I’ve been struggling to get into “the Christmas spirit” this year. This happens to me often, but hasn’t been as bad the last few years with small-ish children. I try to recreate for them the magic that was Christmas for me growing up, and in doing so, that magic just gets all over me like red and green glitter. The first year after Riley died was a difficult Christmas. Part of my holiday experience was missing. All of my Christmas memories involved my brother, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around my new reality. This year feels eerily similar. I know that a large part of it has to do with my grief for Laci. It’s hard to have Christmas without her, when she’s been such an instrumental part of it for the past 17 years. Thinking about her, going through routines that she should be part of, planning, and celebrating Christmas just can’t be the same, and it feels broken. I also think about mark and my niece and nephew, and my heart breaks for their loss this holiday season, and that adds to the hurt. To top it off, it’s (still) 2020 and nothing is normal. We aren’t doing any of the things we usually do. No large family gatherings, big gift exchanges or dinners. No reason to get dressed up or do my hair or put on lipstick. Where are you, Christmas?
Tonight is Christmas Eve, and I did the things I always want to do with my kids but usually can’t. We had hot cocoa, made cookies, watched a Christmas movie, and then sat by the tree and read The Polar Express and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It’s a ritual I grew up with, and we are usually too tired and rushed to do it. We put out cookies for Santa, and magical oats for his reindeer. On paper, tonight was perfect. But it isn’t. I don’t feel the way I want to. this holiday has rushed at me fast this year, with much to do and a lot of warm and even hot days to help me forget it’s supposed to be winter.
As I read the conclusion of the Polar Express, I almost cried. I wouldn’t hear that bell; I’ve lost the magic. For me, it’s all to-do lists. There is no space in my life for magic or wonder or the beauty I used to find in every little detail. In its place is an exhausting few weeks trying to cram in productive activities with festive ones, pretending to feel something I just don’t feel while I do them. I want it to be magical for my kids, but can I achieve that if it doesn’t feel at all magical for me? Can I ring the silver bell if I don’t hear the sound it makes?
Well, this has made for a depressing post. I’m sure that didn’t help you! In these last hours of Christmas Eve, I hope the magic finds you, and that you can make the best—even of this year.
I feel compelled to describe a moment that has, at least momentarily, brought so much meaning to my life in this trying and tiresome time.
Jackson made something at school. It was in a brown paper bag, emblazoned with glittery stickers, and he was really excited about it. As soon as he climbed into the car, he told me that he had a present. For Jacob! He couldn’t wait to pick his brother up from school and have him open it up.
Inside, Jacob pulls out a clear ball ornament on which Jackson has made a white-painted handprint, and turned each finger into a snowman with markers. Jacob smiles sweetly and tells his brother how wonderful this ornament is. “I made the snowmans all by myself!” Jackson proclaims.
“Are you sure you don’t want to give this to mommy?” Jacob asks.
“No. I made it for you because you’re the best brother.”
My heart swelling with pride and affection I watch as this love-fest continues; Jacob praising Jackson’s artistic talent, and Jackson telling Jacob how much he deserves the gift. It’s really cute, and I am reflecting on the fact that I get to enjoy this ornament on my own Christmas tree, with its darling little finger-prints, as Jacob decides he will place it on said tree so we can al enjoy it.
He takes a couple of steps and something happens. The ornament slips from his hand and explodes on the brick floor, turning almost to dust in an instant. Jacob immediately starts wailing with sadness and anger. Jackson freezes, looks at the broken glass and his crying brother, and runs up the stairs in tears. I hear anguished sobs coming from the direction of his room. My heart breaks for each of them at the same time. Oh and the ornament. It’s destroyed. Three tiny pieces remain on which you can see the hand drawn faces of the “snowmans.”
I take Jacob into my arms, but he cannot be consoled. “I am the worst brother!” He yelps. “I don’t deserve to be given nice things! He made this for me! Out of love! And I BROKE IT!” He cries until his face is bright red, veins protruding from either side of his neck, so much like his father when he is angry. I call Jackson down and ask him why he is crying. Is it because the ornament is broken? “No!” He cries, followed by an unintelligible cluster of words. “What?” I ask.
