range Safety Officer for a group of men visiting from out of town. I’ve been doing RSO duties for a long time now, and this is not a big deal.

But I do not want to go. I would rather hole up at home and sew or read or binge-watch something that takes me out of the ache for a while. I don’t want to engage with people, and I definitely don’t want to get up early. Twice I’ve picked up the phone to call Skip, our scheduler, to beg off with the excuse that my heart hurts. He would then have to scramble to find another RSO, but he wouldn’t complain because he feels badly for me and he doesn’t want to add to the weight I carry.

Twice I’ve put the phone down, partly because I don’t want to cause extra work, but mostly because I know that once I get there I’ll be fine. I’ll be in the moment, I’ll enjoy being with the shooters, and I’ll have gotten out of the house. All I have to do is show up.

That’s all I ever have to do, and it’s the hardest decision to make. Sometimes I have to choose it every five minutes.

The last six months have been unaccountably difficult and lately I’ve been faced with the growing possibility that Jake is dead. I think about it every day, and the world looks so…barren inside the idea of no Jake on the planet.

Right now, I deal by showing up. I commit to things knowing that later I probably will wish I’d kept my calendar free. But I also know that just showing up works for me.

I have used emotional pain as an excuse not to show up before. I don’t any more because showing up feels better than not. (Seriously. Beating myself up for letting others down makes it worse.)

I keep thinking of the link between perseverance and strength, and this is true for me, here:  “…tribulation brings about perseverance;and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5: 3b-5

And James 1:3: “The testing of your faith produces endurance.”

Well, I also think that trials and suffering produce resignation. I’m not a fan.

But I recognize strength.

The problem, for me, is that I have to wonder what’s next. I’m getting stronger for what?
My character could always use the refinement, but dang. Can’t we find a way that doesn’t involve pain?

 

 

The thing with feathers

Dread has a light touch.

I’ve been told that Jake does not appear in databases after early 2016.
He is smart enough to be off the grid on his own terms, and hope says yeah.
But chances are growing that he isn’t living in the wilderness, isn’t bedraggled and scorned in some inner city grayness, isn’t….
Doesn’t exist.

I am held together by bits of string and stray scraps of paper and cloth; a tumbleweed made of chickenwire and rags.
This is hell.  I may never know what happened.

Wizened and leathery, in an arroyo at the foot of the Chocolate mountains?
In a heap of bones and tattered clothing at the bottom of a mine shaft?
Unidentified skeletal remains in Mexico?

And then hope.
Relationship status: complicated.
It feels like an abusive relationship and the honeymoon phase of the cycle is about 5 minutes long.
But more:

 

Me, intermittently:

 

 

Image credit:
http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/mixing-it-up-feathers-and-all

That old backpack

I visited my son, Josh, in Las Vegas in early January, and I gave him Jake’s clothes. In the parking lot of StorageOne, we sorted through black trash bags filled with jeans, socks, t-shirts, boxers, boots, gloves, and Jake’s National Guard uniforms. We were there to pick up Josh’s bike to take it in for repair, and to store whatever didn’t fit from  the bags of Jake’s belongings.

It’s a cold undertaking, sorting through a missing person’s clothing. It seems more respectful to hold on to it indefinitely for when he comes back.
But I am more pragmatic than sentimental, and I know Jake himself would give his brother his clothes. My pragmatism did not extend to his National Guard uniforms, nor to his shredder, which baffles me. The uniforms: of course.  But I don’t need a shredder. That thing is in my trunk with one pair of Jake’s uniform boots and a sweatshirt with the NewGold logo on it.

Josh rejected all the underclothes with a slight shudder, so those went to Goodwill, along with some shirts that Josh said he would never, ever wear. (Plaid. So much plaid.)  Cold, wrenching hilarity. This is momhood.

I seem to move more heavily these days, like gravity is stronger now, tugging at my feet with each step. Weight gain, yeah, but more; I feel so slow, and the days are dimmer.

