Originally published May 11, 2014, edited May 2019. Essay content belongs to Lisa Wade Devine, all rights reserved.
Although spring has been here for over a month, this first part of 2014 has been a long, hard winter for my soul. As months of depression give way to lighter days, I can feel a delicate unveiling of myself, like thin layers of fabric pulled back slowly from my face, one by one.
I had a bit of a breakthrough, albeit excruciating, during a retreat I attended in January. Now months later, as this Mother's Day comes to a close, I feel like I can finally begin to describe it.
Let's start by going back to a Mother's Day nearly a decade ago when my stepson, Zachary, was living with us. That morning, he took the time to wish me a "Happy Mother's Day" before going off to spend the day with his mama. It was a simple sentiment, but his sincerity moved me. It was as if he was saying, "Thank you for what you are doing. Thank you for who you are for me. You aren't my mom, but this thing we have between us and the family you have created with my dad...well, I appreciate it. It's not lost on me. Thank you."
For no real reason outside of myself, I spent last fall feeling like an uninvited guest in the nightmare of Zach's death. My grief for him felt untouchable, unreachable and completely undefined. For months I couldn't find it and in the moments when I did, I didn't know what to do with it.
Until that day back in January when I had finally carved out enough space and time within me and around me to try to figure it out. It hit me suddenly and forced me to my knees, unable to breathe or move. I happened to be hiking through a sort of human-made mini-gorge, surrounded by fence on one side and a mountain of stones on the other. I was literally stuck between a rock and hard place, forced to confront the truth I had been denying myself for five months.
I had lost a child.
I let myself feel that completely for the first time, and later that day, I said it out loud. I let it it pierce through my insides and hollow me out.
For a good long while it felt like I was going to die.
Before this, I had actually given myself a dozen "logical" reasons for not claiming this loss.
"He is my stepson; he didn't come from my body."
"There were only 12 years between us, certainly that's not enough of an age-gap for me to feel like a parent who has lost a child."
"People keep asking me how my husband is doing. As Zach's stepmom, am I not supposed to be suffering too?"
"I didn't have the exact kind of bond with him that I have with my two youngest children. The ones I carried in my belly, then labored and breathed into life. The ones I nursed, snuggled and rocked; the ones by my side each and every day. That's really what it has to look like, right?"
But this was the biggest reason I heard constantly echoing in my head...
"He has two other parents to whom this loss truly belongs. If I claim him as mine, if this breaks me also, then it would somehow be disrespectful to them. An insult to biology. An undermining of his mother's broken heart."
But there I was on my knees. The hot, searing sickness in my stomach and the hardened wall of tightness constricting my throat as the violent shaking and wailing of my whole being revealed the truth.
That from the moment I met this blue eyed, red headed boy, I loved him. That I spent those first years getting to know him, his likes and dislikes, his joys and his fears, and then planning ways to enrich his life and to offer opportunities for learning, play and growth.
That when his dad asked me to marry him, my "yes" was a "yes" to all of us. Our family. Our future. That every day and every forward thought included Zach. That when it came time to welcome him into our home full time, not just every other weekend, and with all of the messy circumstances surrounding that transition, I did not hesitate for one second in saying, "absolutely."
That when many of my peers were figuring out careers and futures or just doing what most people do in their 20's, I was moving to a new town because it had the best schools. I rearranged my dreams and goals to work full-time, commuting to a job that would help secure our future. I was packing lunches, going to back-to -school nights, coordinating schedules and sitting down for family dinners. We were saving for college, going to the orthodontist and doing science projects. I was aware that this time was a gift to his dad and me, but sensitive to the tumult, confusion and developmentally appropriate adolescent angst that existed for our son. So we had intentional conversations and we took him to counseling. We set boundaries and limits and modeled habits that were new for him.
That when we found out we were having a baby, it was always about the four of us. We began building an actual house for our family. Four walls and a roof on a lot in the hills to start with, but mostly a home to live in and grow together.
That I loved planning adventures and fun for us. I delighted in selecting birthday and Christmas gifts for him. I especially loved filling his stocking every year because he was so tickled by the deodorant, Axe body spray, mouthwash, gum and Chapstick.
That when he went back to live with his mom for a number of complicated reasons it broke us in so many ways. It was the first time we lost Zachary and we grieved him hard.
That every day after that I worried for him. I missed him. I ached for our family.
That I still championed his wildest dreams. That I brainstormed ways to support their fruition. That I never gave up on him.
That the night we found out about his addiction was when we lost him all over again. It introduced a new sort of anxiety. A worry deeply-rooted and ever-present. Not without hope, but sometimes blind and desperate. We still hoped that somehow, someday, there would be a healing that would allow him to live the life he wanted. That whatever unreachable pain would reveal itself so that he wouldn't always need to numb it with drugs. We acknowledged and apologized for our mistakes and committed to growing and healing with him.
That my daily prayer became one of restoration and salvation for our son, this sweet boy who was dealt a crappy hand…him whose plans and dreams had been supplanted by prison bars and isolation. I still hoped that despite the grim statistics, his addiction wouldn't be the end of him.
That his dad and I had nevertheless tried to mentally prepare ourselves in some way for that potential last phone call, the one where we would find out we had lost him forever. Of course, we never ever expected someone else's addiction would kill him in such a tragic and accidental way while he was on the road to recovery. It's a fool's game to think you can prepare at all for a blindsided and broken heart.
Yes, these truths have become mine. And there in the warmth of that January afternoon, amidst the rocks and the dust, I realized that he too became mine long ago. Part of me.
And so in, his death has destroyed a part of me also.
Somehow, I still hold onto a shaky and evolving faith that death is only a beginning. For him, most certainly, but for those of us left here as well.
It seems, though, you have to trudge through the darkness and muck first. And right now we are stuck with that gritty and inescapable reality.
That he is gone. That the person I was and the family we had is no longer. And that the family we might have been...will never be in this lifetime.
The path to redemption is usually long and often unbearable and any resurrection story must include these interminable days in the tomb.
But I remain thankful for this life and so very grateful for the gift Zachary was and is to me and our family.
There was a hymn sung during one of the two funerals/memorials we had for Zach. Although I had personally selected much of the music for both services, this song was chosen by his aunt and the organist sang it up in the choir loft behind us at the end of the service; it was as if it was sung by an invisible angel. The song was both familiar and unrecognizable to me, beautiful and almost haunting. I had not thought of it again until two weeks ago when I began humming the melody. I had to look up the lyrics to remind myself.
Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine.
(You are Mine, by David Hass)
(If you want to listen to the song in its entirety, you can find a version of it here)