The morning after Sean died I sat in the shade under the trees in the back yard feeling numb, in a fog, in a daze, unable to make sense of everything or anything. My heart had been violently ripped from my body. I couldn't breathe. Couldn't think straight. Every ounce of strength had left my body and every fibre of my being shook from the inside out.
As I sat under the tree I remember slowly looking around the yard in stunned amazement. The sun was still shining. The sky was still blue. The trees were still rustling in the breeze. Cars still drove by on the road. And I was angry about that. Angry that my son had died and the world did not pause..........not even for one second...........to acknowledge the death of this so very good man. The world was exactly the same as it had been the day before. Only it wasn't.
I looked down at my watch and then sat on a lawn chair by the table compulsively drinking coffee and chain smoking cigarettes, consumed with and completely overwhelmed with the knowledge that right then, right at that moment, the medical examiner was performing an autopsy on my child. I could see it. See it all in my head. Could visualize the ME ripping my son to pieces. Pulling my boy apart. I could see it all. I could see him lying dead on a slab in the morgue. See him being torn apart by someone who scientifically, methodically and unfeelingly tore unknown people apart every single day of their working lives. And now he was tearing apart my son. Someone that I loved and cherished completely.
When LC joined me outside at the table we sat and talked and then finally (finally) we held each other and cried together for the loss of my son. It would be the first of many many many times that we would cry together that day and every day for months, crying and desperately holding tightly together in our shared pain and anguish.
Jess' father called wanting to know if I wanted to go to the funeral home with him. No. What arrangements did I want? Whatever brings Jessica some measure of piece. I didn't care. He was gone. Finally and irrevocably gone. I did not care what music they played or what pictures they displayed or what flowers they put out. My child was dead. My child was dead my child was dead my child was dead my child was dead my child was..........he was dead.
At some point I called Jess. She was broken hearted but with her family. Good that she was with people who loved and supported her. She asked if I had pictures of Sean that she could include in a slide show at the funeral and we made arrangements to visit her that Sunday. I told her that I would call again the next day to see how she was doing and hung up the phone. More crying. How much could someone cry? I began to wonder that but as with everything else in my entire world, I had no answer.
I called Chris. He was doing alright. He wanted to come down for the funeral. We made plans for his arrival on the Monday. My child. My youngest child. God, I hoped that he was alright. Please let him be alright...............
I called Sean's father again to let him know that Chris was coming down for the funeral and then waited..........he asked me again to send him an email when I found out how Sean had died. Through the pain and suffering and anguish that I felt, there was also much room for the overwhelming anger and intense disgust that I felt as I realized that my precious childs' father cared so little. That his own father would disrespect the memory of his child so completely. My child deserved better than that. He deserved so much better than that. I resolved at that moment that I would not ever speak with him again. He was beyond contempt.
I spent that first day alternating between crying, sleeping, staring into space, smoking, drinking coffee, trying to think straight, reliving the past few days in my mind trying to make sense of something that made no sense. An active and healthy 28 year old man did not just fall down dead. What? What? WHAT had happened to him?????
I was still wearing pajamas later that afternoon when my friend dropped by the house. She had four sons all around the same age as mine. She was carrying food, handed it to LC, walked over to me and pulled me into her arms. We both cried together and then walked outside. She only stayed for a few minutes. I couldn't hold myself together, couldn't talk, couldn't face anyone. When she left I lay down on the couch in the den again crying, picturing my son sitting on the same couch laughing and playing with Jamie. I truly felt like I was fighting a descent into despair, perhaps even madness. But I didn't care. He was gone. That is all I cared about.
The next day another lady that I had known both personally and professionally came to the house to offer condolences and to bring food. I still couldn't eat, but it was good to see her, and I was glad to not have to worry about LC and food. She talked, I listened. Still unable to make conversation.
Later in the day I Googled my son's name. I saw it. I had not expected to see it. My computer crashed to the floor and I blindly stormed through the house and pushed my way out the back door in tears of grief. LC, my sweet LC, came running outside and grabbed me by the shoulders terrified for me and I fell into his arms and cried uncontrollably. I had clicked on a link to a memorial page at the funeral home. I was not expecting it and when I unexpectedly found the link I hit the page and there in front of me was a wedding picture of my son. Him so young, so handsome, dressed in a tux and smiling for the camera. Still a student and so hopeful for the future. So young. So damned young. I could not stand it. Could not stand the pain and could not bear his death.
