Luckily Memorial Day weekend flew by rather quickly thanks to Mark’s parents and sister and brother in law who all visited from out of town, Mark’s parents from Iowa and his sister and brother in law from Nebraska. As part of the weekend, we scheduled a couple of St. Louisy activities (you’re jealous) because we didn’t really have other plans and because some of our visitors hadn’t spent enough time in St. Louis to have experienced them, in all of their glory, before. And our weekend included other activities too – some dinners out and good conversation and a fishing trip and a quick Monday morning visit to the cemetery where Matthew’s ashes are buried…
Truth be told, Mark and I hadn’t been to the cemetery since Easter, and before Easter, Christmas Eve, when we left a Christmas tree adorned with angel ornaments and candy canes for Matthew. On this cold, December 24, I dissolved into a heap on top of Matthew’s grave, crying, Mark by my side, also crying, Mark’s parents nearby, crying as well. I imagine it to be one of the most pathetic sights in the universe…
And it destroyed me for several days to come.
When I returned to work shortly thereafter, I encountered Mary, whose son was murdered 18 years ago, as I entered the parking garage, “Hey gurrrrrl! How was your holiday?” she exclaimed.
“I don’t know… I’ve been having a hard time… I visited Matthew’s grave on Christmas Eve…” I offered, choking back tears.
“Gurrrrl!!! What’d you do that for!?!” Mary almost scolded me, “I used to visit my son’s grave. But now I don’t. It was just too hard for me… So I stopped. Because, gurrrrrl, you know what I decided? He aint there!!! So if you go, remember it’s for you, because he aint there!”
And Mary’s words that reminded me that Matthew isn’t there comforted me. Because, intellectually, I know it to be true – that his grave is a landmark, a monument, a memorial, but sometimes I need to be reminded that it isn’t something bigger.
But, still, we returned on Easter. And it destroyed me yet again, though maybe not quite as dramatically as it did on Christmas Eve, after which my pure exhaustion resulted in my sleeping away large portions of the week following.
I know some find comfort in visiting their loved one’s grave. I wish I could say the same, but, honestly, I can’t. At least not yet. I carry Matthew in my heart and in my every thought. I look at his picture and write about him. I sometimes feel his presence in the space of my blog or in a random sign. And I adorn myself with tokens of love and remembrance daily. But visiting his grave seems to slaughter my soul every single time in ways from which it’s difficult for me to rebound.
So late last Sunday night when Mark asked, “My family wants to stop by Matthew’s grave tomorrow morning on the way to our activity, okay?” I gave somewhat of a noncommittal reply, because although my real answer was, “No, can’t they just go alone?” I think part of me thought my answer should be, “Of course,” and another part of me hoped that maybe they’d just forget.
Monday morning proceeded per usual. We ate breakfast, got ready, and headed off to our activity as planned. I’d forgotten Sunday night’s conversation, but there came a point in our trip when I realized that no one else had – I recognized our detour…
And my chest tightened. I started breathing heavily, trying my hardest to fight back the tears, the inevitable visceral reaction. I whispered to Mark, “I don’t know if I can do this…” But I didn’t hide my feelings well, because, pretty soon, everyone in the backseat had noticed them, and it became quiet.
And I just lost it, to the point of no return. And when we entered the cemetery, I lost it even more, telling Mark I didn’t think I had it in me to get out of the truck.
Everyone else exited the truck. They placed flowers and a stuffed animal on Matthew’s grave. They spent a couple of minutes there, while I continued to sob uncontrollably. (As I am as I write this.) I pondered getting out with them… But I knew if I did, I’d collapse, a la Christmas Eve, unable to recover within a reasonable amount of time. And part of me couldn’t let them see me in such a state.
They eventually made their way back to the truck. And we drove off. And I caught a glimpse of a teddy bear sitting on Matthew’s grave, another sight among the saddest and most pathetic in the universe.
