Come What May

It was a cold, gray, January day.  All of the other kids were in school as it was a Thursday, but Kid A had checked herself out early.  It was her 18th birthday, so she could do that now.  She climbed into her newly-leased electric car and turned on her iPod.  The passionate and emotional voices of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman spilled from the sound system.  The words blasted her ears and bombarded her heart.  The song lasted the exact length of time it took her to drive from parking lot to parking lot.  She took it as a sign, like a cardinal at the window or unexplained feathers.

Sheepdog and I arrived together.  We held hands as we walked into the waiting room.  I noticed a giant eel slithering inside a 75-gallon fish tank before I even saw Kid A in the corner.  The building smelled faintly of rubbing alcohol and burning things.  We all hugged and walked over to meet with her guy.  She gave him a piece of paper that had been folded and unfolded and looked at so many times that it had the worn feel of soft leather.  They spoke to one another in the language of creative people.  Then he scanned her paper into the computer and pulled it up on the big screen.  A lone sob escaped from my throat before I could pull it back.

Seeing his familiar handwriting up there, larger than life, I was caught completely off guard.  But seeing it a few hours later, permanently inked onto the slight wrist of my oldest child, it actually felt good.  After all she had seen and experienced and lived through the past few years, it felt right.  Well, as right as a tattoo can possibly be.

"I will love you until my dying day."

“I will love you until my dying day.”

His life story will always be a part of hers.  He left his mark on her heart.  Now his handwriting is marked on her forever as well.


Today is the first anniversary of Braden’s death.  One whole year has gone by.  An entire year of holidays, and birthdays, and Mondays.  One whole year passed of experiences, and change, and growth.  One whole year of the regular and mundane too.  One whole year of memories made without Braden.  I feel like that is one of the worst parts.

I have thought of him so much over the past year.  Sometimes I think of him intentionally, like when I plant flowers in his memory.  I talk to him as I’m doing the work, updating him with new funny stories as well as the regular day-to-day stuff that’s been going on.  And when these plants inevitably die, I think of him again because I know he is playing a twisted joke on me.  All of my other plants thrive.  It’s just the ones that I tell him are “his” that end up brown and crispy.  I like to think that Braden enjoys our conversations so much that he is just making sure that I’ll keep checking in with him.  So I guess I’ll keep buying him new plants.  And I’m good with that.

Other times he pops into my consciousness accidentally, like when I recently came across the milk shake recipe for cancer patients that I used to make for him when his stomach could tolerate them.  It was made with protein powder and coffee and chocolate sauce and Haagen-Dazs ice cream.  It always made me so happy when he would finish one, because he was losing so much weight and what else packs on the pounds but the best ice cream on the planet?  I also find him popping into my head when I’m listening to music in the car, wondering if he got to hear that really great song before he died.  Or was he around for that game?  Or did he get to see that movie?  Or look at that blood moon?  As more and more time passes, the answer is almost always ‘no.’  Not while he was here with us on earth.

So, to officially and reverently mark the passage of one whole year without Braden, Sheepdog and the kids and I went on a short hike up the Indian Seats Trail at Sawnee Mountain this past Sunday.  When we reached the top, we found some rocks off the beaten path and we sat together as a family.  We overlooked the valley below and Sheepdog said some nice words and reminded us that Braden is happy and healthy now and we shouldn’t ask for anything more than that.  He also reminded us to be thankful for our own health and happiness and to make each day mean something.  Some of us spoke about happy memories and fun times with Braden.  Some of us weren’t able to speak at all.

There was a placard up by the Indian Seats that said mountaintops are considered sacred by Native Americans because they bring us closer to Father Sky.  I don’t know about that, but I certainly felt closer to my God and to Braden that day.  It was sacred and it was good.  Well, as good as it can be when somebody is taken away before we are ready for it.

Wish me luck for tomorrow… come what may.

Remembering Braden

You know the feeling when something bad is coming and the thought of it makes you really sad?  It is called anticipatory grief.  When you are experiencing anticipatory grief, you do everything that you can to prepare yourself, and you begin to think that you will be able to handle the bad thing when it comes.  Except that when the bad thing actually happens, you feel like you got punched in the face and then kicked in the stomach, over and over and over again.  In reality, there is no way to be prepared at all.

I had a dream early this morning that I was falling down a deep hole.  I dropped and dropped for what seemed like miles, clawing at the dirt as I flew down desperately trying to get purchase on the wall.  After a very long time, I hit the ground.  In my dream, I screamed from the utter and complete agony.  My bones were broken and my head was throbbing and spinning.  I hurt so very much all over.  And then I woke up.

But that was when the pain became really intense.  Because I remembered that Braden was gone.

Braden Dean Smith died peacefully at home in the early hours of Monday, May 13, 2013, surrounded by his family.  His fourteen-month long fight with leukemia had left his body and mind exhausted and worn, far beyond his mere nineteen years.  He tackled his illness with bravery and intensity, but the disease was simply insurmountable in the end.  He is survived by his mother, Stacy, and his father, Steve, as well as five younger brothers and sisters… Chloe, Maddie, Cameron, Rachel and Eric.  He is also loved by countless family members and friends who consider ourselves so lucky to have had him in our lives.

