In the late 1990s, I attended a seminar in which a woman discussed her recently published book about her experience of working with dying AIDS patients in New York City. Most of her talk centered around the taboo topic of death in today’s world. One of the biggest mistakes we make as a society, she said, is to presume that when a loved one leaves the premises, he or she will return.
My former self would never have fathomed how the author’s profound statement would one day relate to my own life. Two years ago this past Memorial Day weekend, my son left his childhood home and went back to his home, never to return again. My memory frames his tall, broad-shouldered, 26-year-old portrait standing inside our front door. The flashback triggers feelings of sadness and loss, wet and heavy like a low pile rug drenched in pain. I cannot wring out the emotions nor erase the calm look and smile on his ginger-bearded face in those shared final moments. When he was younger, he was the spitting image of his father. Now, his uncanny resemblance to me was unmistakable. Like a baby blanket hand washed hundreds of times, he was familiar to me. Ironically, at the time I was grateful that, in many ways, my job as a mom was a proud accomplishment. He had grown up into a successful young man. Best of all, I thought, I instilled a sense of independence in him and despite a string of setbacks, he had flown the nest.
The airport shuttle bus driver, who was waiting in the driveway to transport him to the airport, beeped the horn. I followed my son outside. I paid little attention to what I took for granted as just another gifted moment. As he sat in the mini bus, I do remember feeling as if he were a young boy again and leaving on the school bus. I waved goodbye as the vehicle disappeared. A part of my former, practical self kicked in and I became focused on my engine red to-do list that was on fire in my mind because there were endless chores, obligations and responsibilities to check off. Yet, another part of me yearned for him to stay one more day and watch the town’s Memorial Day parade, the one he once loved to participate in when he was growing up where there was always a place for him. Just one more day.
I was confident in our Gorilla Heavy Duty Adhesive bond and was tricked to believe no human hands, certainly not our own, could sever it. I returned to the house alone, walked into the entranceway where my mind’s eye captured a snapshot of him towered high, emphasized by the door’s frame. Saying his final goodbye, he had stood in front of the main door with his back to where the sun sets and not far from where our road intersects with another road named Sunset Drive. The same route the driver traveled to take my son home to where he lived on Sunset Road in Kentucky, about 600 miles away. Six months later, the unimaginable happened and my life as I had known it went poof like the blank shells fired during Memorial Day parades.
How could this have happened in my miracle-filled, storied life that began thirty-five years prior when I stood at a crossroads? At that time, I was given a second chance in my life and slowly developed a life of faith. It started when, angry at religion and filled with notions of a punishing God, the 12-step program I later ascribed to taught me to believe in something other than myself. This “something” was called a higher power, and I learned that the higher power could be as random as a doorknob, but the key was, as long as it wasn’t me, it seeded a belief, and the idea of giving up my reign of control on outside circumstances helped me discover something I never experienced – inner peace.
During those years, after a rough ego-shedding start, I was grateful for my new life. My thank-you notes were action steps. Whether someone needed a car ride or a supportive phone call, I helped. I also volunteered at the local hospital’s mental health unit. I watched resilient people overcome insurmountable obstacles. Living a life of witnessing miracles, how could I not envision a bright, promising future for my one and only son? However, the string of happy tomorrows was ripped from me like perfectly healthy layers of skin. The tragedy happened 21 days after a 35-year milestone of my practicing the 12-step principles. It was a time of celebration. On that tragic day, however, I stepped on the landmine I had built out of my sugarcoated optimism, fantasies and misconceptions, and it detonated; my former self left behind in the explosion.
When I saw my son for the last time, framed in the soft cushion of his metal coffin, my new self released into his lifeless palms crowned with his slim fingers and bruised hands, my former self’s 35-year coin, a hallmark of recovery that I carried proudly for over three decades in my wallet like a medal of honor.
Now, nearly 19 months later, the minefields are cleared. I do not trip over booby-traps of overexaggerated optimism, and there are no milestone victory coins any longer in my possession. Don’t get me wrong. I am indebted to the people who helped me achieve those thirty-five years. I have not lost my inner peace. Now, though, I exist within a heavy metal grief framework. I head into my 37th year of recovery with feet flat, accepting life on life’s terms, allowing the raw reality to bite hard, but without chewing me to a pulp. I put my faith into believing that one day the barren, flat ground underneath me will be the perfect level to witness a sunrise; a luminescent horizon, a photo worth framing that makes you believe in an endless loop of miracles that make a surprise grand entrance at your front door.