Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Willow Tree

From now until the end of February I am going to do my best to post stories and things on my blog that are not political and that are things others might find positive, inspiring or just interesting. I wrote about my cats the other day. Yesterday I wrote about my daughter's graduation.

Today I want to tell you about the willow tree growing in my front yard.

It started as a stick, about two feet long, as part of a flower arrangement that I received from two very good friends, Mike and Polly, when my son died in 2004. The flower arrangement was actually a pot of azaleas in full bloom and they were gorgeous. Someone stuck this stick in the pot that was very pretty in the way of willows -- it was not straight, it curled around on itself and all over the place. So, I left the stick in the pot because I though it was pretty.

Well, in a few weeks I noticed that the stick was sprouting leaves! Cool, I thought to myself, I'll just let this thing be and see what happens.

A couple of months later I had to remove the stick that was now becoming a small tree from the pot of azaleas. So I put the little tree in the flower bed next to my front door, never thinking that it would really do much more than it was doing at that point. And there it stayed for the next year. That little willow tree just got taller and taller and its branches became leggier and leggier until I had to dig it up and move it again to a place in my yard where it would have room to grow and not block my front door!

Here we are, five years later, and that little stick has become a quite tall willow in my front yard! Its upper branches are taller than the first story of my house!

The significance of this willow tree is great to me. It represents the cycle of birth, death and rebirth that I believe each and every one of us experiences. What began as a stick that was cut from its life source eventually became what is now a graceful, flowing willow tree when it was put in soil and nurtured.

I am emotionally attached to my willow tree. It gives me hope in something out there larger than myself that is continuous.

I have always felt an affinity for the willow trees. It began when I was a child in Idaho and my friend's family had a huge weeping willow in their yard. Teena and I spent many hours as young girls playing in, under and around that tree. We could swing on its low-hanging branches and loved the shade it gave us from the hot summer sun. I loved to climb it every chance I had.

As an adult, I am long past the age of climbing trees -- though I truly wish I could because I just love trees and when I climbed them as a young girl, they made me feel happy. My heart felt very heavy and sad last week when we had to cut down our rotted out old oak tree in the front yard even though it was a danger to our house and the neighbor's house.

I did some research on Willow Trees that grow in Houston this week and learned that mine is called a Corkscrew Willow or -- and this is the name I like best -- a Dragon's Claw Willow. How cool is that?


Friday, February 13, 2009

Hey, Bud

It's Mom. I just wanted to take a few minutes out of my day to say hello. It might be a good time to play catch up on the family stuff, huh?

I think we've all finally caught our breaths and are learning to live our lives in a world where you are no longer. It's been the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

Your sisters are doing pretty good. Dani is graduating from school today and we're all going to be there (even your dad, who flew in just for the occasion!). She's been studying auto mechanics and fell in love with hydraulics. She's been at the top of her class and has stubbornly refused to miss any days. I'm really, really proud of her and we're all going to do everything we can to make today special for her. If you were here, I know you'd be proud of your sister, too.

Did you know that Jaime and Mark got married? Amazing, I know. Mark is still his pain-in-the-butt self, but in a good way and he absolutely adores Jaime. As for Jaime, I don't think I've seen her so happy in a long time. They are having their first baby in June and, hopefully, Mark will be able to get home on leave just in time for the baby to be born. It's a little boy, boy the way.

You would love Aiden. He's getting so big! He talks about you sometimes, like he knows you or something and that's pretty neat. The little guy has quite a big personality for someone his age. But, that's probably just "Gramma" talking!

Maxx and I are doing good. These days we mostly just work, eat, sleep and watch TV but with the weather getting better again we've been out working in the yard and stuff more. We both work strange schedules and hardly ever get days off together, so it's hard to plan much of anything. We do like to go hang out with friends on Wednesday nights for what I call "really bad karaoke" night -- and no, we don't do karaoke but it's a good excuse to get out of the house!

Well, Bud, I love you and I miss you every single day. Your being gone doesn't hurt quite so much all the time anymore, but once in awhile, like today, my heart and my soul come to the surface and just feel so sad.

I love you.

Until we meet again,

Sunday, February 08, 2009

I Love You

ltr, Jeremy, Jaime, me, Danielle. Our last picture together.

For my readers, both old and new, family and friend, I wrote this piece about two years ago when I was approached by a couple of producers who were working on a play in New York City. It was accepted to be part of the play but, sadly, it never got off the ground. I am no longer under contractual obligation to not share this piece, so I present it to you this day, five years from the day I last saw Jeremy.

Five years is a lifetime, yet it is the blink of an eye. I have come a long way from the days of absolute devastation I felt immediately after Jeremy's death, and so has the rest of my family. On the fifth anniversary of her older brother's death, my daughter, Danielle, will be graduating from a trade school and embarking on a new life. The rest of us will be there to celebrate with her and we will make what has been such a sad day for all of us a happy one for Danielle.