On Sunday LC and I went to see Jess. She was alright, so young and so vulnerable and yet so strong - surrounded by loving and supportive family, sound in the knowledge that her unborn child was doing fine, still unable to grasp the magnitude of what had happened. I envied her that, because I could not hide from it and I desperately wished that I could. I did not want to know that this was the end. I did not want to understand and know that my oldest son was gone forever. The first person I had ever ever truly and completely loved in my life.
Jess told me on that day that Sean had wanted to be cremated. I didn't know that. How could I? We had never talked together about such things. Why would we? He was a kid. But it sounded like something that Sean would say and I was glad that they had discussed it together. I wanted what Sean wanted.
While I visited with Jessica I did most of the talking. Going over all of the pictures I had of him and telling Jessica stories related to the pictures that she may not have known about Sean. More crying. God, I was sick of crying but couldn't stop. What the hell point was there in crying? But I couldn't stop.
While I sat and talked with Jess, LC sat and talked with her father. LC told Jessica's father that I had never liked open caskets and preferred to remember Sean as he was when he was alive. That was true, and a few days later I would be demolished by decisions based on that statement, but on this day it was about telling Jessica stories about her husband when he was a boy instead of the man she had known. Did those stories bring some semblance of peace to her? I didn't know but I hoped so. Did those stories bring peace for me? No...........
Before we left Jessica on that Sunday she asked me if I wanted to spend time with Sean alone and before everyone else showed up for the funeral on Wednesday. I told her yes, and we agreed that I would have time from 3:30pm-4pm.
The next day my youngest son arrived in Chattanooga. He did not have a passport and could not fly, so had caught a Greyhound bus the day after I called him. 52 hours after he first climbed onto that bus I picked him up in Chatt. I had not seen Chris in over a year and a half. The last time we had been together my child had flown to Juneau Alaska, and we had spent almost two weeks together, he mostly doing a whole lot of eating, sleeping and fishing. I remember kissing him on the cheek and hugging him tightly at the Juneau airport when he was getting ready to leave, knowing that he was leaving the military in only a few months, knowing that he would likely travel to Canada to spend some time with his father who he had not seen in many years but who he wanted to reconnect with, knowing that I had no idea when or where the next time would be that I would see my child. I never imagined (and neither did he) that the next time we saw each other would be back in Tennessee for the funeral of his brother.
Chis looked exactly the same. Still tall, still fit and strong looking. Still shaving his head as he had done since he played football in high school, still handsome as hell. When I saw him I rushed into his huge arms, reaching up to throw my arms around his neck. I held him tightly, not wanting to let him go. Not ever wanting to let him go. It was so good to see him, and I held him tightly as though he were a lifeline. He was. He was mine. He was healthy. He was here. He brought me the smallest semblance of comfort. My youngest child.
Oh God. I had thought of the two of them as "the boys" for so many years. Uniquely themselves as individuals, but also collectively always the boys. My two sons. My two children. For 26 years since Chris was born they had been "the boys". The realization of that and the realization that everything had changed ate through my stomach. One more sledge hammer against the side of my head. Why???? Why the FUCK did this happen????
On the way home we all talked, quietly catching up with each other and with what had happened only a few short days before. I couldn't help myself. I had to keep touching his face, his strong arms, his neck, not wanting to let him go. Needing to reassure myself that my youngest boy was OK. I don't know if Chris minded but if he did he never said anything to me.
Late that afternoon M&M dropped by the house. She brought deer meat, and while Chris and LC and I sat outside under the trees she took over my kitchen, cooked mashed potatoes and heated up the venison, and then the ham that was still in the refrigerator. Sean had died on Thursday and finally on Monday I was able to eat but I could not yet eat much and nothing tasted right and I had no desire to eat, but I ate because LC was worried about me, and he did not need anything else to worry about.