“I’m. Sad. Because I. Have emotions. For other people!” He spits out, sad and frustrated. This is the big reveal. He’s not sad that the ornament is broken, his work gone and his kind gesture spread in pieces on the floor. He is simply sad because his brother is sad and cannot be consoled. His brother is sad and he can’t make him feel better, can’t do anything about it. All he wants from life right now is for Jacob not to be sad.
“I’ll stay at school as late as I have to and make you another one!” He promises.
I sit with Jacob. I explain to him that his brother isn’t disappointed in him, or angry that he dropped the gift, just experiencing empathy in a beautiful and pure way. His description of empathy is perfect for a five-year-old: he has emotions for other people, and right now, he feels the sadness and anger that Jacob is experiencing, and he wants to make it better. I tell him that the reason the ornament was special wasn’t because the object itself was special; it was made special by the love of the maker for him. The ornament is just a thing, just a symbol of the love that made you view it as precious. The love of a little boy for his big brother. And that little boy is crying quietly over there, so badly wanting you to be okay, and I think what he needs is for you to sit with him, and tell him that everything will be alright, whether or not you feel that way right now.
Because it will be, of course. Jackson is still here, he can still take his little hand and coat it in white paint and make another set of snowmans. And even if that one was to break, we have our memory of it, and the knowledge of that love and excitement, and that is what really matters. We still have that, and always will.
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t think wistfully of my own brother, or my sister-in-law, and the things I wish I had, from them, to hold on to. Sometimes things are all you have left that are tangible, and that makes them precious. You feel the need to touch and hold something to reassure yourself that it is real. As I swept up the tiny shards of glass I thought about that compulsion to hold something in one’s hand and feel reassured by the solid physicality of it. How unnecessary that is, when all that matters can be felt and remembered, even if no part of it can be seen or felt.
We have, inside of us all, the mementos and treasures of a million special moments. With this story, I have added one more.
The next day at school pickup, Jackson came to the car with another brown bag. This one had two ornaments he had made that day. I hung one on the tree and tucked the other away for safekeeping. Apparently I don’t trust the faulty computer hard drive of my memory. I just want to know that, if I need to, I can hold that ornament in my hand and remember the beauty of this moment in time. I don’t need the thing, but I want it just the same.
On August 13, my sweet “sister-in-love,” Laci, went to Heaven. It was not a surprise, as we had known her time here was coming to a close, but still so hard to accept. There is no way to convince the mind that such a young life should end. 34 years old, with a 7- and 4-year old at home, Laci had a lot of living left to do. I feel robbed of time with her. I feel bereft, heartbroken. It also feels so surreal. I am relieved that her pain and intense suffering are over, but I grieve the loss of her steady and faithful influence on my life.
All of us are unique, individual beings, and the knowledge of this makes life so exciting, relationships so rewarding, but in ten lifetimes you would never meet a person like Laci. She was confident, bold in her convictions, completely selfless, generous to a degree that I have never seen, and will never see again. The world is a darker place without the sunshine of her smile, and the workings of her brain, always planning things for others. She would let nothing go to waste if she thought another person could use it. She enthusiastically accepted hand-me-downs, and told me joyfully of the fun of unpacking each tiny shirt, each pair of slightly worn shoes, as treasures, full of a worth that her eyes could see when most of us saw something temporal, used, plain. She saw the potential in everything to bring light and joy to others. Her snack baskets were bountiful gifts of great attention and care, and it brought her joy to meet the physical needs of others with food. She was in charge of snacks and meals at her church, and coordinated meals for church families welcoming new babies, or returning home from hospitalizations. That ministry lives on without her now, serving her own family in a way that I am certain she wouldn’t have anticipated.
