Braden’s Memorial – Part One

Before Braden passed away last week he was doing the unthinkable… planning parts of his own memorial service.  He wanted to make some of the decisions so that no one else would have to.  He said it felt surreal, but he did it with an unbelievable calmness and sense of purpose.  I am still amazed.

When he asked Kid A and I to speak, we both yelled out “F*ck” in unison.  Now, I sometimes curse like an Eagles fan in a sports bar, but Kid A is not really the type, so it was kind of sweet that we both had the exact same reaction to his request.  Nevertheless, we told Braden that we were honored that he wanted us to do it and we would try our very best.

Last week was a whirlwind of tears and heartbreak and sadness for all of us.  My biggest concern was that neither Kid A nor myself would be able to make words come out of our mouths that would be loud or coherent enough to be heard over our crying.  And it is less than glamorous to have snot bubbles when you are speaking in front of a bunch of people.  But we still wanted to say something meaningful that gave honor to Braden’s memory, so we tried to make a plan.

Little did I know that Kid A’s plan involved practicing full stage makeup on the morning of the service for her part as the wolf in her ballet studio’s production of Peter and the Wolf, which is happening next weekend.  Two hours before we were leaving she came out of her room looking like this:

What are YOU wearing to the memorial service?

Fortunately, the black makeup all washed off.  When we got to the service we tried not to talk to anybody who might set us off crying.  We tried not to look at the happy pictures of Braden on the screen or leaning on the easel.  We didn’t read the Fitzgerald quote about courage on the back of the memory card that was perfectly suited for Braden.  But we listened as the guitarist played the music he loved.  And we sat in the high school auditorium seats and smiled and cried along with everyone else as his Grandad, Walt, his godmother, Lisa, and his friends, Jared, Emily, and Chris all spoke beautifully and from their hearts.  And then we stood up and walked to the podium together.

Kid A broke the tension by telling everyone that when Braden asked her to speak, she said, “F, no!”  Yes, my daughter pseudo-cursed at her ex-boyfriend’s memorial service and I could not have been more proud.  It was charming and fitting and Braden surely laughed a big belly laugh when he heard it.  Then she read a short passage that she wrote about Braden going off to college.  It was incredibly perfect for his memorial service, even though she wrote it months before he was diagnosed.  She was calm and composed and she got through the whole thing.  I asked her if it would be okay if I shared it here because it is so beautiful, and she said yes…

There once was a bird, brown – the color of hickory wood and milk
chocolate and worn leather, with wings too big for its body. It sang songs at
early hours of the morning and late at night, but never after sunrise, when
the other birds would join in. This brown bird liked to feel like it was the
only one up in the trees, the only one on the block, the only one on the
whole earth, when it sang.
It lived in the branches that rattled against our bedroom window
come summer nights, storms crashing through the sky like clockwork and
gone as quickly as they appeared. We would wake up every time it began to
sing, and though it wasn’t the prettiest birdsong we’d heard by any means,
something about what it projected had meaning, and we all knew we were
meant to listen. The brown bird sang to us about love and loss and
heartache and missing and empathy and pure joy, and about excitement
and fear and safety and comfort and family and friendship.
His big wings would have made another bird look out of proportion,
but they suited the brown bird just fine. He wouldn’t have been himself
without them, because besides singing, that bird loved to fly. He’d be gone
for days at a time, and the sticky summer air was empty without his song.
The night before a long trip, he would sing to us about all the places he’d be
going, and about how he was really just biding time in the branches outside
our window. Soon he’d leave for good. The next morning, a flash of
caramel in the waking sky would be our goodbye.
One spring, the brown bird sang for us one last time. The song wasn’t
sad, but it brought tears to our eyes. We had that bird on borrowed time,
and he had taught us about life, but we couldn’t hold him back any longer.
We listened to him sing through the night, and when the sun came up he
held a final note and was off.
We all loved that brown bird, and he loved us, but his wings were too
big for his body and they were made that way so he could fly away.

Then it was my turn to speak, so I wiped away my snot bubbles and held on to the podium with both hands.  Next time, I will share with you what I said to honor Braden.  Until then,

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

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…

My Greatest Fear

I recently responded to a form that posed the question What three things scare you?

I am afraid of:
3.  fire
2.  losing Sheepdog
1.  something bad happening to my children

Answer number three is easily traced back to five or six-year-old me watching in the pitch dark of a moonless night as a house just down the street from mine burned to the ground.  Monstrous, black and gray clouds of dense smoke poured out of the window openings like sand flowing out of a beach bucket that, instead of traveling down to a pile on the ground as sand should, defied gravity and floated up toward the heavens.  I remember standing amongst my neighbors and thinking about the family that lived inside that house, wondering if they had been asleep like I was when the fire started.  Did anyone get hurt?  No matter the answer, their lives would be forever changed.

Losing my spouse, whether to death or divorce, scares me too.  Sheepdog may drive me crazy on a regular basis, but that is mostly because he challenges me.  He doesn’t accept my bologna, no matter how confidently I may present it.  He is my stabilizer and my sounding board.  He encourages and inspires me to be a better person.  He also makes me laugh.  He is my teammate in this crazy relay race.  He is my best friend.  I may get sick of hearing even more than I can imagine about bikes and/or guns, but isn’t that better than the alternative?

As far as my babies are concerned, I worry about any and every one of the following… cuts and bruises, broken bones, heartbreak, wounds suffered at the hands of a bully, sickness, suffering of any kind, emotional scars, terminal illness, death.  And then some.  I don’t worry about them hourly – or even daily – most of the time, but they are there festering in the part of my brain that recalls the smoke and the smell of burning things.  It is the same part of me that is scared to navigate life alone, without someone who gets me like Sheepdog does.

The community where I grew up was turned upside down on Saturday by fatal accidents.  The community where my kids are growing up has been devastated over this past year by more than one unthinkable loss.  And the ones who died were all children.  It is my greatest fear.

The sharp knife of a short life. - The Perry Band, "If I Die Young"

My mind is twisted and tangled with thoughts.  I wake in the middle of the night, wondering.  How do the families affected by these tragedies go forward?  Death happens every day, but some deaths affect us more powerfully.  How do you get through the day when you send your child out the door and he doesn’t come home?  Will something bad happen to my children?  How can things like this be prevented?  Do I have enough faith?  Why, just why?

Words like fate, luck, misfortune and happenstance all come to mind.  The struggling part of me sheds tears for the ones who lived lives that were just beginning, that didn’t get to experience enough of anything.  Moreover, I feel an immobilizing and chest-crushing pain for those who must live the daily struggles that occur in the wake of these incidents… friends, teachers, coaches, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers.  They are the ones who must overcome and live through my greatest fear.

Rest in peace, young ones.  May God watch over you.

Live in peace, family and friends.  May God and angels watch over you as well.

Sometimes bad things happen.  It is a fact of life.  Neither you nor I have any control over it.  We are defined by how we react to the things that life throws at us.  So speak more kindly, love with more passion.  Be grateful for what you have and the life you live today.  Forgive and have patience.  Leave each place better than it was when you got there.

Doing these things will not exempt you from tragedy.  But you will live a life that means something, and that seems to be the best way to pay tribute to those children who were taken from us too soon, before their lives really even got started.

My deepest sympathies go out to the Mainland community.