Saturday, December 28, 2013

Wonderful, awful season

As I noted in a November 2012 postI’ve kept two cards displayed on the table next to a basket of "sympathy" cards. Neither suggests Brandon's death is an event that will resolve in feelings of peace, comfort or healing. Each acknowledged the enormity of this particular grief and offered support while conceding a lack of understanding since neither had experienced the death of one of their children.

The basket of cards remains on the table. I've tried to reread them. I've tried to move that basket or place the cards in a box or plastic bag to save elsewhere, but I'm simply not ready to do either. The two "special" cards remain in place next to the overflowing basket. However, a third card has recently joined the other two. 

A day or two before Christmas I received a card from a long-time friend. (We go back to grade school and beyond. She was a bridesmaid in my wedding.) The card let me know that  she understood how difficult this season is for a mother missing her child and whose loss creates a black hole in her heart. To emphasize the card's words, this friend included a contribution for the foundation we started in Brandon's name to raise funds for innovative head and neck research. 

I am currently away from winter and Christmas festivities at home. Another friend and her husband offered to let my husband and I use their Florida condo this week, and it has been good to be in sunshine, warm breezes, flowers, and green grass and trees. Yet it means I can't include photos of the outside/inside of the card that joined two other special cards; I will add these photos to this post later this week.

**January 4, 2014 update - adding the outside/inside of the card photos…
Front (outside) of card
Message (inside)
 Thank you and a joyous 2014, dear friends!

Friday, December 20, 2013

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – NOT!

It’s December. Thanksgiving transitions seamlessly to Christmas preparations and celebrations. As a child and then as a mother of young children, December truly was the most wonderful time of the year. Grandchildren help pick up the slack as the magic begins to dim and is replaced by the occasional, “Bah humbug!”

As with everything else, the Christmas holydays are divided by “then” and “now.” And for some reason a line from another George Harrison tune keeps playing in my mind over and over. Back then, as a family, when we was fab, we weren’t perfect but we were together and intact. There was no black hole in my heart – a hole so deep it can never be filled. Now I feel frozen. Another year has passed and I still feel somewhat numb at times.

During December of 2012, I felt as if we were trying too hard to “make Christmas." This year some dear friends have offered us the use of their condo in Florida, and we’ve decided to go Christmas day. Our oldest daughter and her significant other are leaving with us. One of our twin sons and his family will be only 10 to 20 minutes away, staying with his wife’s parents.

Avoidance was a theme both last year and this one. Avoidance is a theme of the numb, of the frozen. However, those missing loved ones during special times of the year are more than aware that, whether one stays or goes, "you can run but you can’t hide”! Avoidance is simply another illusion.

I don’t feel magically merry this Christmas season, but I do want to honor those I love. And I want to honor Brandon, who would want all of us to enjoy time with each other during this special season of the year. 

I hope I’ve found some ways to honor loved ones still in this world, but I’d like to ask for everyone’s help to honor Brandon in one or a few special ways. 1. Brandon was always a kind person and he performed numerous acts of kindness. Some I knew of, but I’m only now learning of so many others. With that in mind, I ask you to perform a “Brandon Act of Kindness” in his honor during this holiday season – no matter how big or how small. (No act of kindness is ever too small!) 2. I don’t want any other family to have to watch their child, their sibling, their spouse – no matter how young or how old – die of a head and neck cancer and then have to live on with deep black holes in their hearts. If possible, consider a contribution to the Brandon C. Gromada Head & Neck Cancer Foundation to support innovative research focused on finding cures for these cancers.

3. Lavish your fab family with love during this blessed season…

Monday, December 2, 2013

To Everything There Is a Season

Two years ago tonight I was with Christina and Brandon as Christina labored to give birth to daughter Morgan. (Morgan would not make her appearance until the next evening on December 3, 2011.) I stayed awake and worked alongside Christina, as we both insisted Brandon try to get some rest after his chemo treatment earlier that day. 
Brandon gets his turn (after new mommy Christina's) to hold his newborn daughter, Morgan, skin-to-skin
Eighteen months ago tonight I was with Christina and the rest of our family as Brandon's spirit left the wonderful body that had gotten its start within mine…

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die…  Ecclesiastes 3

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Labyrinth Workshop - Part 2

As Brandon lay dying and in the minutes after his death, I begged him to haunt me. I’ve been begging God to let me see Brandon, as I’d seen my maternal grandmother after her death after similar prayers. I have not yet “seen” Brandon, although he has sent any number of signs, such as channeling George Harrison songs, sending a special firefly to me or dispatching a single dragonfly to appear at all sorts of family or family member activities. He’s even been seen by one of my friends during a shared labyrinth walk on my last birthday. Still, signs are not the same as seeing.

