Rabbit Hole

Peter called us from the Lyme protest in DC and asked, “What are you guys doing tonight?” “Renting a movie,” I responded so cavalierly… “Huh?” Peter responded, “You never do that.” “Yes, well, the twins are out a friend’s house and we so wanted to see yet another movie that had come and gone as they usually do. It is ‘Rabbit Hole’ ” “Oh no, Peter said, “don’t do that.” We did it anyway. We should not have. And now, I am in the trenches once again, unable to get it out of my mind.

For those who do not already know, it is about The Corbetts, a couple who has lost a young child in an accident when he ran after his dog into a road and was run down by a teen driver. It is a mostly low key, almost hard to hear, tight, stressful movie. But, here’s the thing. I lived the life they depict. Oh there were a few minor adjustments in casting, location, and family structure. Most of all, the fact that at the time of my young child’s death due to drowning, we also had three surviving children. But, it is the tension, the lack of breathing and the impossible task of living that I recognized in this movie, with my heart and soul. As for the main difference — the surviving kids — here’s the angst. Shep and I, to this day, have never been able to decide whether that was better or worse for us at the time. I mean, hold on there — of course, we are grateful to every fiber in our bodies that we had and still have these absolute blessings of three wholesome sons and in retrospect, I am not sure that I could have, or would have survived without them. But, at the time of our holocaust, we really were not sure.

Here’s the thing. In the days, the weeks, the months and then surprisingly, the years following the death of your child, NOTHING is right. As was so well depicted in this movie, no matter what each of the parents did or did not do, it could never be right. From the simple things like the way you look, the way food tastes, the act of trying to sleep, going to the bathroom, showering, brushing or not brushing your teeth…NOTHING feels or seems as it was. And, for the most part, NOTHING is the same at all. On many days, you want desperately to find a way to rip your skin off. I mean that literally, because the truth is, you cannot fathom staying in this skin a moment longer. And so, in this movie, the mother of the child is mostly feigning denial as she attempts to go about life and dismantle the memories of her child. She tries to give away his things, strip his room, remove all photos, refrigerator art work, neighbors, friends, her son’s dog, other little children. She thinks she can simply forge ahead into life sans her child. Her husband on the other hand, wants to have it all in his face. He wants the smells, the sights, the pets, the friends, the essence of his child with him as he watches videos over and over and over, stroking the camera lens as he does. He wants to drown in the images and memories of his precious son. Neither is workable. They go to Compassionate Friends meetings together. She finds this impossible and leaves rudely. He finds it a possible help and keeps going even without her. In a way, the movie minimized the agony one is in at these meetings by having Mr. Corbett become attracted to one of the meeting leaders. This would be highly unlikely since your whole self is so totally unpresent that I doubt you would even notice Beyonce sitting across the table of torture. One’s heart would need to be beating to find oneself attracted to someone and hey, there is barely a detectable pulse. Corbett tries though. He tries to spend time with this “other woman” and even tries smoking pot with her. “Could he have fun?” he is wondering. Nothing works, remember, NOTHING. He even goes to her home with clearly ill intentions as his own wife becomes more and more impossible to live with. It doesn’t work. He is unable to connect to another woman after all and turns and leaves.

As for his wife. She tries too. She tries by connecting to the young male driver of the car that killed her son. She stalks him in a way, watching him get on and off the school bus to high school each day. Then, she begins meeting with him in parks to talk. They stare straight ahead, never making eye contact and they speak in short, low, parts of sentences in as flat an affect as possible. They cannot go to the well of emotion. They both know that and so they don’t. They air brush the burning topic here and there, but not to its core. It is not possible. NOTHING, remember, nothing.

This couples marriage is on the rocks. So, is the marriage of most bereaved parents. Of course, what else could happen? When you cannot be in your own skin, you sure don’t want to be skin to skin with someone else. This couple is grieving in polar opposite spheres and that becomes impossible.

As for Shep and me and how it felt to have others in the house, it is complicated. But, the thing is, you cannot lift your head up off the pillow. You awaken in the morning, shocked that in fact, the same horror show you left at night is awaiting you fresh in the morning. If you brush your teeth, you have made a major effort. Oftentimes, you don’t. But, you see there are these three other young kids at home and they do need breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They do need to be driven here and there. Their birthdays come. Christmas comes. They do need to be taken to Hospice and to therapists to help them deal with their own personal devastation. But, you just don’t feel that there is any way to get up and do those things. Often, others come and help and that is a godsend. But sometimes, you are it and you have to get up and go. Those are the times when Shep and I would look at each other and wish that we could just be alone to cry for hours and not have to do anything more than listen to each others wails of grief and loss and the desperate missing of our squishy two year old.

