Today is the first day of school- again. Like most parents, teachers and students (for my whole life I’ve been some sort of combination of all three), the cycle of a year does not end with Dec 31st and begin with Jan 1st. Instead, the cycle of a year ends with the last day of “summer” and begins with the first day of school. It’s a never ending pattern of new, yet familiar back-to-school craziness, followed by the monotonous yet comfortable days of fall and winter, then the awakening of spring, followed by the last day of school, the fun and thrill of summer and ending with that final week of frantic shopping and preparing for the next new year of school.
It’s about this time, then, that I reflect on the year that is behind me. There’s always the good and the bad in every year, but this particular year has been life changing. A year that can safely be classified as one of my worst, one that I couldn’t have cooked up in my wildest of nightmares at this time last year, although the seeds were already planted, I just didn’t see them yet. It’s been that kind of year that when I mentally list the portentous moments, I can barely struggle through having them all in one, gloomy place, at the same time, staring back at me.
It was that bad.
Even listing them doesn’t begin to describe the enormity of this year, but you, the reader, needs something from which to understand. I get that.
- August 7th– The 3rd anniversary of the death of my step-brother, Jeremy. I hurt every year, mostly for those he left behind- his mom, his brother, his wife and his two wonderful sons, who only have memories left. It was about this time that we learned our oldest son was getting high and drunk with his best friend, and anyone else who didn’t think it was a big deal. I was gearing up to start my new year.
- August 15th– I watched in helpless horror as my good friend learned, alongside me walking on a track while our boys played football, that her husband committed suicide. A man of integrity, a father, a business owner, a pillar in his community. It stunned us all and death became real, once again. I didn’t sleep for days, playing over and over in my mind the roll I had in my friend’s devastating, life-changing moment.
- August 26th– Our oldest son’s best friend hanged himself. The boy that grew up with our son, vacationed with us, sang in our car, ate meals with us, attended church with us, tortured our cat and consoled our daughter through teenage drama. Our son was one of the last people to talk to Charlie that Sunday, and a little of him died with Charlie’s death. We spent weeks in a shocked stupor, trying to find sense in things that were senseless. Consoling our kids through events we had no business even trying to understand, let alone parent our children through.
- Mid-October- Our oldest son spiraled into depression, numbing his pain with a trifecta of disaster- drugs, sex and alcohol. We thought we had no choice but to send him to “rehab” (I still can’t say the words; we-sent-our-kid-to-rehab). For two, long months, he sat with hardened street kids, and we had to face the reality that our son’s future didn’t look any brighter than theirs. Up until then, I secretly assumed parents who had kids like our oldest didn’t parent effectively. I bet every parent who has wonderful children does the same kind of thinking about those of us that don’t. It’s been a slap-to-your-face life lesson- no amount of good parenting can stop a child from poor choices, if they are hell bent to make them. And our son was. I can point to reasons, misunderstandings that were never properly explain by those who chose their own satisfaction over his wellbeing. He internalized those conversations and held onto them for far too long, but in the end, the choices were always his, and he always knew right from wrong, yet he consistently chose the later. He forfeited school and military opportunities and an easy future, and we mourned the dreams we had for him.
- December/January- we watched helplessly as a friend lost their young, full-of-potential son to that ugly disease, cancer. It came and it took at an alarming speed. No amount of love, of fund raising, of prayer, could take away their pain and his death. Another loss.
- January 25th- another death. This time my 59 year old uncle. From years of abuse, his body finally gave up. His death brought renewed anger and confusion to our family tied together by mere threads.
- Winter- the winter that outdid every winter. Polar vortexes, sub-zero temperatures, snow that covered everything, for weeks on end. It was bitter, with absolutely no sweetness to be found. It was as if even the weather was mourning our losses, and anticipating more to come.
- April 16th- a long-awaited visit with long-lost friends led to a random phone call with the shocking words that my mother-in-law was dead. My husband’s near-perfect, innocent mother died of a heart attack, aged 62, alone, in her garage, after a trip to the hairdresser. It was a shock, it still is. And I had to make that dreaded call to my unknowing husband, to tell him his mother died way too soon, without a goodbye.