The next day Chris and LC went to the gun range. I could not go. The last time I had seen Sean was at the gun range. Two and a half weeks before. Two and a half weeks before, my son had been alive, laughing, joking, talking, eating. I could not go to the range, could not be around people, could not stand the noise, could not stand the activity, could not muster the effort or will required to spend time at the range and so LC and Chris went. I was so glad that they did. Some time to forget about everything for a just a while.
Later that afternoon when LC had just lay down to take a nap there was a knock on the front door. Jamie went ballistic as she always does when someone unexpectedly invades her property. I rushed to the door to find someone from a local flower store standing on the steps carrying a huge green plant in her arms. When I looked at the card it told me that it was a condolence gift from a group of people that I used to work with. I appreciated it, but when I walked back into the kitchen LC was standing there, leaning up against the counter shaking.
He had abruptly been woken up. As I slowly placed the plant on the kitchen table I was looking at LC's face. Dazed. Confused. Angry. Distraught. Shaking. Writing those words now takes me back to that moment when I looked closely for the first time since my child had died at the face of the man I loved. We had cried many times together and alone. LC was a wreck. I saw it in his face. I held him until he stopped shaking, trying to say reassuring words that I did not feel but words that I hoped would help. I held him close and eventually I calmed him Eventually he lay down on the bed again and I hoped that he would sleep.
Shaken as well, I walked into the living room to see my son laying on the couch with one arm across his face. Are you alright Babe?...........Yeah.
Was he? I didn't know. But I did not think that he was. How COULD he be??? How in hell could he be OK?
Chris wordlessly stood up from the couch, walked outside onto the back porch and did not come back inside for another 10 minutes. When I looked out of the window I could see him talking to someone on the phone. When he finally walked back into the house he looked down at me, and told me that he had just called his father. That he had said to his dad, "Don't ever call me again. I don't want to hear from you, I don't want to see you, Not ever again. Not after this".
For their entire lives as they were both growing up I had never said anything negative to the boys about their father. When he stopped calling them, stopped wanting to see them, stopped sending them Christmas and birthday presents, stopped having any interaction with them at all I never said a word. When they were both old enough to ask why he was not in their lives I didn't defend him but instead told the boys that I did not know. That he had missed out on getting to know two outstanding young men, and that was HIS great loss. That he had squandered an opportunity to be part of the lives of the only two sons he had. Over the years they came to their own conclusions about their father, and it hurt me to realize as they got older that one day they would figure it all out.
I didn't care what Chris' father thought or felt about the phone call from his youngest son. As far as I was concerned he deserved it. Every bit of it. But it was the only time during Chris' entire visit where the wall of stoicism he had carefully constructed around him fell by the wayside. It was fleeting. But as we stood in the kitchen together after his phone call I saw the pain in his face. We wordlessly hugged. There were no words that would work for either of us at that moment, and so we just hugged. I hugged him hard and tight and did not want to let him go. Ever. But of course I did and as I did I put my hand on my youngest sons' face and looked up at his hurting and handsome face. "I really love you Babe".
Chris, LC and I sat outside under the trees for a good part of the day on Wednesday until it was time to go to the funeral home in Spring Hill. None of us spoke throughout the trip, and as I sat in the back seat of the truck I looked out of the window seeing nothing, alternately gently touching first LC's then Chris' shoulder (more to reassure myself than either one of my men), and for some stupid, unknown reason could not get a song out of my head. The song had nothing to do with anything but as with my trip of the previous Thursday to Spring Hill to face Sean's death, and as with the trip home later that night after speaking with Sean's father, the song played in a never-ending-loop instead my head:
Arriving right at 3:30pm we walked into the funeral home and I mentally and emotionally lost touch with Chris and LC for a while. Without emotion acknowledging Jessica's parents, not even realizing that I was seeking out Jess. When I saw her walking down the hallway I reached out my arms to this young woman who had experienced so much sadness and turmoil, again instantly feeling as though I were a mother to this girl that I had always enjoyed but never really known well. Now she was a pregnant young widow. My entire heart in that moment was with her. My heart broke for her.
