Hey Jude — Billie Jean

The women of my grandmothers’ generation were iron clad. These women endured under the direst of straits and in the worst of times and emerged 70-plus years later smiling and most likely wondering what we were so upset about with our video games and our Lisa Frank notebooks and our Saturday morning cartoons.

My father’s mother, full German, was raised in Ulm and Berlin during and after WWII. She and her family were not Nazis. In fact, they were sympathizers to war victims and often gave away food and resource to help those without. Tried for treason among other things, her parents suffered substantially during the war. Post-war, well, it’s likely to assume that my Oma’s elementary school days were consumed just being thankful you had food and a roof.

My mother’s mother, full southerner, was born in Tupelo and lived throughout Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee before settling in Mobile. I knew her as Memaw. Her name was Vonnie Lillian Opsal. She had dark, auburn hair and blue-grey eyes, plump cheeks and thin lips, and a figure for days. The plaque over her grave says she was born in 1912, but that’s a lie. She was born in 1915; I have the erased and re-scrawled documentation to prove it. No, she lied about being born in 1912 so she could marry at a scandalously ripe teen age to a guy named Curtis.

I like to envision she and Curtis were young lovers…full of innocence and stupidity, like most sweet first love. They were kids playing house and the reality of adulthood swooped in like a thunder strike. Shortly after marriage, Vonnie got pregnant. She was a married ingénue in the late 1920s, and she was pregnant. Curtis had a job with the railroad. It wasn’t much, but life was good. At least they had real love.

When he left for work in the morning, Vonnie was already in the kitchen, barefoot, swollen with child, her flush belly swaddled tightly with an apron. She and Curtis kissed. She smiled warmly as her dear husband left for work, already anticipating his return, as brides do.

He never returned. Curtis was killed in an accident at the train yard. The news he was dead was more damaging than if she’d been clubbed. The oxygen in her lungs compressed, and she couldn’t breathe. He would never come home. She was dizzy. Never would she hug or hold or kiss him again. Lights flashed. Gone forever; dead. A bright light and then nothing.

Time elapsed like a dirge and, then, it was time. The baby. She was there, at the hospital. Then came the twilight sleep, and when she awoke, “I’m sorry ma’am but your baby was born still.” No, she heard the baby cry, but years later, she swore she did. It was a girl, she was told. She never saw or held her baby girl, who she called Billie Jean, and she never believed –not fully—that the baby had died.

I grew up with a wisp of the story of Billie Jean in my ear, and it was never from my Memaw. This story descended to me through my mother. Memaw was a woman of her generation. You didn’t dwell on these losses. You didn’t let them cripple you. You sucked it up. You had…responsibilities. Except, really, she didn’t. She was on her own, bound by loss, my Memaw, at such a young age. A dead husband and a still baby. I regret that I was never able to ask her and to hear her side of this (likely) defining aspect of her life. My grandmother, Vonnie, was my favorite person, truly. The woman effervesced; she lived, and was she ever inspiring.

Her other two children, mom and Aunt Linda, came nearly 13 years after Billie Jean. Their father was an alcoholic and an abusive husband, and Vonnie went toe to toe with him like it was her job. She worked in a restaurant on Mobile’s Dauphin Street that she later purchased. It was called The Home Kitchen. Yet still later, she remarried a seaman who was often deployed. Unconventionally, not only was she a divorce, but she also never begged or groveled or needed a man. My mom’s stepdad never paid child support, and Memaw never sought it. The woman had scars as deep as gashes, but you’d never have known it. The only indication I ever got was when I was a toddler, and she persistently advised to “never let a man take advantage of you.” She was like a ship, ironclad. Made of steel. She deftly sliced through turbulent waters, and if it compromised her an iota to do so, only God would know it.

Having lost Jude, I realize that being destroyed from the inside-out doesn’t defeat you. It imbues you with resolve, a fervor to thrive and survive. I’ve been reduced to ashes on more than one occasion; though, losing Jude was and is still the most significant trauma of my life. Sometimes I wonder if I fully “get it”, but I can’t worry about if I do or don’t or if I’ll have a nervous breakdown one day. All I can do is polish my armor and be a fighter like our grandmothers were. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Of course, it does more than that. It defines us. I miss Jude with a passion every day, and lately, I’ve talked about him to many people. I still have my time that I’m cry and when I’m sad, but when I talk about him…I’m just happy. How does such a harrowing loss become a source of joy and strength? I mean it when I say that only God knows and that God is indeed mysterious in his wonderful ways

Aside:

My Memaw was a blessing to me. When I was born in 1983, “Billie Jean” was the number one song in the nation. It’s really more of an irony, but it’s sentimental to think that my departed Aunt Billie Jean was already looking down on me from heaven and that she is holding my Jude and singing in his ear, “Hey Jude….”

