(November Issue, 2011)
A writer friend recently suggested I share a defining moment. Mine unfortunately was a Mother’s worst nightmare. However, when recalling those events that forever changed my life, I believe in the process they brought me a deeper understanding of life and a greater connection to God.
Had tragedy not struck my family my answer would have been the birth of my two beautiful sons. Who although born two years apart and shared a number of similarities were dramatically different. Chris the oldest had brown hair and brown eyes and the darker complexion of my French ancestry. While Sean had white blonde hair, blue eyes, a lighter complexion favoring the Irish side of the family tree. When Sean was born he looked like an angel. However, his angelic appearance had no bearing on his rambunctious nature. For one of his favorite pastimes was rough-housing with his brother, a daily occurrence. Climbing up and down and frequently playing with their beloved cousins, as ours is a close knit family, they preferred the time they spent together. Chris was by nature the more studious of the two, and was reading by the time he was three years old. Although a single Mother, life was good and I adored my little family. However, soon a chain of events was set into motion that would forever change my life.
Returning home from work late one evening, I was in a horrific automobile accident. I felt death all around me yet somehow I had escaped it. My recovery however, was painfully slow and dealing with two very active youngsters was difficult, even with help. As time wore on with my physical strength not returning, my emotional state proved fragile as well. Money issues were mounting and the stress of not knowing when I could return to work was a daily companion. A nervous wreck, my doctor suggested I get away for a week. A friend went with me to Lake Tahoe in Northern California, to camp on the Truckee River. My spiritual connection to nature made it a good choice. Recently divorced, more than my body was in need of healing. I made arrangements for my boys to stay with a trusted friend whom had been their occasional babysitter. I called every night to talk to them. At the time Chris was six and Sean was four.
Earlier that October morning I was camping in the heart of the forest. So late in the season the campground was empty, except for my Volkswagen camper. About 7:30 I awoke to the aroma of coffee as my day was just beginning. Out the window of the van I could see the sun streaming through the trees and watched the birds in search of breakfast in the newly fallen snow. I felt so at peace for the first time in a long time, and warm despite the freezing temperature outside. In those next moments I heard a voice in the distance calling for, “Mommy”. It was a little voice, sounding confused and lost. It gave me chills but I thought it was the cold air as I got out of the camper and asked my friend where the children were? I asked if he had heard the child calling, “Mommy”. He said no, we were the only campers there. I told him it sounded just like Sean’s voice. By now I had been gone five days and missing them more than ever, decided when I called them later that night I would tell them I was coming home early. When I called at the scheduled time I was caught off guard when a stranger answered phone, only advising me to call my parents. It was just after 7:00pm when, I quickly, placed the call.
My Father answered the phone, at first was hesitant and after a few exchanges I asked to speak with my Mother. He said she was sleeping and he didn’t want to wake her. My Mother and I enjoyed a very close relationship and she would have wanted to speak with me even if it meant waking her. The conversation became strained as I asked about the boys, but he kept asking when I was returning home. Something in his voice was very alarming as he suggested I fly home that evening. I told him that was impossible as there had been a heavy snow storm and the only airport was closed. I asked him about the boys and he said everything was fine and we would talk later as he abruptly ended the call. In my heart I knew some thing was terribly wrong. I just didn’t know how terrible or how wrong it would be.
