I’ve been writing this in my head for a few months now and every time I tell myself it is time to sit down and get it all out, I find an excuse not to. I don’t even know what it is exactly that I want to say. I’ve just felt this need to write about him.
Today marks ten years since Keeghan left us. Damn it…just typing those words has me in tears. It’s still that unreal to me…so unreal that seeing the words in black and white stab like a knife. Ten years and that is still the same.
In so many ways, it feels like just yesterday that we were on that wild cancer journey. For two and a half years, he fought - we all fought - that damn beast and as crazy as it sounds, I miss it. I miss the way we were The Fantastic Four. The hospital visits always included so much laughter, because no matter where we were, we found reasons to laugh.
I miss the sound of his laughter so much.
It took a while to find laughter again. I won’t lie…I remember very little about the first three years after Keeghan died. I remember so many good friends being there for us in DC. I remember moving to California and being so damn lonely.
We left DC nine months after his death. In the months between his death and that move to California, I spent a lot of time just hanging out in his room. It was where I went to write, to open his drawers and smell his clothes, like somehow that would bring a little bit of him back. I listened to the radio in there a lot and to this day, there are still songs that take me right back to that desk beside his bed, looking out the window on Chandler Drive.
We bought a three-bedroom house when we got to California. There was no need to have a “Keeghan’s Room” so we left his bed and mattress in the garage. That lasted about two months I think. One day while Mike was at work and Mackenzie was at school, after a flood of tears and hand-wringing, I said fuck it and brought it all in. I hauled it up the stairs and put that damn third bedroom together just like his room in DC was, right down to the DC United, Baltimore Ravens and Washington Nationals foam fingers hung on the wall. I wasn’t ready to not have his room yet. I’m sure Mike and Mackenzie both thought I’d lost it when they got home that day, but bless them for not ever saying it out loud.
Those two years in California were not fun. We tried, we really did, but we just didn’t get what we had hoped for…what we needed…from living there. Grief is such a bitch. We were all grieving the same loss, but we didn’t know how to be there for each other and it almost destroyed our marriage. I had no idea what it felt like for a man to lose his only son. He had no idea what it was like for me to lose my baby. We neither one knew what it was like to lose your only sibling. We were three people who loved each other beyond measure but just couldn’t help each other.
Luckily it all came to a head one day when Mike and I got into a fight that almost ended in him leaving. To this day, we cannot remember what that fight was about. I just remember screaming at the top of my lungs at him. In that moment, all of my pain and hatred and sadness and helplessness came out and got directed right at him. It took Mackenzie crying and begging him not to go when he had his keys in his hand to wake me up and make me realize I was about to lose him. From that moment forward, we’ve been solid. Stronger than we’ve ever been as a couple probably. But that day was the catalyst and afterward, I knew I had to get away from that place because I’d been in a fog ever since we got there and it needed to end.
So while moving to California was one of the worst choices we’ve ever made, moving to Japan in 2011 was the smartest. It took us half a world away from everyone and allowed the three of us to heal. The strength of our bond had to change because a major piece was missing. It didn’t mean Keeghan was no longer a part of us; it meant that instead of being part of the circle, he was now the piece in the middle that the three of us circle around.
Let me make something very clear here though…healing does not mean getting over it or letting it go. That shit pisses me off when people say it. A secretary from one of the squadrons Mike belonged to before Keeghan died said that to me once. “I didn’t realize you were still grieving I thought you’d be over that by now.” Grief never leaves and Death becomes a member of the family. The pain of Keeghan not being here has never left. We just know how to control it better and part of that controlling is knowing who and when and where we are free to grieve. It also means knowing which people are good for your soul and which are not and cutting those who are not out. That sounds harsh, but it is necessary.
My mind scatters when I get on this subject. In the past ten years we’ve dealt with so many people who have said some really horrible things to us. I know they had no idea they were hurting us, but knowing that doesn’t change anything. We were asked not to talk about death in our own home because it made them uncomfortable.
Hello, this is Death - he lives here!
