Saturday, June 15, 2013

“In this lovely month of June…”

It’s June, my favorite month of the year. It’s the month of my birth, my parents’ anniversary (I came home from the hospital with my mother on their first anniversary), my husband’s and my anniversary. It’s the end of the school year, the beginning of summer vacation, and the pool is open every day. It’s the month of daisies and roses and my very favorite – tiger lilies. The fireflies, or lightning bugs, visit for a few weeks from mid- to late June. It’s the month of the summer solstice when the fairies dance in Eden Park. (I’ve watched them many times.) June has always been my favorite month, but then there was June 2012.

Last year my second baby said, “Done,” on June 1st. He had to leave us all on June 2nd. More than 800 people came to say good-bye to him on June 5th. The Mass celebrating his life was held June 6th, my birthday. He missed his first Father’s Day on June 17th. The cask containing his ashes was interred in late June.

Yet because it was June, I could jump on my bicycle and ride to the labyrinth across the Ohio River any time I felt so moved. I could comfortably sit outside on our terrace until very late into the night, drinking chardonnay, reading some form of mindless entertainment or crying – often doing all at the same time. I could wear bicycle shorts under the skirt I wore to the internment, so I could jump on my bike at the cemetery, ride off some of the profound sadness and still be moved by the tiger lilies along Route 8.

Tonight, June 15, 2013, the fireflies officially came out in numbers. They are lighting the trees and bushes along the river behind our building. However, Brandon gave me a firefly gift twice already this month. Two weeks ago, June 1st was a Saturday, exactly 52 weeks since Brandon died near midnight (last year the Saturday was June 2nd), one firefly visited me. A second single firefly made a brief visit on my June 6th birthday.

Joe and I had spent the evening of June 1st enjoying the celebration of our goddaughter Colleen’s wedding to her wonderful young man Scott. I’d been having a terrific time with old friends and new. Then it hit. A Michael Jackson song, some moon-walking, which Brandon used to do quite proficiently, and I went from fine to anything but in less than 30 seconds. It was time to head home.

Once home I took Rudy, out goldendoodle, out for his last potty break of the day. Rudy doesn’t mind when I cry, and I was crying as I walked him up and down the grassy puppy potty strip behind the condos. I was crying when I scooped up dog doo in the plastic bag. I was still crying when I reached the dog doo dumping can at the end of the strip.

Yet as I tossed the sealed bag into the little can, a single firefly/lightning bug flew directly in front of me. I followed its blinking light, as it moved from where I stood to the river and then disappeared. I looked for other fireflies, but there were none. There was only the one early firefly for that 52-week marker of the night that will always connote Before and After for me. There was one firefly to light the darkness and bring a sense of joy. (Can anyone see a firefly without feeling joy?)

A few days later, in-town family joined us for dinner on my birthday. We sat out on the terrace talking, eating and drinking. We laughed a lot and cried a little, remembering last June 6th. The sun set over the hills across the river, so we cranked the umbrellas back in; however, it was remained light for an hour or so after the sun disappeared. At some point I was telling one of my daughters about the firefly I’d seen late Saturday evening. I’d no sooner told her about it when a single firefly flittered in front of our faces as we sat outside on our third floor terrace. Again, I looked for other fireflies, and again there were none.

I’ve been watching for fireflies every night since my birthday. Tonight is the first night I’ve seen any others, and tonight I’ve seen scores of them. I can’t help but think the single fireflies I saw June 1st and June 6th – one to two weeks before they typically announce themselves – were gifts to remind me that June is a special month. Oh, and the tiger lilies bloomed a day or two ago. Tremendous joy and profound sadness are entwined so perfectly in this “lovely month of June.”

“But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day in June.”  (Oscar Wilde)

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Birthday to Remember

Last Thursday, June 6, was my birthday. It also marked one-year since the funeral Mass celebrating our Brandon’s life. One year since I accompanied his body to a crematorium. One year. The event I’m about to describe took place last week on my birthday – because it was my birthday. You may make of it what you will…

A month or two ago a friend suggested getting through this year’s birthday and the one-year date by “doing” the Zipline at Red River Gorge, Kentucky, which is one of Brandon’s favorite camping, hiking, rock climbing and rappelling spots. I’ve also heard it was the site of some of his more inventive gourmet campfire dishes. Ziplining above the trees and between the hills he loved seemed like a good way to spend this day. However, the weather had other ideas.

