Friday, September 21, 2012


Sixteen weeks ago Brandon was still here. It was his last night. Tonight I turned my phone on to check for messages. It opened to Favorites and Brandon was the only name in that section. Seeing his name there hit me. I don't know why. But I hadn't set up the Favorites section of my iPhone, so I'd never put any names in it. And my phone had been on my wallpaper page - not in Favorites - when I'd last closed it. How it opened to Favorites tonight, I have no idea. Once there, I flipped to Voicemail and listened to several ordinary, mundane messages to me from Brandon during May of this year. How good to hear his voice. How sad to think there will be no new messages, unless the Favorites page I got when I opened my phone tonight was a silent message. I like to think it is.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Soothing an open wound

Some days I feel like a raw, open wound. Not infected. Not festering. Just split wide open. A wound that no sooner scabs over than something causes it to tear and bleed again – and again.

The day before yesterday was raw. I don’t know why. It defies explanation. But it felt like one of the days early in the week immediately after Brandon’s death. My skin was crawling. My mouth felt as dry as a desert. My senses were set on hyper. Sounds, smells, sights were both more wonderfully vivid while also more distracting. It was a “jump on the bicycle” and head to “my” labyrinth at the new Smale Riverfront Park, but I heard Brandon’s voice in my ear warning me to be cautious, to be more aware just as I’d heard him when I jumped on my bike that first week. (He knows and enjoyed making fun of his mother’s klutziness, which was a factor long before I became familiar with “raw.” It’s so nice to feel and hear him voice his concern with that slightly sarcastic but loving edge on a bad day. And I am more careful when I hear him chiding me.)

                                                  "My" labyrinth at Smale Riverfront Park

“My” downtown labyrinth has become the Lansinoh® I use on these open wound days. There are no strategies for healing this wound, no interventions to avoid splitting it wide open over and over again, but walking the labyrinth soothes and that is enough for now. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Remembering September 11, 2001

In my last post I described how I relive my son’s last Friday and Saturday on this earth every Friday and Saturday. The reliving is painful physically as well as emotionally. It is called “heartache” or having a “broken heart” for good reason. Don’t think I would trade a moment of being with Brandon for those two days, however, any more than I would trade the privilege of being his mother even if doing so meant I could have been spared this current pain. This pain IS worth any amount of time I had with the baby/child/man I often referred to as a “honey,” since he was born knowing you catch more flies with honey. (Yes, I also have a “vinegar” or two, but my lips are sealed. However, the vinegar[s] have taught me equally important and joyful life lessons. Each is so integral in my world.)

It was truly a gift to share his last days with him -- to be able to tell him over and over how much I love him, how much I would miss him, how much I want him to haunt me. To be able to say such things, wipe his face, moisten his radiation-dry mouth, stroke his arm and hug him were gifts to each of us – his wife, his father, his two brothers, his two sisters and me – from him. (I think he “stayed” until he felt certain that anyone who needed to see him and say good-bye had the chance to do so.) His wife and I were lucky enough to hear that his sense of humor was intact when soon after he’d said, “Done,” his best friend called and promised he’d always watch over Brandon’s wife and daughter. In a weak voice, Brandon joked, “You’d better not hit on my wife!” He said nothing further for almost 15 hours. The entire family was with him when he said his last words, about eight hours before he died. His 15-year-old nephew, and godson, (our grandson) had come in to say good-bye. “Hi, Uncle Brandon, it’s Konrad. I love you.” And Brandon, who had appeared to be sleeping or in a coma for several hours, replied, “Love ya.” Not bad for one’s last words said aloud. What a special gift – 24 hours of time – our family was given to shower our love on someone so special to us and share his last breath as he and his body parted ways.

On September 11, 2001, almost 3,000 individuals who were special to many others thought they were beginning one more ordinary day.  Of these, 246 “regular” special persons boarded four airplanes that were to take them across the country for business, vacation, family time, homecoming, etc. None of these innocents could have imagined these planes would take them into buildings or a Pennsylvania field. In New York City, among the thousands who entered the World Trade Center’s north and south “Twin Towers” to begin their workdays, 1,985 special persons did not know they would never return home that evening or any other. Also, 411 emergency services workers were going about their usual business. Did any imagine that today would be the day he or she would lose the life willingly put on the line day after day for others? At the Pentagon just outside of Washington, D.C., another 125 special individuals were also beginning the routines of a typical Tuesday at work most likely thinking of none of this. It was just a “normal” day.  

