And then one day…
The phone awakened me from a sound sleep. I rolled over to see the neon red digital clock face reading 3:33 AM and grumbled to myself, “It’s probably another wrong number.” I cleared my throat and reached for the receiver.
“Hello.” I said. The rasp in my sleepy voice should have made it obvious that whoever was calling had awakened me from a deep sleep. The deep male voice was calm and unapologetic as he cut right to the chase, “Hello, who am I speaking with?” At least he’s speaking English, I thought to myself as I flashed back to previous late night calls from Spanish and Chinese speaking callers.
“This is Mrs. Luther.” I said impatiently.
“Mrs. Luther, do you know Devin Luther?” He asked. My breath caught in my throat. My mind and body snapped to attention and I sat straight up in the bed.
“Yes,” I paused, “I am Devin’s mother.”
“Mrs. Luther, this is State Patrolman Fischer. There has been an accident involving Devin’s car and we are not sure who was driving. We need you to come to the hospital.” He said.
There was a symphony of voices in my head. “What does he mean they don’t know who was driving? What if it was my other son, David? Was it his friend, Brandon? Where was the accident? How did he get my number? Is he okay?” So many internal questions; I was feeling increasingly panicked by the second. I took a breath and asked him, “How bad is it?”
“Pretty bad.” He said.
In order to calm all the noise in my head I started coaching myself: “Do not write a story, we do not know anything. Do not write a story, there’s nothing I can do from here. Get up. Go to the hospital. One step at a time.”
My husband, Michael, was awake now. I quickly relayed the two tidbits of information that I was given. “There’s been an accident involving Devin’s car. We need to go to the hospital.” There is silence. I force myself to stay calm. I brush my teeth. I take a 2-minute shower while Michael dresses. Every move I make feels like it is time-warped. I put on my jeans and a t-shirt. I quickly decide that I’ll have to wear my glasses because my contact solution didn’t have time to neutralize the peroxide solution.
I thought, “Shall we wake our daughter Jami?” My mind immediately answered, “No, not until we know what’s going on.”
We step out into the garage and the hot August air hits my lungs and makes me gasp. As the garage door opens, it reveals the pitch dark of the early dawn hour. The little pickup truck engine chatters to a start. Out of the garage. Onto the highway. We don’t say a word. It feels like we’re moving in slow motion. All the other cars seem to be passing us. As always, Michael is abiding by the speed limit and he’s doing a great job of making it look like he’s focused on his driving. I’m torn between the urge of wanting to tell him to please hurry and the even bigger urge to stop everything. I am so afraid. I was afraid to look him in the eyes. What would I do if he looked as frightened as I was? So, we just rode along in the dark.
Without being prompted we both looked at the dashboard clock and then quickly glanced at each other after watching the numbers click over to 4:13. We both straightened up and looked out through the windshield. Suddenly, I heard him groan, “Oh, God.” He faintly whispered. I had to look at him now. His face went white. I tried to control the feeling of panic as I said, “What? What do you know?” I was trying to guard my tone but it was impossible to hide my agitation.
He seemed to be sucking in air. He could hardly speak, but said, “I just saw his car on the back of a tow truck. It’s bad.” Those words, “It’s bad” hit me in the stomach. All the air went out of me. I know my husband doesn’t exaggerate. He doesn’t like drama. If he said it’s bad, I might have described it as horrendous.
I couldn’t ask. I didn’t want to know if it (the car) was totaled or torn apart or if the front end was sitting in the trunk. My father was a small town mechanic and I had seen more than my share of “death mobiles” growing up. I gave myself a new set of instructions: “Just breathe. Don’t let your mind imagine what that car looked like. It doesn’t matter.”
Then, I was all in. All of my inner resistance about making this trip flew out the window. I didn’t say a word, but every cell in my body decided: “GET ME TO THE HOSPITAL!” Every red light seemed to mock our sense of urgency. The fear was affecting my stomach. I drew on my knowledge of EFT and started tapping quietly. “I will not be sick. I will not throw up…”
Finally, we exited the highway and pulled into the hospital parking lot. I’m immediately grateful that he was driving. I realize now that I didn’t have the clarity of mind to even know where to go. We park in the nearly deserted lot at the emergency room. Michael takes my hand. I feel really odd. I can see him holding my hand, but I don’t feel it. Tap, tap, tap…“be here… be right here in this body…present now.” We walk swiftly up to the entrance at the hospital. As the sliding glass doors swooshed open, the first person I see is a male nurse standing behind the glass window under the bright red “Check-In” sign. He looks…very, very, sad.