I am so very grateful that Braden is no longer suffering, even while we are left behind to suffer in his absence.

Braden was exceptional.  He had book and street smarts.  He was athletic.  He was funny.  He was passionate… about sports and politics and religion.  And he was also compassionate and caring and forgiving.  He was a great friend and a doting boyfriend.  He wanted to go to college and get married and have a family.  He wanted the good life.

But even when he was in the middle of the hardest battle he would ever fight, he was always looking out for those around him.  He was kind enough to indulge my anticipatory grief and go to lunch a few times with me over the last few weeks.  We talked about everything and nothing, fears and regrets, hopes and dreams.  It was inspiring to me and those conversations, as well as many others we had together, are memories I will always cherish.

I am so very sad right now.  My sadness comes in waves.  I am sad for the profound loss that his family is enduring.  A mother and father lost a son.  Siblings lost their big brother.  My daughter lost her first true love.  I am sad that a young man with so much potential had to suffer and die before his life ever really got started.  I am sad over the loss of my friend.  My grief is no longer anticipatory… it is here.

I know that it is healthy and normal to be sad and to grieve, especially over the loss of someone so young.  There is no rule book or guide to follow, but it is very important to seek counseling or fellowship immediately following the death of a loved one.  Fortunately, we have each other to lean on, confide in, reminisce with.  We need to remember Braden, talk about him, share stories about him.  It will help us and it will make Braden happy when we reach out and help each other.  Do it to honor him.

These pictures are from one of my favorite days with our whole family, including Braden, after he had been diagnosed and had gone through a transplant.  He was getting his energy back and it was a nice day, so we went over to Webb Bridge Park to play on the playground and throw around the football.  It was pure and happy and good.  Remembering that day will always make me smile.

It will not bring him back, but it will keep him eternally alive in our hearts and our memories.

I sure do miss you already, Kid.  Until we meet again…

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

The Other Shoe

There is an old tale about a weary traveller who stayed for some time at an inn. His room was just below that of a man who worked nights. When that man would come back to the inn after his shift was completed, he would ready himself for bed, starting with the absentminded removal of one shoe. It fell to the floor with a loud thud, waking the sleeping traveller below. Having been startled, the traveller would wait for the other shoe to drop before he would allow himself to fall back into deep slumber. But the upstairs man had remembered by then that there was someone sleeping below him, so he carefully removed his other shoe and placed it on the ground with nary a sound. Eventually the frustrated and impatient traveller would yell out, “For goodness’ sake, would you just drop the other shoe already!?!”

Years ago I was awoken by the “thump” of a falling shoe. It is a long story – one not meant to be told right now – but know my sincerity when I say that I surely didn’t expect to contemplate a bare foot just then. I was distracted with the day-to-day of working and mommy-ing and daughter-ing and sister-ing and wife-ing and house-running that I did not see the signs. Sometimes you just don’t. The shoe just falls.

Afterwards, I felt uneasy. Other things in my life suffered neglect because I was always watching and waiting for that other shoe to drop. But life doesn’t always happen in the way you hope or plan or will it to. Some things happen without rhyme or reason or logic or order. I learned to focus again over time, without always looking over my shoulder for a black cloud or a bad sign or some warning for some unnamed, unknown thing that may or may not ever happen to me. Day by day I slowly moved on and I began to participate instead of just letting life happen to me.

In my mind, the greatest thing about being a human being is what you can learn from relationships and what you can learn from experiences. Not just your own, either, but yours, mine and theirs too. If you truly open your heart and mind to people and adventures then you can learn all sorts of things that have the potential to help you evolve. I’m certainly not always successful, but I do try to pay attention to the lessons that are presented to me along my way.

One of the things I have figured out is that many shoes will likely fall throughout my life. Some I will anticipate, but others will startle me out of a deep sleep. And when they do, I will continue to try to face each challenge with strength and courage and, of course, humor.


He was getting stronger and healthier. He was gaining weight and an appetite. He was running and biking. His freckles came back out. His hair started to grow back. He could drive again. He was throwing around the idea of starting college in January because the doctors said it might be an option.

Kid A with Braden before Homecoming in October

Then, last Wednesday, another shoe just dropped. Braden’s leukemia came back.

He started chemotherapy on Monday. We will celebrate his nineteenth birthday next week.

It is scary and uncertain and my instinct is to wait and listen for the other shoe to drop before I can go back to sleep. I want to hit stuff and I want throw things and I want to curl up in the fetal position and cry. I physically ache for Braden and his mom and dad and sisters and brothers. It hurts so very much to watch as Kid A lives out this experience. I want to yell out, “Just drop the other shoe already!” And I will.

But I (hope that I have) learned which behaviors are effective and which ones are futile, so I will go back to being strong and believing and praying and having courage. I will do my best to uplift him and his family and, of course, Kid A, as they ride this crazy roller coaster of cancer. And this time I will remind myself that not all shoes come in pairs. Or I will remember that sometimes the upstairs man will lay them down with nary a sound.

Here’s hoping that life’s shoes will be more pretty Louboutins than ugly rubber boots, but I will make room in my closet for all of them.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…