82: Boughs of Love

82: Boughs of Love

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Boughs of Love

We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.

~Winston Churchill

“Why are we decorating this tree?” asked Zach. My five-year-old son held up a sparkling golden ball and carefully placed it on the Douglas fir tree that grew in a corner of our backyard.

“This is a very special tree,” I said.

“Because it doesn’t die?”

I laughed. “It’s true. That’s one reason it is special. But mostly it’s special because we bought it when it was this small.” I held my hand out to show Zachary and his older brother, Chase, that the tree was once less than a foot tall. “We planted it the second Christmas after your oldest brother was born.”

They both giggled and Zach pointed to Chase. “You mean Chase?”

“Let’s sit down,” I suggested. “I want to tell you a story. It’s about a boy named Ryan. You didn’t know him, but he is your oldest brother.”

Astonishment spread across their innocent faces. Had it really been ten years since I had first held my hands against my smooth, round belly dreaming dreams of a soon-to-be-born son?

My first pregnancy had glided through the months with textbook ease. My husband, Mark, and I learned that we were expecting a boy. There were baby showers, nursery plans and all the attending questions. What would he look like? What would he grow up to be? Life took on new meaning, and every stroll in the park or trip to the mall added to the excitement as we envisioned expanding our household along with my expanding belly.

Soon enough, that precious new life did indeed burst on the scene. After a long labor, his smooshed head didn’t exactly resemble the cherubic angel of my imagination, but he was perfect enough—ten fingers, ten toes, and deep, soulful blue eyes that I swore from the beginning knew something that I did not.

“What happened to him?” Chase asked. I could sense my sons’ growing impatience as I shared stories of Ryan’s first winsome smiles and his favorite stuffed mouse. Not unexpectedly, my lashes grew wet, and I drew my boys in close.

“Can you raise your hand?” I asked them both. Chase and Zachary demonstrated with ease the simple task.

“The reason you can raise your hand, or wiggle your toes, or run across the grass is because you want to do those things and your brain sends the message to make your arms or legs move. Our brains even tell us when to breathe.” I paused a moment to let this sink in. “Well, Ryan’s brain could send a message, but his body wasn’t able to answer. This was because he had a rare disease and it is sad, but Ryan wasn’t able to move his body like you both, and eventually he wasn’t able to breathe air.”

“Did he die?” asked Chase.

Chase looked so sad that I wondered if I should continue. I knew it was a lot of information for two young boys full of life to comprehend. It had been difficult for me to comprehend when I first began to understand that all was not right with my son.

I was a first-time mom, but I remember thinking that it was odd that my son did not wiggle much. And his cry. It was so soft—not the squalling reverie that I was sure had been the cries of other babies I knew. Everyone assured me he was just a “good baby.” Sweet and passive. All new moms worry, right? So I forced myself to ignore those inner voices that told me that something was wrong.

At around three months Ryan developed a cold that seemed to settle in his lungs, and he emitted coughs so tiny that they sounded like the mew of a just-born kitten. Ryan had developed pneumonia, dangerous enough, but the reasons he developed the infection proved to be much more sobering. It took a few months, but we finally had a definitive answer. Ryan had a genetic neuromuscular disorder called Werdnig-Hoffman disease.

No one really knows what to do when they are handed such news. At that moment my own life became oddly frozen, as if choosing to stop for a latte or take a morning walk were frivolities that I should be denied when I knew my own baby would not a have a normal life, and a brief one at that. We were told to take our baby home and enjoy the time that we would have with him, and although difficult, we decided to take the doctor’s advice. Ryan would never reach any of the milestones outlined in the books I’d pored over during pregnancy, but he did have a beautiful spirit, a keen intellect, and a piercing interest in everything that took place around him. He smiled at the costumed trick-or-treaters on Halloween, watched with delight the balloons and festivities at a neighbor’s birthday party, and cooed quietly but ecstatically at the simple sight of a butterfly. His joy became my own.

Sometimes I had friends who would say they didn’t know how they could handle such a tragedy. Who does? I simply hung on and leaned on the support of friends, family, and the unexpected reserves of strength that were a gift from God. As I gradually came to terms with my son’s illness and the realization that I would have to accept a different future than the one I had planned, I made another decision. I made the decision to embrace good things, whether it be the joy of those limited days I would have with Ryan, or something infinitely smaller, be it a quiet jog on a perfect morning, or the sweet peas that were blooming in my garden.

Each person has her own process, her own timeline. For me, the knowledge that I was able to respond to such a blow and continue to live a full and joyful life was a defining moment. Ryan died when he was 14 months old. I now have two sons who will never replace him, but serve as reminders that even though I have lost I have also received. Ryan died shortly before Christmas and we bought the small living fir tree in his memory.

I handed each of my boys another ornament—one, a small frame that held a picture of Ryan, and the other, a tiny wooden crib with a smiling teddy bear. I watched them hang their ornaments carefully, and although they were still such young boys I could see the tenderness in their little hands as they placed them on a branch.

The tree continues to grow along with my boys, and decorating it each Christmas season is one of our most cherished family traditions. Zachary and Chase now stand taller than I do, and the tree points proudly to the heavens, too tall for us to reach its upper branches. It continues to serve as a precious reminder of a boy who is still held dearly in our hearts, and it is also a rising testament to our family’s lesson in growth and survival.

~Donna Brothers

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