Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Measure of a Year

In five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure
A year in the life?

When Don first introduced me to this song, Seasons of Love, from the musical Rent it was the summer of 2004.  We had both just graduated from college, had only been dating for three months, and were getting ready to spend a year apart in a serious long distance relationship – Tacoma, WA to Haiti.  In a fit of masochism we put this song on a “Saying Goodbye” playlist and listened to it at the airport as I dropped Don off to fly back to Indiana as I began my JVC training.  We both could not stop sobbing.

When I listen to this song now, I still cannot help sobbing, but, as with many pieces of music that become important in your life, it means something completely different now.  This past Monday, March 26th, was the one year anniversary of Riley’s death.  Riley was, is, Don’s youngest brother.  He was killed in a car crash on his way back from Spring Break in Florida with three of his friends, Evan Weaver, Matt Roe and Alexx Bauer, who were driving in the car with him.  Another boy, Niall McNellis, was driving in the opposite direction when his car suddenly crossed the median and crashed into Riley’s car head on.  Everyone was killed.

I have written about that day.  Written about the phone calls.  The phone call Don got from his father, and the phone call I got from a good friend telling me that Don was on his way home from a party and had gotten some terrible news, but they didn’t know what it was.  I have written about packing everyone’s clothes into bags and packing everyone into the car and driving all night to Indiana.  I have written about the days and weeks that followed.  The memorial for the four boys that had to be held at the local college and lasted almost 10 hours, the lines of people coming to pay their respect and lend their support winding out the door and down the road.

I have written about it all, as I experienced it.  Maybe someday I will let someone else read it, but for now I still can’t.  It’s not just my experience.  Not just my grief.  I looked back today over what I wrote twelve months ago, and found the wound again.  The wound that grief makes in your heart when someone you love dies, and takes a piece of you with them.  The other wounds that open when you see people you love in pain, and you know that nothing you can do can help them the way they need to be helped.

Mourning Riley was very different for me than it was for Don, or anyone else in his family.  I had known him since he was 11 years old, and I think we had always been friends.  I know I loved him a lot, and was happy and proud to have him as a brother.  But what I found mourning the most was the loss of the future that we would have had with him.  The visits to him down at Purdue, the relationship he would have with Lucy and our future children, the life that we had planned with big spaces for him in it.  The plans we all make without checking first with God.  Most of all, I mourned for Don, who was in agony, an agony I could not assuage or even really touch.

The agony is still here.  The pain and the mourning, it never goes away.  Grief books like to call this “the new normal.”  When you lose someone, you don’t get over it, or get better.  We have just learned to live in the world as it is; now that Riley is somewhere else. 

And we thank God that we believe, with everything that we are, that there is a somewhere else, that Riley is there with God, and that some time in the future we will be there as well.

This month Don busted his ass, working every single day except for my birthday, so that we could drive to Indiana and be with family this past weekend.  The schedule wasn’t clear; all we knew was that we needed to be together.  We got to Angola Saturday night, and spent the weekend in prayer and celebration, enjoying the company of family and loved ones who come by without asking, just drawn by the need to share in a ministry of presence with one another.  To share in stories and memories and the trails of the last year.

Not even a month after Riley had died last year, Matt and Susie had the idea of creating a stations of the cross trail in the woods behind their house.  A way to pray and be close to Riley and God while hiking or riding or cutting through the woods while doing chores.  They ordered the special outdoor stations, and have had them in their house since May, waiting for the right time.  Monday dawned sunny and crisp, a real March day after weeks of 80 degree weather followed by rain.  Family and friends gathered on foot, horse and gator to help mount the stations of the cross and observe them together, the ritual even more potent when mindful of the season of Lent we are in and Easter fast approaching.

The day was almost idyllic.  Lucy and Cecelia, our good friends’ daughter, took turns riding with Don and David through the sunlit forest or toddling along over logs and leaves hand in hand.  When we hung the fourteenth and final station, someone noted that it was 3:40pm.  The coroner’s report had listed Riley’s time of death as between 3:40 and 3:45pm.

We ate brats and enormous amounts of BLT’s, Riley favorite sandwich.  Everyone cried and laughed, and while there were moments of silence and reflection and grief, the overwhelming feeling of eviscerating pain seemed to be absent.  There was a feeling of springtime, of hope and healing.  The feeling you get when you know that Easter is near, that the resurrection is at hand, and that the season of Lent is ending.

Every Ice is a tribute!
About five months ago Don and I had a long talk about where we were at, and some serious thinking that we had been doing about Riley and death and God.  Don said that he knew that being angry about his death was wrong, and that even wishing that Riley was still alive and with us was selfish too, even though that didn’t stop him from wishing it every day.  He knew that Riley was with God now, and how could he wish someone away from such a place?  I had been particularly struck by the homily at our local church that morning, and in light of Don’s thoughts it seemed especially relevant.  It seemed to us that the relationships that we form on earth, the love that we give to other and accept from others, are the strengths that we carry with us into God’s presence when we die.  And so, when you love someone deeply, as everyone loved Riley, and then they die, they carry your love, and a piece of you, with them to God. 

When I look back on this year, I think that was the beginning of our “new normal.”