By noon EDT on September 11, 2001, 2,977 special individuals were dead, and too many mothers were abruptly pushed into the pit of unimaginable grief and left to face the death of someone who’d started life within their bodies. Too many spouses/partners/significant others were suddenly without their special other. Too many children were left without the special love of a second parent. Too many siblings lost a special sister or brother. Too many relatives lost someone who had a special place in their extended family. Too many friends lost a forever buddy. Too few of those left behind got to say good-bye via cell phone or were left with a good-bye on an answering machine. None of the grieving got to shower these special persons with love during a last instant, minute or hour, and none got to share their loved one's last breath. And because they weren’t there, how many wonder about the fear and pain their special person went through before dying?

What I relive can be raw and painful; what they relive must be torture.

Those who love a special person who died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks can never forget – and neither should we. Never forget. Pray, remember, reunite...

                                     From the National September 11 Memorial and Museum

Sunday, September 9, 2012


This has been an odd weekend. After picking up a couple we’ve been friends with forever, we were to leave Friday afternoon for a western Detroit suburb and the Saturday wedding of other forever friends’ youngest daughter. I was really looking forward to the road trip, exploring the town, walking the labyrinth in a local park, and being part of the joy of this wedding.

I had been looking forward to this wedding and “road trip weekend” long before Brandon’s PET scan revealed the chemo was no longer working, but since his death I’m especially grateful for busy Fridays and Saturdays. Without weekend distractions I relive Brandon’s last two days, a Friday and Saturday, every week. I relive hearing him struggling for each breath. I relive the resident M.D. revealing that no matter how much IV base they poured into his port, he remained in respiratory acidosis with a pH of 7.25. (Normal blood pH is within the narrow parameters of 7.35-7.45.)  I relive hearing him say, “Done,” when the resident said they could make him more comfortable if he was ready to disconnect infusion of the IV base fluid. Then another, “Done,” after I’d made sure he understood what the resident was saying by explaining again in Cliff Notes fashion. It was a fair decision and his to make, but it is one that is agonizing in the reliving. I relive looking at the beautiful bones of his skull, those wonderful cheekbones, and his magnificent brandy-colored Brandon eyes and knowing I’d never be seeing them lit with life again.

Yes, I’d looked forward to this weekend for so many reasons, but it was not to be. At 6:30 Friday morning my husband Joe woke me to say he’d been in excruciating pain most of the night. He described it as a 10 on a pain scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), and Joe has a high tolerance for pain. Off to the emergency room we went. Five hours later, they’d rule out kidney stones and any GI issue. That left a musculoskeletal problem and his internist, a medical school classmate, said the x-rays indicated the likelihood of such. We returned home about an hour after we’d already planned to be on the road with prescriptions for a steroid, a muscle relaxant and a powerful NSAID. Although he rallied that evening and we entertained thoughts of heading for the wedding the next morning, that was a pie in the sky wish. He was a bit better by Saturday morning but nowhere near ready to spend hours in a car two days in a row. I called our friends, who had waited to see if he would be able to go Saturday morning, and gave them the lack of progress report so they could get on the road early and make it to the wedding festivities with time to spare.

It was time to create new distractions. After ensuring that Joe was comfortable and had what he needed, I jumped on my bike to cycle across the Ohio River to walk the labyrinth at the new Smale Riverfront Park. (Expect a lengthy post on walking the labyrinth soon!) That was not to be either. About halfway there, the seat on my bicycle broke. I’ll spare you the details. I can only say that the ride home was hazardous. At any moment my tush tissue (and that of more delicate areas nearby) was in danger of injury from the constant forward-backward, upward-downward shifting of the seat. As I pulled into our garage, I heard music coming from the park only a few blocks away. Because we were to be away, I’d not paid attention to the “Art in the Park” signs draped from one side of the street to the other as one entered our little town. Oh, good, a new distraction.

