the gift of elephants
When a mother elephant loses her baby, other herd elephants gather in a circle around mother and calf. They don’t rush the mother elephant to move on. In fact, they stay, touching her with their trunks, quietly supporting her, pressed together, sometimes for days (a long time for nomadic animals), to console her, and to grieve a life, together.
Humans have a lot to learn from animals. When a mother human loses her baby, she is expected to move forward, return to work after 5 days (not enough time to grieve anyone, let alone a child), return to routines, return to relationships, return to responsibilities, return to life.
Grieving parents are expected to move on. Not because it is best for them, but because it is more comfortable for others. It is hard to watch someone you love suffer. It is hard. But when a mother loses her baby, no matter the age or stage of life, she will suffer. Whether you bear witness or not.
I am alive today, because I have my own circle of elephants. People who have gathered around me, and my baby, pressing together, for almost three years now, (a long time for a society uncomfortable with grief), to console, to grieve, to honor his life, together.
That circle of symbolic elephants has allowed me to grieve, has enveloped me in protection from the world, sat and listened, cried with me, laughed with me, walked in the woods, or on the beach with me, worked beside me, run beside me, traveled beside me. I have been touched lightly by those around me, those who press together, willing to stay, allowing me to stay, not asking me to move on, or away from my loss, my pain, my son.
My elephants are loving and patient people: mother, husband, sisters, brothers, children, grandson, family that became friends, friends that became family, therapist, nutritionist, trainer, art teacher, yoga teacher, spiritual guide, just to name a few. They have circled around and given me the space to just be. They have shown grace, forgiven me when I’ve lost patience or laid blame. And they have reminded me that I hold every basic tool for survival. They have encouraged my very breathing.
They have taught me to care for myself again. They've taught me how to explore. How to seek love everywhere. How to play. How to find joy without guilt. How to feel my sadness fully, and find power in that. They have learned to accept that it’s ok for me to not be okay some days.
What my elephants have illuminated most clearly is that I want to live, even on my darkest days. What a precious gift that is.
your face says it all
It seems that holidays get sadder as we age. Whether you’ve lost someone you love, endured divorce or any other devastating family change, or simply long for the sweet memories of yesterday-- the holidays sting a little for most. A lot for me.
I think that’s normal. We live, love, lose, and remember. It’s life, and it’s bittersweet. But we’ve also lost our way, and in doing so, we’ve lost the spirit of why we really celebrate holidays in the first place. We rush, we race, we scowl, we complain. We have even normalized shopping on Thanksgiving.
Case and point: I dragged myself to the grocery store today, not without a tinge of guilt for patronizing any establishment open on the one day we should all be with family. I waited in line behind a woman checking herself out while bellowing at an employee a few rows down (who, let’s remember, is working on the holiday) to bring her some reusable bags. Just as the bags arrived the shopper asked me to move out of her way so she could get out of line to find the right bread crumbs. Apparently she had the wrong breadcrumbs. I acquiesced, despite her obnoxious request. Without a hint of humor she barked, “I know, I know, I am such a pain in the ass.” I looked at her and flatly replied “I didn’t say a word to you.” She sniped back: “Your face says it all.”
Ah yes, my face. Well since you brought it up, let me tell you what my face says today in particular: My face says I wish I was not at the god-damned grocery store on Thanksgiving- buying eggs and bread to make a pitiful meal for myself-because I cannot bear to celebrate the holiday without my son, my son who died before he got to ever host his own holiday meal or celebration.
My face, taught with anxiety, furrowed brows and lips pursed together really hard so that I won’t cry in this aisle trying to conjure up specific memories of the last Thanksgiving my son and I had together, for fear that time will erase them, my face says I am in pain. My face says this really fucking sucks. My face says I am in agony. But by all means, go grab your breadcrumbs.
Don’t feel sorry for me. I chose to be alone today. I received many lovely offers to join the people who love me. The people who know what my face really says. But I am just too sad. Too crushed. And I need to be alone today. What I did not need today was the vile sordidness of an entitled shopper in search of the perfect bread crumb. But who knows, maybe you too are spending the holiday with only the company of your own sorrow. And if that’s true, I hope your breadcrumbs help a little, much the way I’m hoping my eggs and toast will.
Instead of saying anything else, or karate chopping her, which is generally frowned upon, or letting her see me cry, I quietly moved my face to another aisle that was not a self check-out. The cashier smiled as she scanned my eggs and bread, and I thanked her for being so pleasant. I told her I was sorry that she had to work on the holiday, partly because of shoppers like me. She smiled again, and wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. Not possible, I thought. But I appreciated the kind sentiment.
