Every Day | When Grief Lasts and Hope Remains

I AM THAT CAT
We used to have two cats, Pink and Sabrina. They were brothers, which isn’t obvious from their names. That’s what happens when you let your four-year-old and her best friend name your kittens.

Pink was a super-sized, black tuxedo who acted an awful lot like a dog. Sabrina was a smaller, gray version of Pink, and he snored like something akin to a chainsaw. Like most brothers, they played and they fought and they cuddled when sleepy.

One day, when they were about five years old, Pink and Sabrina (both indoor cats) escaped into the great wide open. Pink came home. Sabrina never did.

We were terribly worried and sad, but no one more than Pink. Every day, the burly cat would climb in an open window or press his nose against our screen door and call for Sabrina. His was a heartbreaking cry and you knew, you just knew, his meows meant, “Where are you? I’m still here. Come home. I miss you. Come home! I’m waiting!”

This went on for two years. For two years, Pink called and cried for his brother. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – those kitties were together every single day of their lives. I imagine Pink felt as though he’d lost not just his brother, but a part of himself.

I am that cat.

Two years after my baby brother’s death, my soul still cries, “Where are you! I’m here. I miss you. Come home! I’m waiting!”

Just about everyone’s favorite picture of Derek

Like Pink, I expect my brother to come walking up the driveway at any moment – to tell me a funny story about his son or to ask me if I saw that great play Dustin Pedroia made in last night’s game.

THE WISDOM OF FRIENDS
I’m so grateful for two honest women who, in the weeks following my brother’s death, were kind enough to spare me the usual platitudes and instead told me the bald truth:

“No matter what anyone says, it doesn’t get easier, we just learn to cope better…”

I needed to hear those words. Sure, I’d lost people before – Kenny (Derek’s father and my stepfather who was like a father to me, died when I was 12 and Derek was two), grandparents who helped raise me, uncles and aunts and friends – so on some level, I knew their words were true. But I needed to hear them anyway. I needed to know that it’s ok that I’ll never be ok with this loss.

Proof for middle-school girls that there is hope…you will not always look this awkward. I promise.

In some ways, all losses are the same – you grieve for what you can’t have. But in other ways, each loss is different. The loss of a parent triggers life-altering insecurity – Who will take care of me? Who will love me unconditionally? Who will show me how to do this thing called life? While the loss of a friend slaps us awake to our own mortality and robs us of one of the few relationships that isn’t dictated by birth or marrying into a family, but is instead chosen.

Losing my brother, though, has been much more like losing a part of myself, as if someone carved a giant chunk of flesh out of my side. My brother was mine and I was his. He was my equal, my side-by-side, my co-conspirator in the unique craziness that is our family and no one else’s.

Ryan, Derek & me (Only God can put a family like this together!)

Like most siblings, we shared a sort of secret language of eye-rolls and smirks and headshakes. 

And even though we weren’t always together, it’s as if he was somehow, in every moment, standing right next to me. I knew he was there, just a phone call or short drive or the next holiday away. Only now he’s not.

And I am that cat.

The day following Derek’s death, I told my mom, “Now every day is a day he gets further and further away from me.”

My friends were right. Life hasn’t gotten any easier. In many ways, it’s harder.

Because now it’s been two years since I’ve heard his laugh…
two years since I’ve looked into those seawater eyes…
two years since we’ve watched a ball game together…
two years since he’s cracked a joke and made me laugh until I cry…
two years since I’ve held his hand, since we’ve played Wheel of Fortune, since he’s smothered me in a bear hug, since I’ve told him I love him.

I miss him now more than ever.

And I am that stupid cat crying in the window.

A STILL SMALL VOICE
Eventually, Pink stopped calling for Sabrina. Did he grow tired of trying? Did his broken heart figure out that Sabrina wasn’t coming home? Did he simply forget?

I’ve thought about this a lot lately: How long will my broken heart search for the missing piece? How many times must I tell myself Derek’s really gone? Will I become accustomed to life without him? Do I want to?