The couple in this movie didn’t have that distraction, but they were very close to losing each other. It is estimated that more than half of marriages fail following the death of a child, with the first six months being the most disastrous. In the end, this couple seems to find their way which is a relief for those of us watching. For me, I am deeply grateful that my husband, Shep and I grieved in very similar ways and like wet noodles could never really prop each other up, but managed to be stronger on the day that the other was weaker. We chose to immerse ourselves in the memories, the photos, the scents, the memorials. For us, it strengthened our marriage, because it was as if we had this secret and no one else could begin to understand what we were going through. But, we did both know and if we left each other, than if fact, there would be no one who knew the shared love and loss.


I Forgot to Pray!

A couple of weeks ago, my chronically ill son, Peter hit the skids with a sodium level that was so alarmingly low, he was expected to have seizures. We hear this can be typical for chronic Lyme patients on long term IV antibiotics, but that made it no less alarming. We raced him to a nearby, (albeit substandard, ER), where he was given IV fluids and loaded with sodium. He then needed to be admitted and transported to a real hospital by ambulance. Understand that for his dad and for me, being in an ER is no easy feat. I mean, of course it’s not, for anyone. But, for us, it brings with it a whole slew of trauma triggers and it is an exhausting fight to maintain presence and not slip away to that dreadful night in 1995 when our then youngest son, Gregory, died. To this day, I still fight nausea when I see a racing ambulance and forever, the sight of vitals bleeping away from an IV sends me into a panic. But, with hard work, we can now differentiate and know that we are here with Peter, 16 years later and things are fairly stable.

So, Peter was admitted to Duke Raleigh hospital (a wise and self preserving choice made by dear husband, Shep as it is so much closer for us to get to) and I actually went to work for a few hours while this transfer took place. When I was done with work, I came and sat in a chair in Peter’s room where I stayed for most of the next day and a half. Peter convinced me to go home and sleep which I did, but other than that, I stayed. I spent a lot of time just staring at his ashen face, his emaciated body, his long stringy unkempt hair, his exhaustion that he describes as being “deep in his bones.” I stared wondering what had happened to the last few years of this brilliant, charismatic life that I had watched unfold with such pleasure and pride. Did I curse him in some superstitious way by always saying, “Ah, Peter has the Midas touch. Everything he does, everywhere he goes, everything he tries, turns to gold.” It was true though. He was so successful every step of the way, straight A’s all through school including the two years when he succumbed to deep, grief related depression. He was captain of every sports team in high school, won all the awards he could, including a totally free ride to NCSU Parks Scholarship program. He landed a summer internship with the NFL where he became so beloved that they pleaded with him to stay when summer ended. So, he stayed for a whole year before deciding he wanted to go to Harvard instead of back to NC State University and sure enough — he got in and soared through Harvard, graduating with honors. When he wanted to experience the NBA, he did, landing another summer internship! And then, after graduation, he became a very successful business consultant in Boston. His future held only the best of everything and he was star bound, although unlike many stars, Peter really had a deep heart and social justice commitment as well. The perfect combination!

So, when I sat watching him, I thought of all those things and more. I tried hard to get work done on my computer. I read Real Simple from cover to cover, vowing to be more organized. I went to eat lunch in the cafeteria and being horrified at the unhealthy offerings, left and hit Trader Joe’s. Then I , brought back with me as many salty snacks as I could fit in my canvas bag to pump Peter full of more salt. Peter and I laughed with horror at the food on his meal trays which ranged from yellow jello to a dark grayish “raspberry” sorbet to mystery meat to artificial sweetener included with all. How could the healthiest of us ever recover given a diet like this? Where was Jamie Oliver at a time like this? As usual, Peter and I vowed to work on making healthy hospitals sometime, someday. But, I wondered, “When? When will my boy get back to changing the world?” We were then told that he could not be discharged until he ate meals and walked up the hallway. Until then, all Peter was doing, all he had the energy to do, was sleep. But, one more look at the yellow Jello and we said, “Okay, we have to get out of here.” And so, he ate what he could and we made three painfully slow walks up and back to the nurses station. His stats were better enough so that by the second night, we got our ticket out of jail. Whew.

When I was in church the next morning, I had this sudden, shocking thought. Through the whole 48 hour incident, I believe I had forgotten to pray!! I wondered how this could have possibly have happened. I beat myself up for awhile. I questioned my faith and then my commitment to it, to my family, to myself. WHAT was I thinking? How did I forget to at least chant the Anne Lammott prayer of “Help me, help me, help me!” No “Lord’s Prayer? Nothing? I don’t know… I really don’t know how I lost my way and forgot to at least chat with the God I know is always with me. But perhaps, that is just it. I don’t need to call upon him, he is there. And maybe, I really was praying all along. Bearing witness, showing up, being there, not leaving, asking the doctor questions, encouraging my patient. Maybe, staring at my son feeling the deepest, most intense love and compassion that is available to us as humans, is in fact, prayer. My love running so deep from my heart to his, is this prayer at its heart? I am there. I am present. I show up. I have prayed.