Last night in a class I’m taking I stated that I was cynical about positive change happening in multicultural education.
I would never before have labeled myself as a cynic, but I do now, I see. I’ve lost a part of myself in this ordeal.

I’m grief-stricken yet relieved because now I understand why I’m more comfortable by myself lately. I feel like life right now is a poorly-made quilt with mismatched corners. There’s no fixing it apart from ripping out every single stitch and redoing it. How does one unstitch life?

And yet.
In the midst of despair, bits of light. People are loving and concerned and they help where they can. We are not forgotten.

It doesn’t get easier as time passes. I thought it would.
It’s just packed up now, in a backpack I never put down.

This rendition of “Over the Rainbow” captures the tone of my days.

 

Day 709

I have Jake’s dog tags now. I’d forgotten he has O- blood. When I read that on the tag, I thought, “I can give him blood if he needs it.”
If I could find him. If he’s alive.
If he is alive, he turned 29 last week.

I put half of Jake’s belongings in storage today. I’ve been driving around with his stuff in my car since I picked it up, and I was vaguely aware that this was odd, that my car looked odd. I was indifferent to what people thought about it, but last night when my husband suggested we drive to VFW steak night together in my car, I had to tell him I had no room for him in my car.

I realized immediately that the full car was acting as my insulation, and that I’d need to do something with the stuff this weekend because I don’t want to push him away. But I really did not want to unpack the car.
In a way it was like having Jake in the car with me.

So today I went to storage to pay the bill and to get this task over with. I’d steeled myself for it, and planned to be in and out in maybe 20 minutes. This was not to be. The gate would not open to give me access to the site, and I thought it was broken, and I had a mini meltdown in my car because I couldn’t get any help for half an hour, and all I could think was that I needed to get Jake’s stuff out before I lost my nerve.

I didn’t realize till I wept that I was upset about unloading Jake’s stuff.
Like Shell Stacy is completely cut off from Inner Stacy.

It got sorted out, and I put Jake’s things into storage, and all day since I keep finding myself vaguely surprised that food is not working any magic. It does not dissolve heartache.

I did an involuntary visual inventory of his things. I didn’t want to think about the survival gear he’d collected yet left behind–a sleeping bag, a small shovel that makes me think of shallow gravesites, a two-man tent that would have kept him out of the elements this winter–and I think, oh, my God, what if he was in LA in one of the wooded areas where the fires hit?–a sturdy rucksack, boots in his actual size–and I think about his refusal to wear shoes that fit–, a huge blue tarp, a Swiss Army knife. All smart stuff for roughing it and finding yourself out in nature away from everyone, if you had it with you.

Until I found his suicide note, I was positive he had not gone to Mexico.
But it’s the perfect place to disappear, isn’t it? He could have died there and no one would catalog his bones to be put into the Unidentified Persons Database for me to ultimately find.

So now I need to go back to Semefo, where the people are kind but the surroundings are cold and silent.

I can’t bear to look at little boys now.
I love them in all their boisterousness and energy. They remind me of Jake.

In the end all I have are memories.
This is what keeps my head from spinning off, I think. You can’t make memories if you’re not present.
I regret that my youngest son lives 5 hours away, but I also see how lucky I am: he calls me several times a week, just to connect.
I never take this for granted. Each time we connect is another memory.

Thank you for keeping us in your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

Antici

I have never been able to open up those Pillsbury roll cans. I have walked outside and gone to a neighbor’s house and asked someone to open the can out of my earshot and then bring it back to me on the porch. I cannot bear not knowing when the can will pop. (I quit buying them. I’m sure the neighbors appreciate that.)

Heretofore I’ve been an eager watcher of suspense flicks, and now, if I hear the first note of tell-tale music dread marches up the skin of my arms to my throat and I have to plug my ears.  I’ve been known to bolt from my seat to pace during scary parts of movies. Now I can’t bear suspenseful music, or the threat of physical violence–the threat, mind you. Not the actual violence. Once it’s happening I can relax.