I worry, as I walk into a future without Derek, that I’m losing him again, that he’s growing smaller and smaller out on the horizon’s edge, and as the light and dust and distance obscure my vision, I fear that soon, he will disappear altogether. In those moments, the black abyss rushes at me and the hollow wind steals my breath and the air thick with emptiness presses down and… will the losing never end?!

Lashed by storms of grief and not comforted, I am a city in ruins.

But lately, in the midst of those ruins, when the silence settles like clear, fresh air, there is something else…a still, small voice…a voice that whispers to my soul:

Every day, every day, every day that passes,
every day that Derek gets further away from you,
every day is one day you get closer to seeing him again.
So don’t worry little one,
for while you are weeping at the door,
your brother calls to you:
“I’m right here. Don’t worry about me.
I’m already home.
And I’ll be right here, waiting for you,
every day.”

I am that cat crying at the door. But my brother waits for me. I am a city in ruins. But I am being rebuilt. Every day.

I love you baby brother. More than words can say. 


p.s. I’m about 99% sure that the next time I see Derek he is going to rank on me mercilessly for comparing our relationships to my cats. “I am that cat, Nichole? Really? That’s the line you went with? (followed by his high-pitched giggle)” Obviously, he won’t be swearing because we’ll be in heaven and all.

© Nichole Q Perreault

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I Heard Him in a Song

Three bars. That’s about all it takes. Three bars of this popular song:

and I’m itching to turn off the radio. Sometimes I listen, but most days it’s too painful.

On my brother’s first night in the hospital, I stayed with him. I sat in the recliner, while he drifted in an out of consciousness. As I waited through the quiet parts of the night, fear dominated my emotions. I could barely complete a thought, much less utter a coherent prayer. Desperate, I googled “healing prayers” and prayed words I couldn’t string together on my own. I tried to remember scripture and scrolled through my Bible app. I was not comforted.

Then I remembered the advice of a friend, “Invite Jesus into your difficult places.” So I prayed and invited Jesus into the hospital room, into our presence, into Derek’s presence.

A bit later, I found myself humming a song, one I didn’t know very well:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
to be overcome by Your presence, Lord

I didn’t know the name of the song. Couldn’t remember where I’d heard it before. And couldn’t remember any other lyrics. But there I was singing the chorus over and over again.

For the rest of the night, that song was my prayer. And I experienced a measure of peace. God was with us. I could feel His presence.

In the days and weeks that followed, I watched my brother teeter on the edge of death more times than I want to remember. I tried, on every occasion, to welcome the Holy Spirit’s presence. But some days, my faith was like sand running through my fingers. I couldn’t hold onto it and the harder I tried, the faster it ran out.

One day, after leaving the hospital, feeling completely bankrupt of spirit, I couldn’t bring myself to pray, let alone to hope.

What does God think, I wondered, when I don’t have any faith? What would he say to me now, when I can’t bring myself to speak to Him? Is He angry? Disappointed?

Then something broke through my thoughts – a song playing on the radio:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere…

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Thoughts from Inside the Storm

The pain burns, stings, like a thousand cuts carved into my skin, on my hands, my feet, across my chest, my stomach, my back. I can almost feel the blood oozing out like tears – my whole body weeps. My whole body weeps, shudders, shakes. I need to vomit. To expel this wretched wrong. This thing I can’t undo. This end. Which is an ending I never would have written but was written for me instead – for us all – but most of all, for him.

I am raw and broken. And sick. So sick. Only I can’t throw it up. There’s always more – more pain, more sorrow, more regret churning and burning its way through my soul.

Oh God. How can you ask me? How can you ask me to do this?

You color me in and then erase me. Drain me. To the dregs. And dregs are all I have left.

But You can’t blame me. I can blame me. I can be angry and live with regrets and could haves and should haves and would haves. But not You. Because You let this happen. You did. There’s no denying it.