Thundershowers rolled through the Red River Gorge while Cincinnati dealt with heavy on and off rain showers. Checking my Weather Channel hourly forecast and my Doppler radar apps, an early afternoon rain-free window of about two hours was to occur. The zipline may be out, but a labyrinth walk would fit perfectly in that time frame. Since the day was one of significant life transitions, I chose the first labyrinth I’d ever walked. Like “my” downtown labyrinth, this one is adjacent to a river. However, unlike the hustle and bustle of the downtown setting, one mainly hears the wind whispering through trees and the song of birds in response when walking the 11-ring labyrinth on the grounds of the Jesuit Spiritual Center.

This labyrinth was also more centrally located for a number of friends, and I emailed to see if any of them might be free to join me on this spur-of-the-moment walk. Three said they would meet me there. It’s about a 30- to 35-minute drive to this labyrinth from my home and, as I got closer, I could see by the debris that a considerably larger rainstorm had recently hit this area of town. The clouds still threatened rain, but it had stopped for the time being.

My friend Debby beat me to the grounds of the labyrinth by a few minutes, so she helped me clear it of twigs and leaves before Dee and Jo arrived. (For whatever inexplicable reason, I wanted to walk it barefoot that day and small twigs can make for unpleasant surprises!) Once everyone was there and introduced, we started to walk. We were taking no chances with the weather!

I entered the labyrinth first and I exited first, although that’s not always how it happens. I cannot claim to have had a profound experience during that day’s walk. Still, I felt a sense of peace that I hadn’t felt previously and at some point I heard Brandon’s distinct voice wish me, “Happy Birthday, Mom.” While the others completed their walks, I quietly stood and contemplated the significance of the day and enjoyed the beauty of the river and trees.

There is a deck overlooking the Little Miami River next to the labyrinth, and several deck chairs invite one to sit and enjoy the sounds and scenery. Last Thursday they were arranged in a haphazard semi-circle. Usually, I would have sat and waited for the others to finish their walks; however, the chairs were obviously wet from the recent rain so there was no point in sitting on them.

Gradually, each of the other three completed her labyrinth walk. All were quiet until the final walker exited. As I was about to ask if anyone wanted to drive into Milford, Ohio for a late lunch, my friend Jo pointed to a chair in the middle of the semi-circle and asked, “Karen, did you turn that chair around when you finished?”

“No,” I said. “I could see the chairs were wet. I didn’t touch any of them.”

I expected Jo to say something more about the chair. Instead, she said, “I’m not sure how this will sound, but as I walked I had the sense we were being watched – that we’d been watched for awhile. Then I came around a bend in the labyrinth and I felt moved to stop. When I looked up, someone was sitting in that chair, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that’s Brandon.’ His legs were crossed – one foot was propped on the opposite knee. His elbows rested on the armrests, and his head was cocked to one side. He looked big with broad shoulders.

The reported "pose"
“He didn’t say anything out loud, yet I heard him say, ‘Thank you for being here for my mom.’ I knew he meant that for all three of us,” Jo said. “Finally, I felt I should move on. I felt I’d stood there long enough. When I circled so that I faced the river again, I looked up and the chair was empty.”

We all briefly discussed Jo’s experience and asked a few questions, although no one mentioned the chair. Then we moved on to where to meet for a late lunch. Still, something about Jo’s original question about the chair niggled. Then Saturday I received a message from Dee, another of those who’d walked the labyrinth with me on my birthday.

She wrote, "Have been thinking about what Jo said and the chair. It hit me a few minutes ago. I remember thinking as I walked up before I entered the labyrinth that whoever had sat in that chair last was looking at the river. When we came out, it was turned more at an angle toward the labyrinth."

Her message had me on the phone to Jo. “Was there a reason you asked me if I’d touched or turned the middle chair?” 

She thought a moment and said, “No, I just remember thinking it seemed out of place. It was the chair closest to the Little Miami – the one that would be turned to look at the river.”