I connect it to my not being able to know what has happened to my son. I have no control over that, and the longer he is missing, the worse the suspense is getting.

Today I talked with a colleague about some things I’m doing in my classes, and she said, “Oh, THAT’s why you’re here at work. You’re passionate about it.” She explained that she could see how focusing on work was helping me to deal with my ordeal.

I was relieved to hear this perspective because I’ve been feeling like there’s something wrong with me that I’m not massively depressed. I love my son, and I am fractured and fragile. I feel like a train wreck, and I think the journey’s miles are heavy on my face. I saw it today when I looked in the mirror. I’m old and gray today. You don’t get frequent flyer miles this way, but you do get some perspective.

Viktor Frankl writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl’s words of wisdom have helped me to maintain perspective.
Here are some more, all from Man’s Search for Meaning:

  • “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.”
  • “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”
  • “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

And I pray.
This is a hideous circumstance, but I see grace in my work, in my friends, in my beloved son, Josh, and husband, Tom.

Often I’m angry and despairing at how unfair this is. It is unfair.
But it’s also unfair for the woman whose toddler died on the beach.
It’s unfair for the woman whose daughter was killed by a hit-and-run driver.
It’s unfair for the woman whose son is suffering from neuroblastoma and may die any day now.

Viktor Frankl has this to say, too: “The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

In love there is grace.
And I’m surrounded by both. Even when I can’t see it.
I’m taking care of myself by being open about my state of mind. If you ask me how I am, I will tell you the truth: not good. I am sad. And tired. I cry every day. I keep remembering all the times I could have been a better mother. No, I am not okay. But I am not depressed.
That seems oxymoronic.

Jake’s birthday is coming up. If I could take it to the neighbor’s house, I would.
“Pop this sucker open, wouldja? But wait till I’m down the block.”

 

 

 

27 November 2017

I found my son’s suicide note yesterday.

I have been sober 14 years and 2 days now.

My brain automatically looks for patterns. Common denominators.
My mother attempted suicide, too, and my ex ran several states to get away from me. His mental state has deteriorated, from what I’ve heard, and his family blames me for it. Course, he is still alive, albeit living in a homeless shelter in Iowa. And my mother ultimately died of cancer.

Nevertheless, I am a common denominator. I sowed something somewhere. Maybe it was born in my relationship with my mother.

Do not look for rational thinking here. This is not the time for it.

For the time being, I will ferry my son’s belongings. My car resembles a college student’s summer getaway car: stuffed to the gills with clothes and black trash bags and files and boxed food and cleaning supplies and boots that, I think, must have fit my son’s feet. Why do black trash bags make me think of dead bodies?

My car smells like the house he used to live in, and this has nudged out memories of the days we spent together before he disappeared. Boxes of tea conjure the times he asked for advice for his sore throat or for sleeplessness. The scent is not unpleasant, but the memories hurt.

I am unable to believe the suicide note. There’s no body. You can’t claim to be dead and then not show up. I won’t have it.

Brain real estate at a premium right now

I’m thinking out loud here.
I waffle about posting about what I’m thinking and feeling about my son being missing. I am not adding any new information, and much of what I share is about what I deal with emotionally day by day. It’s repetitive. The grief never subsides, although my awareness of it ebbs and flows.

I ultimately choose to post about it because I don’t have another safe outlet to talk about this ordeal. And right now I’m giving myself this little note to remind myself that I have permission to be repetitive, to grieve through the written word, to write the things that keep me up at night. I have to do this because I inevitably second-guess myself and castigate myself for not shutting up. And I’m doing this for anyone else who can relate.

So: lately I’ve been sleepless and preoccupied with questions I can’t get answers to. I cannot shut my brain down.

