Friday, December 13, 2013

Why his Christmases are blue

My youngest son, Stephen, hates the song, "Blue Christmas."

I'm a big Elvis fan, so I love the song "Blue Christmas."

I sometimes sing it randomly at appropriate and inappropriate times, without ever paying attention to the lyrics.

Yesterday, when a friend shared this link of an amazing, 16-year-old Elvis impersonator singing the song, I couldn't help but share it, too.

"I can never get away from 'Blue Christmas,'" my boy said after it popped up on his Facebook page.

And then I have to remember why. It's more than just mindless words to him. He takes each sentence to heart.

My wife and I have grieved, recovered, but continue to grieve the loss of our oldest son, Devin, who was killed Aug. 7, 2011, by a driver answering her cell phone. We've slipped into the "new normal" and go on with life, with a hole in our hearts. I've cried and ranted and wrote a book to help heal my pain. I give distracted driving presentations so his death was not in vain.

And yet, through all of this, I sometimes forget my son and daughter -- Stephen and Ashlie -- lost a brother. It's not that I really forget. It's never far from our minds. We are painfully reminded of it every holiday, and it's never far from our minds the other days of the week, either. We have grieved and comforted each other together, and grieved privately in our own ways, but I can talk about losing my son, and go on with my life and grief, and not stop to think how painfully real this still is for my other kids.

Stephen hates that song I love because it reminds him of Devin.

"I'll have a Blue Christmas without you ... I'll be so blue, just thinkin' about you ... "

There is no "fair" in losing a child, or a sibling losing a brother. There is nothing good in that. Christmas was a time Devin and Stephen would spend countless hours playing mindless video games. This year, the day after Christmas, we will spend a week in the Dells with my older brother, who is coming for a visit with his family.

"I'll never have what you have," my son told me once.

That hurts my heart, and I am so sorry for not thinking of that more often.

It's not fair.

This will be the third Christmas Devin is not physically with us. The first year, I don't even think we finished decorating the tree, and maybe only turned the lights on once. Last year was better. Last summer was better yet. I felt, for the first time in a long time this summer, the joy of sunshine on my face. This Christmas will be two years, four months and 18 days since Devin was killed.

God, I miss him.

And I hate that my youngest son has to miss him, too.

And I have to remember that.

This Christmas I will celebrate the birth of Jesus, who I believe to be my Savior. And I am comforted Devin is in Heaven with him. I know Devin is in Heaven with him. I have seen so many signs, which have given me great comfort. I know I will see him again.

Like 5,000 other families this year alone who have lost loved ones to distracted driving, we will celebrate Christmas with smiles and tears and memories.

But God, I still miss him.

And I need to remember how much Stephen and everyone else misses him, too.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A kitten from Devin

            I hate cats.
            It’s nothing personal, mind you, it’s just that they’re … you know … cats.
            I was born a dog person. I’ll die a dog person. Never owned a cat, never wanted to own a cat.
            Devin liked cats.
            I do not like cats.
            And while an argument can be made for cats taking care of themselves, pooping in boxes that are easy to clean and being generally self-sufficient, they never seem particularly happy to see you, and could care less if someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night.
            Dogs are always happy to see you, except when they poop in the house. They are also great for scaring would-be burglars by looking ferocious and willing to bark loudly at anyone thinking of breaking in. In the case of our Wonder Dog Shadow, they also bark at the leaves falling, the wind blowing, the air and at all other times of the day, too, but that’s beside the point.

Shadow the Wonder Dog, keeping guard and taking a break from barking for a few moments.
            Cats could care less that you feed them and give them toys and safety. Dogs are easy to impress and will love you forever if you just say their name and call them, “Good Dog.”
            So there was no way we were ever going to get a cat.
            I hate cats.
            Devin tried changing my mind on a few occasions. He told me he had friends who had cats. He was particularly fond of one friend who owned a black and white cat. I told him don’t ever even think of bringing a cat into the house.
            Besides, there is no way our dogs, Sandy or Shadow, would ever stand having to share space with a cat.