So when I am nothing, when I am just sludge and scar tissue, You won’t ask why. You won’t dare look at me with surprise. You can’t possibly be surprised. You know the end from the beginning. You knew this. You knew this day. You knew this pain, too.

What if I can’t forgive You? What then? What if You and me are never the same? What have You done? Could You destroy “us”? Would You?

I think somewhere deep inside I know the answers, but today the pain is louder. Like the roaring winds of a hurricane. I hear nothing else. I feel nothing else. I am deaf to all but the screaming of my soul as I am peeled apart, layer by layer, flesh torn open and packed with salt.

Here, truth and comfort are merely words, tiny letters which, rearranged, can mean anything…or nothing at all. Meaningless. Meaningless. I spin around the eye of the storm. There is nothing but the pain.

And all I can do is wait.

——————————

For all our brothers, near, far and farthest. And to the One Brother who I need now more than ever: be my shelter from the storm.

From Here to There

A piece of fiction Writing 101:

“And don’t come back in ’til I call you! You hear me?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sammy muttered under her breath.

“Babygirl! I said, do you hear me?!”

“I am not a baby girl!”

“Do. You. Hear me?”

“Yes, Mama. I hear you,” she grumbled.

Sammy let the screen door slam behind her, took a few steps and sat down on the front stoop. She kept to her family’s side of the porch. Mr. Johnson, who lived in the other half of the duplex, didn’t like anyone on his side of the porch, especially little girls.

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Home

Mom & Grandma

Mom & Grandma

I moved 21 times before I turned 12. That makes 22 different homes and no, my parents weren’t in the military. 22 apartments but only two school systems. So actually, all that moving wasn’t as disruptive as you might think.

I mean, sure, it was draining. And we did reach a point where we stopped unpacking the essentials and lived out of boxes.

Boxes. Most of us live in them already: big boxes with doors and windows, divided into smaller boxes with doors and archways. And we live out of them too: cabinets, closets, drawers and shelves. And we create them: boxes in our minds and walls in our hearts. When I was a kid, some of our boxes just happened to be made out of cardboard.

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If My Heart had Wings

Four Generations

Four Generations

Some days, I miss her so much I can almost feel her next to me, in front of me…taking my face in her papery hands and drawing me close to kiss my cheek.

She wasn’t always old, though.

We lived a number places together: the Green House in the hills of Granby, an apartment in Simsbury and then, later, a raised ranch further up the street. Wherever she was felt like home to me.

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He Held the Door

Written in response to  the Weekly Writing Challenge | Fifty:  …write a fifty-word story. Not five thousand, not five hundred, but precisely fifty words. Writing a word limited story was challenging –  I would much rather try to write a 50 word poem. But even so, the story below is true: 

Her grandparents waited in the car while she, 12, ran in to buy their tobacco. Times were different.

On her way out, he held the door.

“Thanks,” she smiled.

“You’re welcome,” he nodded.

She climbed into the backseat.

“That was your father,” grandma said. “He held the door for you.”

Unashamed Love

Family Photo of Kenny

Family Photo of Kenny

I believe that for most little girls, their first love is Daddy. I hardly remember my dad at all, much less loving the man. But my first stepfather, Kenny, I loved him. While it was a tentative and guarded love, made all the more so by his long illness, when he died my twelve year old heart broke in ways and places I didn’t know existed. Today, February 13, is Kenny’s birthday and, as always, that kind, gentle, funny man is loved and missed.

Love for me has never come easily and so I struggled with this week’s Writing Challenge, My Funny Valentine. Then I remembered a story and thought that maybe, maybe, this little window into the warping and twisting of love in the hearts of children, might somehow, some way, help set you free too.

As a little girl, I always had an older me inside – one who saw and understood things that my unripened vocabulary couldn’t express. Instead, I felt everything, like wordless impressions stamped deep into the soft clay of a sensitive heart. With no Living Water to keep my heart tender and pliable, to fill the valleys and smooth the mountain peaks, I formed my own truth, my own tilted view of life and love and people.

