On Grief and Love and Fear

Grief is love. And grief is fear.

And grief is that anxiety that I wake with.
I sit in silence and stare at the pencil marks on canvas
Knowing that I want to paint in the lines I have drawn
And I know that my shoes and the dog are waiting.
But I sit here trying to catch whatever breath I have left
Part of me wants to quit and lie down.
And not just do nothing…
but be nothing.
So I breathe. Because sometimes that is all I can do.
And part of me wants to do whatever I need to do to go on.
And what I feel…
It as if I am wandering in a field and can choose to walk to the water or to the trees, or to stay out in the center of the grass… and nothing is right.
I do not know what is in the water.
I do not know what is in the trees.
I do not know what is in the grass.
Any move brings about some change.
Maybe for better. Maybe for worse.
And in that there is fear of pain.
But staying here gives me no peace.
I have been broken by loss
And crippled by a pain that no one should ever know.
And I hold it, because sometimes I have nothing else left.
But the fear is that I can not go through that again.
And I don’t know if it will be asked of me again.
I grieve because I love.
I fear because I grieve.
I breathe because I am.
And then, I go on.


Four and a half years

I have taken to calling these thing panic attacks. Not to anyone but myself, because I don’t generally speak about them much if at all. It used to take me out for an entire day… just spent walking, or at least mentally wandering. Painting sometimes. Writing other times. It used to be deeper and more frequent and start when I woke up on some random day, and last until I fell asleep that night. But now it might hit me for a few minutes or a couple of hours.

Sometimes there are triggers, like a birthday, or the anniversary of his death or something that reminds me of Ethan. And sometimes there is no cause I can think of.

And it isn’t panic. It’s some kind of anxiety… but complicated. Sometimes it feels like I am more frustrated than sad, and sometimes it is that feeling of impending disaster. Sometimes I am just confused… lost mentally or that everything is a bit off… colors or flavors or the passage of time. Sometimes it feels like doubt. But it passes now, just a bit more quickly. So I guess that it is better.

Sometimes I can almost forget how bad it all hurts. It does. But the pain is old now and familiar. But it isn’t like I am forgetting that my son is gone… and there really isn’t some kind of limit to sorrow or emptiness or uncertainty. But I don’t always want to write about it. Somedays it just seems easier to not think about it and not connect Ethan’s death those strong moments of confusion or feelings of loneliness, and meaninglessness that swarm over me.

I’m pretty good at pretending now. I walked around for a month on a broken foot and even convinced myself that it was only a sprain… and I would have kept going except that it swelled up and stopped working… so I couldn’t walk. And I guess I do that… ignore pain. Just deny it until it either goes away or gets worse…


It’s Ethan’s birthday… and I’m not unusually depressed and I’m not taking the day off of work like I have in the past. I actually feel okay. Except for a sore foot… which I promise to stay off of as much as I can. Tonight I will go to the Falconer in Redlands and have a gin and tonic. (Bleech…)

I took yesterday off because my foot wasn’t working. It seems I broke it a month ago and ignoring the pain can only work so long until the foot says ‘no’ and keeps you awake and then flat out stops functioning. I stayed off of it. Took medication. Kept it elevated. So today it appears to be working well enough to get me from here to there with minimal pain.

I think I do that. Muscle through the pain. Ignore it. Man up. Work through it. Not that I don’t complain. I complain about everything. Everything, that is, except the important stuff. And sometimes it is just easier. It is easier to make a joke or be sarcastic or be angry than to be hurt. It probably isn’t all that honest to cover up pain, and I can fool myself pretty well, but it does have a function.

I have awful feet. I have plantar fasciitis. I have bone spurs. Lots of them. My feet hurt a little bit all the time. So when I partially tore my achilles tendon, yeah it hurt… but it wasn’t the pain that bothered me as much as the fact that suddenly my right foot wasn’t working so well. And then a month later, I tripped over second base and I thought I twisted my ankle. What I did was I broke my first metatarsal… a thin, straight crack… a fine white line on an x-ray that after a month indicated healing. I don’t know why it suddenly stopped working after a month, but I couldn’t bend my big toe or put weight on it… so I went to the doctor and then spent a day doing nothing.

So for a month I have had two sore feet that didn’t work well, and I kept trying. I continued to walk. I walk the dog a mile each day. Continued to play softball. I continued to jog… and when it hurt too much, I whined a bit, took Tylenol and waited until the next day to go out and abuse my broken foot bone and partially torn tendon. And like I said… I guess it worked… until it didn’t.

I know this isn’t the right way to treat my feet.

I’m a bit upset though because I was losing weight and running and working out and all summer I have struggled to get the work in. This put a hold in it and I have gained a good eight pounds in two months of limping. I actually had my 5k time down to my goal and I have been waiting to take my treadmill time and get it in an officially timed race. So this is frustrating.