Jess asked me if I wanted to visit with Sean and we walked down the hallway to the door of the large room where his service would take place. We walked into the room together and I wordlessly looked around the room, searching. She had asked me on Sunday if I wanted to spend time alone with Sean before the service and I had interpreted that to mean.........................."Jess, where's Sean? Is he in another room?" "Karin, he's already been cremated.".
She may as well have punched me in the stomach. I was physically in pain. I felt physically sick. I couldn't breathe. I felt like a wrecking ball had again slammed into the side of my head. I instantly felt a tidal wave of panic and the panic was rising to the surface so fast and so violently that it scared me. It wouldn't stop, I couldn't breathe. I felt as though I was going to fall, and I put my hand out for something, anything, to steady me. I was crying and did not even realize it when I looked at her and said "I didn't know. I didn't know". Jessica told me that she was sorry, touched my arm and walked out of the room. People, most of whom I didn't even know, would soon be arriving.
Now alone I walked to the front of the room and sat down on the front bench, crying. When I finally looked up I saw Sean's Canadian flag, his state football championship ring, flowers, large pictures of my son at his wedding and when he was only three months old. I didn't even see the urn on a shelf below the Canadian flag and did not even know that it was there until LC told me about it after the funeral.
Shaking, I stood up unsteadily from the bench and walked towards the front of the room. Touched the flag, touched the ring, caressed pictures of the face of my child when he was a baby and when he was a grown man. I would never ever touch his sweet, smiling face again. For so many years I had always thrown my arms around his neck, kissed him on the cheek and then held my hand to his cheek. I don't know why but it was always just something that I did. A routine of welcome and love between mother and son. I would never see his smile or hear his laugh again. Goddammit, I had just TALKED to him two days before he died. He was fine! He was FINE!! The panic began to rise, then fall, then rise, then fall again in uncontrollable waves, and I struggled to remain calm, steady, sane. Struggled to regain control.
I walked over to the large home-made banner hanging on the wall and began to read the different writings. It was made by students he worked with - football players, basketball players, baseball players, volleyball players others. We'll miss you Trainer Sean. Trainer Sean, thanks for making me work so hard. Trainer Sean, thanks for letting me play x-box in your office We love you Trainer Sean. So many similar comments from young players that he had worked with and known. It was obvious that they had liked and respected my son, which did not surprise me. I would have expected nothing less from my boy..................
A couple of minutes after 4pm Jessica walked back into the room and after talking briefly, she gently let me know that people were beginning to arrive. Of course. Must stay on schedule.
It was after the funeral that LC told me that Chris had been standing guard outside the door while I was inside, ensuring that nobody entered while I was alone. At one point one of the funeral reps had approached him to tell him that people were beginning to filter in and that I should probably let them in the room. He angrily looked down at the woman and in a harsh tone said "Do you wanna GIVE her a minute?!" LC's attention was turned to Chris and the woman when he heard Chris raise his voice, and at that point he walked over to also stand guard with Chris. The woman turned and walked away from two men who were not in the mood to have someone rush me. It was shortly after that that Jessica entered the room.
People began to walk in. Many many people that I had never seen before and did not know. Many were young and I knew instinctively that they were kids that Sean had worked with. Many were what I assumed to be teachers and coaches. Some were friends of mine and others were friends and relatives of Jessicas. Others? I had no idea.
When I looked up and saw women that I had worked with in Tullahoma, and who I had become friends with over the years, it felt very good to see them. We sat together, hugging and holding hands and quietly talking. As people continued to arrive I had to get up and move around. I couldn't sit. I walked outside, wandered in the sunshine and the heat, continuing to watch so many people who had come to this place to honor my son. I walked alone and sat on a bench under a tree away from people, and LC stood behind me unnoticed for I don't know how long. When I finally realized that he was there I asked him to sit with me. Only I couldn't sit any longer and again had to move. The restless wolf, pacing back and forth and back and forth in a cage that was much too small...............
An hour of watching people arrive, quietly talking to the few people that I knew, wandering inside to watch a slide show of pictures of my child, wandering into the bathroom just to be alone for a moment, wandering outside to talk with friends and silently monitor my youngest son who unspeakingly and stoically stood beside me (Is he alright? Please be alright. Please be alright Chris. I love you so much. Please be alright I continued to whisper within the confines of my brain). Strangers approaching me to express condolences and me forcing a thank you from my lips. I'm so sorry. Thank you and thank you for coming today. I'm so sorry. Thank you and thank you for coming today. I'm so sorry. Thank you and thank you for..................I was again (thankfully) numb. What was the old song line? I have become comfortably numb...............