We live, love, lose--some lose the most precious gifts of all. We cling to the memories of moments that mattered most. It’s life, and it’s bittersweet. Really bitter and really sweet. But let's not lose our way, let's not forget the spirit of why we really celebrate holidays in the first place. And at the risk of sounding super cliched, let's try to be nicer humans. It’s really not that hard. And oh yeah, never assume that you can read a person by her face. Especially at the holidays.
Even as a completely exhausted middle school teacher, I have decided to work this summer. Mostly because I do not want to lose myself, as I almost did last year, free-falling with no safety net, into the many minutes left wide open to the darkness. Also, because I was offered a job at Hopkins, Jordan’s alma mater, employer and second home, which had me hoping I’d feel his presence up there on the Hill more than I feel the hole his death left behind.
On my first day, ascending the steep driveway, I braced myself, as best I could, for all the feelings I knew would come. I was immediately comforted by an empty parking space marked with a large 38, Jordan’s number, and I giggled at the silent pact made with him to park there every day this summer.
Crossing the parking lot, I paused before climbing the stairs that lead to the top of the infamous Hopkins hill. Those stairs, the very spot I dropped Jordan off for school every single day, for four years. Those stairs, the spot where I’d steal my hug good-bye and he’d grumble about how early it was. Those stairs, where I’d watch his back as he walked away and I’d wonder: how well does he navigate the world on the hill? Those stairs, where I’d find him sweaty, beat, yet exhilarated after football practice. Those stairs, where he’d sit and laugh with friends until I got there, the same stairs I pulled up to and caught him kissing what's-her-name. Those stairs that lead to countless experiences and opportunities, the same stairs that lead to what I was sure would be a beautiful future for my son.
When I reached the top, I turned and stood to face the view of the city below, and I thought of how many times Jordan stopped to experience the same spectacular view of New Haven, or perhaps more likely, how many times he’d walked right by it without noticing-- as he rushed to class or socialized with friends. I paused there, wanting so badly to feel his presence, to connect with him on some spiritual level, to hear that he was proud of me for being strong enough to return. Instead, I was lead to notice and imagine all that lay in my line of vision in the skyline beyond: the hospital room from which Jordan could see Hopkins, the cemetery I pass and blow 38 kisses to each day on my ride to and from work, his and my shattered worlds.
I pulled myself together, as I always do for Jordan, and ultimately survived my first day of work. But not without imagining him sitting in one of the chairs in my classroom, not without picturing him eating lunch out on the Heath patio, not without remembering him down in The Pit playing the sport he loved so deeply. And not without experiencing first hand how terribly sad and complicated working at Hopkins must be some days, for my nephew Diege, who was closer to Jordan than anyone.
Being a student at Hopkins was not always easy for Jordan, academically or socially, but it certainly was a blessing. One he would acknowledge to me later in his life. He learned to navigate prep school life as a public school kid. He made friends there that meant the world to him. He was beyond prepared for college and graduate school. And he was proud to return to Hopkins in his role as Coach Sebastian. The Hopkins family has supported Jordan and our family in ways too sad to relive. Hopkins continues to support Jordan’s legacy innumerably; it is a blessing. But damn, Hopkins hurts.
So why am I there? Because no matter where I go, I hurt. I remember, recall, replay Jordan’s life in my mind. I imagine what could have been, what should have been in his future. I have no choice but to live in pain; It is the price of love. On some level, being at Hopkins allows me to live a happier, more hopeful period of Jordan’s life, at least in my mind’s eye. And lastly, working at Hopkins is temporary, but learning to live in my pain will be my life’s work. I cannot skirt it, avoid it, get over it. He is my son. I won’t ever stop loving him, missing him, grieving him.
Instead, I will stand at the top of Hopkins hill, or anywhere life takes me, as Jordan’s proud mother, tending to my pain, counting my blessings, (even in a world obliterated), knowing that my grief is as deeply rooted as my love, eternally intertwined and essential to being alive. And I want to be alive.
Spring in Pittsburgh
by Liz Johnston
Once before I had written that life moves like water, moves the way it will, not the way you may want. And I have been thinking about that notion a lot lately. Having lost my son, it’s quite obvious my life has not gone the way I wanted. Less obvious to some, Spring buds bring new feelings of what should be and what isn’t. Hope and sorrow are the twins of Spring. At least for me.