  1. Where is my son? This is an obvious, simple question, but thinking about it and trying to answer it take up much of my brain time. I still search ditch banks. This is a reflexive action; I cannot help myself. My brain says, “No, you might have missed something the last time you looked. Look again.” I drive down alleys. I scope out the local cemeteries. And I still check the unidentified persons database. I’ve managed to put some days between my searches, but for nearly a year I was checking every day. My brain says, “Many volunteers contribute to this database. You have to stay abreast of the new. Check again.” I have stopped short of volunteering to work for the database and help them add more unidentified bodies. It’s tempting to think that I would have more control over this horrible circumstance if I were helping in that way. It is not off the table.
  2. Is my son dead? This also takes up a lot of brain time. I’m not thinking it when I’m searching, nor when I’m teaching, nor when I’m engaged in any of the stuff I do to mute the agitated neurons. (I’ve signed up for a lot: Kiwanis activities, organizing an upcoming teacher conference, writing projects, teaching and research, enrolling in graduate classes, reading, someday-quilting, and Clash Royale.) This is also when I tap my inner tape that says, “It’s easier to disappear on purpose than by accident.” It doesn’t matter that I don’t fully believe it. It temporarily sedates.I don’t fully believe it because my son’s smart enough to do it right. The one real comfort I have is that he did not seem to be thinking clearly before he disappeared.
  3. Is my son homeless and helpless?  In the summer I worry that he doesn’t have water or shelter to get out of the heat. I know he hates being hot as much as I do. We both have metabolisms that make us radiate heat. We are always hot, and the summer is particularly miserable for us. Is his face sunburned? Does he have athlete’s foot and jock itch? Does he have soap and toothpaste and deodorant? Is he thinking he smells like garbage, or is he past caring? Does he have coherent thoughts? When he was in high school he found errors in his calculus book, used Legos to build puzzling geometric problems, and went by the online name of 2brncells1gun. When he worked at the mine, someone asked him if they used fresh water or saltwater to excavate, and he answered, “I don’t know. I’ve never tasted it.Is that Jake apparent to anyone around him now?

    I worry now that winter is at the door because toes and fingers need protecting. Heads need covering. Weak bodies suffer more.
    Is he wearing a coat when it’s cold?
    Does he have those  cursed small boots on, still? Is he punishing himself?
    Is he sleeping under a bus station bench and getting kicked by people who hate homeless people?
    Does he have dirty hair and a dirty beard and grungy clothes that disgust people when they see him?
    Does he get rained on and then have stiff frozen clothes when it freezes overnight?Is he wearing a trash bag over his clothes?

  1. Is my need to know where my son is more important than his right to be left alone? Am I invading his privacy by writing about him? Am I keeping him away because he is afraid everyone will shame him? If I shut up will he come home? If I do everything perfectly will he appear? Oh, toxic thinking.
  2. How can I best love my son? Am I doing it correctly now? When did I do it right? What did that look like? Is it too late?
  3. Do I have to parade my faith for it to be evident? I can’t make myself do that. I believe there’s a bigger picture that I can’t see. I believe I am not singled out for suffering. I believe that talking about my suffering gives others permission to talk about theirs. I think that is unconditional love in action. I believe that those pockets of indescribable peace come from trusting God.  I think perhaps I don’t blurt my faith walk because I fail so much. If I trusted God more I’d have more peace, y’know? I worry about this because I think it’s built in me to worry about what people think.  I need more songs to pipe into my brain to help me shed that habit.
  4. Today, a new question: How can I help other mothers?  I grieve over suffering children, and today on Twitter I saw the link below.This is happening right now: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-13/yemen-blockade:-sick-and-starving-trapped/9143140
    A few days ago, “…at al-Sabheen hospital in the capital, the ABC’s producer in Sanaa witnessed more than a dozen emaciated babies and toddlers receiving treatment in the
    malnutrition ward. Their tiny skeletal bodies are evidence of the dire food crisis that is overwhelming this country” (Mcneill).I found this: http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/06/world/iyw-yemen-resource-list/index.html
    And this: https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/nigeria-somalia-south-sudan-yemen/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-famine

 

It feels so small. I feel so small. And I wish I could see the actual help.
I hope others will join me in this.