Then I see two state patrolmen. I don’t see their faces. Instead, my eyes choose to focus in on the top of patrolman’s hat. “Hmm…Tassels,” I thought. “I didn’t know that their hats had tassels.” The two men approach us. My little EGO voice goes off in my head, “What do they want? They don’t know us!” One of the troopers steps forward, “Mr. and Mrs. Luther?” I can’t look at his face. Michael answered, “Yes.”
“I am so sorry.” He said and then continued apologetically after taking a breath… “Your son didn’t make it.” Then, he shoved a little blue zipper pouch into my hand. It looked like a cosmetic case. I didn’t understand. This isn’t mine, why is he giving me this? My ears feel hot. “I don’t want this.” I think to myself. Then, on the third ragged breath, the realization hits me. This little pouch that fits in the palm of one hand contains all that is left of my son’s personal belongings. I see his wallet. I see his car keys. I tilt and turn the pouch around with my thumbs.
The hot stinging tears begin to stream down my cheeks. There’s a high pitched screeching sound in my ears. I feel dizzy, I’m filled with rage. I bite my lip just so that I can keep my tongue quiet. Did I forget how to breathe? I’m gasping in tiny little gulps of air like a fish out of water. I’m struck that one part of my mind seems so calm and strong and there is another part of my mind is screeching in my head, “No, no… I don’t think so. You’ve made a mistake.”
I can see that my hands are shaking so I force myself to clutch the little blue pouch and think, “Don’t drop it. Don’t throw it. Don’t have a fit. Not here. Not now. Stay calm.”
All of this has taken place in both a slow-motion eternity and a nano-second. That was the day that everything changed.
The patrolman interrupted my inner dialogue by saying, “We need someone to identify the body.” Michael tells them he will go and I hear my voice angry, insistent, “NO, NO, I want to go, I need to see him!”
I immediately thought, “Really? We’re going to the morgue?” Part of my mind is hyper-alert and very present. The other part of my mind that I think of as the “little voice” or the EGO mind has gone insane. I hear it yelling and cursing at the men, “What the hell is going on? This cannot f***ing be right. You’ll see. We’ll get down there and it’ll be some other poor mother’s son!”
The male nurse has taken the lead now and says, “Will you follow me, please?” We take our little sad parade down the hallway. Everyone seems to be clearing a path for us. Into an elevator we go. My nervous hands are sweating and I’m clutching the little blue pouch like it is my ticket out of here. The elevator doors open as we reach the lowest level of the hospital. The hallway is so dark. The dimly lit walls are illuminated by the occasional security light. Michael and I are following the male nurse. The two patrolmen are in tow behind us. Like dazed people walking through a maze, we blindly follow the nurse to who knows where. The silence has an echo. No one is saying a word. What is there to say?
Each breath I take seems tighter and shallower. My years of meditation training kicked in and I began to focus on the air moving through my nose and into my lungs thinking, “In through my nose…fill up lungs…damn it, why don’t my lungs work?”
And we keep walking; walking through the vacant dark hallways my mind wonders, “How long is this hallway?” I can hear my flip-flops. They’re so loud in the silence. My legs are threatening to buckle. Suddenly, I have one obsessive thought. My mind is as quiet as a night in the desert against the sound of the pop-pop-popping of my flip flops. My mind says, “Oh, God! Can’t I walk quieter?” I mumble something like, “Are we there yet?”
No one answers.
Finally, we come to the end of the hallway. There appears to be a small room to one side. It looks more like a closet than a room. No windows just light wood paneling. The hallway forks and divides into two diverging hallways around the little room. The male nurse (did he ever introduce himself?) holds his palm out at us in the stop position and says, “I just need a minute.” I look behind him and there is a small sign on the door – MORGUE.
“OH, GOD!” I whimpered. My stomach drops to my knees. Michael puts one hand on my shoulder and says, “I’ll do it.” Without hesitating, I command, “No, I want to!”
After a few seconds the male nurse steps out of the room and into the hallway toward us. He says, “He’s ready” and he backs toward the room as if to beckon us toward him. The door opens. The room is so small; too small. How can this be a morgue? There are four or five metal tables riveted onto the center wall stacked one over the other like a baker’s rack. Several of the racks contain black zippered bags. One tray is pulled out away from the wall and is tilting at a slight angle. The black bag is zipped open about 25 inches. There, on the table, peaking out of the black bag, just above the zipper, is the face of our son; my baby boy. It is Devin.
