Ten Years

Y’all. I can’t wait to tell you about my day.

But first, do you know what “brimming tears” are?  They aren’t sad or mad tears. They aren’t exactly just tears of joy either. They are the tears that happen when you are just completely full. There’s just so much…so much good, so much love, so much gratitude, so much in-this-moment-right-here…that the slightest extra thing, extra hug, extra smile, extra word makes you spill over in the form of tears. Brimming tears.

(They can also happen the other way… so defeated, so anxious, so exhausted, so hopeless that one more little thing – one more spilled cup, one more middle-of-the-night-wake-up, one more mean word… and you spill over that way too. But that’s not the kind I’m talking about today. No, not at all.)

Today I am the mother of a ten-year-old. For those ten years he has been in a tiny, cherry wood urn sitting in an heirloom cabinet in our living room. I can see it from this chair I sit in. It is surrounded by Willow Tree figures. For ten years I have been trying to figure out how to be a mom to my oldest child – simultaneously the easiest and most difficult of my children. He doesn’t talk back. He doesn’t have a perpetually messy room. He requires no laundry, no car pooling and no grocery store lists. But he’s also never reached for my hand. Never laughed so hard that I wondered if he would be able to catch his breath. He’s never snuggled, fresh from a bath, into my lap in order to get to stay up past bedtime. For ten years I’ve been trying to solve this dilemma – what does it look like to parent this oldest child of mine?

Just like parenting my living children, I’ve made some mistakes. But I’ve tried to learn from them…and from other brave moms before me who share these experiences. I’ve never stopped trying to figure it out, trying to get closer to what I think it could be…lots of trial and error about how to keep his memory alive and honor the ways he’s changed me and changed our family. I imagine it’s something I will do for the rest of my life – and I hope I never feel like it’s done. One of the things that does work for us is to spend his birthday inflicting kindness on as many people as we can manage… and today it was pretty splendid.

So here they are… the WWS Random Acts of Kindness to commemorate a decade:

WWS RAOK #1 The joy of flowers

Now that the boys are getting a little older, they throw their ideas into the RAOK bucket when February comes around. This is Whitman about to deliver flowers to the office at his school. He also took flowers to his teachers (and in his backpack when he came home this afternoon there was the cutest thank you note signed by the whole class…too much!)

I should also note that Whitman really wanted to give gift cards to, well, like to everyone. I’m not entirely sure he knows exactly what a gift card is, but he definitely wanted everyone to have one today. This tradition could get pretty expensive if we ever let him be in charge!

Meemos Bakery

Check out this adorable little bakery…serious cuteness in here. This was easily one of my favorites of the day.

Meemos sign
WWS RAOK#2 Cakes and Hugs

This sweet little bakery definitely saw some brimming tears today. And not just mine, either.

I had made arrangements (via email) to anonymously pay for someone’s birthday cake – and out of the three bakeries I contacted only one of them even answered me and then followed up again to let me know that an order had come in that might be what I was looking for. I was so grateful that someone took the time to help out with my little request.

To the lady at the counter: “Hi, I’ve been emailing with someone here about paying for a birthday cake?”

A head poked around the corner from the back, “Oh that’s me. Are you Jennifer?”

“Yes, yes I am.”

“I think I have to hug you.”

And people, she wasn’t joking around. You know how sometimes you get a hug and it’s nice – it’s just a simple, quick hug and it warms you up a bit? And then there’s what happens when people hold onto you for longer than that. And they talk to you while they are loving on you. As this woman who I had known for exactly 1.7 seconds was squeezing me she started saying, “I lost my husband recently and, oh, that was so, so hard. I just can’t imagine a child. This thing you are doing to honor his birthday, it’s just beautiful…beautiful.” (She was still hugging… and I could tell that her brimming tears had started.) We chatted for a minute – she asked about Wheeler and then the lady at the counter took a noticeable breath and headed to the back. My new best friend leaned in and said, “She lost a baby, too…this is probably hard.” I know I don’t have to tell you, but this is where you can cue my brimming tears if you are picturing this like a video in your head. I paid for a cake for a little boy who is celebrating his birthday this weekend – Ian, who likes all things construction related – and requested a picture of the cake when it was finished, if that wasn’t too much trouble. As I was signing the receipt the other woman came back to the counter and she was taking a good hard look at the card I was leaving – this side:

DSC_0030And then I knew why no other bakery had called me back. (You can cue another round of brimming tears for that moment when I got back into my car.)  I almost feel sorry for Ian’s parents…I mean, sure, they are in for a nice little surprise when they pick up his cake on Saturday and don’t have to pay for it…but, seriously, I hope somehow they get one of those hugs. I hope they get at least one dose of brimming tears. If not, they won’t get nearly the joy at Meemo’s that I had today.  Bakery RAOK Update