My family, my daughters and my husband, have given much. We have cried rivers of tears and grieved beyond belief. But we are alive! We survived! And I think, in the end, that is what Jeremy would want for us to do. We have now come full circle, according to the calendar on my wall.

To my daughters, Danielle and Jaime, know that I am profoundly proud of both of you. You are amazing women and I love you very, very much.

To my husband, Maxx, thank you for being there for me and with me. You have been my rock and my soft place to fall. I love you with all my heart and soul.

And to Jeremy's dad, without whom I would never have been Jeremy's mom. Thank you.

In peace and love,

“I love you,” three simple words that mean so much. They are the last words my son ever said to me. And they are the last words I ever said to him.

They were spoken at the end of a phone call the night before my only son, my firstborn child, died in a car accident. He was 22 years old and on one last final leave of absence from the Army before he and his unit were to leave to go to Iraq.

Jeremy was born on a cold November morning, the day after Thanksgiving that year. I remember that it snowed that day. From the moment he was born he stole my heart. I drank up every moment with him, from the dirty diapers, that baby smell, the late-night hours walking the floor, his cute little baby smiles. He was a happy baby and, later, a good little boy. When his sisters came along, he was a good big brother, too.

When he was a little boy, Jeremy got into trouble a lot, like many little boys do. One day, he and his sister, Danielle, were playing and he did something he shouldn’t have. Danielle threatened to tell on him. Jeremy, not wanting to get into trouble, came running to me as fast as he could to tell me what he had done himself, hoping to not get into trouble.

As Jeremy grew older and the turbulent teenage years hit, we was in trouble much of the time, but he always loved his sisters and me. For some reason, he felt a fierce sense of needing to protect us, often taking the role a father would take, even though he had one in the house. We had to remind him often that he was not the boss, which didn’t sit well.

When Jeremy was 19 he joined the Army Reserves, a dream he had had for a long time. He loved his weekends spent with the Army. One Army buddy tells the story of meeting Jeremy for the first time on an Army weekend. They were sitting in a room with a bunch of other members of their unit and had to introduce themselves to the group. Jeremy stood up and said “I’m Jeremy and I like beer.” He was the “computer guy” for his unit because he loved to work with computers.

During the week, Jeremy went to school and studied computer science. He excelled at this and got good grades.

Two days after Jeremy turned 22, his step dad, Maxx, and I took Jeremy to report for active duty. He was going to Iraq. As I fought back my tears and my fear, I couldn’t help but think how strange it was that I had spent 22 years trying to protect this young person from all harm and here I was, taking him to report for duty and to go to a war. Every shred of my being cried out that this was wrong. But Jeremy was proud to be serving his country. He looked so grown up, so handsome, in his camouflage uniform and boots as he unloaded his bags from our truck. He smiled that smile he had when he didn’t want anyone to see him smiling as he talked with the other members of his unit and introduced Maxx and I to various people he would be going to Iraq with. When the time came, I hugged and kissed Jeremy goodbye, not knowing when I would see him again.

Jeremy came home on leave for Christmas that year, unexpectedly. We spent every moment we could with him, talking, laughing, watching movies together and drinking up every precious moment. For military families, you never know when you see your loved one, if it will be the “last” time. He stayed with us through New Year’s, and then had to go back to Ft. Hood.

On this trip, Jeremy brought his Last Will & Testament, handed it to me and informed me that I would be the sole inheritor of all he owned, his life insurance, everything. He also gave me his Power of Attorney in the event anything happened to him. As we sat and talked about these things, tears fell from my eyes. Every ounce of my soul screamed out “This isn’t right! This can’t be right!” Jeremy and I talked about what he wanted me to do in case he died. We talked about the war and how things were going in Iraq. As we talked, I kept thinking, “This isn’t happening.” My young son, now a man, expressed to me that he wanted to go to Iraq to help the people of that country have a better life.

Unexpectedly, Jeremy was able to come home on one last leave of absence around the beginning of February for four day weekend. We were thrilled to have the chance to be with him. Again, we drank up every single moment we had together, again not knowing that it would be our last.

At the end of his leave of absence, Maxx and I drove Jeremy back to Ft. Hood. It was a cold, rainy Monday and it was dark by the time we arrived at his barracks on the base. I remember standing there, on the side of the road next to his barracks as Jeremy and Maxx got out of the trunk, went around the back to get his things. Maxx and I waited while Jeremy took his bags inside, and then came back out to have a cigarette with me and to spend our last moments together. I choked back my tears as hard as I could.

I did not want to leave this handsome young man that I had spent all of my adult life raising. The fear that gripped my heart was just….just indescribable.

We finished our cigarettes and ground them into the dirt with our shoes. I summoned up every bit of strength I had in my body and tried really hard not to cry in front of Jeremy. I had to be strong for him. I HAD to be strong. He was scared to go to Iraq. I couldn’t let him see my fear and worry.