October 11, the day before the labyrinth workshop I was to attend, was a beautiful autumn day, so my husband Joe and I cycled to Smale Riverfront Park, stopping at “my” labyrinth. I’m not sure why, but I hesitated walking my labyrinth that day. Nonetheless, I find it’s impossible to find a labyrinth in front of me and ignore it. See it; walk it. And so I did.

As I walked that Friday before the labyrinth workshop, I again begged (prayed) to be allowed to see Brandon. I had not made it to the center when a voice in my head, which I’ve always thought of as God, posed the question, “Could it be that you’re afraid to see him? Afraid that once you see him, you’ll feel comforted and know a peace that will cause you to stop grieving him?"

Talk about a loaded question and one that was food for deep thought. This is the reason. About six months after my maternal grandmother’s death, I’d seen her in a dream, but this dream was unlike any usual dream. Grandma looked like grandma but she looked as her very best self. I touched her. I could feel her. We talked, although we didn’t speak words with our mouths. The brief time we spent wherever we were that night was as real as any of the times we spent together when she was on this earth. I literally felt myself being pulled back into my body and I fought it, which caused me to wake.

After that experience, I didn’t grieve for her as I had. I’d been given this beautiful opportunity to say good-by and tell her how much I loved her. I now knew she was in a very good place. I indeed felt comforted and knew a peace that changed the grief. I still missed (and continue to miss) her, but it was completely different.

Could it be that the fear of grieving Brandon less is the reason my prayer remains unanswered?

The next morning I was up early, as the workshop was more than an hour’s drive away. I gave little thought to my previous day’s labyrinth walk, as I was preoccupied with finding a Starbuck’s along the way to Harmony Farm. Plus, I was excited to hear what Dr. Artress had to say. Participants spent time on the exercise described in Part 1 before the first of two labyrinth walks that day. The first walk reminded me of maneuvering around and between people on a busy city sidewalk, as I’d never walked with so many others before. Many new metaphors presented themselves to me during that morning’s walk!

Before the second walk Dr. Artress discussed the meanings (scroll down) some have given to the six “petals” of the rosette in the center of a Medieval labyrinth, such as the most famous one in Chartres (France) Cathedral. Because the labyrinth at Harmony Farm is modeled on the Medieval labyrinth, the suggested stopping before the center and moving first to the petal one felt more drawn to.

I was initially drawn to the fourth petal, which is the “human” petal, but another walker was already occupying it. Since she was seated in the lotus position with her eyes closed, it appeared she was going to be there awhile. The fifth petal was also filled, and I wasn’t feeling at all drawn to the first, second or third petals.

This left the sixth petal, the petal of the “Unknown” or “Mystery” – the God petal. Although I felt drawn to it and thought I’d enter this petal before leaving the center, I was not certain if I was ready or worthy to enter this petal yet. However, circumstances led me to the sixth petal sooner than later, but I entered and faced outward rather than toward the center. It was in the sixth petal that the question of the previous day’s walk returned and I faced my fear that seeing Brandon would result in a feeling of such peace that I would stop grieving him.

In my head I heard, “Did I stop thinking or grieving or remembering my Son?” I thought, “But your Son is God – You!” Then the voice asked, “Well, isn’t your son part of you? Do you really think seeing him would change how you feel about him?” With those questions I felt ready for petal one, so I turned to face the center with a request for help to find more balance. Eventually, I stepped out of petal one and into petal four where I expressed gratitude for my five children, their life partners and the grandchildren we’ve been blessed with.

As I left the center and began the walk back out of the labyrinth, I thought, “Okay, I guess I’m now ready (to see Brandon).” And I heard, “Maybe. Trust me to know the time.”

