Saturday, February 25, 2012


Though it's often frowned upon, I've often applied the concept of relativity to my day to day life. It's intuitive, after all. I make x dollars. You are a member of the 1%. While you're certainly much richer than I am, we're both doing well compared to some. This principle is often a useful source of perspective. Applied correctly, it makes you appreciate what you have and value the things you do have. All too I've thought that we- myself no less than others- suffer from an ill-advised application of this principle. The tendency is always to notice what you lack, so often than you lose sight of what you have. It's a trite message and one I've always thought is overdone around Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the right circumstances, I think some healthy jealousy is quite motivating. There's no reason to go to do well in school or work hard if you don't want better.

Lately I've felt a lot of the wrong kind of jealousy. I catch myself watching other people's children's grow in a steady progression on facebook, while I trudge along with the same pictures, James frozen forever in time. They're learning to walk, talk, and making delightful little videos. I've blocked a few feeds. Just like James would be doing if he were here. I am jealous of the ease that seems to bless them, the casual way with which they go about their days, blissfully unaware of words like rhabdoid. Mercifully ignorant of the economics of cemetery plots and monuments. As the season turns and we drift farther and farther away from the long summer of James' illness, the fixed nature of his passing becomes even more unavoidable.

It's not that I can't, or don't want, to talk to people about their kids. Quite the opposite. I'm always pleased when people decide to have kids and want to talk about them. James was the best thing that ever happened to me, and the ending has nothing to do with that. It's great to talk to people and see how they're doing and their kids are doing. If anything, I get the impression people who know about James are less comfortable talking about their kids with me, perhaps because they fear that I won't take it well. That's not true. (Though if you make direct comparisons, as a few people have done, between your child's trip to the ER for a sinus infection and my son's terminal brain cancer we might have a problem.) I particularly enjoy talking about James. To do otherwise neglects the best part of his life, the part that had nothing to do with cancer and everything to do with his bright smile. It is important not to let the memories of James' death obscure the more important experience of his life.

Since he died, I've met a few people who didn't know. When asked if I have children, I try to give the same answer "I had a son, but he passed away." I tried saying "I don't have children" once or twice, with horrific results, including one person at a lawyer function who commented that I'd clearly looked at kids, looked at my job, and decided kids were too much of a commitment. "I have a son" is equally unhelpful, because there are no questions about that son I can answer in the present tense. So I've elected to go with the truth, because I think it's important to acknowledge and celebrate him.

So it's not a particular sense of jealousy I feel towards the individuals. I'd never wish what happened to James on any family. It's a more generalized, relative sense of jealously for the life I'm not living. I'm missing a hypothetical. My life would be more like X if James were alive. If James were alive, X would be happening. Relative to my current situation, all of these things feel like an improvement, and I feel worse because of it. I remember feeling this way in the hospital, jumping right through the ER waiting room on each of our return trips from home, jealous of all the families waiting for care, because it meant their children were in no danger of dying before their wait ended. It's a frustrating, useless feeling, but it's there.

I try and sometimes succeed in telling myself that there's nothing to compare to. James is James, and I wouldn't trade him for anything. The relativity I should focus on isn't on the life I'm not living but on the life I did- how blessed I was to meet my son and to know him for the eight months that I did. Most of the time, I do. Sometimes though, it's hard to look past the easier analogies. Maybe next year, when I notice the seasons less.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Today I was watching Parenthood. It's one of those shows that's good enough to make the DVR rotation, but not so good that you feel an obligation to watch it quickly. Weekend DVR material, the kind of thing you leave on in the background while you sort the laundry. I have a weird affinity for ensemble family dramas. Anyway, about halfway through the show there's a scene where the autistic son of one couple invites the disabled son of another over. Both parents are excited, there's an exchange of information, and the mother of the disabled boy says something along the lines of "We're so glad he has a friend. He's never had a friend before." I couldn't say exactly why, but for some reason this line made me cry.

