Monday, August 25, 2014

Advice for a Dead Child’s Birthday? Do What YOU Need

A living child asks for a birthday party. Or you, as the parent, ask him what he wants for his birthday. There’s dialogue. There’s a cake and candles and presents. The camera captures the smiles as he tears open his gifts. It’s easy. It’s tradition. Parents fall into bed at night, exhausted, but grateful. Their son or daughter seemed happy with her birthday. Moms and Dads rest-—they did it!

But what exactly is a parent supposed to do on the birthday of her child when he is gone? Not gone, as in out of town or at the beach, or out of the country. Gone as in-—no longer alive.

A dead child doesn’t want. A dead son asks for nothing.

What does a mom or dad do? Where’s the rule book for celebrating birthdays for a dead child?

Every year I hope to come up with something creative. Every year something comes forth-—a poem, an article, an idea, some gift to a charity in Daniel's memory. Each year I recall a little boy who told me that he wasn’t supposed to say "customer words" (cuss words). A little boy who celebrated his last birthday, his fourth, with the help of friends, family, and a big red fire truck that stopped by to give him and his guests plastic firemen hats. (Daniel didn’t seem too impressed, but he wore the hat over his bald head anyway.)

Today, Monday, is Daniel’s 22nd birthday. I want to go to Daniel’s Place, i.e., the cemetery. My three kids are busy with work and the first day of school.

How many years since Daniel’s death has the first day of school come on his birthday? Another reminder that he never got to go to real school, just Mother’s Morning Out at a church and a few sessions with the teacher at the hospital school.

My kids are remembering their brother. Liz, the youngest, who was born three months after he died, tells me she remembered at school today. But she isn't eager about going to Daniel's Place. What she wants is a nap after the first day of her senior year, a nap before she has to go to work.

I decide. I make a decision, those things that were so hard to do right after Daniel died. I’d made so many when he was alive undergoing treatments for his malignant tumor. When he died, I wanted to not have to decide anything.

But today I will go alone to Daniel’s Place. Because I am going to do what I need to do. This is my son’s birthday and he’s not here and I decide that it’s perfectly acceptable to be a bit selfish. Even though I’m a mom and moms are always doing for others and neglecting their own needs, I’m allowed. I will go alone to sit by his grave and not wait for others to find time to join me.

Carl says he’ll go with me. He never met Daniel either.

We stop at the Dollar Store and buy a Happy Birthday balloon with a butterfly. We indulge in a few snacks. Carl gets pork rinds even though the sound of them crunching annoys me. I pick out a bag called Party Mix because it has a birthday hat on the packaging.

“Really?” says Carl. “Party mix?”

I suppose he thinks a party is not what we parents of dead children have. Actually, I think, as I eat from the bag while the two of us are seated across from Daniel’s marker, I’m not feeling in the party mode. Last year the kids, Carl and I celebrated Daniel’s 21st year with a picnic. This year, I feel undone by a life that is relentlessly tough. My maternal inventory: I have an adult child with Borderline Personality Disorder who came back to live with us last summer and another who left home and did not graduate high school. The youngest is not allowed to screw up because mama is tired of dealing with disappointment and the law. And yes, I have a dead child I have not seen since he was four.

But today on this birthday without him. I want to remember a little boy who loved Toy Story, stickers, laughter, and watermelon. I want to recall when he said, “You’re pretty, mommy, can I kiss you?” and then when I said, “Yes,” he smiled and shouted, “Hot dog!”

The tears come; this year Daniel’s birthday hits me terribly hard.

I write out a message on a sheet of paper to attach to the butterfly balloon. In the distance a hawk soars over the tree tops. From a tote bag, I remove a Fisher Price airplane and a heart-shaped box Daniel painted and place them both on the grave. I take pictures.

I take pictures of the sky, hoping to get the hawk in one of them. Standing with Carl, we lift the balloon into the sky. It sails to the left. Never before in all the 18 birthdays since Daniel’s death has a balloon headed in this direction. Perhaps this is a reflection of why this day seems super hard to live. If it sailed right, maybe things would be going better.