WWS RAOK #3 Notes to Soldiers

These are some of the cards the  boys made to send to soldiers who are serving overseas. Thanks to the most awesome nanny in the world, this little project took place on a day when I was working until 9:30pm…and it was lovely to come home to a table full of these cards. We used A Million Thanks as our resource to send the cards out today as RAOK #3. Most of the cards just said “Thank you” or “Thanks for your service” but one, there was just one that had a little something extra (that I hope my brother gets to see…)


Can you see that? “Thank you for everything you do for us.” And then the tiniest little stick guy under our flag pointing what looks like a gun at another little stick guy who is in “som other contry.” Poor little guy in some other country…can you feel patriotic when you don’t even know where you are from?!

boys at post office
WWS RAOK #4 Care Package to Seattle

(Apologies for some of these photos which were taken with my phone. Let me tell you a little story about my phone. It’s an iPhone, technically. I believe they actually refer to it as an iPhonasaurus. A few weeks ago I was at the end of a session with a client and I grabbed my phone to look at the calendar to schedule his next appointment and he said, “Geez doc, that thing still work? Does it even HAVE a calendar on it?” “No,” I said, “Actually it’s not a calendar, it’s a sundial. But it works just fine. How’s next Wednesday at two clicks past the third quadrant?”  Yes, he’s at least a decade younger than I. And yes, many, many clients can not resist the urge to call me “Doc”… not because they think I am one, but because of my last name. OK… so there you go. My phone is old. The camera sucks. Let’s move on.)

Shortly after Christmas one of my favorite souls on this planet posted on Facebook about how the homeless shelter at which she works had not gotten nearly the stuff they needed during the holidays. And that was a particularly bad thing since the holidays are when people tend to do that kind of thing. So I pledged to her that when Wheeler’s birthday came around, we would send a package of whatever she needed most at that time…which is what the boys are helping me do at the post office in that Jurassic photo above. Maybe now a shelter full of men in Seattle can stop sharing nail clippers. Ew.

My little helpers as we loaded up stuff for all of our stops.

Time to head to the park for RAOK #s 5 and 6. The weather was so gorgeous today, so these two were just plain fun.

WWS RAOK #5 Happy Dogs

A bin full of dog toys and frisbees at the dog park. Whitman really, really wanted to go around and hand out each of the toys to the dogs and owners that were there. He absolutely couldn’t understand why I was content to just set them out on a bench and leave them.


But, as you can see, he’s really shy like that. (And no, in spite of the last few photos, Linc was not in a bad mood…he’s in an anti-camera phase at the moment, so his cooperation can not be counted on.)


We moved on to the playground. I sure hope that little cutey on the rock wall got to enjoy some of the bubbles we left behind.

WWS RAOK #6 Bubble Time

The next Act of Kindness would test us all. Our will power, that is.

WWS RAOK #7 More Happy Animals

Here’s Whit reluctantly dropping off the toys and treats for the dogs at the Animal Defense League. Reluctantly because, again, he didn’t understand why he couldn’t just take them into the facility with us and hand them out to each and every dog there. Which I totally get.

We went in and walked around and loved on the animals and, miraculously, we have just as many animals as we had when we got there. (whew!)

Professional Nappers

Next we headed home for a little break, two more RAOKs and to wait until later so Ron could join us for the last few of the day.

WWS RAOK #8: The boys helped me pick out a child to sponsor on the Compassion International website. We found a little boy who shares Wheeler’s birthday whose name is Angel and lives in Nicaragua. This is part of my on-going effort to raise children who have as broad of a perspective as possible. I mean, let’s face it, if you are born a white male in the USA, you’ve pretty much won the global lottery. I wish, wish, wish for children who learn to be mindful of the larger picture, the planet as a whole…to think of their impact on it and to understand that other people, other humans just like ourselves, are out there living lives quite different than our own. I have hopes that by reaching out to a boy their age we will not only provide some basic necessities to him, but that they will also broaden their world view just a smidge. Baby steps.

WWS RAOK #9 Memorial Boxes

Long-time readers might remember this post about little boxes… and so this act will be a familiar one. In March our local chapter of MISS Foundation will be hosting a memorial box painting party and these supplies will be donated to that event, turned into works of art, make their way to a local hospital and eventually into the home of a family who finds themselves on this unwanted journey. These boxes will some day contain very precious and priceless cargo.

And finally…twelve hours after we started…we completed our TENTH RAOK:

WWS RAOK #10 Movie Night

What’s movie night without popcorn?? We attached a dozen packages of microwave popcorn to the RedBox in our neighborhood.  Fun, right? I hope so… it was a nice way to end a busy, bittersweet, splendid, generous day.