I was back to, “Not my will, but yours…”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Labyrinth Workshop - Part 1

It has been five weeks since I participated in a labyrinth workshop at Harmony Farm with Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress, THE guru in rejuvenating the practice of labyrinth walking in the US of A. I'd been looking forward to October 12, 2013 from the moment I'd registered after a friend had forwarded the link to information about the workshop and registration information. Why has it taken me so long to share that day? I'm not sure. I began writing a blog post about it almost as soon as I arrived home. Yet I think something kept me from posting. Perhaps I needed more time to absorb the experience. Who knows?!? I only know I'd first considered a single post, but now it will take at least two. 

October 12 was a gorgeous "Indian summer" day in my part of the world. A perfect day for a workshop, especially when part of it would be held outdoors. The format was rather loose for someone used to healthcare presentations, which would be incomplete without PowerPoint!

"How many of you are failed meditators?" was Dr. Artress's first question. There was some self-conscious laughter before almost every hand went up. Yes, labyrinth walking may be close to perfect for those of us who admit, "My name is Karen and I'm a failed meditator."

After a brief discussion of labyrinth as moving meditation, Dr. Artress introduced a written exercise, which we were to share with a partner. (Thank you, Krissi Barr, for your patience!) The question had to do with the most stressful thing in one's life. This is what I wrote about the most stressful things in my life. The most stressful things are:
  • Missing my (38-year-old) baby who died June 2, 2012 of a head and neck cancer after a 27-month merry-go-round illness.
  • Watching the effect of his death on his siblings, his dad and his wife.
  • Concern for how to make him present to his baby daughter as she grows.
  • Watching the effect on close relatives and his friends.
  • Feeling helpless to help them. All of us have been thrown into an ocean of grief and each of us is trying to keep afloat. I know the others are there too, floundering, but each of us is in a different lifeboat. Sometimes I am able to see one or more of them; sometimes I am in a fog. We are not all in the same place at the same time. It scares me that I am so absorbed in my own grief that I am not there for the others I love so very much.
I am also concerned that:
  • He (Brandon) is moving farther away in people's minds.
  • Grief will diminish while knowing it won't. (If this seems illogical, all I can say is that grief is not linear or logical.)
Next? Part 2 and the walks on the Harmony Farm labyrinth the day of the workshop and how those walks fit with my walk the day before on "my" labyrinth.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Our Patron Saint of Head & Neck Cancer

It's November already. The holidays will soon be upon us. I'll think about the holidays later. This first week of November is for remembering those who have died. It begins with Halloween each October 31st, which precedes November 1st and All Saints Day. In the moments when Halloween gives way to All Saints Day, the veil is supposedly lifted between those still in body and those who have left their bodies behind. November 2nd is All Souls Day. I've read explanations of the meaning of this day, but as far as I'm concerned All Saints Day and All Souls Day are interchangeable or, perhaps, we've been given two days to honor those who have "fought the good fight... finished the race... kept the faith." They have earned "a crown for being right with God." After all a saint is a saint - whether still residing on this earth or now in some other realm and whether canonized or not. (One of our favorite persons, Father Al Bischoff, always greets someone, "Hello, Saint!" I love that and I may just have to begin paying that wonderful greeting forward.)

If any puny humans attain sainthood while still on earth and heaven at the moment of death, it is someone who has lived with the fears of a disease such as cancer, coped with the side effects of surgical, chemotherapeutic and radiotherapy treatments before hearing, "There is nothing more we can do," and lived, truly lived, it all with humor, hope and faith. Brandon didn't live through head and neck cancer; Brandon lived life to the fullest with head and neck cancer. He never complained. He never lost his wonderful Brandon sense of humor. We never heard him say, "Why me?" or bemoan his fate. He loved his wife, he focused on family, he celebrated the birth of his daughter and delighted in helping care for her, he enjoyed his friends, he kept giving his all to his job. He know how to have fun and he didn't let cancer get in the way of dancing, tail-gating and getting every party started! He lived and never stopped truly living, even when that meant pushing his body, mind and soul. 

Because he learned his lessons in the school of suffering, because he showed us it could be done in an ordinary little way, because the student became the teacher in that so many of us learned from his example, I'd like to propose Brandon C. Gromada as the patron saint of those dealing with head and neck cancer. I think he earned it. 

I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before, but his father and I started the Brandon C. Gromada Head and Neck Cancer Foundation the day after Brandon's death. Its purpose is to raise money for innovative research that finds an end to head and neck cancers, such as the "poorly differentiated squamous cell" variety that invaded his body and took him from us. The Foundation's logo depicts a profile encased in a mask - a radiation mask - and there's a reason for this. 