I’ve been told that I make others uncomfortable. I’ve met new people and had them immediately quit talking to me and start avoiding me when they found out my son died.
Did they think cancer is contagious?
I saw what was supposed to be a grief therapist in those first couple of years. One session, as I told her about how lonely it was to have new people give you the cold shoulder as soon as they find out your child died, she suggested I not tell people about Keeghan. She said maybe I should tell people I only have one child and then once they had time to get to know me and like me, I could tell them then about my son who died.
I never went to see her again.
I do have a son. Not I did have one. I fucking DO have a son. For as long as I live and breathe, he will be here and real and he will always be my son and I will not deny his existence.
Don’t even get me started on survivor’s guilt. I’ve heard that phrase so many times and I’m here to tell you, it’s bullshit. It’s an indulgent way for people to make my loss be about them. I don’t feel guilty for living. I don’t even feel guilty for not being able to save him anymore. Moms are not all-powerful. I get that now.
So how are things different ten years later? I look different. Sometimes I let myself be stupid and wonder if he would even recognize me now. I have more tattoos and piercings. My hair is a different style and a different color…would he know me?
Stupid, i know but grief does that to you.
I know he would recognize me, just as I would know him. He was always mine. That sounds strange, but it’s the only way to describe it. When the four of us got out of the car anywhere, Mackenzie always grabbed Daddy’s hand and Keeghan held mine. It never had to be said; it was just a given. He was mine to hold, always.
That was another of those things that took a while to work through after he left. Even as a teenager, Mackenzie would always do her normal thing and reach for Daddy’s hand when we got out of the car. I didn’t have a hand to hold anymore. I remember walking behind them in the parking lot of a mall in Maryland and completely breaking down because I didn’t have anyone to hold my hand!
Only a person who has lost a child understands those everyday moments that just destroy you.
There have been times over the years where I have absolutely hated myself for the thoughts that I’d have. At my darkest moments, I hate other parents who haven’t lost a child. I hate the asshole children that I see and wonder why they couldn’t have been the one to die. I hate people who try to give me reasons for why he died…the people who throw their religion at me like their faith in some myth is the reason it happened to our family and not theirs.
I’d like to introduce them to the multitude of parents I’ve met on this cancer journey who shared their faith and still lost a child.
That is one thing that has not changed at all in the last decade. I was not religious before Keeghan was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t find religion while he fought for his life. I have not found a belief in any religion since. My son didn’t die because we are not Christians (or any other religion). He died because he had a disease that has no cure. It happens.
That is the one truth I have accepted, as much as I hate it. Shit. Fucking. Happens.
I don’t care what kind of life you live, if you pray, eat vegan, grow your own vegetables, live off the grid, or if you eat nothing but KFC, drink bad scotch and get high every day…you can still get cancer. Deal with it.
I sat down to write about how we are different ten years later and, as usual, went off on a tangent. I don’t get to sit down and write nearly enough these days, so this is what happens - I get a mad case of word diarrhea and can’t stop rambling.
So how am I different?
I have less of a filter. I am brutally honest. So much so that I piss a lot of people off and don’t really care. It isn’t that I want to hurt anyone. I just don’t have time to sugar coat or pussyfoot around things. I say what I feel and you can like it or not. Your choice.
I still love just as fiercely as I did then. I’m just less generous with that love.
I give very few second chances on anything.
I’m still very lonely, even when there are others around. I always feel different than everyone else. Even when I see myself in pictures with other smiling people, I see myself as the one who doesn’t belong.
Side story…right after Keeghan died, I went back to my monthly bunco group with ladies I had been playing with for months before he died. It was October…so not quite two months had gone by. Understandably, I think I was less “fun” than normal. I remember standing on the edge of everything. It was my first experience of that feeling of being different from everyone. About half way through the evening, one of the women came up to me and said, “If you don’t want to play with us anymore, Shannon, we’ll all understand.”
I don’t know if she meant it the way I took it, but I took it as, “Hey Shannon, you’re bringing us all down so why don’t you just quit coming, k?”