Jeremy and I hugged each other as hard as we could for a few minutes. Then I kissed him and walked away to get in the truck as Jeremy and Maxx said their goodbyes. I opened the door of the truck to get in, looked down and saw my hand on the inside handle as I heard a sob escape from my body. Before I knew what I was doing, I ran back to Jeremy, tears steaming down my cheeks. I let him see me cry this time. I held him as close as I could. I touched his face and kissed him, smelled him. I asked him, begged him, to be careful over there. “Come home safe,” I said.

Maxx and I got in the truck and I cried for a long time. I knew. Somehow I knew it would be the last time I would see my son alive.

Five days later, on Friday the 13th at 7 o’clock in the evening, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and there was a uniformed Army Sergeant standing there, asking to come in. I knew why he was there.

I Love You -- Part II

I was home alone that night. Maxx and I had been sick all week long, and that was the first time all week, since leaving Jeremy at Ft. Hood, that either of us had been able to leave the house. Maxx had gone to pick up some much-needed groceries and had only been gone five minutes.

“Ma’am, the Army regrets to inform you…” The words hung in the air as the Sergeant stood in my living room.

My legs gave out and my body slid onto the couch.

“There has been an accident” he said.

I wasn’t hearing, although my heart knew, what this man was telling me. “Is Jeremy okay?” I asked.

“No, Ma’am. Your son as passed away,” was his response.

I called Maxx and told him only to come home now. He was back faster than the speed of light, hearing my shaky voice on the phone. The Sergeant stayed with me and repeated to Maxx what he had said to me.

I knew Jeremy would not come back home alive. I just thought he would die in Iraq, not in a car accident. What the hell was he doing in that car? Where did he get the car? Did he suffer? Was anyone else hurt? All of this flew through my mind in an instant. The Sergeant had no answers.
My heart cried with pain and grief the likes of which I had never known. It was a very physical ache in my heart that set in that night and did not go away for many, many months. At the same time, a strange sense of emotional numbness set in that also stayed for a long time. This and only this is what enabled me to get through the next tasks that I had to perform.

The military always assigns an officer to help the families of those who have died while on active duty to get through the paper work and arrangements that have to be made. The next day, our Officer came to see us in the midst of a house full of friends and family. I had to decide on what kind of casket would be my son’s last bed. Maxx helped me find a funeral home and made an appointment for us to go there the following Monday. I had made all the phone calls the night before that changed the lives of every single member of my family.

Jeremy’s injuries were so severe that we were cautioned by the Army and, later, by the Funeral Director, that we did not want to see his body. I elected to take their advice and remember my son the way he was the last time I saw him rather than broken and torn. Sometimes, now, I wish I had asked to see the tattoo on his arm just to verify for myself that it was, truly, my son in that box.

I was consumed with making sure every single detail of Jeremy’s funeral was perfect. It was my last responsibility to him as his mother.

At the funeral, Jeremy’s paternal grandfather was giving a eulogy, talking about how virtuous Jeremy was. I started giggling. I was reliving the moments when we had picked Jeremy up for his last trip home. The three of us, Maxx, Jeremy and me, were sitting in the cab of the truck, driving down Interstate 45 and Jeremy asked me if he could use my washing machine when we got home to wash some clothes. I told him of course he could. He then proceeded to tell me that he had got lipstick on some of his clothes a couple nights before while visiting a “titty bar”. I guess if you can call loving women virtuous, then Jeremy was virtuous!

Later, while sitting on a bench at the cemetery, when the funeral was over and I had been presented with the flag that covered Jeremy’s casket, I broke down. I realized I had completed my last earthly responsibilities to my son. My life as Jeremy’s mother was finished and I had to learn how to continue on with my life without him. As I tried to stand, I could not get up. My legs defied me even as the tears rolled down my face once again. I sobbed as I had not done all week. My friends, my sister-friends gathered around me, each taking a turn touching me and holding me, giving me their strength.

Memories of Jeremy flooded my head and heart. I could see him as my baby, remembered exactly how he smelled when he was tiny and I would sit and cuddle with him in the wee hours of the morning. I remembered how, when he did something he shouldn’t do, he would come to me and tattle on himself before his younger sister had the chance. I remembered how proud he was the year he played Little League Baseball and how much he loved his cat, Cuddles. So many memories about a life cut short too soon.

It’s been three years now since Jeremy died. Now, when people ask me how many children I have, I have to stop and think about the answer. I gave birth to three beautiful, amazing children. Only two are living now. But I am still and always will be Jeremy’s mom. I still search for his face in crowds and wait for his footsteps in my driveway. All that I have, all that I am, I would give up just to touch his face one last time, to hear his voice, to see his face. Sometimes I am angry at Jeremy for being so careless in a car, for dying, for causing so much pain. I get angry because parents are not supposed to bury their children. They should not die before we do. It’s just not the natural order of things.

I don’t think the pain ever goes away. You just learn to live with it.