We are small. And we matter even when it doesn’t feel like we do.

Giving Voice to Bear

*Jake has not been found. Thank you for checking.

 

A phrase keeps going through my head:  “give voice to bear.”
That phrase makes no sense to me but I feel like I’ve heard it somewhere.

I looked it up, and Google has no idea what I’m talking about.
It did, however, point me toward an interesting book called Giving Voice to Bear: North American Indian Myths, Rituals, and Images of the Bear, by David Rockwell. It does not contain the phrase I’m looking for, but it yielded this tidbit: “Joseph Henderson, in his book Thresholds of Initiation, tells us that bears…symbolize the ethics of maternity” (4).

I guess I’m trying to give voice to my bear.

Every day that I drive to and from work I weep. It’s the only time I do this, and it always catches me by surprise. You’d think that if I do it every day it should not surprise me. But it does.
One minute I’m belting out Meghan Trainor’s “Me, Too,” and the next I’m weeping because I don’t know where Jake is. Or I’ll be thinking about one class or another, and suddenly I’m crying because maybe Jake’s dead. It’s like PTSD, but weirder because there’s no body memory and no trigger. It’s like the route from home to work and back belongs to sorrow.

Occasionally I ask aloud why other mothers get to keep their sons. It’s a fleeting question, and I’m embarrassed by this, too, because millions of children die every year, according to the World Health Organization. Mothers grieve everywhere. I am one of many. It doesn’t diminish my grief, but it reminds me that I haven’t been singled out. Life isn’t fair.

You have all this tar inside you but you still have to do your job. Show up, which I do. And I engage, and find meaning in what I do, and yet I feel sort of drift-y. Full of tar and drift-y.

Gah. Tar is too heavy to drift.
And yet.

So tomorrow I’ll drive the sorrow road and get to class and then forget for a while. I’m thankful to be busy, to be doing meaningful work, to be doing what I love.

This guy here is who got me hooked on Trainor’s song. I want to live with that exuberance.
Enjoy:

 

 

Fractal alligator

*Jake has not been found. Thank you for checking.

 

Everyone knows that the big, bitey, scaley lizard-looking thing in the Everglades is an alligator. That single word encapsulates everything it is and stands for.
My grief is an alligator, lately.

For centuries–millennia–eons–mothers have coped with the loss of their children. Miscarriages. Stillbirth. Childhood illnesses. Adult illnesses, accidents and other unforeseen circumstances. Any loss at any time is backwards and devastating, and yet we have no single word for that now-childless mother.

But she isn’t really childless, either. She has a mother void. Or is it a child void? Is she now a void mother?

I struggle for words lately, like my vocabulary has deserted me. But the problem is that what I need to articulate doesn’t have words in my lexicon.
I don’t know an English word that captures what my motherness is concerning one of my children.
And all of the phrases are awkward:

  • mother of a murdered child
  • mother of a child who died of cancer
  • mother of a stillborn baby
  • mother of a kidnapped child
  • mother of a suicide victim
  • mother of a missing son

I need a name for it.
It’s not for the sake of having a label to go by. It has to do with navigating the muddy swamp of grief. I have no bearings.
I need a word that tells people NO CRAP TODAY OR I WILL IMPLODE.
A word that reminds people that I look functional but sometimes I am tsunami wreckage inside. And anything can be a trigger.

I am silent but whole. Fractured. You can be whole yet fractured. I have fractures in my ankles. My sense of humor is fractured.
I am whole but silent.
Fractures are silent.
But fracture is akin to fractal, and fractal is beautiful.
I care only a little bit that fractal is beautiful. I recognize that beauty rises from the ashes but right now everything just burns.