I virtually never used to cry. I long ago mastered the male ethos of keeping it together, pushing the feelings down, and moving on to the next action item. It's not that hard once you get the hang of it really. The habit is much harder to pick back up once you've broken it though. I've had streaks of years without tears. Not anymore. I'm lucky if I hit hours now.

When something like this happens, you become more aware. You notice the thin lines and forced cheerfulness in a stranger's face when the word "cancer" slips off their tongue, always just casual enough that it won't end the conversation. You recognize the strain in their voice, and know that the "handling it well" that they're speaking of is really a polite euphemism for walking upright rather than falling to the ground and bawling their eyes out. I never noticed all that before, because I did not know. It's like I've been exposed to the vast sadness at the core of things, and cannot look past it to the facade. It's not a completely bad thing. I do more for people. I'm more empathetic. I'm probably a better person though frankly I could have done without the self-improvement.

So I find myself crying at inopportune moments, pausing between folding undershirts to cry at an actor's honestly not all that convincing delivery on a recorded television show. Like an idiot, I'm now journeying mentally through this fictional person and her lonely son's battle with spinal bifida. I am imparting far, far too much pathos to the scene. I'm drifting from stoic to that obnoxious person in the movie theater.

At the heart of it of course, is that I miss him. I miss his smile and his laugh. I miss his probing eyes and his little fingers wrapped around mine. I miss his smell, trapped, but fading, in the clothes resting idle in his drawers. I miss him all the time.

Thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's

This is James' one and only Valentine. It's my all time favorite Valentine's Day card. James contributed his feet, which are amazing. Obviously. I keep it in my office, along with an ever stationary array of pictures, plucked in time from a moment when I looked forward to more Valentine's day James gifts. I'm glad Kara made this- I'm glad James got to see all the holidays, even if he was young. We were very blessed.

I hope you all had a lovely day. It's not that bad, once you get past all the red. Thank you for all your continued thoughts and prayers.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


I've posted this image before, and looked at it hundreds of times more than that. It's James at the arboretum, munching. I always thought it was funny because of how warily he seems to be addressing the camera. I miss that.

Like this picture, I've noticed often lately that things seem to be on repeat. Perusing through old entries I noticed that I used some of the same words: "derailed" twice in a month. Derailed indeed. Many of the same feelings keep repeating, being resurrected, buried, and resurrected again. The longer this process goes the more I am surprised by the many twists and turns it takes. The path is never straight, pausing time and again to circle back in on itself. It reminds me more of a river than a highway, complete with oxbows and dead ends. There's no certainty about quite where you'll end up.

When I was young, my Grandfather, also James, used to take me fishing on the Red River in Louisiana. A tributary of the Mississippi River, it snakes its way leisurely from the Panhandle of Texas generally southeast until it meets the Mississippi. We particularly fished the little oxbow lakes along its way, little abandoned offshoots that never quite made it, experiments before the river took another course or overcame the obstacle in its way. It's all very vestigial. I sometimes feel that way now, running down dead ends only to come out and hunt for more.

There were no circles and abandoned paths in the grief I experienced before James died. When my grandparents died or someone similar died there was a sense of finality. Shock, yes, certainly for a while, but it passes. It was expected after all, if not when it happened then eventually. Anger, denial, bargaining, acceptance. It's the last one that causes trouble with the death of a child. You can accept that your parent dies- they had their time, their moments, their joy. It is much more difficult to accept that your child is dead. On a visceral level, I do not accept James' death. I acknowledge it certainly, but I cannot yet accept it. I cannot accept that it was his time, that is was right, that it happened for "a reason" as some people sometimes say, a well meaning if callous phrase.

So I keep circling round and round that. I can acknowledge things, even good things that have happened since James died. I've written about them here. But the fact of his death can still be incapacitating. It stands as a violation of the natural order. And so I keep circling. Round and round the little pockets of grief, cycling through all the stages in an hour or a month. People often tell me to embrace it, to give it time and to work through it, but sometimes it's hard to do that, especially when I feel like I've been there before. Sometimes it feels like an admission of defeat to pause, retreat, and recover the ground I've already walked through, circling back over and over again. But I don't know what else to do.