Having ended the call so abruptly, I again called and the line was busy. Nothing was making sense, I called my ex-husband and his line too was busy. When I did finally reach him, he was very tentative and his voice strained. I asked what was going on, where were the boys, he told me Chris was with him but that Sean had an accident earlier in the day and was in the hospital. My mind was racing with questions and I wasn’t getting any answers that made sense. He too suggested I fly home immediately. It was then I realized everyone else was talking, just not to me. Frustrated, I hung up the phone to find my own answers. There were only three area hospitals so I called each one, explaining that my son had been admitted under emergency conditions and I needed to talk to the nurse in charge. Each hospital I called said the same thing, there wasn’t any patient admitted with that name. With each call my hysteria grew
It was now almost 10:00pm and my last phone call to my ex-husband would soon reveal the reason. I asked where he had been. He said he had gone to the hospital to check on Sean. I called him a liar saying I had called all the hospitals and Sean wasn’t in any of them. He kept telling me I was wrong that Sean was in the hospital. Finally, in desperation I yelled, “Tommy, he’s my son, I don’t care how bad it is I want to know where he is so I can talk him”. I repeated myself several times, each time my voice rising in fear and anger. The eventual answer was a parent’s worst nightmare when after a very long and confusing pause he replied. “He’s dead, he’s just dead, Sean’s dead”. As if the difance in his voice could alter the terrible truth of his words. I remember the screaming and calling him a liar over and over again. My voice rising and falling in panic and confusion, asking why he was doing this to me, screaming at God and the four walls trying to contain me.
Finally, when the truth of his words could no longer be denied, knees buckling I crashed to the floor unable to move, unable to think, unable to be. I remember the phone ringing, others in the room talking first with my Father and then with my doctor in San Diego as I lay there and dissolved into nothingness. I was taken to the hospital, given heavy sedation and extra medication for the long ride home. I don’t remember leaving the hospital. I just remember waking up in a crowded parking lot and seeing cars encrusted with ice from the newly fallen snow and over those a flashing neon sign, in much need of repair, recommending the “best breakfast in town”.
I was led from the van into the sharply lit restaurant, a cup of coffee had been placed before me. I couldn’t understand why I was so groggy and then the realization hit again that my precious Sean was dead. My body caved in becoming part of the cracked and peeling plastic seat of the booth where I sat. Now sobbing uncontrollably I quickly fled to the van and the journey home. I slept the entire way, until we turned the corner to the street where my parents lived, third house on the right. I looked out the curtained window of the van, my entire family waiting for me, in the street, in the drive way and on the stairs to the porch. All I could see was my son Chris standing in front of my Mother with her hands on his small shoulders. (Shoulders I unknowingly placed a burden on each and every time I told him to watch his brother, because he was, sound familiar?) He was all I could see, all I wanted to see. I was numb with disbelief as I got out of the van. One by one, speechless family members came to embrace me, their tear stained faces outlined their own pain. All I could do was put both hands up in protest saying I just needed to see Chris. I knew if I allowed myself the luxury of those embraces I would disappear forever in the black hole of grief.
When I made my way to were he was standing, I knelt down in front of him and he said in a small little voice, “Mommy, Sean got hurt, can we go see him”? Wrapping my arms around him I said, “I know he did baby but Mommies here now”. It was later that day his Father and I explained that Sean was now in Heaven with God. Even now these words open wounds that never quite heal and I weep remembering the sorrow. As the details of the accident unfolded I learned how it happened or as much as I could bear to hear. It was early in the morning, the boys were outside on the patio playing with suctions darts and German Sheppard, puppies. There was a large wood framed string mechanism, a piece of a larger instrument leaning against the stucco wall. I believed it to be a harp.
The boys were playing with a dart game that become annoying and had been taken away. Later when Sean saw the darts he decided to climb up and get them. Chris sensing the danger repeatedly told him to get down, but Sean did not heed his brother’s warning of danger. In the process Sean while pulling on the strings, pulled the harp over and it feel down on top of him. It was the very nature of their differences that led to Sean’s untimely passing as Chris witnessed the death of his brother. The irony of a harp or something like it did not escape me, as my little angel entered the heavenly realm; for I believe it was his voice I heard that morning at the campground, calling,” Mommy”.
