Friday, March 20, 2015

the root of the root and the bud of the bud

Everyone has days and weeks in their life that they reflect upon with misery. For me, none stands out more than the week of Sunday, October 13, 2013, with Wednesday, October 16, 2013 being the worst day of my life. It was a week beyond misery, a week when I wept and wailed with a deeper grief than I have ever known. It was the kind of week that I would never wish on anyone. It was October 16, 2013, when Owen died.
My favorite photo of Sommer and Owen
 The previous week, Owen had stopped eating, and Hospice had told Sommer and Pete that unless he reversed that trend the end was coming soon. Owen's two-year-old body was shutting down due to his progressive brain disease. As has been our usual for many years, I was in touch with Sommer on a daily basis, and she was keeping me apprised of his decline in detail. The timing was tricky to figure out when I should go to Massachusetts to be with her and her family. Was it better for me to be there for them in Owen's final days, when I could be of help? Or would it be better for me to wait until he passed and then be there for the funeral and the quiet, awful days that would follow as they settled into life without Owen? On Friday, October 11th, Sommer, BJ, and I spoke at great length and decided that I should fly out on Sunday morning, the 13th. I would be there by lunchtime. We all figured, based on what Hospice was guessing, that Owen would have passed away by the time I got there. Strangely enough and on top of it all, the Marshall family was planning to close on their current home on Thursday the 17th, and then move into their new home on Friday the 18th. The timing was uncanny. It seemed that the best thing was for me to be with Sommer, Pete, and Ellie in the quiet days after he passed, helping them to bear the last few days in their 'house of despair,' as they sometimes referred to it, and help them pack. I would plan to come back on Wednesday, October 16. As an aside, I should mention that I was 33 weeks pregnant with Van, and likely not to be of any actual physical help at all.

I won't walk you through most of the details of the week. It was a melancholy place to be, and yet it was the only place I wanted to be. Where do you go when your best friend is losing her son to an awful disease? You go to your best friend's side, that's where. You do her bidding. You stay up until 4AM for night-time shifts with her beautiful son when you don't trust the nurse. You memorize his med schedule, you go for walks with her when she needs to get out of the house, you take on the role as the Dunkin' Donuts coffee-run girl, you try to not get in the way, and you spend your time loving everyone there as much as you can, even as your own chest is heaving with grief. You do it because, even though you're hurting more than you have ever hurt because you love this little boy, you know that they love him even more than you do, and their grief is a million times your own. After all, she is your best friend, and she deserves the best you can give.
Owen and me, March 2012
 Despite what we thought was going to happen, Owen was still living when I arrived on Sunday. Despite our pleadings to him to go to Heaven when he was ready, he was still there on Monday as well. On Tuesday morning, the hospice nurse Amanda visited and told us she thought it would be "today or tomorrow," based on his ragged, noisy breathing. As the week had worn on I had become increasingly uncomfortable with my scheduled return date of October 16. We really thought that Owen would have long been in Heaven by then. But, as Amanda spoke those words around noon on Tuesday the 15th, I knew I was going to have to call Delta Airlines and see what they could do for me. I just didn't know what to do or when to fly home, and I can't begin to tell you how overwhelming this decision was for me to make. It seems like when you're grieving your hardest, you don't want to have to decide anything. Even the most mundane decisions, like what you should have for dinner, can become excruciating. (This is why if you're friends with someone who is grieving, it's best to not ask how you can help them. Just a pick a way you can help them and do it for them.)

And so it happened that I picked up the Marshalls' land line and found myself connected with Barbara of Delta Airlines, a kind stranger whom I will never forget. Barbara came on the phone politely and asked how she could help. As best I could, I briefly described the situation: my best friend's son was dying and I was there to be with the family. He was thought to have gone by now but he hadn't, and I didn't want to come home yet and had no idea when to reschedule for, and I was overwhelmed and had no idea what to do. She was exceedingly kind and apologized for our situation. She then began gathering my information:
"What is your name?" she asked.
"Jennifer Potter."
"What's your birth date, dear?"
"January 8th, 1981."
She paused. "Oh my. You're the same age as my daughter." She paused again. "I'm guessing that your best friend's son is quite young."