 

I’ve been practicing this loss for a long time. First when I gave my baby up for adoption so many years ago.

When Jake moved out I felt the loss keenly. But he was not lost.

When he joined the National Guard I got to practice again. But he was not lost.

And when he stopped speaking to me it was more practice. But he was not lost.

Then he disappeared. And it was the real thing.

So like, what? I’ve been warming up for this?
And the family patterns on both sides: loss, abandonment, loss, loss, loss.
I’m a fractal inside the fractal.
So I stay very, very busy.
And most days this is enough to put some distance between me and the alligator.

 

Pack up the moon

One night many years ago, when I was pregnant with Jake, I was driving with my then-husband on 6th Street in El Centro when a kitten dashed out in front of my car. I hit the brakes and heard a thump simultaneously, and, already shrieking, I shoved open my door to run around to the front to find the kitten. It wasn’t there. I stood there holding my grief and fear like they were empty bags. It’s been 29 years since that fright, but sometimes I still hold my breath on 6th Street.

 ***

 In 1986, a year after I moved to El Centro, I had to drive on a muddy ditch bank to get to my job, and I didn’t know yet that driving on the mud was akin to driving on black ice. I was rescued from the ditch by four burly farmers who lifted my car like it was a little red wagon. Some feat, that, given the mud.

The summer rains are typically warm and hard, and water sits a while on the dirt, like it’s on concrete. It seeps into the dirt and creates a clay that reminds me of the clay my mother would throw on her pottery wheel. Slick and thick, it sucks your feet down, sometimes so far your heart quickens because you don’t know if you’ll hit hard dirt beneath it. I’ve sunk down to my thighs before. I avoid the fields now. There’s no frolicking in them here in the Valley.

When the boys were little, I soaked the lawn and flooded the palm trees so they could play in the mud. In the summer shade the water was still warm, the clay gooey and, as Jake would say, “throwy.” I stood with them in the mud sometimes because I liked to feel the roots of the bermuda grass as my toes , feet, and calves sank into the clay. I liked to feel the scrape of small rocks not broken down by the water, squishing between my toes with the clay. *Note the glops of mud on the little one’s face. *sigh* Throwy.

 

jake and josh in mud

When I think of this time, I realize my sons probably don’t remember these things.
My son.
Should I be talking in singular now?

I looked for Jake in the Unidentified Persons database today. Emailed two admins to do a comparison. One was ruled out, and I’ve noted it on Jake’s webpage.

I understood something today for the first time: Because Jake had been researching ways to commit suicide and not be found, I can’t rule anything out. He could be anywhere. This means I don’t focus only on California but on Utah, and Oregon, and Montana, and Wyoming, and the entire midwest. I have no real idea where he could be. I do my level best not to waste NamUs volunteers’ time so I go through each possible match and reason my way through it. If I have any question, I forward it–and I do know this makes me look like I’m grabbing at straws without considering what’s actually possible. I am grabbing at straws, but methodically, and I will not stop.

Things you find when searching for your missing son in the databases:

  • terms like putrefaction, or scalps that “slid off,” or insect activity
  • skeletal remains of children
  • terse narratives of how bodies were found
  • socks delivered to the coroner separately from the clothing on the body–why were his socks off? Why did they have to note that they delivered the socks separately? Why not just include an inventory list?
  • unidentifiable tattoos on withered arms or legs
  • eyes with undeterminable color
  • skeletons whose weight can only be estimated because parts are missing

One man was found under a bush in the desert near Bombay Beach, next to a bible. Another man was found in a river, believed to have come from Mexico. Another was burnt to near cinders in an abandoned building in Detroit. I carry them inside me; no one else has claimed them.

Jake could be anywhere. His body could be anywhere.
Me, I’m here, with two empty bags, and a graveyard soul.

 

*Title is a line from W.H. Auden’s poem, here.