It was a beautiful Saturday evening in June, and Tim and I had decided to get out of the house for a little while. I remember that we were walking down Main Street in Collinsville when my phone rang. Tim was carrying Sweet Pea’s pumpkin seat in one hand, holding my hand with the other when I reached for my phone.
I still remember the pain and urgency in her voice — the one I knew too well, the one that belonged to my stepson’s girlfriend — as she tried to tell me through her tears that my stepson had been in a four-wheeling accident in southern Illinois and was being airlifted to a hospital somewhere in Indiana. Unfortunately, everything still remains crystal clear to this day – the instant worry that sent shock waves down my spine, my immediate necessity to be at that hospital at that very moment and my severe desire to know that everything was going to be just fine and that we would be coming home with my stepson, just a little bruised and battered.
But after driving in silence for hours to Evansville, Indiana in the middle of the night, I knew instantly after taking one look at him that our lives were going to be forever altered by the events of that night. That Sweetheart would not be coming home with us the next day or ever. He had left us before we had ever arrived at that hospital and only his body remained in that Trauma Unit, connected to machines and tubes to keep him alive at chance that in his death we would see the beauty and selflessness of the gift of life for others in need of it through organ donation. At 18, my stepson had suffered numerous injuries in the accident with a majority of them being from the neck up. Of course, the most severe injury being blunt force trauma to the head, given he had chosen not to wear a helmet that day while riding through the woods.
Now Sweetheart, as I most often referred to him… what can I say? Not only does his family still mourn his death over five years after we lost him. His friends still talk about him like they too are hoping he’ll just walk through the door and ask for a drink. He could command the attention of a room just by stepping into it. And he never knew a stranger because the kid could talk and most of the time, it was his sense of humor that would leave your sides hurting from laughter. And it would only be after minutes of laughing you would realize that you may have been the butt of the joke from the very beginning.
Sometimes it feels so weird that all these years later that a single song, scent, restaurant, certain food or the smallest memory can instantly trigger tears to come to my eyes. Often times, we will re-tell stories about him and the crazy antics he did, and mostly for our own healing and reassurance that it’s okay to still miss him. His pictures still hang in our house, a few of his clothes still stowed in a drawer and my boys have come to understand that their big brother watches over them from heaven.
And like clockwork, when I hear about the death of another young man or woman before they ever had the chance to truly live, my brain automatically goes on repeat and it starts replaying the events of that awful week between his death and his funeral. Having to choose which casket, what would be printed on the prayer card, what would be written in the obit and even down to what clothes I chose for him to wear forever. I remember sitting in his bedroom, thinking, “Okay, what would he tell me that he would want to wear?” and then crying uncontrollably because I realized truly what I was doing. I remember the long lines of people that filed by us during the wake, offering their condolences, the crying, the sobbing and the stories that after awhile blended together about his true awesomeness, compassion and warmheartedness. The people coming in and out of our house on a regular basis to make sure that we were still moving, but stopping wasn’t ever an option with a one-month-old. And to this day, I am overly thankful for that being an unexpectedly horrible yet beautiful time in our lives because that little baby may have been the saving grace to help us cope and move from day to day in something more than zombie mode.
I would love to say that with time this pain — this excruciating pain deep at the pit of my stomach eventually goes away. But it hasn’t yet after over 12 years since Pop and over 5 years since Timothy. But from experience, I know after awhile those random memories that come to my mind or that random t-shirt I would find shoved in the wrong place has eventually stopped bringing tears to my eyes but instead a smile, sometimes even laughter. While everything will always bring a tinge of sadness, eventually the happiness of the good memories supersede the pain in order to help us heal. I have to believe that all of this is to help those who have gone through unbelievable pain find a reason to smile again, eventually after weeks, months, if not years of just wanting to be mad at the world.
No matter whether the repeat button plays automatically when we least expect it, we have now learned to hold each other through the pain and figure out how to let the blessings in our life take hold. Because the pain that is often only at bay for a short time can be overwhelmed by toothy smiles, wet kisses, an abundance of hugs, too many “I love you”s to count and laughter that fills the soul in order to help heal the bumps, bruises and gashes that life leaves. And whatever doesn’t kill us just makes us stronger, right? So I guess I’m just wondering where our superhero capes are because our strength has been tested, beaten and proven time and time again, only to find us still standing on our own two feet, fingers laced together and ready to take on what life hands us next.