I showered and headed to the park to see if there was any work of art we couldn’t live without. Mostly, I was there to kill time so I could briefly forget about Brandon's last couple of days and the disease that killed him. There was some lovely work, but mainly I just wanted to wander. Then I came upon the one booth that really attracted my attention – a tarot card reader. I wanted to sign up for a reading, but the reader wasn’t at her booth. I wandered some more and, at our neighborhood association booth, I joined without having to mail an application. (I hate snail mailing anything any more!) But I found myself wandering back to the tarot card reader. She was now there and involved in a reading. I waited. An exhibitor, who’d been promised she was next in line, came for her reading. I waited longer. Two other women came up, and one was a repeat customer who praised the reader. “Art in the Park” was about to come to an end, but the reader agreed to do a reading for those of us currently in line. I was next.

I won’t go into most of my reading. I will say it opened with a “Wow, you are in the midst of major change – and I mean major,” and the rest hit on aspects of my life that are particularly important at this moment. One of those aspects touched on the importance of getting away with Joe for some of type of retreat or vacation. As it happens, we’re to leave in a couple of weeks for our first real vacation in several years. We are to be in Assisi, one of my favorite places, on St. Francis’s feast day. For this and other reasons, the reader asked if there might be something I associate with Brandon that I’d want to take to or leave in Assisi in his honor. That idea immediately resonated and I feel grateful for it.

I still relived a lot this weekend, and I cried a lot off and on this weekend. But just as one plan didn’t work out, an unplanned activity took me in a new direction, gave me something different to think about and made me feel grateful for the new theme for the trip to Assisi.

Life – and death – is crazy! The best-laid plans can be disrupted. Disruption can lead to entirely new and meaningful distractions. Perspective changes when one lives with the death of one’s baby (of any age). What a mixed blessing…

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why a SorrowFull mother? Why not a Sorrowful mother?

My life is full; it is not ful. "Full" implies a wholeness that "ful" does not. I am “completely filled… to my utmost capacity.” I “contain all” that I can hold. My life is and has been full of love, full of frustration, full of joy, full of doubt, full of activity – you name it! But it wasn’t until Brandon was diagnosed with and forced to jump on the treatment merry-go-round for the head and neck cancer that eventually claimed his physical body that I knew what it meant to be full of relief, full of fear, full of hope or full of despair. I thought I’d known sadness and sorrow, but I was wrong. I was so very wrong. I'd known only little sadnesses and little sorrows prior to June 2, 2012.

My life is still full of love, frustration, joy, doubt, activity – you name it. When I laugh, it is still sincere and I still feel full of joy when I hold a grandchild or spend time with one of my adult children. I can jump on my bike and still feel the exhilaration I did when 10 year old. But now my life is also Full of sorrow. The void created by Brandon’s death is vaster than the greatest, deepest black hole in the universe.

Some think sorrow and joy are incompatible emotions, and one cannot feel both. I’ve learned this summer that sorrow and joy co-exist quite well – perhaps not comfortably but well. They tend to chase one another, the one emotion overtaking the other. I can neither cry nor laugh 24 hours a day, although in the moment with either, it is often difficult to see the other sneaking up from behind… My poor family and friends never know which Karen they may get in any given moment. Wait a moment, an hour, a day, and a different Karen will appear. It's a full life, but it's full of conflicting emotions that pop up simultaneously or play tag "you're it" with one another.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Family history

My "baby" sister Marti is the youngest of our parents' seven children. (I am the oldest - 16 years her senior.) I don't think I realized how completely she views Brandon as her little brother until the 24 hour June 2nd vigil at Brandon’s bedside. However, it makes perfect sense. Brandon is only 7.5 years younger than Marti and she, as well as our sister Anne, the 6th of the seven, often spent the night at our house or accompanied us on family vacations when they were young.

       Marti with Brandon celebrating another "busted" chin after his version of the Worm

Marti, now a mother of three and a veteran flight attendant, has become quite the family genealogist. As a way to share her findings and feelings about family history, she created Marti’s Genealogy Adventures blog. Her blog posts during a September 2011 “immersion” trip to the home city of “our [Kerkhoff] people,” Hasel√ľnne, Germany, are a treat!

But her recent blog post took my breath away. It is Part 2 of the “and the strength continues” family theme posts. It is mainly a tribute to her nephew/little brother, Brandon and the physical, but more importantly the mental and spiritual, strength he demonstrated during his battle with that f’n disease. Please read her post. Please look at the photos. Please get to know my baby, who is no longer in this life with us, so you can better understand the sorrow felt with his departure.

Thank you, Marti, for this tribute and for weaving it into the tapestry of our family history. Love you, baby sister!