Carl and I watch until the balloon makes its way safely over the electrical wires, over the tree tops, and over the Interstate. We watch until the balloon is no more.

When it comes to celebrating the birthday of a child no longer here, my advice to parents is do what you need to do. Take the day off if that's what you need. Who cares if no one else understands? Sit at the grave, take pictures of the sky. View the clouds, look for dragonflies. Write long messages and attach them to helium balloons. Drink a Corona or glass of chardonnay to your child’s life and try not to think of how unjustly short his time on earth was.

Take care of you. You, the one who lives with a hole in your heart. Be kind to you; you need to stay healthy. Surround yourself with those who get it, who encourage you, not belittle you, who let you tell the stories, who don't judge your tears. Hold on and drink deep from that well called hope.

Remember that your love for your child expands beyond the sky. Always.

On your child's birthday, give yourself that gift of remembering love.

~ Alice J. Wisler

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Sound of Memory

Wind chimes provide a wonderful aura to any garden or patio. The soothing sound of their music---provided by a breeze, wood, and copper tubes-----is a beautiful thing. And it's even more fun when you get to choose what you want written on the "flapper".

Our wind chimes can hold the carved name of a loved one who is no longer here. Or they can have a word or two that has significant meaning. Either way, you can be sure that no one will have a wind chime identical to yours. Yep, these are one of a kind!

Our first run of ordered wind chimes were eight in total. Each one was tailor-made and skillfully put together by Carl who has a knack for these kinds of things. Three kinds of wood were used as well as copper tubing, sturdy cord, hooks, and wood screws. When it came time to get the wind chimes ready for shipping, I helped with the packaging part---plenty of bubble wrap and tape.

The carved buttefly "flapper" catches the wind and sets the rest of the wind chime in motion.

Minus the cobwebs, aren't these shiny tubes beautiful against the backdrop of green leaves on trees?

Check out more about how these wind chimes are made at this link to our Carved By Heart shop.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Reflections of Comfort in Heartache

I set out to write a book about me—my anguish, my loss, my pain, my doubt, my questions. Instead I was pointed to God and wrote about His grace, His love, His faithfulness, and His forgiveness. Within those are His answers.

We often think it’s all about us—how much we suffer, how much we cry, how tormented we feel. But when we weigh all of our misery against His grace, His grace outweighs it all. God’s compassion is stronger, fiercer than our struggles, and His love more constant, radiant, and healing than any problem in our den of lions.

If you are early in your grief, you may not understand what I’m talking about. You might still be at odds with God, and while the title of this book caught your attention, as you flip through the pages, that’s all you liked. That’s okay. God meets us wherever we are and no amount of disbelief, anger, or frustration keeps Him from loving His children. It has taken me fifteen years, from the worst heartache of my life, to come to this place of comfort, this stream of beauty. And I never thought I’d be here. When my son first died, I told God that we would only communicate in passing, like a neighbor I don’t like when I see her over the fence. I almost wished I had had no past with God—no history, no conversion story—so that I didn’t have to be angry with Him for my loss. God would be distant from now on. As I learned to adapt to my heartache, I would not expect anything from Him again.

I am one who had to wrestle. Like Jacob, I did. I groaned and I fought and groaned some more. And through it all, I was surprised. What I thought I’d discarded for good, instead became a new song in my mouth. I welcomed a stronger, genuine, more realistic faith—a possession I keep within my broken heart, a gift no moth or thief can steal.

From the Preface for Getting Out of Bed in the Morning by Alice J. Wisler, published by Leafwood Publishers 2012
Available in print and e-reader at many shops including Amazon.

Friday, August 1, 2014

How One Woman Went From Not Caring for Dogs to Loving One

“You’re an animal hater.”

Although the word hate was a bit strong, I didn’t deny those words. I was not interested in having a pet, especially a dog. Other people’s dogs were fine, but I wouldn’t be fussing over some four-legged creature.