I hear Michael gasp, “Oh, Buddy.” We stand like statues looking at him. He’s wearing the blue pinstripe shirt that I bought him for Christmas. His eyes are partially open. I can see just a sliver of his hazel brown eyes. Those eyes that always looked like they were filled with mischief are cold and empty now. They look like glass. The spark that everyone knew to be Devin was gone.
There are cuts on his face. His blonde hair is wet and matted.
I reach out and touch his head and quickly draw my hand back. He, that body, it used to be my boy. But, the light is gone. His hair feels stiff. The body looks and feels like wax.
Then, I feel a tremendous pressure on my chest. Being highly empathic, I’ve always sensed what others are feeling, but this was a first for me. This was an after-the-fact sensation. They had not told us anything about the accident. I had no idea what had actually happened, but in that moment I felt a crushing blow to my chest. I immediately discerned that this was his experience. I was picking up on what he felt at the accident.
My voice is shrill as I blurt out, “OH GOD- HE HIT SOO HARD!!! OH, oh, buddy…”
It feels like all of the air has been sucked out of the room. I’m softly weeping now. The nurse steps up with a box of tissues and, in a fit, I push them away and bury my head in Michael’s shoulder. I can’t feel him holding me. I want to say, “Tighter, hold me, tighter. I feel like I’m going to explode into a million pieces and fly apart all over this room.” But, I cannot speak. I am quivering. My knees feel like jelly. I’m using sheer will to stay standing upright. Michael is just staring at the form on the metal slab. It’s as if he’s frozen in-between worlds. He is softly crying. I can see the pain and anguish in his face.
I look to see the three men standing to our left. I reach out and the male nurse intuitively holds out the tissue box. How long did we stand there? What were they thinking? I don’t remember hearing a single sound, but my eyes captured a dozen pictures and burned them into my brain.
Pity. That is what I saw on their faces. I knew we had to go back down the hall and into the elevator again, but I don’t remember walking back to the elevator or reaching the main floor of the hospital. I didn’t hear my flip flops. It was like I’d left my body and gone out of the building. I was out of my body somewhere, nowhere. Not at the hospital. I just don’t remember.
The next thing I do remember is the male nurse telling us that he needs us to decide. “Decide? Decide what?” I wondered. “What could he possibly mean?” And then the bits and pieces of his sentences started to make sense. He wanted to know if we wanted to donate Devin’s organs. Devin had it on his driver’s license that he wanted to donate his organs. Michael looked at me and flinched. I could feel his questioning hesitation. “Yes, yes of course.” I said.
The nurse then led us into a storage closet; literally, a storage room. Chairs are stacked in two corners and there are two or three open chairs to sit on. There is one small table with a phone on it. The nurse picks up the phone and punches some buttons. I can’t quite make sense of what he is saying, but there’s a sense of urgency and impatience in his voice. He hands the phone to Michael.
I can’t sit or I think I will melt into a puddle. So I stand up and I begin to pace the three steps back and forth. It is dizzying, so I stop and just sway from side-to-side. I folded my arms tight around my torso. I hear Michael talking, but his voice doesn’t sound right. He seems annoyed at the questions; annoyed that he has to do this now; annoyed that he is supposed to know the right answers at a time like this. He’s barking out the answers to the mysterious voice on the other end of the phone, “Yes, No, No, No, NO, NO, NO!”
I’m feeling like a caged animal. I wanted to run out of that room, run out of that hospital, run back to bed and wake up from this nightmare. My little voice is ranting inside my head again, “How long will this take? How many questions? Is Michael okay?” I couldn’t get sense of his energy. My own energy was totally scrambled and I’m thinking, “Can we go now? Are we done yet? Let me out of here!”
Again, I notice the male nurse. This time I’m very aware that he is staring at me. I can’t imagine what he’s thinking. His expression is unclear to me. Is he confused? Is he curious? Is he annoyed that I am pacing like a panther in a cage? I decide that I really don’t give a flip what he thinks.
After what seemed like an eternity, Michael hands the phone back to the nurse and he stands up and quickly ushers me out of that closet. Finally done with all the ridiculous questions, we’re charging out of the hospital. What had been a vacant parking lot and lobby when we arrived is now filled with cars and people. There are people everywhere. People seem to be milling around and coming from every direction. We marched with determination through the people and out the glass doors into the sunlight. I’ve lost all sense of time. I just want to get away. Away, to a place where I can breathe. Away so I can cry. I want to look at Michael and see him looking confidently at me that we’re going to be okay.