I've been in the city of 3 rivers this week. The home of my own mother, a place that brings both comfort and sadness over years lost. I have spent some time hiking besides moving waters. I’ve found myself standing, watching, marveling at the life force of nature, its will to keep going. Try this with me if you will… picture yourself sitting at the edge of a riverbank... the water is moving quickly; your eyes are fixed on it. Notice the direction of your attention. What are you looking at? Most likely, you are watching where the water is headed, not from where it comes. Why is that?
I’ve been pondering this as a metaphor….. especially when faced with the empty platitudes people spew: It’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re headed. Don’t look back; you aren’t headed in that direction. The past is the past; let it go. The best is yet to come. But what if the past is full of your best days? Your fondest memories? Your greatest joy? What if the past holds your child’s life because the future won’t? No looking forward. No water rushing towards new adventures. At least not on this earth, in this life. Would you still recommend not looking back?
Not only do I look back, I spend time there in my mind and in my heart. I never want to let go, or forget, or move on from our life together. In fact, today, as I walked through the woods that brim with new life, I thought about how Jordan, when he was little, would say “Mom, let’s go walking in the woods so I can sing Hi Ho!” (A reference to Snow White, a movie that was, for a short period, his favorite.) I need those memories to move forward. I do not need to let go of the past in order to have a future. I won't fall for platitudes or be forced with false dichotomies. I won’t forget my past. And I don’t have to.
Instead, I sat by the moving water at the end of the hike— watching intently and intentionally from where the water came. Wondering about its origins. Speculating on its reason for moving. Admiring its will to keep going. Honoring its journey. And I realized in that moment: to look back is to remember, but to move forward is to live. I have to live. That is how I will honor Jordan’s life the most. I will cherish my past, honor my journey, move like water, and love my son for all of eternity.
by Liz Johnston
I recently unearthed a forgotten journal I’d kept while I was pregnant. I’ve always kept journals--have so many that I never knew this one was missing. Coincidentally, I found the journal as I was preparing for a book-club discussion that centered around a mother-child relationship and involved a mother’s journals bequeathed to her daughter at the time of her death.
I realized it probably wasn’t a coincidence that this journal returned to me as I was preparing to share memories of motherhood in our discussion. In fact, I am believing in coincidence less and less these days. Too many special signs and poignant reminders arrive with the most perfect timing. Perhaps I am just choosing to see these moments as signs, but even if they are coincidence, they are comforting. The first page of my journal read “This book is for my yet unborn child--my future. I don’t know if you are a boy or a girl, but I know how much I love you already.”
As grateful as I was to find the journal, to read and be reminded of all the hope a mother holds for her child, all the anticipatory joy she experiences, it broke my heart. What a remarkable loss. For your future, for my future, the future of others who miss you, or even worse, for those who will never experience you. Further into the journal, (when you were already a toddler), I wrote of a day I slept longer than you’d liked. You were tugging on me to get up and asked “Want me to hold your hand to go to the kitchen?” So sweet. And when I finally did get up, you said to me “What a good boy you are, Mommy.” Reading this made me ache and laugh through my tears as only you could do. I was grateful for the recorded memory--as I’d lost that one long ago.
Back to book-club, our discussion swirled with sweet stories of our own mothers and grandmothers- then at times turned to treasured moments of our own motherhood. An incredibly bittersweet topic for me. When a mother has lost her only born child--her future, where does that leave her? What does that mean for her future? Her dreams for his future? Jordan, the day you were born, March 5th, 1993, was the best day of my life. It will remain so forever. I cherish that perfect day and the years of joy you brought me, but today, and every March 5th, my arms are empty, and my heart aches.
I wish that I had shown you the journals I kept. I wish you’d read the journals that recorded my love well before your birth. I wish you’d read about the endless, boundless love of a mother for her son. The journals that chronicled our precious life. The journals in which I apologized on only paper for yelling at you on some of the bad days. I wish I’d shown you the journals in which I succumbed to the guilt that plagues all moms who don’t always live up to their expectations. But I never did. I guess I always thought there’d be time for that. Or perhaps, like the woman of our book-club discussion, perhaps I assumed I’d bequeath them to you along with other mementos. But life moves like water, moves as it will, goes the way it goes, not the way you might want.
One of the last (material) gifts you gave to me was a beautiful leather bound journal. Appropo. On the inside you inscribed “To my mother with hopes to inspire…..with love.” Also appropo. Since the moment I knew you would enter the world, I was inspired. By love. I continue to be inspired. By love. And I always will.