In today’s memory, I am about five years old: I tiptoed from my bedroom up the dark hallway and into the kitchen. Staying close to the wall and probably more conspicuous than I believed, I peeked around the corner and into the living room. He wasn’t there yet. Kenny. He and my mom were dating at the time and they’d recently broken up. I didn’t know what they’d fought about or why he’d left. But the murmured words of adults drifting back and forth above my head hinted of his return. An anxious hopefulness practically oozed from the walls. Everybody loved Kenny.

Anticipation wiggled its way throughout my small body, so I invented a game for the waiting. I’d walk from my bedroom up the short hall toward the living room, one slow, careful step at a time, wondering with each press of the foot: is he here? My hopes would rise with my heartbeat as I edged nearer the light of the living room archway. Once there, I’d quickly pop my head around the doorframe and….nope. Not yet. Deflated, I’d turn around, shuffle back to my room and do it all over again. And again. And again. Slower with each pass. Each time hoping that would be the time I’d find him coming through the front door.

Family Photo of Kenny and... maybe that's me in the picture and maybe it isn't. I confess to nothing.

Family Photo of Kenny and… maybe that’s me in the picture and maybe it isn’t. I confess to nothing.

I don’t know what I expected. A celebration? Handshakes and hugs all around? But for all my anticipation, when Kenny finally arrived, nothing exciting happened at all. No one rejoiced. No one gave him a hug or said, “Hey, welcome back!” He just came in silently, sat down on the couch and stared at the TV along with my mom and grandparents. Nothing but nods and awkward “hellos” and silence in front of the television.

So this is how we do it? I mused. Pretend nothing’s happened?

Obviously doing what I wanted most – to jump in his lap and throw my arms around his neck – would be scandalously out of place. And so I pretended. I played along. I became an Actress.

But, refusing to be ignored and refusing to ignore, I did what any self-respecting five year old would do: I picked up a throw pillow and…well…threw it at Kenny. He was, after all, my playmate and my friend. This was our ‘normal.’ We tossed the pillow back and forth. I laughed and he smiled. Kenny was a quiet, subtle guy and his smile told me we were good. Reconciliation by pillow fight.

Yet some part of me wanted more. An invitation to sit with him on the couch? A hug? Words of assurance? For the first time, I became conscious of the fact that I wanted his love and acceptance. Needed it, even. But needing is dangerous. No one likes a needy child. And what happens when what we need becomes something we can’t have?

My stomach filled with a strange, hollow-heavy, sick feeling. Embarrassment, rejection, nakedness of soul, fear of punishment, a desire to hide all wrapped in one little lead ball behind my belly button.

I was Needy and I was Ashamed. Ashamed of needing, of wanting, of loving. Afraid of being unlovable. Hadn’t my own father been unable to love me? Ashamed of being me.

…………………

30 some odd years later, I sit, head bowed, eyes closed, in a dimly lit church. I sing the words “Worthy….You are worthy…of a childlike faith and of my honest praise and of my unashamed love…of a holy life and of my sacrifice and of my unashamed love…”

And I think, as I always do when singing this song, of loving Jesus unashamedly – boldly, without worrying what others think, without hiding my Bible at the doctor’s office or avoiding talking about God outside of church.

But then God brings me a precious jewel…the memory of that day with Kenny…and as I sing the words that wash over me, He turns the glistening gem around in His hand to show me another facet of love…

of my unashamed love….love without fear, or embarrassment. Love that doesn’t act or pretend to be self-sufficient. There is no shame in needing love – there is no shame in needing God. That is who we are. Who I am. Needy for the Lord and his Love.

of my unashamed love…love that doesn’t fear punishment or rejection. Love that trusts in the Father who supplies all our needs. I am Safe.

of my unashamed love…love that runs into her Father’s embrace and throws her arms around His neck. Love that is free from falsehood. I am Real.