Michael leads me straight to the pickup and around to my side door. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I threw my arms around his neck and I sobbed; great long sobs, sucking in air, my chest heaving and quaking as I wept. Finally, catching my breath, my legs gave out and he gently hoisted me onto my seat.
I don’t remember leaving the parking lot. I think I asked if he was okay to drive. I know I certainly was not. How did he do that?
And then, we were home. I couldn’t quit pacing. I needed something to do to feel normal. I went to my bedroom and dumped out my sock drawer. Michael came into the room. “I know.” I said, apologetically. ”This is weird, but I have to do something with my hands or I will lose my mind.”
“It’s okay, baby.” He says. “You do whatever you need to do, okay?” In that moment, I couldn’t comprehend the huge mix of emotions. His complete acceptance and understanding; no pressure, no judgment, just the man I loved giving me perfect permission to feel and respond however I needed to was truly the beginning of my healing.
He began to make phone calls. I don’t know how. I couldn’t even think. “HOW can he make calls?” I thought.
I finished rearranging my sock drawer and paced around and around until I couldn’t be in the house any more.
He asked if we should wake Jami and tell her. It wasn’t even 8:00 AM yet, so I said, “No. Let her sleep. It’s going to be a very long day.”
Out of the house and into the yard, I found myself marching toward our tree stump. Two months previous to his death, Devin and I had devoted an entire weekend to chopping up and stacking the limbs of the pear tree that had fallen during a storm. This was the last place we had spent time together. I was craving something, anything that would connect me to him. Sitting on the stump, I wept quietly as my mind jumped from memory to memory, trying to find something, anything that would make me feel Devin again. Sitting there on the stump I battled with the little EGO voices in my head:
“What am I supposed to do now?”
“How can I tell the children?”
“How can I live with this pain?”
In a moment of despair I cried out to God, “Help me!” and I heard the familiar whisper of spirit say, “You are the same person that you were yesterday. You will get through this.”
We told the children. People came. There were family members and lovely neighbors who brought food. There were flowers and cards and money to help with the expenses. My sisters flew in from Idaho.
We chose the burial plot, the head stone and the casket.
We had the funeral.
In the days that followed, we drove out to see where the accident was. We stopped at the junk yard where they had towed his car so we could see it.
We stopped by his trailer to see what we’d have to do to take care of his belongings. We emptied his trailer.
That entire week was a blur.
We had so many visitors and phone calls. Neighbors we’d never met before brought in food to ease some of the burden. One of those first mornings, my friend Kelly came to support me. She was so gentle and yet so strong. She asked me to describe how I was feeling and I had to really focus on what I was feeling to try and give her a metaphor. I told her it was like labor but in reverse. When we deliver a baby, our body begins the birthing pain slowly; slowly and steadily the pain amplifies until we reach a breaking point where we think we will die before we birth the child. I was feeling like I was going to die. It was as if I had suddenly been thrown into the bearing down and pushing stage of labor. Everything hurt; my belly was filled with feelings of terror. In that moment I couldn’t imagine living through this.
But, I did. And before I knew it, a week had passed. On Saturday morning my sisters repacked their bags and we were off to see a little bit of the city before we had to take them to the airport.
There was a steady, heavy rain that morning, but my sisters asked if we could stop by the cemetery first. The fresh mound of dirt was symbolic of our fresh grief. The rain had made little puddles of mud around the edges. Four potted flowers that had been placed around the site had been undisturbed, but were losing their bloom.
It was quiet.
The memory and emotion of the burial service only three days before skidded across my mind and lay heavy on my heart. We all huddled under our umbrellas, arms around waists and shoulders. I will be eternally grateful that they were all there with me for that first of many visits to his graveside.
After a short drive around some of our lovely Charlotte neighborhoods, we drove to the airport. Standing under the “departing” sign felt poignant to me as we hugged and said our good-byes. Michael and I drove home. There wasn’t much to say. We were both weary with grief.
I had purposely kept one client phone appointment for that afternoon. It seemed to me that some sense of normalcy needed to be established quickly. The session was profoundly helpful for the client. Ironically, he was processing trauma from his childhood, some twenty years earlier; watching his little brother get hit by an automobile. Being able to step into my role as comforter and coach and have a successful session was huge for me.
When everything feels so different, it’s easy to imagine you’ll never be the same. Familiar things like brushing your teeth, cleaning out a sock drawer and doing your job seem different. But, it’s these little – and often mundane – things in life that feel manageable when your life feels out of control.
There was little, if any, sleeping that night or any night for many to come. On Monday morning I got out a spiral notebook and wrote on the front of it:
Grief Is . . . Mourning Sickness