The house was full of people that day, all coming and going offering condolences, bringing food and flowers, stories and tears. I felt hollow, with nothing to share but exhaustion and wanting to disappear. The last thing I remember about that day was lying across the bed in my parent’s guestroom, and hearing the distant anguished wail of an animal in pain, and fell asleep realizing it was my own. When Sean died he left behind a broken hearted six year old brother and the broken woman that was his Mother. Daily feelings of anguish, grief and guilt was constant believing his death was somehow my fault. If only I had stayed home nothing would have happened to him. Those days turned into months and with each one’s passing I found new reasons to blame myself for this tragedy that had befallen my family. My world became a constant litany of what if’s and if only.
In those early days I was surrounded by loving family and friends but soon, as must be the case, everyone returned to their normal lives and routines. Although I lived close to my family I felt alone in my grief and overwhelmed by my circumstances. A single Mother with a young son who needed me more than ever, I failed him often, consumed by my own emotions. The guilt I felt each time I looked at the pain in his eyes, in some ways kept me away from him, as it became too much for me to bear. My days were long and the nights longer as I lay crying hoping for sleep that would not come. I knew nothing of what lay ahead for us. I only knew I could not endure even one more day with the burden of guilt and the heaviness of grief, surrounding Sean’s death.
On a day I thought could be my last I went to a small church in San Diego, where I would often go to light candles for Sean and pray for forgiveness and at times try to barter with God. Inside there was a beautiful chapel where the nuns would celebrate mass and a side room where they would go to pray in private. I remember that day as if yesterday. I had taken Chris to school, after which my aimless driving brought me to the nun’s front door, again. I entered the chapel and to the left was a smaller room containing a life sized statue of Michelangelo’s Pieta, Mary holding the lifeless body of her son, Jesus.
Entering that intimate space, the presence of their likeness was overwhelming. Feeling unworthy, small and alone I sat in the back of the room, with my head down, sobbing. Yet daring to look up, and feeling so drawn to the Mother who too had lost her son, I went to kneel directly in front of her. Her pain so evident, and yet her face so beautiful expressing a serene sweetness and majestic acceptance of what had befallen her beloved Son. Together our pain mingled as she tenderly held her son, knowing I could never hold mine again.
As I knelt before Her heartache permeated my whole being and the weight of its burden was never heavier. Too much to bear in anguish, I cried out “Oh dear God, please help me” as the thoughts that raced through my mind were beyond my control. I was afraid to think of what I might do, to myself, to Chris to us both. I had never been more afraid in my life. All those prior months I had prayed and prayed but this was the first time I had spoken those words out loud, perhaps a last resort, pleading for His help. Then looking up into Mary’s face once again, a calm, peaceful feeling began to surround me, washing over me as a wave of unconditional love. It was in those moments I heard his answer when He said:
“Be with me now, in this moment and know that you are loved and all grace shall follow thee. Be not afraid for I am all and everlasting. Go now and be at peace”. For the first time in almost a year I began to see the light of hope, in what had become the end of my tunnel. The tears continued to flow but no longer seemed of despair. Rather, washing away some of what I had carried with me in my hour of need. Leaving the chapel that I day I felt a sense of hope, that one day I would be able to forgive myself.
Over the years I have stumbled and fallen, many times. But God’s Grace saved me from myself that day and so I remain a work in progress. I can’t say I have completely forgiven myself over the loss of my son, but I know he lives in God’s Grace and it is selfish of me to want that to be different. Try to be kinder to myself and live close to my heart, for it’s there He resides. And remind myself daily that my strength lies in Him; that my life was worth sparing and I alone decide if I face it with grace or bitterness. My son Chris survived this tragic event in his life but the pain of the moment still lingers. His way was not an easy one as he struggled to make sense of it all and feeling too that somehow he was to blame. He is a loving son, a wonderful husband and a man his little brother would be very proud of.
As I knelt before the Pieta, on that day so long ago, asking God for His help, I still hear His answer.
“Be with me now, in this moment and know that you are loved and all grace shall follow thee. Be not afraid for I am all and everlasting. Go now and be at peace”.
Defining Moments come, who knew the death of our angel would birth my journey to God.