Sandy and Shadow. Do they look like they would even tolerate a cat?
            No, we were never getting a cat.
            When we went to Petco that Saturday at this same time last year, it was only to return some stuff I bought for our aquarium that we did not need. I had no need to look at the Kindred Kitties who were set up to one side in hopes of adopting out some of their vermin kittens.
            It should be pointed out that Ruth hates cats, too. So why, pray tell, did she find a need to walk over to look at the kittens?
            Fine. Whatever. I just wanted to return the fish stuff and get my $65 back.
            “Gary, you have got to just take a look at this kitten! She is so cute!”
            I had a feeling I was going to be doing a lot more than looking at this kitten.
            “I can’t explain it. She’s so cute,” Ruth pleaded. “I know it’s weird, but it’s like Devin wants me to have this kitten because he liked cats.”
            Sure enough, it was a black and white kitten, and she looked to be about the runt of the litter.
            And she was kind of cute.
            I mean cute, if you liked cats. I don’t like cats. I hate cats. They show no affection and don’t jump and down and piddle on the floor over the excitement of seeing you come home from work every day. Dogs are easy. If you ever feel like they are losing interest, go outside and come back in five minutes later and they’ll treat you like you’ve been gone for years and they thought they lost you forever. That’s love. Cats? Cats don’t do that.
            I hate cats.
            I let it be known if I was forced to take home this cat, it was only under duress.
            She snuggled against my neck.
            Five minutes later, I figured the money I made back on the fish stuff would pay for the cat stuff – stuff I never would have thought I would ever have to buy. Debating the pros and cons of a litter box vs. an electronic litter box with a Petco salesperson was not my idea of how to spend a Saturday morning, and I’m not sure Sandy or Shadow would ever forgive me for even walking down the Cat Toy aisle. I was gonna have a lot of explaining to do when I got home, provided Sandy did not think “Cat” was human talk for “mid afternoon snack.”
            So we brought her home, and she looked like this.

            The kitten already had a regal attitude, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to name her Cleo, as in short for “Cleopatra.”
            As it turns out, Sandy was smitten. I know, crazy talk, right? Not only did she tolerate this new cat, she felt like she was her Mommy. Shadow thought he had a new friend to play with, but not too rough, lest Sandy step between them.
             Maybe Devin did want us to have this cat.
            A couple weeks later, we found ourselves at Devin’s gravestone, and his friend, Peach, had left a flower and a handwritten note that said, “Thanks for the cats. Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of them.”
            Had to send Peach a note and ask her what she meant.
            Turns out, the same weekend we took Cleo home, she and her friends finished their shift at the Ren Faire by hanging out and reflecting at the Black Swan. Devin ran the Black Swan. They stayed later than usual, and by the time they left work, they spotted two cats on the side of the road and adopted them, she told me. Peach said they never would have been on the road or saw those cats if they didn't stay late, talking about Devin.
             Wow. "Was one of them black and white by any chance?" I asked.
             Yes, Peach said. One was orange, and the other was black and white. They named the black and white one, "Devin." 
            Peach said she felt like Devin was giving them the cats to take care of.

That's Devin's friend, Peach, from the Ren Faire.
            I looked at Cleo. She looked at me – sort of. She is a cat, after all.
            “Are you from Devin?” I asked.
            She crawled onto my chest. She purred and fell asleep.
            We’ve had her for a year now. Sandy and Shadow love her. Sandy still thinks she's the Mommy. Shadow likes to chase her around and get stoned on her catnip when he thinks no one is looking. She’s made herself at home, and mostly likes to curl up in front of a book when someone is trying to read, or walks across the computer keyboard at the most inopportune time. And don’t get me started on the jumping on the bed to look out the window at 4 a.m. She’s a cat. She doesn’t care.
            But she is kind of cute.
            I hate cats.
            But maybe not this one.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Having a drink with Devin

It may have been the most dangerous thing I ever did in a long time -- or at least a little stupid -- but can't help but think Devin put me up to it. Since I'm still alive to write the tale, guess it doesn't matter, danger or stupidity aside. And I may have made a new friend in the process, all the while just stopping to say "Hello" to my son at St. James Cemetery.

It's been 22 months since Devin was hit and killed by a driver on a cell phone. I talk to him often in my car, but really felt the urge to visit his grave today. Sometimes I just get a sense to do it. Great Cemetery People -- whoever they are -- left us a nasty note a month or so ago, and said we couldn't have any toys by the grave, so we moved the white angel that decorated the back. The party pooper patrol in charge of such edicts took the other knick-knacks Devin's friends had left as tokens of their visit.