 

Jude,

It’s been 17 months since you left me, and you’re still so much a part of me and so real to me. I’m sad that I don’t have new pictures to share of you or to see how you’d look at Eilie’s age. She’ll be four months tomorrow. Four months. Hard to believe. She’s such a happy baby. She smiles all of the time, and boy, I bet you’d have smiled, too. Like a champ. I saw a baby at the park today. He smiled at Eilie. He had brown eyes, too. All I could think was how much he reminded me of you. You’re so loved, darling, and you’re so missed every day. I love you now as much as I loved you the day you were born. I love you forever and for always. You’re always my baby, and you’re always with me. You’re my joy, my baby boy. Keep heaven warm for me.

Love, Mommy

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Hey Jude – One Second

For two months, I’ve neglected to post something on Jude’s site. I assure you, it’s not for lack of love or remembrance of my baby boy. I think about him all of the time; Jude Bear still shares our bed at night. In fact last night, I put him between Lillianne and Eilie who were snuggled in our big bed with us and thought that Jude Bear is about the size of my baby boy who would never grow or age another second. The idea of a second is one that I’ve thought of a lot in the past two months of being unable to properly put my feelings into words.

 

It was an unassuming Tuesday when at 7:24 I woke to a missed call from Sean; the call came in at 7:22. He never calls. I thought and pushed to redial.

The story spilled out and I was drawn into what can only literally be described as a living nightmare. Someone close to Sean had taken his own life only a handful of hours before. My nerves pricked, and I repeated, “Oh my God, oh my God,” as if the mantra would somehow reverse the reality and I could wake up for real.

This man, someone I admittedly barely knew, is someone’s son, husband, father, and brother. He was expecting a son. He was so much to so many, and in one moment, one second, his saga on Earth ended.

 

My mind swirled around the circle of grief as I thought of his mother, wife, and sisters. I imagined their pain. His mother, I could somewhat relate to; it’s an inexplicable phenomenon of loss and grief when your baby precedes you in death. There’s nothing that can prepare nor is there anything that can explain how and why you can wake up each morning afterward and step out of bed.

Her loss, I felt, was the more substantial for many reasons because even though I could relate, I couldn’t imagine. After 36 years, you feel like you’re safe. After your baby is born, you feel life your baby is safe. Your baby will do what babies are supposed to do…they’ll live their life, find happiness and fulfillment…their smile will be the last thing you hopefully see before your own life ends one day.

Of course, with Jude I learned that there’s no such thing as a safe time. You’re guaranteed nothing…not after the first trimester…not after the second…not even after that baby is born or can no longer stumble into sharp corners or can no longer choke on grapes…. It’s not a reason to be fearful, but it’s the truth. I’m sure at no point when in 1979 she looked at his gummy baby grin and dark eyes that she envisioned that baby would only have 36 short years to be heard and to be embraced. I’ll admit that even though Jude’s loss was so much less painful, the fact that I don’t have any memories to sustain on makes me feel sad and empty. Respectfully, none of it’s fair.

His wife…I could only imagine. I’ve woken up to a text from Sean almost every day since 2008. He’s the reason I look forward to 5 p.m. I get excited about the weekends because he’s usually here. The idea of not looking forward to those things is painful. More agonizing, I think of my babies asking for daddy…missing daddy…wondering when daddy will get home. Lillianne is almost three. Most mornings, the first words out of her mouth are, “Where’s Daddy?” and I get to say, “He’s at work, but he’ll be home soon.” Of course, then I think of us with Eilie; how many times have I said, “Look! Look!” because she smiled or lifted her head up or was making a cute face? I text Sean dozens of photos almost every day because our kids do something funny or adorable. I would miss sharing those sharable moments with the only person who cared about them as much as I did. So for his wife, my heart continually breaks.

When I thought of his sisters, I thought of my brother…the only person who uniquely shared my lifetime of memories and secrets. He’s the only other person who truly understands what life was like in our house. They were supposed to be able to raise their own children together, support each other through life’s pains and triumphs as they had when they were younger. The sibling bond is special, which is why I hurt so much for Lillianne after we lost Jude. She lost the best friend she never knew she had. Even though Adam (my brother) and I aren’t as close as we used to be nor do we talk as often as we should given our proximity to each other, I wouldn’t be complete without him. I mean, we shared more than a house and parents for the most formative years of our lives….we shared a womb; we share DNA. We’re (in some ways) the same person. If he’s not here, part of me isn’t here, which is how I feel about Jude as well, and it’s why I’m often sad for Lillanne and Eilie.