Laci was brave. As my husband, her brother, has told me and his friends hundreds of times, she was the fastest “girl” he had ever seen on a quad, and would continue to be faster than all of his friends. He used to remind them that his sister would outpace them anytime, anywhere. His pride in her shone so brightly in those moments. From the moment I met Laci, in the early summer of 2003, I was in awe of her confidence. She was so unshakably Laci, and she was truly one of a kind. I remember her asking Josh if a shirt and skirt matched. “I think the skirt is too fancy for the shirt” he would say. (I wouldn’t recommend Josh as an authority on clothes.) She couldn’t be bothered with trivial matters like fashion: she had a world in need of her, and she was busy. She would tell jokes that sometimes only I laughed at (in her defense, they were great jokes, and I would know!) and then thank me for “getting her.” I think we were about as different as two college-aged gals could be. She was competitive and athletic, always moving, always doing something. While I focused on my hair and getting my liquid eyeliner just right, she threw her hair into a ponytail and was out the door. Always loving to be out of doors, moving. she never allowed her gender to get in the way of what she wanted to do. It was this, and our differences, that caused us to be such fast friends; we never had cause to be competitive with one another, because our interests were so varied and she set her sights higher. She wanted to compete with Josh. On ski/snowboard trips she wanted me to judge which of them got more air off of a jump.
The thing that makes my heart hurt, aside from my own loss and grief, is the knowledge that Laci has been so happy. She had really found her stride in life, and things were going well. I remember her telling me that life was just good. She had become a stay-at-home mom, had a rewarding role at her church, and a beautiful home. It makes me sad, and angry, frankly, to think of how short lived this perfection was for her. She was such a great mom. I was so impressed by her casual but firm take on parenting. Last Christmas, as she had made her way to her family room using a walker and kind of collapsed into the couch, she told me how she was aware of some behavioral stage Alexis was in and was keeping her eye on the behavior to shut it down. Using a gentle “no thank you” or “do you want to try that again?” She would redirect the kids toward better behavior, and be unshaken and calm in the process. We talked about how great it was that we each blamed our own kids first, and then found out the facts, rather than blaming the other’s children, even if the facts seemed evident. Our kids get along so well, and genuinely love one another. I feel so blessed that we have these living pieces of Laci to keep her best attributes living on through them.
Laci gave me a beautiful gift in the last time we visited her. We had this amazing day; Laci requested all kinds of yummy foods from a local restaurant, and I supplemented that with pastries. She was so excited to see us, and to eat yummy foods, and we had some really great, deep conversations about life, death, and faith. She was struggling, at this point, to feed herself, so I sat by her bedside and fed her, watching her face light up and her eyes close with each bite. As we talked, sometimes she would fall asleep for a bit, and then join our conversation again. I felt as though josh and I were trying to keep things light, but Laci wasn’t one to avoid a chance to dive deeper into the serious stuff. She asked us how we felt about the fact that she was dying. Only Laci would think of how her mortality affected us. During a point where just the two of us were talking, she looked at me and said “isn’t it so great that we already loved each other? We could have been like so many sisters in law who fight over petty things, but we never did. We didn’t waste any time fighting or not getting along. We didn’t have to start loving each other just now because I am dying. We didn’t waste any time not loving each other.” I can’t even think about this without crying. It was a serious gift, the kind only Laci could give. The kind she was so great at giving.
Sometimes Laci would call me out of the blue and ask how she could be praying for me. She said it was her honor, and she wanted to know specifics, so she was praying for just what I needed. I had told her, toward the end, that I felt so worried..,I’ll feel so lost without your prayer. Who will pray for me?