- April 27th– our oldest, newly-rehabilitated, AA-attending son told us he was going to be a father. Not yet graduated, skimming through his final year of high school, and facing fatherhood. It was a pill that we were ill prepared to swallow, and the trickle effect it had on our other children, on our marriage and our friendships was almost too much. It was our breaking point. In that moment, we were finally crushed by the weight of not just that news, but of it all. And I had 4 months until the year was officially over. I wondered what else could go wrong. I started anticipating the next disaster- would it happen when my son rode his bike to his friend’s house, when my husband drove to work, when my mom called and I saw her number on caller ID? It was as if I was constantly in brace mode, knowing, from experience, that the next moment could be another, new worst moment. I was broken. I lived in my cocoon, and I wanted my loved ones to join me or leave me alone.
And yet, here I am, August again, reflecting on the worst year of my life, and I know there was good in it too, hiding in the corners, shaded by the darkness, but still flickering ever so softly, a barely-there reminder that life goes on, hope survives, and there will always be something in which you can be grateful. And I am grateful.
- For my husband– who saw the toll a full time teaching job was taking on me and our family, and made stay-at-home mom happen for us. Just in time, too. Because I absolutely know we wouldn’t have survived this year if I was teaching full time. He propped me up every time I wanted to fall, and loved me when I was unlovable.
- For my step-daughter– who isn’t just a step-daughter, but my daughter, whom I raised even when it was hard, and influenced her and laughed with her and cried with her. Because in this year of tragedy, she learned to love herself, she grew up, she became the young woman I always hoped she’d be, but wondered if she’d ever get there. But she did, in the most unlikely of years. And through her, I know we did something right.
- For my youngest son– my beautiful, blue-eyed, flesh and blood baby boy who grew 4 ½ inches and 3 shoes sizes since last August, and showed me how to forge on with his innocent smile, and his ever-optimistic slant on life. I watched him attend a new school, and become a better person for it, ready to face the challenges of being a teenager. And I’m grateful for taking him out of his comfort zone and showing him that the world is bigger than he thought, and in need of caring, compassionate people like him.
- For friends– not the gossipmongers that pop in behind that veil of friendship to learn about the latest, juicy story that could have been them, but wasn’t. But true friends, that sensed my needs and forced their way through my walls to take me to breakfast (Jess and Anna), to invite me for a walk (Ellen), to talk me off my ledge and put things in perspective.
- For my sister– who always sensed my worst days, and seemed to show up with a card, a call or a visit when I needed it most. Every person should be lucky enough to have a sister like her. If it weren’t for the fact that we are 3 years apart (I’m younger, of course), I’d describe her intuitiveness along the lines of what twins must feel, and I am glad to call her my best friend.
- For serving– this is the year that both my husband and I served our church and community more than we ever served before. It’s been hard, it’s been frustrating, and we’ve wanted to give up. But I have learned that what you send out, you get in return- life is an echo. And serving has quietly been my salvation.
- For forgiveness– this year I learned that forgiveness doesn’t mean you put yourself out there to get hurt again. It doesn’t mean you keep inviting that person back into your life, hoping above all hopes that they’ll like you and become the person you always hoped they’d be. It means genuinely forgiving someone that doesn’t show you an ounce of compassion, that is selfish beyond measure and not worthy of your forgiveness, but you give it anyway, because it heals your own heart, not theirs. And then you walk away from trying to be a friend. And it liberates you.
- For my husband’s career– that began to flourish just when we needed it most. When counseling bills, rehab (see, I said it again, it wasn’t that bad) bills, car repair bills, school bills, etc. started piling up, my husband was given just the right amount of opportunities.
- For our oldest son (my step son)– who lost his best friend, and traveled down a dark, lonely road, but is still here to make us smile. Oh yes, he has a long way to go, and a lot of maturing to do, but he’s here, he chose life when faced with early parenthood (when the easier thing to do would’ve been the opposite) he’s an integral part of this family, and we love him.
- For new life– because out of tragedy, out of carelessness and selfishness and poor decisions, a new life has been created. And how poignant it is that on the last day of my worst year ever, I got to officially meet my granddaughter (see Brita, that wasn’t so bad to say)- little baby Sawyer Rose Byers for the first time. And she’s beautiful, and she’s loved, and she brings us all hope for a better year than the last. And she reminds me that even in my worst year, there’s good.