Jordan, on this day, 26 years ago, you made me whole. You changed me. The moment you were placed into my arms was the very moment I was born to experience. You gave me life. A life I will cherish until we are together in the next. Mama loves you more than air. Thank you for ALWAYS inspiring me. With love.
A Christmas Wish
by Liz Johnston
by Liz Johnston
Yesterday I sat with a group of women who were discussing their holiday plans. One of them mentioned the many trees she placed throughout her house, another named her daughter as the reason they have a tree at all. A natural topic of discussion the week before Christmas—but a discussion in which I care not to participate.
Last year we went to Florida, as if we could outrun our grief, and completely pretended that it wasn’t Christmas as we sat sadly by the pool. This year we are participating on a modified, “game time decision” schedule. Trying to be there for those we love as best we can. But there is no part of me that wants to participate in talks of the bustle and merriment of it all. I am neither bustling, nor merry.
In one particularly awkward moment of this group discussion, one of the women turned to me and said “Is it wrong of me to say that I don’t even want my son to come home for Christmas?” My only reply was to get up and leave. And not return. I put my forehead on the desk in front of me and cried until I couldn’t anymore. I cried until I was tired. Dodging emotional landmines is exhausting work.
Later this woman came to apologize for being insensitive-- as she realized I was hurt by her lamentations. To her credit, she had the humility to not only apologize, but to thank me for my forgiveness. It was a moment of reflection for her and an opportunity to extend some grace for me.
After this exchange, I decided to write her a letter of forgiveness. Just for my journal’s sake. (Writing is coping for me.) And as I wrote myself into the direction of my choice, I realized that I actually felt sad for her. It struck me that she did not relish every second she might have with her son. She did not look forward to him. She did not see her son as the flower of the universe, or as her favorite person.
I am fortunate to have felt and to feel that way about Jordan, but great love leads to great loss, and for this reason, I will never have a Merry Christmas again. Ever. I will survive. I may even enjoy parts of the day, but I will never be merry in his absence. I will never rejoice in the traditions we shared, nor look forward to holidays without him. I will do my best to seek moments of joy, for his sake, but merry? No.
When people say “Merry Christmas” to me, they realize it probably won’t be. But they wish it would be. They wish it could be. They wish I didn’t have to endure such sadness. And so I appreciate and receive that wish.
And here is my Christmas wish for you: that you hug your kids (or whoever your favorite people are) just a little bit longer. That you are fully aware of the gift of time you share. That you delight in their presence. That you speak lovingly of them, and to them. And that you have a very Merry Christmas. Together.
by Liz Johnston
Proudly, forever, Jordan's mom
How could I have known--
back when I called you my angel baby
and you’d look at me with love from those wide watery eyes;
How could I have known--
back when I called you my little bean
and you’d bounce and run with constant curiosity;
How could I have known--
back when I called you my beautiful boy
and you’d pull away as I sniffed your curls that smelled of sun;
How could I have known--
back when I called you my favorite man in the world
and held your soft hand while you slept, scared.
How could I have known--
that I’d need to bottle each of these sweet memories,
that one day they would be
all that I have of you,
my beloved son.
It Would be Perfect
by Liz Johnston
No Ordinary Love
by Liz Johnston
One year ago today I made a promise to Jordan. I told him I’d keep breathing without him here. To say that I miss him, or that it hurts, just sounds small and silly. Some days I actually struggle for air--my shallow breathing feels like the pain is alive and gnawing at what’s left of the heart inside my chest. But I have learned some new breathing techniques that help a little.
Other days while breathing quite nicely, unremarkably, a surprise reminder comes along delivering a sucker punch to the gut that knocks the wind right out of me. On those days I look at pictures of Jordan, talk to him, write, meditate, pray. Whatever keeps me breathing through the sneak attack.
And then there are the days I have no choice but to endure breathing through the horrid, wounded animal sounds of crying that belong to a grieving mother--the sounds and the woman both unrecognizable to myself. I usually rock myself through those moments, just feeling, until my breath returns.
How have I managed to keep breathing when the person I love more than air is no longer here? How? I have only one explanation. Love. Love is all. Love is everything. And Jordan’s love is so powerful, it can do anything. Including what I never thought possible--it has allowed me to live without him. That is extraordinary love!