And everyone apologized, saying this was a bad idea, while I insisted I’d be fine, all the while not knowing whether I’d have it in me to participate in our next “activity,” the Anheuser-Busch Brewery Beermaster Tour. Because it’s a great idea to participate in a booze tour 15 minutes following an emotionally charged event involving your child’s gravesite, and, also, you’re pregnant and can’t drink away your sorrows and your husband is allergic to beer (hops, specifically)…
Though we thought our family members would enjoy this (which they did), and we were selflessly devoted to enhancing their St. Louis experience, especially considering most of their recent trips have revolved around us – hospital stays and memorial services and funerals and burials and our grief. Plus, there was added pressure considering that our plans to visit the top of the Arch on Sunday were obliterated by a swarm of international (mostly Asian) tourists, armed with selfie sticks, who apparently think it’s the coolest flipping landmark on the planet despite its grounds resembling a war zone (they’re currently under construction) – who knew?!
So upon our arrival at the Anheuser-Busch complex I threw my sunglasses on over my red eyes and tear-stricken face. And as we entered the building to check in for our tour, Mark whispered, “You’re just going to have to majorly compartmentalize.”
And compartmentalize I did – I put on my game face and muscled my way through this two hour Beermaster Tour. Though, luckily, we’d paid for VIP tickets, so there were only ten in our tour group – our six family members, plus a group of three, plus one guide.
The tour was weird for me… I felt a bit zombie-like for most of it, listening as the guide discussed yeast and hops and barley and wheat and Clydesdales and German architecture and the August Busch family and production processes and fermentation and pasteurization and born-on dating. I watched, entranced by the thousands of bottles of BudLight methodically flying through the packaging plant.
And when I wasn’t compartmentalizing, my mind wandered, entertaining thoughts like, “I was here five years ago… My life looks no different to an onlooker than it did back then. But it’s totally different. But it looks no different… I am a failure. I am worthless. I miss Matthew. What if he’s disappointed that I couldn’t get out of the truck today? What if he feels alone in the cemetery? He’ll never play with his teddy bear. His teddy bear will just get wet, waiting for a little boy who’ll never play with it,” as I cried intermittently behind my sunglasses.
And eventually the tour ended, and Mark and his family enjoyed some beverages (some hops-free) while I excused myself to the restroom to ensure Jay still had a heartbeat. And upon my return, a lady from our tour group asked, “So when are you due?”
“August,” I answered.
“So, is this your first?” she asked.
“No, my second,” I answered without caveat, imagining what she must be thinking if she tried to piece together my story… Something like, “So she wanted to go on this afternoon Beermaster Tour so badly that she got a babysitter to watch her other kid? But she’s here with her whole family… So who’s watching him?”
Because the reality is far too awful for anyone to imagine. The conclusion is far too horrible, and maybe a bit too improbable, for anyone to jump to.
After the tour we ate lunch. And after lunch, we drove some of our family members to the airport. And upon arriving home, I collapsed onto our bed sobbing, asking Mark through tears whether he saw the teddy bear, whether he thinks Matthew feels alone out there or whether he feels disappointed that we don’t visit his grave more frequently, at which point, much to my surprise, Mark started sobbing too. And the conversation later turned from Matthew to our fear, with us begging and pleading to no one in particular, “Please, no. We can’t do this again.”
And days later, the fear remains, my constant companion, as it has been for the duration of this pregnancy and will continue to be. But the voices of fear have quieted just a bit, as I continue to allow myself to hope again too.
Though I’m still left questioning… Does Matthew feel alone out there? Is he watching? Does he know how much he’s loved and missed despite our inability to visit his grave very often? Did we make the right decision to bury his ashes? Does he look down at his teddy bear and smile? Or does he cry? Is it really true that “he aint there?”
And will any of this ever change for me? Will I always feel so slaughtered by the physical – by his room, by his clothes, by his grave? Will the powerful images that the cemetery elicits – the sea of black clothing and the Kleenexes and the tearful friends and family members and the small box of ashes with flowers placed atop and the chorus of voices singing Amazing Grace ever be replaced by more peaceful ones?
My questions might sound rhetorical. And they kind of are. But they kind of aren’t. I know it’s different for everyone, but feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, no matter where you are in your grief.