I asked more questions about her experience and learned that Brandon looked like Brandon but not. He was not a three-dimensional person sitting in that chair. Yet it was him and he looked healthy, strong and his typical relaxed self. When he thanked her and my other friends for being there with me, she said, “His words sounded so gentle, peaceful.”

Finally, I read Dee’s message to her.  “That makes sense. I knew that chair somehow seemed out of place.”

I admit I wish it had been me who’d seen him in that chair, but I accept the gift as given on my birthday and am glad in it. And I heard him wish me Happy Birthday.

And you? Well, you will believe as you will…

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Permission granted...

June 5th a year ago my Brandon was no longer with us, but his beautiful shell of a body was and a several-hour “viewing” was set for that evening. How do I explain the unreality of such a situation? It defies maternal contemplation. I vacillated between a state of zombie-like detachment to one of hyperawareness.

A week or more before, when I was struggling with the doctor’s one-to-six months pronouncement while observing Brandon’s obviously deteriorating health, the Jesuit priest/friend – the one who’d come to the hospital and anointed him - asked if I’d like to talk about it. On that May day, with no thought that Brandon had less than several months, we set an appointment time for the morning of June 5, 2012. At the hospital he asked if I still wanted to stop by on the 5th. I decided to go ahead, although I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get any words to come out.

The morning of the 5th was one of hyperawareness; colors seemed brighter, sounds more distinct and fragrances more intense. My mouth felt dry constantly. My skin literally felt as if it was crawling. I was shaking. I needed to do something physical, so I hopped on my bike and pedaled across the Ohio River to St. Xavier Church in downtown Cincinnati. Several times I heard Brandon’s voice cautioning me to pay attention as I cycled, as hyperaware is not the same as hyper-alert!

Father Eric and I talked of many things, Brandon’s death and funeral among them, but it was a question he asked that stayed with me. “What do you dread the most about tonight (the viewing) and tomorrow (the funeral Mass)?” So many things came to mind, but the one I dreaded most was easy-peasy.

“I most dread the hugs, the touching,” I said. “I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin. I understand why people will want to hug me, but I dread it. The thought of it creeps me out.”

“That’s okay. Let people know you don’t want them to touch you,” Father Eric said.

I laughed. “How do I do that?” I asked. “I know they’ll want to hug me. I understand their need to do so. How can I say no?”

“Their need is not your problem. It’s okay to say no to touching, to hugs,” Father Eric replied. “Ask your family to handle it. They can let everyone know that you don’t want to be hugged.”

We arrived at the funeral home for the viewing about an hour before the posted hours of 4 to 8 p.m. A closed casket was planned due to how thin Brandon had become over the last weeks. However, the funeral director had worked such magic, and Brandon looked so Brandon – right down to his lips curved in his inimitable half-smile, it was decided to keep the casket open during the viewing. Christina and her family sat to one side of the casket and I sat to the other.

I never moved, except for a few restroom breaks. From my vantage point I could look at the beautiful shell of my baby, which I would never see again after the next day.

On and off my husband or one of my adult children would come to sit with me for a while during that surreal evening. Then they’d go off again to greet one or more of the approximately 850 persons who came to pay their respects. My sisters made sure I always had a bottle of water and a small cup of chardonnay on a table next to my stool. Because of the crowd the viewing lasted well past 8 p.m., and I’m told at times during that evening the line wound through the funeral home and down the block. A few of Brandon’s friends and a couple of my siblings established an impromptu tail-gating “party” in a nearby parking lot, and many viewers stopped by to “party on” and toast Brandon. He’d definitely have approved!

Although I couldn’t say exactly where my husband, other children and their spouses were for much of the evening, I knew they were following Father Eric’s suggestion. Almost every one of the 850 persons who greeted me that evening said, “Your daughter/your son/Joe (my husband) told me I’m not to hug you tonight.” Only a few acted as if they intended to ignore my family’s directive. Perhaps some hadn’t heard or they had forgotten, but I simply put up a hand to stop them and explained.

It is difficult to express how freeing it was and how much I appreciated Father Eric’s “permission” to avoid what I most dreaded for that most awful evening. What a gift! Usually I’m rather good at saying “no” for myself, but I was (and in many ways still am) drifting in a fog on an uncharted sea and my body was in adrenaline overload.

