In the summer of 2013 I met the man who would later become my husband. I was young, unattached, and I lived life freely as a single girl working a stellar job – meeting professional athletes across the country and traveling every week. I was determined not to “settle” on someone and had the idea in mind that not settling meant never dating someone who already had children. No baggage, please.
The man I met that summer, Ryan, did have a child. A tiny baby, that came along with a mother who had a not-so-tiny personality. Nothing against babies, I've always wanted to be a mom, but I definitely didn’t want to deal with an ex. About a year later, with a major attitude shift and some *persistence* from Ryan, we started dating.
Quickly I found so much joy in my role as a step-parent. Even before I married Ryan I considered myself a step-mom. There are so many boyfriends and girlfriends of parents out there that struggle with not having that “parent” label. If you’re one of them – I appreciate you, and I bet those kids do too.
It was November of 2014, Ryan and I were in the honeymoon phase of our relationship and I was on a trip with my friend in Las Vegas. My mom called and I ignored it (not because I don’t like talking to her, but because I was drinking and the music was loud – you know, Vegas). She called again, I was worried so I tucked my head down and answered, cupping my hand over my free ear, doing my best to hear her.
This was my first experience of being brought to my knees. I’ve wondered since then your reaction in these situations is to fall to the floor. I couldn’t hear the music and laughter around me, there was a ringing in my ears.
“Rachel… Your brother… Your brother is DEAD!”
I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. If you ever need to sober up in 4 seconds, someone needs to die. I can’t convey the tone of my mother’s voice in words on a screen. She was hysterical, she was lost, she kept saying what do I do what do I do oh my baby is dead
My big brother, the guy who taught me how to ride a bike, who always believed in me – pushed me, challenged me, confided in me. He ended his life by hanging himself from his bedroom doorknob.
The moments, days, weeks, and months that followed that phone call were life-shaping. Ryan stepped up in most incredible ways. Being patient when I was angry, letting me ugly cry until I had no tears left, helping me financially when I got the bill for funeral expenses.
The brightest light to me during this time was Ryan’s son, Harrison. If I was having a hard day, Ryan would send me videos of Harrison telling me that he loved me. Little things, like taking Harrison to get ice cream or to the book store were the highlights of my weeks. Harrison called me “Rachoo” because he couldn’t say my name, and to this day that’s what our entire family calls me.
But you’re not his mom
It’s a harsh realization when you come to terms with treating a child like your own, yet you don’t have much say in big decisions in their life. School, sports, swim classes, doctor visits – these are all decisions I watched being made from the sidelines. And potty training between two households – well that deserves it’s own post.
I’d like to think that after almost a year we had the co-parenting relationship down about as well as the three of us could have hoped for. Harrison was happy, our communication between households had gotten lightyears better, and Ryan and I were hearing wedding bells. We even decided it was time that the three of us adults attend Harrison’s soccer practice together. And we did. On a warm Saturday morning in October Ryan and I drove Harrison to soccer practice and met his mom there. Then the three of us all watched Harrison run back and forth across the field, cheering for him and high-fiving him and really just trying our best to get over the awkwardness to be there for that little two-year-old.
That same Saturday Ryan and I took Harrison to Austin City Limits Music Fest. After watching Harrison rock out to Modest Mouse, we made our way to grab some food and sit down. Ryan wandered off to find some bottles of water leaving me with Harrison sitting on my shoulders. I heard a little voice say “LOOK! There’s my mommy!” Unbelievingly, I look straight ahead and sure enough – Jenn was there. He somehow spotted her in the sea of thousands of people.
I walked Harrison over and he gave her an incredibly enthusiastic account of him break dancing to Modest Mouse, of visiting kiddie acres with his dad, and dad letting him get his hair sprayed with green paint. Jenn and I said hi, and oh wow twice in one day! and we both laughed. Harrison leaned down and gave her a kiss, then we parted ways to go find dad.
That was the last time my son got to see his mother
The next morning I woke up early with Harrison, letting Ryan sleep in. We were playing in his bedroom which had a view of the driveway. I saw one police car pull up, and then another. I met them at the door before they could knock, Harrison on my hip. When they asked to speak with Ryan, and no ma’am we cannot give you any information, I just knew. I didn’t know who, but I could feel it in a tight ball in my stomach. I wanted to let Ryan sleep and tell them to go away. Come back later, it’s been a nice morning and we are doing really well right now, thank you but no thank you.
I reluctantly woke Ryan, telling him the police were here and no I don’t know why. I held Harrison as I watched him walk out the glass door, shutting it behind him so we could still see but not hear. Less than five seconds later Ryan fell to his knees with his face in his hands. I set down Harrison and ran to the door, opening it just wide enough to poke my head out. Who is it? I asked.
Jenn. It’s Jenn. She’s dead.
The next few hours are a blur of telephone calls, frantic messages, friends and family of Jenn coming to our house. And the looming reality that we were going to have to tell Harrison. How do you tell a two-year-old that he’s never going to see his mom again? To give you a short answer, you tell them exactly that and not much more. Really it’s the months and years following that day that are going to pose the hard questions. When that kid turns three and suddenly becomes terrified of moving vehicles because his mom died in a boating accident. When he turns four and starts to understand death, but heaven is a place so why can’t we visit? When he’s five and his dog dies and he cries about never seeing him again, is that dog with mommy? Not when he’s two. No, he brushed it off and got off dad’s lap, walking around the living room playing with all of his friends and family that had come to visit him.
This is where my story begins.
At least this story. The one that I want to use to help others. The mass amount of therapy we’ve undergone, the hours of children’s play therapy, the study of art therapy, of child psychology – my real world application of it all – I want to give that to you. Along with some beautiful art and some anecdotes from my life of raising two boys, one of which came to me in the most tragic of circumstances and the other born having the best big brother in the world.
I felt a darkness creeping over my world in the aftermath of the deaths of two of the most important people in my life. It was a challenge to get out of bed in the morning, not knowing how to go forward – navigating completely uncharted territory. Becoming a mom overnight, but it taking years for it to feel real.
I felt like all of the creativity was sucked out of me. Now, nearly three years after that day in October, I’m finding my light in art again. In creating, not only for me but for my children. Art is such a powerful therapy, I hope you find joy in my work.
This isn’t easy to share, and it’s terrifying to put our life out to the world. I know that I have something to offer and it might not be for everyone, but it’s for someone. I can’t tell you exactly what you’ll find here, but I hope that you find some joy or relief or even someone to relate to.
One of the only thing people have in common is death. Let's embrace that, and hold each other up through our grief journeys.