Throughout this day I lost count of the messages and texts and emails coming in from all over the place…my dear, dear friends by whom I am so blessed all sharing how they were remembering Wheeler in their own communities and in their own ways. In Dallas and Houston and Atlanta, Arizona and California there were people paying for Starbucks orders for those in line behind them, donations made to animal rescue organizations, formula and diapers given to a women’s shelter, extra large ice cream bought for an unsuspecting kid, cookies baked and delivered, library fines anonymously paid off, a teacher who recruited her whole class to join in and many others that kept trickling in over the course of the day. I felt giddy at the thought of all this kindness going out into the world with my little boy’s legacy attached to it…I felt über-connected to all of you. I will never be able to thank you enough.

A number of the messages wanted to know, “How are you?” And not like the usual “How’s it going?” but the much more sincere, “No, really, how are you…really?” It’s a question that I very much appreciate and here’s the answer:

I really am quite well. This is a day I have grown to love, love, love. Grown to love. I didn’t start there, for sure. These past few years I have marked the day completely out – no clients, not much work, no obligations – and it’s one of the few times I can do that with very little guilt. The time with the boys is precious – they ask such great questions and embrace the spirit of this endeavor in a way that surprises me and makes me brim (yet again!)

Here, at the decade mark, there is much, much less sadness. Of course I still wish he was here, in our family where he belongs. Of course I wonder things like how tall would he be by now? Would he play sports? Which brother would look more like him? What would his voice sound like? What would he dream of doing with his life? I wonder. But that’s not what parenting this kid looks like – I don’t get to know those things. And I’m making peace with that. Days like today help me do that. All day I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for how his existence has changed me and how much influence he has on our family…I could have burst with it. The impact he has had just wasn’t possible in any other way.

I give a talk at memorial services about the transformation that grief brings and in that speech there is bit of poetry from Gibran. He basically says that he who has not looked on sorrow will never truly look on joy. “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Wheeler’s brief visit on this planet carved out such a space in me I wasn’t always sure I could endure; but here, here at the ten-year place, I mostly feel astounded at my capacity for joy and gratitude and perspective. What greater gift could a son give a mother?

And that is how I really am. Brimming.

WWS sunset

So happy birthday my dear, sweet boy. There remains a hole in our family that is exactly your size…thank you so much for teaching us how to fill it with all the best parts of what we have to offer. You’ve made me a better mother than I could have been without you. I can’t wait to see what it’s like to learn to parent you for the next ten years.

Until then, all my love,

Mom ♥

For past years of Memorial RAOKs… go here and here

For more information on MISS Foundation go here for national and here for San Antonio.

9 thoughts on “Ten Years

  1. Selena

    Wow… Speaking of brimming tears, the first part of your post was enough to send me over the edge! Such a beautiful and heartbreaking description of what Wheeler has given your life and what you will always miss / not know. Happy Birthday! <3

  2. Mike

    On April 12th it will be ten years that my wife and I lost our first child 35 weeks into the pregnancy. Little did I know that you were grieving your loss at just that time. I’m sure we’ll have pink angel food cake again, but we’ll have to plan that day to spend with the four kids we we’ve been blessed with since. Thank you for the wonderful post, and the boxes you make. Our hospital had volunteer contributions too and our mementos are cherished very much.

    1. gatheraroundthetable

      Hi Mike – I’m so sorry for the grief that you also endure…thank you for sharing that. I hope April 12th is a day full of love and gentleness for you and your whole family. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment…it warms my heart. <3

  3. Kim Leible tagged me on Facebook while sharing your post about RAOK for your son. I loved it. As a mother who also has lost a child, I am inspired by your tradition and would like to share it. Would you mind if I talked a little about your annual ritual and posted a link to your blog from my blog? Thank you for giving me some wonderful ideas for the next anniversary!

    1. gatheraroundthetable

      Hi Teri – First and foremost, I’m so sorry that you understand any part of this journey…my deepest condolences to you. <3 I would be delighted for you to share this…and can't wait to hear what you do. (Feel free to post link here as well, I'd love to check it out!) Much love and light to you…J.

  4. Grover Garrett

    Wow, with tears in my eyes I write this to you. What a wonderful act of selflessness that you bring as well as your family, to honor a little man that is a very important part of your lives. I did talk to Joe and was a few days early in letting him know that I was thinking of his mom who passed away on the 23rd, Just a short 9 years ago; just two day after his birthday and two day before Christmas. I was fortunate enough to have met her only on the phone at Thanksgiving and remember the promise I made to her about her son, my husband. My promise mom will always be kept and not to worry. I will keep him safe and happy until the Lord takes us home! I believe that she knew to hang on until after his birthday in order for the loss to not be on the forefront memory of his birthday every year. I am blessed to know you and thank God for such a blessing of sharing that you, so beautifully shared with me and to others. You can add another act of kindness, for you, your family, are truly a blessing that has touched my heart in many ways. I now understand and know to honor those whom have left this earth and will remember them an so many different ways. Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I send you much love and blessings. Your friend and hairdresser, Grover

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