Jordan’s love is far and wide; signs of it are everywhere. I don’t need others to believe in this, but Jordan shows me the number 38 at least a dozen times a day--often when I am sad or worried. Because I asked him to. You can chalk it up to coincidence, or the desperate need of a mother who misses her son. But I know otherwise. Those close to me are in on it as well; they experience the signs. Numbers, birds, sunsets, the sound of whistles, smells, elevator doors, songs, all signs of his big bright love.
Jordan’s love shines through all of the people he cared about. I see it all around me. His family near and far, his friends, the kids he coached, taught and loved, the colleagues he worked alongside. His love has worked its way into the lives of total strangers. Because of Jordan, people are getting healthy. They are forgiving easier. Loving more openly. Appreciating what matters. Doing what scares them. His love will have a ripple effect for all of the kids helped through Dominate the Day Foundation. His love is absolutely unending.
We are all infinitely better for having known Jordan. I am so grateful for these stories people share with me. What mother wouldn’t want to hear about the wonderful ways her son has impacted the lives of others? What mother wouldn’t want to hear about the lessons of love left behind by her child? I sure do. They make me so proud to call myself his mother.
Yes, Jordan’s life was way too short for us. But it was a beautiful, rich life worthy of celebration. A life I will celebrate today, tomorrow and everyday. With love. Because love is all. Love is everything. Love keeps me breathing.
Out of the Mouths of Babes
by Liz Johnston
Last night, during a FaceTime phone call with my sweet young nephews in Ohio, one of them asked where Uncle Manny was. The other one started to ask for cousin Jordan. Realizing what just happened, he started to cry. I told him it was okay to ask about Jordan. Even though he isn't here. And that it's ok to cry because we all miss Jordan. It was such a raw, honest, sad moment. But I really appreciated him asking. It's hard to explain, but I'll take moments like this everyday over avoidance.
Since losing Jordan I have read many books on grief. As if somehow, reading enough pages, I might find the key to coping with this insidious pain. Nope. There's no key. No magic formula. You just endure. In one of those books, I think it was Joe Biden's, I read that the second year after losing a child is harder than the first. At the time I couldn't imagine anything worse than the pain of watching your child die, or the agonizing reality that your child doesn't get to live out his dreams.
But as time passes, and the support team you had behind you fades into the background, and people stop talking about that one person you love more than anyone in the world, and everyone close or distant gets back to life, and you realize that there's the potential to live another 50 years in this heartache, it becomes easier to understand how year two could hurt even more.
Having overdosed on grief books, I just finished reading "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F@*%#." According to its author, I am not unique. I am not special. I do not own the rights to this level of sadness. There are many of us out there. And I know a few of them. They too have lost children and they too manage to walk this earth with their hearts ripped out.
If you know any of them, reach out. Call. FaceTime. Ask how they're doing. See what they need. Talk about their children. Be patient with them. Try your best not to share your horror story comparisons of grief as an attempt at compassion. Just be there. Listen. Witness. Share time. There is little you can say to make them feel better, but avoidance is worse.
I realize that my use of the 3rd person in the paragraph above is about my inability to be direct. So I'll try here. I need you to know that although I smile, laugh, travel, work, write, exercise, and outwardly do all the other stuff of life, inside I am reeling. Every single day. It's a duality that's hard to describe. I have to work at surviving. Even during the most pleasant, fun, rewarding aspects of life, I am in pain. I can't teach a class, run with friends, play with my puppy or even read a book without thinking of Jordan. And I don't want to. He is part of me. Always.
Anyway, back to this book about giving a fuck--according to it, we are all responsible for what happens to us and for how we respond. That is not to say Jordan's death was my fault. Fault is in the past. Responsibility is the present. While I am asking for support, I am the one responsible for living my life as best I can. I alone can choose how to respond to this tragedy. I alone can choose to seek joy, even when I am in pain. Which is always. But even in pain, I can be powerful.
I question my own motives for writing this today. Perhaps it's guilt for being on vacation and being able to smile at the sunset or laugh with my husband. Perhaps it's going back to school that's looming....wanting my colleagues to understand what I endure every minute of every day instead of judging me for taking days off.
Perhaps it's the reality that my incoming students and all thereafter will never know Jordan, or just the passage of time in general. Perhaps it's the emptiness of the first football season without Jordan and all the accompanying pictures of other people's children that flood my timeline. Perhaps it's the anticipation of pain that the second year without him will inevitably bring.
I don't really know. Maybe it's all the above. Maybe I don't need a motive to write. It's just where I am in this moment. Thanks for sharing it with me (if you made it this far).