I won’t forget his question, and I hope I remember to ask the next person who needs it, “What do you dread the most?”

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Legend of the Dragonfly by Walter Dudley Cavert

"In the bottom of an old pond lived some grubs lived some grubs who could not understand why none of their group ever came back after crawling up the lily stems to the top of the water. They promised each other that the next one who was called to make the upward climb would return and tell what had happened to him.

"Soon one of them felt an urgent impulse to seek the surface; he rested himself on the top of a lily pad and went through a glorious transformation which made him into a dragonfly with beautiful wings.

"In vain he tried to keep his promise. Flying back and forth over the pond, he peered down at his friends below. Then he realized that even if they could see him they would not recognize such a radiant creature as one of their number.

"The fact that we cannot see our (family members and) friends or communicate with them after the transformation, which we call death, is no proof that they cease to exist."

A gift given to me yesterday from my husband Joe, along with copy of the legend.
The dragonfly's thorax is comprised of aquamarines - Brandon's birthstone.

With love and in memory (always)

Brandon Conrad Gromada
03/16/74 to 06/02/12

One year and I am/our family is Still Standing... 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

One year

A year ago tonight at the time I'm writing Brandon was still in this world, but not for much longer, and I'm not sure whether he was still of this world. His breathing changed and somehow he no longer seemed there with us. 

All day family and friends had been in and out to say good-by. He'd been anointed early in the morning by a Jesuit priest/friend whose copious use of oil gave us all a wonderful excuse to massage Brandon's hands and feet. Later he received the Sacrament of the Sick when his parish priest stopped by. Everyone who needed to tell him what he meant to them and how they'd miss him had had an opportunity to do so. His wife, siblings and I took turns swabbing his radiation-dry mouth. Many memories were shared 52 weeks ago today, resulting in many laughs and many tears.

For several hours before the change in his breathing, he didn't seem to be conscious yet he'd occasionally remind us he was still with us. Until his breathing changed... I'm not sure how long it went on. An hour? Two? Then he took a strange deep breath. A hitch and a very long pause before he exhaled. There was an unnaturally long pause before he repeated it. 

Christina was at his left side and I was on his right. His father, sisters and brothers were around the bed. All of us had a hand on him, but Christina's was placed over his heart. 

One more breath in. Then nothing. It was about 11:45 p.m. Saturday night, June 2, 2012 that Brandon's body stopped working. Christina looked at him and said, "Thank you, babe, for letting me be the one to feel your last heartbeat." I looked up and told him we'd be all right. (What a lie.) That  he should look for the light. I said I hoped he'd go for a run with his friend Morgan, who had died in their sophomore year of high school and for whom Brandon's daughter is named, and his beloved golden retriever Lex. 

I thought I was holding it together fairly well. I think I did for about 30 seconds. Then I fell on my baby's body, threaded my arm under his shoulders, and noises came from my mouth that I didn't know I was capable of making. I think someone had to pry me off so a resident could "pronounce" him. She suggested we clear the room. That was probably a good thing to ask, as it pissed me off. "Why should we leave the room?" I asked. "We already know he died. Nothing you do can make it worse." How glad we were that we stayed. Otherwise, we'd never have seen the beautiful brandy-gold of his eyes again. 

In spite of the emotional pain, there was also a sense that he was at last free - that his spirit somehow leapt from his cancer-ridden body. Two weeks later I attended Mass on Father's Day with my son Joe(y) at St. John Neumann's Church in St. Charles, IL. I'd been to Mass there before but I'd always sat in the center facing the altar. This time we found a pew to the side, and I was struck by the crucifix for it depicted Jesus leaping from his cross just as I'd felt Brandon had leapt from his two weeks earlier.

Not long afterward a Maryknoll priest/friend sent me a prayer card. The prayer didn't strike me but the picture on the other side certainly did. For there one sees the back of a man as he is being embraced by Jesus upon his arrival at the gate of heaven, and the back of that man looks exactly like Brandon - same color hair, same shape of the head, same build. I keep that card in my wallet, so I can look at that picture often. 

Brandon, you were born in great love, you left us in even greater love, and we feel confident that you were greeted by the greatest Love. But, oh, how I miss you. How I miss you...