As this week of November and saints ends, we will be attending an event that raises funds for about 150 local charities. Brandon's Foundation is one of the beneficiaries. We've sold event tickets, raffle tickets and submitted auction items for which the Foundation receives a portion of the proceeds. One of the raffles is for a displayed gift and attendees drop tickets in an adjacent container if interested in winning it. The Foundation's raffle is an attention grabber thanks to Brandon's wife Christina. She took a mannequin head and drew criss-crossing lines over the face to portray a radiation mask. This is the paragraph I wrote to accompany the raffle item:

"The RADIATION MASK is a treatment item that, with few exceptions, those affected by head and neck cancer have in common. Although their surgeries and chemo cocktails may differ, almost all know the MASK. Every weekday for 5 to 8 weeks, or for 25 to 40 radiation treatments, the head and neck cancer patient submits to having his/her head completely immobilized within a RADIATION MASK, which was molded to the individual’s head to shoulders, for the duration of each treatment. Many cancer centers commemorate the end of the radiation treatment cycle with some type of 'graduation' ritual, and those completing radiation treatment take the MASK home to savor, scorn or scorch." Accompanying the explanatory information are the following photos.

Brandon receiving a daily radiation treatment - September-October 2010 
Brandon  with his MASK for radiation treatment "graduation"
Brandon smiling through the discomfort of radiation burns

Radiation MASK savored and scorned (not Brandon or his mask)

Look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight. St. Therese de Lisieux

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ciao (Hello/Good-by), Autumn

“The human soul is slow to discover the real excellence of things given to us by a bountiful Creator, and not until the shadows of death begin to gather around the object that we love, do we see its worth and beauty. Autumn is the dim shadow that clusters around the sweet, precious things that God has created in the realm of nature. While it robs them of life, it tears away the veil and reveals the golden gem of beauty and sweetness. Beauty lurks in all the dim old aisles of nature, and we discover it at last.”
Northern Advocate

I’ve looked at autumn differently since last year, although it has never been my favorite season. As beautiful as fall foliage appears against a cloudless blue sky on a balmy “Indian summer” day, autumn heralds the coming winter. In my part of the country, the colors of autumn give way to several months of grays and browns. The sky will be gray, clouds will be a steel-gray, the ground will be gray-brown and, worst of all for me, the leafless trees will be a naked gray-brown. Something inside of me also feels gray-brown until leaf buds again appear and their spring green colors contrast, and eventually cover, most of the gray-brown tree branches.

The green 2012 spring that ended with Brandon’s death was in many ways like living autumn. We watched as a vigorous, vital man in his prime became more vivid in many ways. Yet we also observed as his body revealed that he would soon have to “let go” of his branch on the family tree and drift from his physical body.

I look at the changing color on the trees covering the hills of my beautiful Ohio River Valley, and I’m more aware of each individual leaf – aware that the life of each leaf is coming to an end. Walking a path in the Great Smokies National Park a few weeks ago, I got caught in a shower of yellowed ash leaves newly departed from their tree branches. I felt the touch of each separately as leaves rained down on me. Never before have I been as acutely aware of how the vibrancy and vigor of life is juxtaposed during autumn with the beauty and desolation of death.

Nature prepares us for a leaf’s death by clothing it in vibrant, awe-inspiring color, making one take notice as it clings to the branch, and then as, still beautiful but already dead, it lets go and flutters to the ground. Awe is replaced by a kind of sadness when that same leaf turns brown, no longer allowing for the illusion of colorful life. Yet, in spite of witnessing these changes, winter somehow seems to sneak up and come as a surprise.

There is an amazing kind of beauty in being part of a dying. There is beauty in the bones of the sharply etched facial features and the slender fingers of a body emaciated by a disease such as cancer. There is a unique vibrancy in every word uttered, every breath completed, every movement made, every touch experienced. Even until Brandon’s last breath, I “bought” the illusion that he wouldn’t die, because it simply was unimaginable that someone so loved and so full of life could no longer be part of our landscape; at the same time I was much too aware that soon all would turn gray-brown.

In spite of living autumn that spring of 2012, winter still snuck up and came as a surprise.