As I looked back to childhood, my baby brother was the one who brought stray dogs home. I’m not sure if they followed him or he coaxed them into our back yard. We got to keep one for a bit—outside under the wisteria trellis. Dad built a dog house from wood. Not long after that, this dog had puppies and we named one Buffy. Buffy, like her mother, was an outside doggie, but one day she got into the house. Like a crazed beast, she ran all over the bedrooms. She stopped long enough to chew my doll furniture. Pink cushions from my Barbie house were bitten and left strewn around my bedroom floor. I was infuriated and glad when Mom shoved Buffy out the door to go back to her dog house.

My brother was the only one in our family who really liked dogs. Strays continued to follow him home, but soon, although I’m not sure when it happened, we had no more dogs.

He made up for it though. He’s fifty now and has had dogs in his house as pets for years.

I, on the other hand, was not an animal lover. Yet, when my children were in elementary school, they begged for a dog. So after careful research, my husband and I bought a beagle for the kids and gave it to them for Christmas. My husband and kids agreed on her name—Dixie. We bought a book on how to care for beagles and gave it to my kids as well.

Dixie was a pretty and sweet doggie, although her nose got her into trouble. Like a typical hound, she followed her nose, and it led her to run away on a number of occasions. I ended up taking her on walks and even though she was a Christmas gift for my kids, I’m sure I did more for her than I’d bargained for.

Ten years later, when my second husband said he wanted a boxer, I cringed. Carl had grown up with dogs and as an adult had had boxers— his favorite breed—as pets. Dixie was still with us, yet, she had slowed down quite a bit. One dog is enough, I thought. But in a moment of weakness, I told my husband that he could have a dog and within a day of my saying that, he brought home a six-week-old boxer puppy. Carl, my kids and I felt that the name Levi suited this new addition.
Another dog. And a puppy to house train. What had I gotten myself into again? I was not one of those who cared deeply for dogs. I could take them or leave them, preferably, leave them. I would never call a dog “baby” or let him sleep in the same bedroom with me.

I’m not sure if I have mellowed with age or that boxers are my dog or perhaps it is just this one, but Levi has captured my heart. In the mornings, he slithers out from his quilt, I open the door and together we leave the bedroom. “Go outside, baby,” I say to him as my husband makes the coffee. Out through the doggie dog Levi heads and then comes back in to be made over by my husband, his stubby tail wiggling like Jell-O.

Levi has chewed my favorite sandals and used to love to steal my pink cap and take it outside. He once was caught on the counter eating a pumpkin pie I had just baked. But he has made up for his sophomoric behavior by cuddling on the sofa with me and looking empathetic when I’ve cried. He’s even learned how to sing (howl) when my husband plays the harmonica. He has such a cute face with such expressive eyes as he belts out a soulful howl. He likes ice cubes and expects them as treats. And he is so good looking; I call him the George Clooney of dogs!

He’s also been the dog we photograph for our business, Carved By Heart. Among many products we offer, we carve from photos of pets. Customers send us photos of their pets’ faces and we create from the picture into wood. Levi’s puppy face has received much attention. But when I try to pose him with our plaques, he usually doesn’t sit still long. I understand; I don’t like posing for the camera either.

As I write this at the computer, Levi curls around my feet, softly breathing in his sleep. I think he needs a treat and when I stand, walk into the kitchen and open the freezer, he jumps up to join me. I motion for him to sit; he knows the routine. Patiently he waits until I get a small cube for him, place it near his mouth and then he takes it and chews. I get an ice cube for myself and let it melt in my mouth.

I’d chew if I could, but I have to be careful not to crack any more of my molars. I smile at Levi as we head back to my computer. It’s amazing how the two of us grow more alike every day.

Alice J. Wisler is an author of five novels, three cookbooks and a devotional, writing instructor, and the co-owner of Carved By Heart (visit their shop on Etsy at ). She and her family live in Durham, NC.