The lump in my throat that had been there the entire conversation suddenly became so massive that I could no longer speak. I was silent for probably ten seconds trying to get it under control before I finally sobbed out, "He's two."
"Oh dear." She was quiet and let me cry for a minute. "I'm so sorry. You sound so sweet. I can only imagine if this was my daughter." She sounded forlorn for our situation.
I asked her in despair, "What do you think I should do? I don't know when to reschedule because I don't know when he is going to die. I just know I can't leave when I'm supposed to tomorrow."
Suddenly, Barbara broke in with a take-charge attitude. "Tell you what..." she began.
Barbara came up with a plan that changed everything for me that day. She treated our situation as though it was a family bereavement case. "After all," she said, "A best friend is really a sister, right?"
"Right," I laughed through tears.
She cancelled my flight for the following day, agreeing with me that I certainly couldn't go home yet. Then, she gave me a confirmation number and told me that I only needed to call Delta and reschedule after he passed, when I was actually ready to leave. "No need to worry about re-booking anything now since you don't have any idea how long you'll need to stay," she said. She told me that when I was ready, a Delta agent should easily be able to find a return flight that would not cost any more than my original return flight did, and they would not charge me any fees for having to re-book. If my new return flight cost more than my original return flight, I would be responsible for that difference only. However, she did not think that it was likely that there would be a price hike. (In the end, there wasn't. The price for the ticket I eventually booked in return was the exact same price as the one I originally purchased, and I owed no additional money.) Barbara even gave me a pep talk in the end, telling me that I was strong, and that I was a good friend, and that she wished all the best for Owen and his family. Finally, she asked to speak to the Hospice nurse that was there, and she gathered some of Owen's information that she needed from the nurse that verified my story. In the end, I hung up having spent 15 minutes talking with Barbara, and having felt as though 15 pounds had been lifted off my chest. Right when I needed some help, help had come.
Sleeping during a blizzard, 2013
 Sommer and I agreed at the time that I should blog about Barbara, but I never have until now. The week, of course, got harder for everyone, least of all me. It was my privilege to have the overnight shift with Owen on his final night on Earth, and it was not an easy one. Owen was occasionally uncomfortable and always struggling to breathe, and we were at odds with an overnight nurse whom we didn't feel really understood our comfort goals for Owen. He finally seemed to be in a place of peace at about 5:30 in the morning of the 16th, and his breathing quietened for the first time since I had arrived on Sunday. He passed away early in the morning as we all stepped out of the room briefly to grab coffee in the kitchen. When I returned to kiss him three minutes later and tell him that I was going to go grab a nap and that I would be back down in a little bit to check on him again, I could see that he had passed into Heaven while we were all out of the room. That turkey! I think I felt two seconds of relief before a whole different feeling of grief set in, and I knew that I could never be the same after having met sweet little Owen. The next two hours were the worst hours of my life. The woe that I experienced and witnessed were beyond human language.

Despite the heaviness, I look back on that intense week and can easily see the highs of the week. As I wrote in my blog the week after Owen passed away, "I got to meet new people that I never would have encountered, and as we all shared a common goal of serving Owen and making him comfortable, I believe we forged some emotional bonds that may never be broken. I will never forget nurses like Robin, Bronwyn, and Amanda, and I will always be glad for my strengthened friendships with Sommer, Pete, and Sommer's parents Marylou and Tony." Certainly, one of the brightest spots of the week for me was the above-and-beyond service from Barbara at Delta Airlines. I can't even deign to call it "customer service," because she never seemed to view it that way either. Almost from the get-go, Barbara treated me like I was more than a customer. She treated me as a valued human being, lost and in despair, and she relieved me of having to make complicated, expensive decisions at a time when I was too overwhelmed to figure out what to do for myself. She identified with me as though I was her daughter, and her kindness stood out to everyone in the home that day. She still stands out to me.

I'm sorry that I haven't written about this before. Mentally revisiting this week is hard work for me, but it is so necessary, because it has made me a better person who can more fully appreciate the peaks and valleys that life has to offer. Only having walked through the valleys can we truly appreciate the peaks, after all. I should have written about Barbara before though. Kindness from people deserves to be shared and spoken aloud, and I have hopes that sharing this kindness will in turn spur my reader-friends to share their own kindnesses to others, both friends and strangers. You don't have to know someone to make a huge difference in her life. You need only be there at the right moment with the right deed or the right words, and the impact can last a lifetime. A million thanks to Barbara, from a human being that desperately needed a hand and a verbal hug. You, Barbara, gave both and a lot more.

I will close this post with the poem that hung on Owen's nursery wall. Below is a photo of the frame and art, which Pete designed for Sommer. The poem, “i carry your heart” by e.e. cummings, is beautiful—but for me it is very bitter. Nothing, in fact, brings a more bitter wave of grief than recalling the words of this poem and imagining standing in his bedroom on the second floor of their Amesbury home. It was a lovely, warm, brown room with windows on two sides, and I always picture it with windows open on a warm, sunny day and cars driving by on Clinton Street out front (much to Sommer's chagrin, but that's a whole different story!). I am working on myself to mentally redefine this poem and image from 'bitter' to 'sweet.' May the poem always remind me of what is important in life, namely, that our loved ones are the root of the root and the bud of the bud. There is nothing more important than each other, so may we be kind.
i carry your heart
e.e. cummings
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Owen's beach