One thing that Laci said to me on that last beautiful day together still haunts me. She said that she just couldn’t find the blessing in this. She said if her suffering would bless anyone, she would keep doing it. It wasn’t blessing her, she wasn’t healing, and it wasn’t blessing anyone else. I tried to tell her that it certainly wasn’t true, and her faithfulness blessed so many. I know this wasn’t the outcome she wanted or expected. I know she believed God would save her physical body on Earth. I don’t know why He didn’t. I know she had plenty more work she would have done to glorify Him. From the first time I heard of her diagnosis, it didn’t make sense. Why Laci? She had diffuse “B” cell lymphoma. Blood cancer. It can travel wherever blood can travel. It was in her stomach and liver, and I remember talking to josh about how insulting it felt for a person so focused on health and nutrition, who didn’t drink alcohol, so have cancer there. Of all places. But then it was everywhere, in almost all places. And so, while I’ll never understand the whys in this story, I do know that no experience is wasted. I know that I will continue to think, learn, and grow from the example of Laci’s life. I will learn things in my grief that I wouldn’t have without it. In a conversation with one of my best friends, I told her how upset i was that Laci didn’t see the blessing in her experience. She corrected me. “Oh Korey” she said, “that’s not true. My life has been SO blessed by this experience. My prayer life has been blessed immensely. I am praying so much more often because I’ve been thinking of her, and I’m not just praying about her. My life has been blessed so much by how she’s transformed my prayer life.” Oh, how I wish I could tell her this.
I got a text yesterday that sums Laci up so perfectly. It was the owner of the yoga studio where I used to host my La Leche League meetings. She was texting her condolences, and told me something so perfectly “Laci.” She wrote:
Korey- sending all my Love to you and the fam. I just now made the connection that I met Laci as she gave me some Maternity clothes when I was pregnant with London just 4 years ago and she was the sweetest! I’m so so so sorry. ♥️
This encounter is so emblematic of the person Laci was, and the lives she touched. I hope she remembers that I asked her to send ladybugs to me when she thinks of me…I’ll be watching for them. I know she’s in paradise and out of pain, and I am so thankful. I also know that my life will never be the same. There is less light in it, and there is a hole no one can fill.
Rest In Peace, my sweet sister. I love you now and forever. Until we meet again. ❤️
I have stayed away from social media for so long, only dipping my toe into it to post pictures of my kids for my family to see. I was tired of the memories it brought up. The jealousy. Now, it’s mid-January, and I can feel it pulling at me. The date of your death is approaching, and I am powerless in the face of it. My brain tugs memories to the forefront that I try to stuff away. I see it in flashes; scenes that would be meaningless to anyone but me. The missed calls on my phone. A car cover slung hastily over the gate to hide the view behind it. The grass in front of the funeral home. I’ll be fine, for months. I will talk about it and I won’t cry. I’ll be rational and matter-of-fact until some little detail hits me. A sight might ping in some deep recess of my mind and shake loose that sense of foreboding. I know they are coming for me, the memories. Maybe I stuff it down harder and walk on, or maybe the dam breaks. It feels as fresh as though it happened yesterday. It is time travel and I am the unwilling passenger. I plead and bargain with my brain not to do it, not to make me look at this gallery of horror. Half open eyes, still and dull. Untied shoes I’ve never seen before. The card in his wallet that I gave him.
I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
“Well that’s just bullshit” my mom says. His plans were bullshit.”
They weren’t, but I am not going to argue with her. Not now.
The sound of your blood being scrubbed off of the concrete through the open bathroom window by the hands of my husband and your best friend. They loved you, and they love us, and now they are trying to protect us by taking away this last trace of your death.
I know this wasn’t what you wanted. You know how desperately I prayed for another outcome. But here we are, for better or for worse. You, in paradise, and me here on earth, missing you, trying to console our parents, attempting to experience joy that is not tied to guilt, and occasionally seeing slivers of hell open up and threaten to consume me. I don’t want this, but this is my life. This is what you left behind when you went on. The memories, of sights and sounds and experiences I never should have had. How did I survive them? Touching your neck, the feel of it, icy cold and disgusting; like nothing I could have imagined. The sound of our father wailing in pain and anger. The inhuman sounds that left our mother’s lips as the coroner told us that you had, in fact, died under their bedroom window. The decisions I never thought I would have to make. The wedding I will never attend. The babies I will never hold.
I am angry at no one and everyone. I am at peace one moment and full of rage the next. I am functioning, I am doing the best I can, I am not okay. Will I ever be?