Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Seeing Signs

On Mother’s Day morning, I was alone on a wisp of beach in Santa Barbara. The day felt fresh with limpid light and newly swept sand. I wasn’t expecting any pampering or tributes with Noah dead, Ben out of the country, and my husband busy. So I put my heart in neutral and tried to breathe in gratitude. I was grateful to be in that spot at that moment, bathed by the breeze. I scrolled through photos of Ben and Noah on my phone and my Healing album of people and things that have sustained me over these three years. When I looked up through tears, I saw not one but two whales blowing, then breaching, close to shore. The playful show of spray, flanks, and flukes went on for an incredible five or ten minutes, transfixing me and a passel of surfers. These two creatures showed up right on time for Mother’s Day brunch, along with a missed call from Ben that I noticed later. 
The next week, I was at the lake in my home town in suburban Maryland where I scattered the ashes of my mother and father in two separate places many years ago. The man-made lake used to swarm with fish, birds, and waterfowl but now seemed eerily empty. I walked around it starting at my father’s end, thinking about how I need to make room for his memory in my heart and how it’s losing Noah that has taught me this. As I paused at my mother’s end of the lake, a mallard paddled by with a flotilla of impossibly tiny ducklings in her wake, there and gone so fast I hardly believed it. Later, as I rounded the curve at my father’s end of the lake again, a figure stood in profile on top of the dam, regal and still and tall as a child. It was a blue heron gazing into the stream below. I crept as close as I could for a photo. My father, a bird lover, would have been pleased at the heron’s appearance, glad that I stopped long enough to notice what I least expected. If only I’d stopped to notice my father as a person in the few years we had together as adults before his suicide.

“The mourner’s mind is superstitious, looking for signs and wonders,”  writes Meghan O’Rourke in The Long Goodbye. We’re forever seeking meaning in things both ordinary and rare. Is it because we’re in a state of heightened receptivity and emotion? Because our minds are so attuned to yearning that everything becomes proof of the lost person’s presence? As suicide survivors, blindsided by a seemingly random act that upends our faith in the universe, we’re desperate to recapture a sense of order and a thread of connection. Signs affirm that connection by making it visible. They remind us of the enduring beauty and beneficence of the world and its random acts of kindness.

All this serendipity is a balm for the open, broken heart. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Milestones in the Parallel Universe

After each milestone, I expect an arrival of sorts, a sign. I should be in a different place after the third anniversary of Noah’s death, right? I’m further along the mourner’s path but still on that path, as if in some parallel universe. I step onto the treadmill of ordinary life for a while till I tumble off again and onto a parallel track, slower, more circuitous, with blind curves. 

The tears come less often now, more a fleeting sprinkle than a drenching downpour. So, too, sadly, do thoughts and memories of Noah. I’m less preoccupied with his life and death, more preoccupied with my own. I wear my loss and my identity as a mourning mom less and less visibly. “Over time, the sadness moves from our skin into our bones,” writes Claire McCarthy, who lost a child. “It becomes less visible, but no less who we are. It changes into a wisdom, one we’d give up in a heartbeat to have our child back.” 
I was teary again this weekend. It started at the communal memorial services that mark the end of Passover, when I felt my husband trembling beside me. First I held him, then he held me. This morning, I crumpled thinking of what Noah might have written in a card for his dad’s upcoming birthday. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that yesterday, May 1, 2016, was Bereaved Mother’s Day. I’m gratified that mothers who’ve lost children—mostly through miscarriage or infant death--have organized for recognition of their parallel universe of motherhood. Their efforts bring sweetness to this bittersweet time of year for mourning moms.

Spring is still full of landmines for our family. The anniversary was prolonged this year since there was a month between Noah’s secular anniversary and the yahrzeit, or personal memorial day, on the Jewish lunar calendar. In the weeks before and after the anniversary, my body signaled the date with a dull, persistent pain in the abdomen as if to say it’s always here. This has been happening like clockwork for three years with no apparent medical cause. Like it did at the beginning of this journey, the body still says no and stops ordinary time. 
We hosted a Passover Seder again this year, again without our usual energy. Now it's almost my husband’s 60th birthday and he’s said no to any parties or grand gestures; “I’ve kind of forgotten how to celebrate,” he admits. 

I seem to have caught my husband’s wariness of planning trips away from home; the prospect feels too complicated and exhausting. But maybe for good reason: We’re planning a celebration of Noah’s life at our home on what would have been his 25th birthday in June. One of Noah’s gifts was bringing people together. So we’re inviting his local and far-flung friends, along with family, and hope it will be a chance for people who loved Noah to meet, reunite, share memories and Noah’s favorite foods. It’s hard to see past this event to know how we’ll feel or what this milestone will mean.

Meanwhile, I’m very pleased about two milestones that coincided with the third anniversary. First, we finally started a small nonprofit foundation, the Noah Langholz Remembrance Fund, thanks to my husband’s diligence. The fund will support suicide awareness/prevention efforts, as well as organizations and activities that interested Noah and shaped his life, like international student exchange and wilderness experiences. Second, I finally completed a draft of my book about losing Noah. Now it will wend its way through comments, revisions, and publisher queries. All of us who loved Noah carry his legacy with us, but it’s largely invisible. Both the fund and the book will make Noah’s legacy visible in ways that we hope will be healing and enriching for others.