By the time everyone had greeted and extended condolences and milled in the lobby and talked quietly and watched the slide show it was time to begin the service. Jessica and her family sat to the left of the aisle and me and Chris and LC sat to the right, just like they do in a wedding. Behind us were the few friends I had, and a room full of people that I did not know at all. There were over a hundred people. Testament to the sheer number of people Sean worked with, their affection and respect for him, and their desire to honor and remember my child. Testament to the friends he had made and the life he had begun to live as an adult. Testament to the very good man that he had become.
Prayers first and then a short speech by Jessica. As she stepped down from the front she approached me and asked if I wanted to say anything. I told her yes. Short speeches by people that Sean worked with. They reached hard, struggling but mostly failing to find personal things to say about him. It was obvious that they were attending the funeral out of respect for Sean, but also only knew him professionally so had to reach hard to say nice things about him. I hoped that some of his friends would stand up but they did not. I had nothing prepared. Had not planned on speaking. Did not know if I was able to speak in front of the crowd, but I stood up anyway, desperately wanting this group of people to know what I knew about Sean. He was a good trainer. He was a good basketball player. He was professional in how he approached his work. But he was so much more than that and suddenly I wanted everyone in this room to know who he was. To know what I knew about him. To honor him. Because he deserved to be honored.
And so I told stories of when he was a baby, a little boy, a big boy, a young man, a grown man. Funny stories, sweet stories, touching stores, silly stories. Stories of my sons' life. Stories of my life with my son. Our lives had been intertwined and bonded so tightly together for 28 years. I have no idea how long I spoke but as I began to relate personal stories about him I was (for a while) lost in a world where there was only me and my child. For a while there was nobody sitting in front of me. It was just me and Sean. Eventually I realized that I had been up there for what seemed like a long time. It was time for me to stop talking. I thanked everyone for being there on that day to honor my son. And then I stepped down.
More music. More prayers. And then it was over. People came over to shake my hand, express their condolences again, thanked me for sharing my stories, and I numbly shook hands and thanked people again for coming. By the time people were beginning to filter out of the funeral home I found myself standing alone at the front of the room and I finally looked around me. Over to my right Jessica's dad was taking down the banner. Goodbye Trainer Sean. We'll miss you Trainer Sean. Thanks for being so tough on me Trainer Sean. Thanks for making me work so hard to recover Trainer Sean. Thanks for letting me play x-box in your office Trainer Sean.
Towards the front of the room was a set of double doors that I had not noticed before. They were now standing wide open and people that I did not know were loading the flowers into the open back doors of a waiting van. Canadian flag and ring and pictures were being taken away. Evidence of my son - the last evidence of my son as known and remembered by the mass of people who had attended his funeral - was being taken away. Clearing the room out. Getting it ready for the next person. For a few more moments I was mesmerized as I watched the unknown men continue to load the van, and then I turned away no longer able to watch. I walked to the back of the funeral home in search of my son and LC.
After more hugs, more handshakes, more goodbyes we three broken hearted relatives who dearly loved Sean climbed into the truck and wordlessly headed for a restaurant to eat..................
Chris left the next day, headed back for Canada. I stood watching him head for the ticket counter at the Nashville airport. Watched him pick up his ticket, and then walk back towards me ready to fly away from me. I did not want him to go. I loved him so much, love him so much, and I did not want him to go. He already knew that because we had talked about it at the house but he was a grown man and needed to go. I stood in the airport terminal watching him and silently imploring him "Don't go Chris Don't go. I don't want you to go". He hugged LC goodbye. He hugged and kissed me goodbye. "I love you Baby". And then he was gone. LC and I wordlessly walked out of the airport, through the parking lot and climbed back into the truck to head for home.
Chris was picked up in Fargo ND by LC's brother, who drove him to the border. After my youngest child walked across the border he was picked up by a friend who drove him back to Edmonton. My son made it safely home...............