I know part of it is just accepting that there is no "acceptance" I'm likely to stumble upon. I'm not going to wake up one day and decide "Huh, well I guess it's ok my son died. That wasn't that bad." Because it was that bad. I think a better, more reasonable goal might be hoping I can accept that I won't be accepting it, but that I might accept that there's not a timeline, not an easy answer, and that I'm never going to "accept" what happened- that I'm not going to come to the apparently zen state described in the pamphlets in which I'm sublimely "at peace" with everything. A more achievable goal might be that I can accept that I will live with it. I don't know what that looks like, but I'm curious enough to keep looking. So I'll keep circling until the path works itself out. I'd rather do that than rush to a goal I'm not sure of.

Thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Life has a natural sense of forward progress. There's a natural rhythm to it. You're born. You grow up, mingle with other kids and scrape your knees. You play games and dream of a day when you can spend one more hour exploring the creek, the woods, or whatever it might be. You go to school and grudgingly learn from your teachers, pent-up energy bursting at the seams in the desk. Reading, writing, and arithmetic. Next to junior high and high school, all awkward bumbling and stylized socialization. Then college, laid back, philosophical, and free to do follow mood strikes you. You meet a girl with a similar bent and similar goals and you marry. Get a job, work hard, have a family.

With a few deviations, before James died my life was on course. I stumbled, sometimes badly, but I usually ended up in the right place one way or another. Good job, nice house, nice car. A beautiful little boy. The future was bright. Then James got sick, and the future died with him. I'm sure it's different for people who have more kids. If you lose one you have to keep going, you have a reason to. When you lose your only child you lose all that comes with having a family. Grandchildren, parenting, all the good reasons you had. With James went so many things. My first name is James, and my father and his father's, and so forth and so on. That's over now, two hundred years and it ends with me. James' furniture, neat and unused in his room, an empty nursery that I don't know what to do with. And so nothing happens, and the nursery remains, stocked and empty. People always bond by talking about their kids, it's a good source of common material. But I have nothing to contribute, I never had a kid. I had a baby and that baby died. My parenting stories begin and end with diapers and crawling. There's no transition to toddler. I usually say nothing. Nothing kills a good conversation like throwing your tragedy into the mix. It's not that I don't like to talk about James, I do. It's great to talk about him, and I love to hear what people thought of him. I just can't compare him to anyone else.

I'm out of sync with the life I planned. It vanished with James, and in its place is something much less appealing. Grief, loss, and all the emotions that come with it. Since we found out Kara was pregnant, James was my purpose. I think that's true of anyone with kids. You might get distracted, but when it comes down to it that's what you're doing.

My brother got married this weekend. It was lovely, if lengthy as Catholic weddings tend to be. An old downtown church full of architectural detail, like the Church I married in, but mine was Methodist instead of Catholic. The reception was enjoyable, an old theater in downtown Houston, complete with an open bar and an antique finish. Very roaring 20s. It was good to see my family and to celebrate, but I remember watching them dance, watching my cousin- 2 weeks older than James- trot down the aisle bearing the ring and feeling out of step. Out of step with where my life was supposed to be, with what I was supposed to accomplish by year 28. I imagined many tragedies, but this was never one of them. There was no how to manual, no contingency plan.

Part of this feeling is the loss of any perceived sense of control I had over my life. Although it's often an illusion, the idea that you're not just bobbing along in the waves offers a certain comfort. But that's silly. You don't control the world, and as recent events have proved to me conclusively, you often can't even control the things most important to you. I've come to the conclusion that the only thing you can really do is control how you respond to the things that happen to you. You can't control the waves, but that doesn't mean you have to drown.

That's how I feel about James sometimes. My life has been derailed, and I can either choose to drown with the vision of life I had or see what's on the other side. I'll admit I don't really know what that looks like yet. The rhythm is off, I don't expect to get back on track. I've gotten about as far as deciding that I'm interested in finding out what the new path looks like. The rest? Well, I'm not planning that far ahead anymore.

Thank all of you for your continued thoughts and prayers.