So what does our new normal look like?  It looks like both of us still sobbing through the entire movie The Way, and now not being sure we will ever be able to see Emilio Estevez again without crying.  It looks like pictures of Riley all over our house, and our daughter’s huge stuffed horse named after his horse Cisco.  It looks like me never being able to listen to Top 40 music, Mac Miller, or Lil’ Wayne without tearing up, which can be very confusing to people.  It looks like us looking forward to naming our next child Riley, boy or girl.  It looks like moving to South Bend, Indiana to be close to the Zimmers and to the home where Riley grew up.  It is never shying away from saying his name or telling stories about him.

It is hearing a song at the gym and tearing up on the treadmill, hoping with half your heart that no one will notice you crying, and with the other half praying that someone will come up to you and ask you if you are alright so that you can tell them “no” and tell them why.  So that you can say his name, Riley, and tell a story about him and make another person in this world who knows.  It is feeling alone in a room of friends because you are thinking about being at a wake or a funeral home or a football game or wakeboarding on the lake a year ago or two years ago or five years ago and you don’t know how to say it out loud, or you try and someone else doesn’t know how to listen.  It is unexpected circles of friends, smaller now in those who knew Riley, and larger now in those who have also lost someone they loved.

It is desperately painful and still wildly joyful, and very very hard.  It is life.  I try to check in with Don more, and never assume that because he can laugh and we can talk about Riley and plan for the future that he is “better” or “recovered.”  Those words have no meaning in the language of grief. 

The last time we talked, Don astounded me again when I asked him how he was doing, and what he thought about when he thought about death.  I think he is in a unique position, having lost his beloved brother and being a doctor in an Emergency Room, confronting other’s death and loss almost every day.  That has informed a philosophy that has begun to permeate our lives now, and change the way we think from day to day.

Everything you have in life, you lose.  Your money, your things, your hearing, your sight, your ability to walk by yourself or even control your own bodily functions.  Your very life.  Your loved ones and your friends, one way or another.  None of this is under our control – its all up to God.  The only thing you can control is how you react to loss.  You can fight it, and risk losing your dignity and your mind along with everything else.  Or you can accept that loss will happen, and you can let things go.

It is something I am still coming to understand, because I haven’t experienced loss the way that Don has.  With Riley and with the work he does every single day.  It may be something I will spend the rest of my life trying to understand.  I was raised on a diet of fight – fight sickness and fight death and fight anything that tries to take something from you.  My family is Libertarian, and I came late in my life to the understanding that everything we have and are goes back to God, and that I really have no control over any of it at all.

It is another one of those ironic parent of a toddler moments as I try to teach my daughter that just because the playground is right behind our house does not mean that all of the sand toys and the swings and the horses in the playground are hers.  She has to share the playground and the toys with the other children.  And sometimes she cannot ride on the horses because they are being used.  And sometimes she cannot go to the playground at all because we have other things to do or because I said so.

Its moments like these when I realize yet again how much being a toddler is like being an adult who believes in God.  The more you trust your parents and accept their rules, the more responsibility you are given and the more you mature.  The more you give up to God, the more you get back and the more you learn and grow.  Maybe this line of logic will work on Lucy the next time she lies to me and tells me she peed in the toilet to get a Jelly Bean.  Maybe this line of logic will work on me the next time I get angry at God for throwing something in our way that I do not think we need or takes something away that I am certain we do need.

The song asks how you measure a year in your life, what units you use to quantify and evaluate the 525,600 minutes that make up this cycle.  Lucy has grown from a silent/looking/stumbler into a full human being that runs, talks, demands, kisses, eats, climbs and hugs all by herself.  We have decided to take a job at Memorial Hospital in South Bend and move back to Indiana for the next few years at least.  I lost my job, became a stay at home mother, and finally, very grudgingly, mustered up the courage to start writing.  We spent a month in Haiti, making new friends and breaking our own hearts open in new ways.  But most of all, Don lost his brother and friend, and we have been dealing with tidal waves and ripples of that event.  We have been hurting and healing, and growing and struggling to be reborn into this world without a Riley.  And, as cheesy at it is, we have still been loving, more fiercely and with more abandon than ever before.

The sun peeking through above the back pasture.  Hi Riley!
Lucy colors for Riley, while Don lays in the grass above him.


  1. Beautifully said, Crystal. Thinking of you and your family. XO

  2. Thank you Crystal for taking the time to write down how many of us feel. I'm so glad that someone (Riley) nudged you into writing because you are a gifted writer and should continue to do it as often as you can. Fighting through the pain, Matt

  3. Crystal, Don just shared your blog on FaceBook... Wow. I am truly touched by your writing. You have been given quite a gift. Keep it up. Hugs~LeAnn Boots

  4. Crys.... reading your blog this AM has given me a new 'outlook' as I deal with knowing I will soon be losing a very dear friend to the big "C" and that my support and friendship today is the most precious gift I can offer her. The future for her is indeed in GOD's hands and by ME accepting what HE has planned for her is going to help ME also.
    You are indeed a very gifted writer Crystal and sharing the BLOG with all of your many friends is a tribute to Riley. God Bless and your family Crys. Keep writing and sharing..... Aunt Susan