Couldn't help but think the grave looked way too lonely and naked.

"I don't care what they say, Devin, I'm bringing the angel back," I said out loud as I parked the car and sat down next to his gravestone.

Certainly been a few birds visiting since last time I was here. Great. They take the toys but leave the bird crap.

Something different about talking at Devin's grave than when I'm just in my car. Talked about my job, and the things I missed about Devin. Talked about the time we had that  beer on the porch stoop after a tornado blew through Kenosha a few years ago. Talked about maybe wanting to move, or maybe not.

"Maybe you could show me a sign and let me know if that's OK."

After talking about a bunch of things -- my mind and mouth jumped from one topic to the next -- I figured I couldn't leave his stone looking like that. I had a pair of old shorts in the trunk of my car, and the cemetery hose was close by. I gave it a power wash, cleaned it up, took a step back and said out loud, "There. That looks better."

I already saw the guy out of the corner of my eye as I put down the hose. We nodded to each other as guys tend to do.

"You know him?" he asked while pointing to the grave. I could smell the Korbel brandy he later pulled out of his pocket.

"Yeah," I said. "That's my son."

Wow. Twenty-two months and just saying it made my voice crack. Still. Had to fight back a few tears.

He blinked in confusion and focused his vision on me and the grave.

"What?" he said.

"Yeah," I replied. "My son. He was 21. Killed by a driver on a cell phone. She carried him on the hood of her car for 800 feet before he fell off, and she kept driving for three-quarters of a mile. Didn't call 911 for about 12 minutes. She only got a $100 ticket."

"How much time?" he asked.


"Wait ... no jail time?"

"No. That's it."

I could tell it took his alcohol-clouded mind a bit to register it all. He took off his ball cap and pushed his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, then reached out and embraced me in one of those half man-hugs.

His name was Mark, he said. Told me he lost his Mom when he was 15, and his Dad when he was 37, but he thinks about them every day. He pointed where his family was at and told me he walks through here often to visit.

"Sometimes," he said, "I see them."

I told him the story of my dream that night in October 2011 -- two months after Devin died -- when I saw him running down 80th Street, I yelled his name and he said, "You can see me!"

"That happens to me all the time," Mark said. "That's why I drink."

He pulled out that pint of Korbel and raised his eyebrow.

"Next time you have a drink, have one for Devin," I told him.

He took a swig and handed me the bottle. I took a sip, too. It was warm and it was sweet and it had a kick and it felt just right.

"I'm no angel," Mark told me. "I got in some trouble, but I'm not a bad guy. I was a fighter, but not anymore. Now, I just like to drink, cause I always see them."

"Devin could be a bit of a hell raiser," I laughed. "I think it's OK."

"Oh but he's a saint now!" Mark said. "I'm telling you. He's here. He sees all of this."

I asked if he needed a ride. So much for all those ghost stories about picking up hitchhikers on the side of the road.

He  turned me down. "Naw, I live around the corner."

We talked some more as I watched Devin's stone dry and we started to bid our goodbyes.

"You know what? I will take that ride. You don't have any guns or tasers, do you?" he asked.

"No," I said, wondering if I should ask the same.

He got in the front seat of my black, Ford Focus.

"Put on your seat belt, I don't wanna kill ya'," I said.

We drove through the cemetery.

"Slow down!" he yelled.

I was only going about 8 miles an hour.

"You gotta go even slower," he said. "They're walking back and forth here across the street. I'm telling you, I see them. Don't know if I've ever seen Devin."

"Tall kid," I said. "Brown hair."

"I've seen a few of those," Mark said. "Maybe I have. I'll look out for him."

He really did only live around the corner. My flirtation with danger ended rather quietly, as he opened the car door and said hello to a neighbor lady. Told her he was at the cemetery, then looked at me and said, "She knows. She sees them, too."

And she did smile at me with a knowing kind of smile.

Devin -- always the one to think I was too straight-laced, who always accused me of not caring enough, had to be loving this. He had to set this up.

Mark paused as he got out of the car.

"Hey," he said. "You mind if I come by and have a drink with your son another time?"

"Not at all," I said. "Anytime."

"I appreciate that," he replied.

So do I, Mark. So do I.