 

We drove out of state to attend the funeral…showing up felt like the least we could do and at the same time, it was the only thing we could think to do. A friend suggested that we do or say what we wanted when we lost Jude. For me, the answer was nothing. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t want to make conversation. I didn’t care about food. I was shell-shocked, but in hindsight, I appreciated the people who showed up one way or the other (physically or with calls, cards, and flowers).

 

I looked at him before the funeral Mass started. He looked peaceful. Surreal. A clip show of photos played on the other side of the room. A lifetime was being conveyed in a series of photos. He was athletic. Spent summers with his family at the beach. Posed for the camera in tee shirts and shorts like every other dorky kid from the ‘90s. He smiled infectiously in every image; he was harmless. Sweet. I met a person I hardly knew in a series of photos…probably the person his mom and sisters remembered best.

Too soon, the slideshow ended, and the Mass began. The finality of the closed coffin seemed to make it more real. I’m never ready for the coffin to close; I wasn’t ready for Jude’s coffin to close. During Jude’s wake, Sean was by his side, holding his little hand; I was only a few steps away, but I wasn’t next to my son. I somewhat regret that. I also regret never seeing his eyes or dressing him. I honestly wasn’t sure what I was allowed to do with him; he was mine, after all, and at the time, when we were in the hospital, holding him and brushing my hand across his cold cheek seemed like enough.

The guests took their seats at his Mass. His daughter’s attire was entirely apropos for the sad occasion; her innocence was highlighted profoundly by her purse. It was a little pink toy-like purse as though it wasn’t really her father’s funeral…just a morbid game of dress-up. I started to cry.

As children will often do during church, mine became restless, and I slipped out with Lillianne; we heard the rest of the Mass from the foyer. Sean soon joined us as Eilie was also getting restless, and we heard the remainder of the Mass from there.

After, we stood and watched –almost intrusively, like voyeurs of grief—as the family entered the foyer. He came first followed by his very pregnant wife then daughter and mom and grandma and sisters in turn; arms tenderly outstretched to one another, providing support and simultaneously reaching for it. A cloth was ceremoniously draped over his coffin. I clutched at Sean’s elbow, weeping for them…for him…for them.

 

During the procession to the cemetery, I flash-backed to Jude’s procession and had an outburst of emotion. I cried unrelentingly for a few moments. I was reminded of that chasm of pain that literally engulfs you when you have a loss so significant that you can’t even fathom it. It’s the kind of loss that your mind has to do absolutely wondrous and incomprehensible things to facilitate coping. It’s the kind of phenomenon that reminds you that there’s a higher power and a purpose. It’s the kind of thing that you realize, wow… I can…survive this un-survivable devastation and life can…have purpose.

Within the past year, I recalled reading a fascinating piece about a survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It was riveting to say the least. Regardless of how you feel about the war, the first-person narrative of what they experienced was profound to hear of. And it reminds me that I’m not the only one who’s loved and lost so deeply. It’s something I’m reminded of often; in fact, just as with the story of this very important and wonderful and special person, I’m the least-suffering of anyone who has ever suffered, I feel.

Perhaps that’s because I know such mercy and grace, and I’m really thankful for that. Maybe I don’t know how badly I could or should have it, but I just…don’t. I don’t have it bad. I tell people all of the time that I’m blessed. I know I’m blessed. It’s not because Eilie is here, either. I’m blessed because I’m a child of a loving God.

Yes, I suffer, and I know pain. The world suffers, but there’s something beyond that. Have you ever seen people rise up in the face of pain and adversity? Band together? Overcome hatred and anxiety and stereotypes because they just had to help someone? I feel like that’s the point of pain…it helps us to be human and to become our best selves while having faith that it really will somehow all be okay.

To this family who suffered such a loss, I love you all so much. I don’t know where you are as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but know that we love you. Know that I love you. Know that your boy is holding mine in heaven, and that they are bringing one another joy. Know that we are here to bring you love and joy and peace and hope and prayers. Life isn’t always fair, but at least we can say there’s always love. We love you.

 

Related: On March 9…a day after (wow) a blogger shared this piece via Mental Health America: ”Open Suicide Letter.” I read it March 21, and it was –still is—profound insight.