Full and light is the feeling that soars into my soul and lifts upon its wings the hollow-heaviness of shame and carries it away…eternally away. And my belly warms with acceptance and tender hands upon my face and eyes that see me fully and a smile of adoration…for me. And I am Loved.

UNASHAMED LOVE by Jason Morant

CHRISTMAS TRADITION DOs & DON’Ts | DO Have Fun!

One of our favorite traditions is our family Christmas Card. For the most part, Christmas cards have been Doug’s responsibility. If it had been left up to me, we would never have sent a single one.  But for years, Doug faithfully picked out the cards, signed, addressed and mailed them.

In 2004, I wrote my first Christmas letter. That was year the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. (You can read part of it here as I resurrected it for the 2013 World Series win.) Every Christmas since then, card creation has been a sort of game where we try, as a family, to come up with something new and different to mail to family and friends.

DO Have Fun!

We have done letters like the one in 2004 and another one titled The Pits from 2010.

One year we purchased beautiful, decorative envelopes and mailed them out empty, but on the envelope flap we printed “What’s missing in your life this Christmas?” (We did, however, send traditional cards to people who’d lost loved ones that year.) Tip: Don’t have fun at the expense of others, especially at Christmas.

We’ve sent family photos. Some traditional:

Traditional for us, I guess | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Traditional for us, I guess | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Some not:

Even superheroes need a Savior! (That's what we wrote on the card) | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Even superheroes need a Savior! (That’s what we wrote on the card) | 2013 Christmas Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

And one year, we sent a handmade, paper snowflake to everyone on our list. THAT was interesting.

And some years, just to keep everyone on their toes, we don’t send anything at all.

After a great year, we can feel a bit of Christmas card performance anxiety. It can be hard to live up to the previous year…like the year we dressed up like, well…see for yourself:

This started out as a family photo spoof gift for my mom and ended up being our Christmas card. | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

This started out as a family photo spoof gift for my mom and ended up being our Christmas card. | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

We signed our names “The Usual Suspects.” It took some people days to figure out who we were, especially because my brother and his wife were also in the photo.

The point is, we have fun. Lots of it. Sure, there’s fighting involved and yelling and usually some tears – (Just ask my mom who has been privy to some of our behind the scenes action.) – but mostly, there’s fun. At least, that’s what I choose to remember.

Don’t you love watching your kids enjoy life with some good clean fun? I think that God, our Father, probably feels the same way. So please remember, even at Christmas you are allowed to have fun…so have some!

CHRISTMAS TRADITION DOs & DON’Ts | DO Keep What You Love!

Hang onto those traditions you love, even if they are a wee bit inconvenient.

After we put up the tree, we string the lights. “We” being me and me alone. Not because the others aren’t willing to help, but rather because I won’t let them. I know that sounds terrible, but the lights make the tree and I want my tree to sparkle. And sparkle it does! I’ve heard that pilots flying over our neighborhood on the way to Bradley Field can detect a faint glow coming from our home. (Maybe don’t tell the FAA about this.)

How long does it take to wrap every branch from tip to trunk, covering the tree in 2,000 lights? Long enough for my husband and kids to go out and get most of their Christmas shopping done. Which they’ve been known to do.

Almost halfway there! | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Almost halfway there! | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Not only does tree lighting take me three or four hours, but when I’m done my hands are covered in cuts and scratches and my feet and back hurt like I’ve been touring Disney for a day. (I know, I know, first world problems.)

Crazy, I know. And every year, a small part of me dreads the tree-lighting process, but I wouldn’t want it any other way because those few hours proffer me an entire month of tree viewing pleasure.

So if you love your traditions…even the inconvenient ones…then hang on to them! Life is hard and the holidays are challenging and if frosting a gingerbread house or creating handmade cards or knitting everyone you know a scarf or in my case, looking at bright, sparkly objects, brings you joy, then do it!

Just see how it sparkles | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Just see how it sparkles | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com