Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tears At Last

We worry about our little German for several reasons, not the least of which are chronic hives and dyslexia.

The hives we seem to have under control. Two inexpensive over-the-counter medications taken with breakfast are enough to keep the blossoming of itchy red patches at bay. He hasn't had a major flare up -- in which every inch of his skin itches and swells, leaving him almost unrecognizable -- for nearly two years.

The dyslexia is more frustrating because there is no easy remedy. It brings with it years, if not a lifetime, of hard work to build and maintain his reading fluency. We don't skirt around this challenge because we don't want it to define him. It is neither an indication of his intelligence nor an excuse for giving up.

I like to think that we are doing a good job addressing these challenges, and I no longer worry about them as much as I have in the past.

However, over the past three years there has been something else about the German that has had me even more concerned than hives and dyslexia. Since October 2007, I have waited and watched for an indication of his ability to properly manage one of the most important processes we human beings need to manage. I'm talking about grieving.

When I was growing up, death was simply something to be dealt with. We weren't morose or morbid about the subject but we didn't shy away from funerals when a family member, friend, or member of our church died. My brothers and I attended wakes and funerals and, in the process, learned how to pay our respects and channel our grief.

In October 2007, not long after celebrating her 75th birthday, and after years of declining health, my Mother-in-Law fell into a coma. Because she had cheated death so many times before, we held off telling our children how sick she was. At the time, our daughter was ten and our boys were six.

The night my Mother-in-Law died, her children found they could not bring themselves to remain at the hospital. Although I wanted to be with my wife to comfort her in her time of need, in the back of my mind I had already decided to stay by my Mother-in-Law's side so she would not die surrounded only by medical equipment and strangers. It was the least I could do for the woman who gave me her daughter and the amazing life I have as a result.

I was pleased to know that my Mother-in-Law's sister, brother, and sister-in-law were coming from Florida that night to see her one last time. I met them at the entrance to the hospital and we sat in the lobby to talk before going up to the room. They arrived with mixed emotions and struggling with denial. Over the course of an hour, our discussion ranged from hopefully futile suggestions, to frustration, to anger, to open weeping. In the end, when they had exhausted their questions and seemed prepared to accept the inevitable truth, I had to make certain they fully understood the purpose of their visit. I have never felt more heartless than when I looked at them and said, "You're here to say goodbye."

They did say their goodbyes, and then her sister and brother left the hospital to begin mourning in their own ways. Her sister-in-law stayed behind with me at the hospital.

The process itself, though marred by the clinical setting, was actually awe-inspiring. I had never watched a person die -- and I hope not to have the opportunity again any time soon -- but I admit to feeling both humbled and honored to be in her presence at this important moment. My responsibility, as I saw it, was simply to comfort her and let her know she was not now, nor would she be afterward, alone. Her sister-in-law and I held her hands, gently stroked her hair, and quietly reassured her until she was gone.

Late into the evening, I returned home to inform my wife. The following morning, we gathered our children on our bed and told them Grandma had died.

Our beautiful daughter, who in her short life has already displayed more empathy and kindness than most adults I know, wept quietly and hugged her mother. Our heartbroken little Italian, however, unexpectedly unleashed a barely human wail, like a wounded animal howling in pain. It was perhaps the first time I understood the true meaning of the word "inconsolable."

But as terribly pitiful as his cries were, they were nothing compared to his brother's stone-faced silence. He never cried, never really asked us any questions. He seemed to take the news as one might accept the change in a flight schedule -- not good, but nothing I can do about it. His only visible reaction came in the form of a massive outbreak of hives that his then-prescription drugs struggled to control. He also has kept a picture of him and his Grandma by his bed ever since.

For months afterward I would ask him how he felt about Grandma, especially when his brother had broken down again into tears over her, as happened frequently, but he remained emotionally detached from the subject. I have feared all this time that he either lacked a fundamental empathy for others or, more likely, he internalized his emotions so much they couldn't escape. Neither option is a healthy one.

Remarkably, something I had long since given up hope of seeing bubbled to the surface the other night after our traditional bedtime reading.

In the book we are presently reading, one of a pair of twins dies suddenly. Although they didn't react straight away, I could tell by their expressions that my twins were affected. After the book was closed and they were sent through the house to kiss their mother and sister goodnight, the Italian returned with tears in his eyes. As is the case when he is emotional, his thoughts returned to Grandma. While consoling him, I noticed the German was hiding his face under the blanket my Mother made for him when he was a baby. It sounded like he was crying.

I don't know if it was the shock of the twin in the story dying, or compassion for his brother, or if he was simply ready after almost three years to let his feelings show, but something finally got to him.

Moving over to his bed, I pulled off the blanket. His eyes were red and tears had leaked down his face and onto his pillow. When I asked if he was crying, he shrugged. When I asked why he was crying, he shrugged. When I asked if he was crying about Grandma, he broke down and hugged me.

I've never been so happy to see my children cry.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

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