Grief is similar. I hurt a little all the time and when it flares up, I rest a little and then go out into the world and soldier on. I ignore it, work through it, do what I can until it doesn’t work and I have to stop and catch my breath and wait for the pain to subside. I complain about the little stuff. Make jokes. Get angry. Change the subject.

So it is off to work. I promise to treat my feet better.

Happy birthday Ethan. Tonight I will have one drink in your honor.

Goodbye Dim.


Today, I sat in a restaurant and cried. I sat by myself at a table, with a diet coke in one hand and a chocolate chip cookie in the other and I wept.

I miss my son.

And I just sold his car.

But here is the thing. It is just a car and a car is a thing. My son is dead, and the car is not him and it isn’t his memories and it is just a thing, which over time will decline in usefulness and value… and right now we could use the cash for something else: My other son, who is alive and breathing and who has a future.

I love my living breathing son… and I can’t let grief and things get in the way of life. I am going to spoil him… because I can. Because I love him. Because…

So we sold one son’s car for the down payment on a car for the other one. Because, like it or not, this son is alive and resources are for the living… not the dead. We move on because that is part of life. We move on because we can’t stay still. And sometimes it means that I have to let go… let go of things. Because things are not as important as people.

I drank the soda. I ate the cookie. My wife and son came to pick me up in his brand new car and he drove me to the dealership where I handed the finance director all the money I got from the sale. And it is good to be alive.

I am still…

I am still in a ball on the floor. I have never left. As much as I tried and tried to melt into the carpet and flow into the earth.

And the notes that played on the piano are played in a sequence, and it follows a tempo.
I make a sad melody. And there is a math to this…
I am still afraid of losing someone else.
Because no matter what is likely to happen, in my mind I have calculated the worst possible scenario so that maybe this time it won’t be as bad.
I am still breathing.
I am still missing my son. I am still trying to figure it out.
I watch the growing clouds a thunderhead rises above the ridge. And I wait for that storm to reach us.
I am still wondering what my life would be like… without that day. Calculating where my son would be and what he would be doing… and computing the effects his restored life would have on everything else.
Either I can see him or hear him in everything and everywhere… or I can’t remember anything about him and it is like I lost him all over again.
It never goes away. And I am still running through it in my mind.
I am still broken. And I can still feel his pain in the night.
And the frogs have not stopped calling. So the rain is a ways off… it is in the forecast.

I have broken something else and I find blood on my face for no reason.¬†And even though I can’t see through the fog all time, I am still.
The truth is staying in motion seems to keep the edge off. So I am always busy and never still. I set goals and make lists and I calculate… doing things. Doing things.
And there is a rhythm and time signature and key signature and a set of chords that I am familiar with. There is a math to this… a relative minor, a tonic, a fourth. And it generates a simple melody. I melt into the music and let the lyrics sink into my soul.
And so I mix paint like I am trying to make a place to visit.
But I am still running up loose earth on a hill that keeps sliding under my feet.
I paint the canvas like this will make it work.
I still wash the brushes and no matter how much I tell myself to leave the edges loose… I paint in those details and let them melt into the canvas.
I am still learning.
And so I write a poem like I am trying to listen
And I calculate how it will communicate that one bit of feeling.
It trails off… into the distance. Into memory.
I am still melting into the earth like the hail from a summer thunderstorm.
I am still in a ball on the floor.
I am still wanting.
I am still sad.
I am still.

It is strange the way smells can trigger memories…

It is strange the way smells can trigger memories.
I try to paint the smell of bread.
That smell of grass fires that lingers in the air for days after the flames are gone.

And it reminds me of those vermillion sunsets that come in fire season.
I watch the color spread over the white gesso and run down the canvas.
I listen to a song and I am lost in it. And I try to paint what I hear.

And the intensity of the color in coming from the tubes reminds me of why I paint.
I can’t handle it. I am at my end, and I have nowhere else to go.

Not today. Today is where grief is. It can feel so empty.

I think about a tear rolling down my cheek… and how it feels and what it looks like. What path it takes. How it catches the light.
It isn’t about running away. It is about finding something.
Maybe it is about finding God. And I look. I seek.
Maybe it is about feeling like I used to feel.
I can’t go back to those memories. It hurts. But the smell can bring me back.
those smells, make it impossible not to go back.
And tomorrow? I can’t think of that future. That big empty future…

