Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Gregg and I have spoken many times about the difference between the effects Katie's death has on us (as her parents) and the effects it has on David (as her brother).

One of the biggest differences that we perceive is that David's life is still in the "building" phase. He is going to be a senior in high school. He is working at his first job. He is making friends, developing his athletic skills, growing taller, stronger, hairier (is that a word?). His voice has dropped to a much deeper tone. He is maturing. Most of his life is in front of him: college, first love, a career, perhaps a family of his own, working years, retirement. It is all waiting for him.

Gregg and I are in (what is politely called) "mid-life." We are always laughing about the Mike Myers skit on SNL that features "Middle-Aged Man." My childbearing years are over. Our hair is more gray than dark brown (the color we started with). Gregg has been with his company for over 20 years. Gravity is doing its work. We have laugh lines around our eyes, and other lines, too, from living.

Our next house will be smaller than this one. We want to simplify, lighten our load, downsize, streamline our life. We want to travel lightly. We are not building and adding, and at 50 and 53, most of our life is NOT waiting for us. We've lived a good life, but we aren't "starting out" anymore. This is not to say that life holds no more mystery nor adventure for us; it does. But we are not in the "expanding" phase, and having Katie pass away was a huge subtraction. She is part of us, our flesh and blood, one quarter of our family, and she is not here anymore.

David cannot produce another sister, but he can get married and have children of his own. He is full of confidence, optimism, strength of will and certainty that he is right. He is healthy. I'm thankful for this.

When we were in Europe, I found that I was hyper-vigilant about his physical safety. I felt threatened about him falling when we hiked on the edge of tall cliffs. I feared that a crazy driver might pick him off as we crossed busy streets in large cities. I stressed about rogue waves on the Ligurian and Mediterranean seashores. I didn't like the look of the super-high gondolas in the mountains, suspended thousands of feet above the ground by the slender cables that supported them. I "felt the fear and did it anyway," as the saying goes, but I felt the fear, and I verbalized it, too. I don't even remember all of the specific fears about safety, but I was besieged by them, and they made me tired. They also made David look at me differently. I could see something like contempt or pity or disrespect in his eyes. It hurt.

When I was David's age, I went whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and summited 14,000-foot peaks. I rode horseback and competed in camp rodeo events. I went to Europe for 5 weeks without friends or family. I applied to the toughest colleges that I could find, and chose the toughest one that admitted me. I spent a quarter in England - my first quarter at a new college, where I knew no one. I drove across the country, alone, in my early 20s. I navigated strange cities on my own. I moved all the way across the country, to the opposite coast, away from my family, by myself. I was NOT a fearful woman, and I did not shy away from adventure. I still love adventure & learning new things.

When I saw that look in David's eyes in Europe, I was deeply saddened. I felt as if he wasn't seeing ME.

Yesterday, as we drove in Seattle, we discussed Katie's death, and he said that he felt that I had been traumatised by it, but that he had not. He was forever affected by it, but he didn't feel it was a trauma, for him.

I agree with him. I told him that I had seen the look in his eyes on our trip, and I thought I knew what it meant. I told him that it made me sad to see it, because when I was his age, I had looked at my own mom that way, and I have intentionally worked throughout my life to be a courageous and adventurous person. I have purposely done things that my mother was afraid to do (of course, now I know that she is very courageous in her own ways). I told him that, after Katie's cancer, I thought I would never be afraid again, but I am...not afraid of death, but afraid of loss. Of another, heart-breaking, life-sapping, world-shattering loss, and of the pain that that kind of loss brings with it.

It does no good to live in fear. Fear is not a protective armor; fear cuts you off from life. I know this. But apparently, in this space, it's what I'm going to have to deal with.


Gannet Girl said...

Many many years ago, when our children were small, a friend and I used to discuss this issue of fear frequently. I had lost a young mother and brother, a stepmother, and an aunt, all to sudden deaths at young ages. She had three living children to show for six pregnancies. At about the same time, we both came to the conclusion that she articulated: We can't spend our lives being fearful. If something happens to one of our children, having worried about it in advance will not make it any easier.

I know that I for one never stopped being terrified. I have often said that I learned at the age of seven that this is a treacherous and uncertain universe. But I hid that knowledge and from things my daughter has said, I think I hid it very well. All of my children spent summer months hundreds of miles away at camp; all of them studied for long periods of time in Europe. I always pushed and urged them out the door and into the world.

All to say, I guess, that I was always afraid then, and I am always afraid now. Although I don't notice it so much now, because the sadness blots out pretty much every other emotion.

Busy Bee Suz said...

This is touching and insightful.
"fear of loss and not death", I get this Karen.

Elizabeth said...

I think it helps to acknowledge our fears and have them. And then let them pass. I believe we remain fearful when we don't allow ourselves to admit to fear or when we somehow bury it.

As for the "look" in your son's eye, dare I say that I believe that is part and parcel of parents and their children? I think that even in the absence of the terrible loss of Katie, you would receive that look. I think that's overwhelmingly sad, but perhaps what parenting and then letting go of parenting is all about. But that's just my humble opinion and I, of course, have no real idea of the trauma you've faced.

MB said...

I believe I have to agree with Elizabeth. There does come a time in each young adult's life when they look at their parents with a look of pity, maybe, or surprise mixed with pity. They are seeing us for the first time as we really are, not who they had thought we were while they were growing up. What they see is a normal person, just like them, who has lived a long time, felt a lot of things, experienced a lot of joy and loss and have some of those wildly adventurous edges worn down. I do believe this is natural, and that look probably won't change much until they step into our shoes, literally, and start on their own life paths of joy, loss, pain, sadness, pursuit, accumulation, more loss, successes, more loss. It is a natural path. The love then returns on a different level and you become not that knows all/sees all parent with supernatural powers but the person that has sacrificed everything and loved them without reason. They then send back a new and freeing kind of love. I actually love the fact that I can appear just like I am to my children now. They can see all of it now, they respect it and vow never to be it. But, we all know they will become some newer improved version of us in t he end. Now I just get to love them with reckless abandon, warts and all and no longer feel like I have to know all the answers. It's a softer, gentler kind of loving.

Angela said...

thanks for your insight, and wisdom...and MB...miss you...warts and all...especially the "hand"...I need practice with that still with my sweet you both - Ang

Clippy Mat said...

Karen: again, your experience serves to teach others. thank you. You are a brave and lovely woman and your son is lucky to have such a wonderful mother.
hugs :-))

Beth said...

Stumbled upon your blog and can't stop staring at pictures of your Katie. I am so sorry for your loss. I know that mother's fear you write about, but can't possibly know how intensely you must feel it.

My husband always tells my son that being brave doesn't mean not being afraid, it means facing your fears. You are a brave woman (and I think your son knows that, or will in time).

Anonymous said...

no one understands the fear that a Mother has for her child unless it is another Mother, and no Mother can comprehend the fear a Mother has such as your self unless you have lost a child. I don't think your son's look was an upset "at you" look it is a more look of upset "for you". He probably just wished that you could enjoy it the way he was. You know my daughter was a way at college for four years and even though I worried about her I did not know what she was doing most of the time. But she now has moved back home to get her Physical Therapy doctorate at a local University and now I am more worried then ever because she is always on the go with her boyfriend, her job and her friends and I never know when she is in or out. That old saying what you don't know won't hurt you is not a bad saying :o) Your son sounds like a smart young is probably your fears that make you feel that way not so much his "look". sending you a ((hug)) God Bless