Whether it was meant the way I took it or not I’ll never know, but that was exactly how I took it and I walked out and cried all the way home. I also quit going to bunco. That has been my MO ever since then. If I don’t feel comfortable in a situation or around someone, I just avoid that situation or person. Life is easier that way.
But none of it brings him back or makes me forget. Nothing makes me forget the sound of his laugh, the way he’d roll his eyes at Daddy’s silly jokes, the way he loved hanging out with his sister. Nothing makes me forget the way I’d lean over him on the hospital bed and make him focus on blowing my hair out of my face to distract him every time they had to stick that huge damn needle in his chest to give him chemo. Nothing makes me forget the ambulance ride in the middle of the night with him seizing the entire way, but still saying my name, “Mama…Mama.”
Nothing makes me forget the slow way that cancer destroyed him. Nothing makes me forget what he looked like lying on the sofa, lifeless, while we waited for a funeral home to come take his body.
Nothing makes me forget how it soothed my soul to just hug him and know that right then, in that moment, he was still with me.
Ten years and it still hurts so much. I don’t think time can change that.
Then there are the good memories. The funny, sweet memories of Keeghan are what keep me sane sometimes. They usually come out of nowhere and bring a smile. Again, it took a few years to get to that point, where the good memories bring a smile and not debilitating tears. We al remember different things, which is beautiful because the things that Mike and Mackenzie remember remind me of time that I forgot.
Just last night, Mike reminded me of what a little zen dude Keeghan was. Before cancer became a part of our world, we lived in North Carolina and had a big trampoline in the backyard. There were times when Keeghan would just disappear and we’d find him on his back in the middle of the trampoline, staring up at the big pine tree overhead, just chilling out. He was always able to find an inner peace that the rest of us weren’t. He’d do it in a barber’s chair while getting a haircut too. It was hilarious! His eyes would glaze over and he’d just zen out.
After his cancer diagnosis, his zen place became the pool in the backyard. It was one of those small pools with the inflatable ring on top that you can buy at your local big box store. Mike remembers how he’d come home from work and put a bathing suit on and he and Keeghan would go out back to the pool and discuss his day. Keeghan would lay on his boogie board and float, looking up at Mike and asking him about his day. Their little big of nightly man time.
One of my sweetest memories of Keeghan was as a baby. He was only a few months old. We lived in Illinois and Mike was still in college, working nights as a phlebotomist at a local hospital. One evening, after getting Mackenzie put to bed, I was sitting on our bed holding Keeghan. He’d just fallen asleep and I was enjoying just holding him for a little while before putting him in his crib.
I leaned down and kissed his forehead and said, “I love you.” In his sleep, he smiled. It was so funny, so I tried it again. “I love you” - another smile. Mike was in the room getting ready to leave for work, so I told him to watch and said it again. Another smile. It was so funny! Finally Mike said, “Will you let that poor boy sleep!” I’ve never forgotten that though; even in his sleep he was the happiest baby.
Of course, he could have been faking sleep. That was a skill he mastered in the hospital. The doctors would come in to see him and he’d appear asleep, so they’d talk to us and then leave, saying they’d come back later when he was awake. Then, after they left, Keeghan would open his eyes and riddle us with questions about things they’d said. We learned very quickly to be careful about what was said in the room when Keeghan was “asleep.”
He was a funny little man. He once tried getting his grandmother to buy him a new bathing suit - or babing suit as he called them at the time - when I had already told her he didn’t need a new one because he had a bunch of them already. When she asked him if he was sure he needed a new one, because his mother had already said he had quite a few, he said, “I collect them.” If I remember correctly, she cackled with laughter and then bought him a new one.
So, so, SO many good memories. Ten years later it is still hard to believe…no, hard to accept that he is gone. How can the world still be turning without his huge personality and heart in it? I wish I could go back to his baby days when he couldn’t say “I love you” yet and instead said, “I sushoo.”
He was sweet and funny and kind. His life’s goal was to cure cancer. He was meant for such great things.
I miss him so much.
I sushoo, Bubby.