They say that smells trigger memories because the olfactory bulb, which runs from the nose to the base of the brain, is right next to the amygdala and hippocampus which is where memories are encoded and where emotions get their spark.
It is a deep part of the brain… in a very old neighborhood.
And emotions and memory… they are a part of me.
So I take out a fresh canvas and I paint.
I paint because I hurt inside. And this helps.
I paint to find the goodness of God.
Painting takes concentration… and when I paint, I don’t hurt. At least for a moment.
And I can think about yesterday
And the smell of rain
And not be sad.
And I can look at the brush strokes and the color
And focus on getting the feel of fur just right
And trying to make those eyes come alive.
I talk to God. And I fill a container of water.
When I paint, it isn’t about grief
It isn’t even about the koi on the canvas… or the multi-colored rocks
It isn’t about light and shadow
Or creating depth and dimension..
It is about creating an emotional spark…
But I do think about those things. About making it work
Color, composition, tone, texture, shape
Creating some sort of order
Maybe some kind of image in a world I want to visit
And I know it smells like mountain air in the morning
And I can hear the crow calling
And that sound of wind rolling through the pines.
It’s quiet, but not silent… and I feel okay.
And I listen for God. And He is quiet, but not silent.
But maybe, you got to smell for God.
Maybe he is closer to the amygdala and hippocampus, the two areas implicated in emotion and memory… near the olfactory lobe.
And I paint.
I mix paint and spread it with a small round brush.
I make a wash and dull those bright colors
And then add back in the darkest shadows
And I choose the spots where the whitest whites will be…
Only this one place… the whiskers and the light in the eyes…
And the thinnest of lines around the eyes.
I can remember the day Ethan was born.
I remember the point where the delivery began to go wrong
And his heart rate dropped
And the floor was slick with blood
And I almost fell down. And I couldn’t really panic, because Marquita needed to hold my hand and push one more time… and hold so hard my thumb dislocated.
And there was this tiny baby boy. That gasped. That cried. That made it.
And on the window sill now is a vase with my father’s ashes blown into the glass
And a glass duck. And three glass frogs.
And a perfect vase that is holding Ethan’s ashes.
I watch the color spread.
I can smell old smoke from a cold fire.
I listen for God.
And he is quiet, but not silent.

Hard things in life…

Much of what I do is purposeful. Writing this blog. Sleeping. Eating. Exercising. Painting. Avoiding this. Doing that. Giving myself this message. Repeating these words. Listening to this song. It is hard for me to write this… talking about the things that keep me alive. Deep in that is faith… my faith and the act of praying,

So sometime after the initial pain and shock of my son’s death came the realization that I still had to live. I still had to go to work every day. I still had to bathe and brush my teeth, and sleep and eat and exercise. I still had to drive. I still had to interact with people… and all of this needed to be normal and usual. And that never has been easy for me.

My son had taken his own life. And this self inflicted end had been a product, I believe of his incredible mind… caught in a downward spiral of self doubt and eventually self loathing… of depression, and isolation, and declining social interactions, and of insomnia and of rapid, out of control thoughts. It became for him, an unbearable dissonance that he needed to end… to resolve.

And the reason I believe this is because at times in my life, I have seen the beginnings of this same spiral. And maybe I’m projecting my own fragilities on him, but I think in many ways he was his father’s son and that we were cut from the same cloth.

If I would live, I would have to deal with those issues of mind… with periodic insomnia. With racing thoughts. With depression. If I am to live, I can’t let that spiral of self doubt and self loathing turn to self destruction. And much of my life would have to be lived with intention. Keep busy. Take care of the machine- exercise, eat right, sleep. Stay positive.

I always had trouble sleeping. I always had racing thoughts. Restlessness and unease… dissonance- that I thought was due to the chaos in my house. When I was young I used to want to run away. I thought that would somehow fix things… to escape… to keep moving. I also used to talk constantly… this nearly endless flow of words spilling from my mouth. I used to fidget. And I tried to keep busy… sketching or doodling. Reading. Band or swimming or classes… anything so that I wasn’t sitting alone in my thoughts. And every change in my life had me change those patterns… the social interactions, the schedules and activities.

As the youngest of seven siblings… those patterns changed constantly. And every time one of us moved out, I had to adjust. And growing up in a poor neighborhood meant that friends were always moving away and I had to adjust to that. Everything was hard and dissonant… and in high school, I found a faith that helped. I read my bible. I prayed. I found my way to church and into the fellowship of believers… and it did largely seem to fix things.

And then came college… where there were long stretches of time that I was left alone with my thoughts… with no one really to talk to or work it out. And where the old activities no longer worked. I remember walking for hours at night… trying to get tired enough to sleep and then going through the next day, having not slept at all. I was never still. I worked several jobs, maintained a full class load, volunteered at a youth group, kept active in church, and played in a rock band.

Before I even finished college, I got married. Upon graduation, I started teaching. And for the first couple of decades, I took on odd jobs, second jobs. I played music, stayed active in church and we started a family. Patterns changed. I kept busy. I kept moving.

I learned to sleep. I learned to keep from talking too much. I learned to fidget less. And my life with family, and job, and church seemed to work okay. Until Ethan died…

Life fell apart and in putting it back together, there was this intention to make it healthy… to keep away from the edge of that spiral… to be busy, and sleep well and control that endless inner conversation- steer it to the positive. This blog is part of that. Painting is part of that. Going to work. Exercise. Eating right. Praying. Choosing to live a real and rich life.

And that is it. That is where I am at. There isn’t some great conclusion to this… no wrap up that gives a cool message. No resolve. It is ongoing. Adjusting.