by Liz Johnston
Proudly, forever, Jordan's mom
How could I have known--
back when I called you my angel baby
and you’d look at me with love from those wide watery eyes;
How could I have known--
back when I called you my little bean
and you’d bounce and run with constant curiosity;
How could I have known--
back when I called you my beautiful boy
and you’d pull away as I sniffed your curls that smelled of sun;
How could I have known--
back when I called you my favorite man in the world
and held your soft hand while you slept, scared.
How could I have known--
that I’d need to bottle each of these sweet memories,
that one day they would be
all that I have of you,
my beloved son.
by Liz Johnston
by Liz Johnston
One year ago today I made a promise to Jordan. I told him I’d keep breathing without him here. To say that I miss him, or that it hurts, just sounds small and silly. Some days I actually struggle for air--my shallow breathing feels like the pain is alive and gnawing at what’s left of the heart inside my chest. But I have learned some new breathing techniques that help a little.
Other days while breathing quite nicely, unremarkably, a surprise reminder comes along delivering a sucker punch to the gut that knocks the wind right out of me. On those days I look at pictures of Jordan, talk to him, write, meditate, pray. Whatever keeps me breathing through the sneak attack.
And then there are the days I have no choice but to endure breathing through the horrid, wounded animal sounds of crying that belong to a grieving mother--the sounds and the woman both unrecognizable to myself. I usually rock myself through those moments, just feeling, until my breath returns.
How have I managed to keep breathing when the person I love more than air is no longer here? How? I have only one explanation. Love. Love is all. Love is everything. And Jordan’s love is so powerful, it can do anything. Including what I never thought possible--it has allowed me to live without him. That is extraordinary love!
Jordan’s love is far and wide; signs of it are everywhere. I don’t need others to believe in this, but Jordan shows me the number 38 at least a dozen times a day--often when I am sad or worried. Because I asked him to. You can chalk it up to coincidence, or the desperate need of a mother who misses her son. But I know otherwise. Those close to me are in on it as well; they experience the signs. Numbers, birds, sunsets, the sound of whistles, smells, elevator doors, songs, all signs of his big bright love.
Jordan’s love shines through all of the people he cared about. I see it all around me. His family near and far, his friends, the kids he coached, taught and loved, the colleagues he worked alongside. His love has worked its way into the lives of total strangers. Because of Jordan, people are getting healthy. They are forgiving easier. Loving more openly. Appreciating what matters. Doing what scares them. His love will have a ripple effect for all of the kids helped through Dominate the Day Foundation. His love is absolutely unending.
We are all infinitely better for having known Jordan. I am so grateful for these stories people share with me. What mother wouldn’t want to hear about the wonderful ways her son has impacted the lives of others? What mother wouldn’t want to hear about the lessons of love left behind by her child? I sure do. They make me so proud to call myself his mother.
Yes, Jordan’s life was way too short for us. But it was a beautiful, rich life worthy of celebration. A life I will celebrate today, tomorrow and everyday. With love. Because love is all. Love is everything. Love keeps me breathing.
by Liz Johnston
Last night, during a FaceTime phone call with my sweet young nephews in Ohio, one of them asked where Uncle Manny was. The other one started to ask for cousin Jordan. Realizing what just happened, he started to cry. I told him it was okay to ask about Jordan. Even though he isn't here. And that it's ok to cry because we all miss Jordan. It was such a raw, honest, sad moment. But I really appreciated him asking. It's hard to explain, but I'll take moments like this everyday over avoidance.
Since losing Jordan I have read many books on grief. As if somehow, reading enough pages, I might find the key to coping with this insidious pain. Nope. There's no key. No magic formula. You just endure. In one of those books, I think it was Joe Biden's, I read that the second year after losing a child is harder than the first. At the time I couldn't imagine anything worse than the pain of watching your child die, or the agonizing reality that your child doesn't get to live out his dreams.
But as time passes, and the support team you had behind you fades into the background, and people stop talking about that one person you love more than anyone in the world, and everyone close or distant gets back to life, and you realize that there's the potential to live another 50 years in this heartache, it becomes easier to understand how year two could hurt even more.
Having overdosed on grief books, I just finished reading "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F@*%#." According to its author, I am not unique. I am not special. I do not own the rights to this level of sadness. There are many of us out there. And I know a few of them. They too have lost children and they too manage to walk this earth with their hearts ripped out.
If you know any of them, reach out. Call. FaceTime. Ask how they're doing. See what they need. Talk about their children. Be patient with them. Try your best not to share your horror story comparisons of grief as an attempt at compassion. Just be there. Listen. Witness. Share time. There is little you can say to make them feel better, but avoidance is worse.
I realize that my use of the 3rd person in the paragraph above is about my inability to be direct. So I'll try here. I need you to know that although I smile, laugh, travel, work, write, exercise, and outwardly do all the other stuff of life, inside I am reeling. Every single day. It's a duality that's hard to describe. I have to work at surviving. Even during the most pleasant, fun, rewarding aspects of life, I am in pain. I can't teach a class, run with friends, play with my puppy or even read a book without thinking of Jordan. And I don't want to. He is part of me. Always.
Anyway, back to this book about giving a fuck--according to it, we are all responsible for what happens to us and for how we respond. That is not to say Jordan's death was my fault. Fault is in the past. Responsibility is the present. While I am asking for support, I am the one responsible for living my life as best I can. I alone can choose how to respond to this tragedy. I alone can choose to seek joy, even when I am in pain. Which is always. But even in pain, I can be powerful.
I question my own motives for writing this today. Perhaps it's guilt for being on vacation and being able to smile at the sunset or laugh with my husband. Perhaps it's going back to school that's looming....wanting my colleagues to understand what I endure every minute of every day instead of judging me for taking days off.
Perhaps it's the reality that my incoming students and all thereafter will never know Jordan, or just the passage of time in general. Perhaps it's the emptiness of the first football season without Jordan and all the accompanying pictures of other people's children that flood my timeline. Perhaps it's the anticipation of pain that the second year without him will inevitably bring.
I don't really know. Maybe it's all the above. Maybe I don't need a motive to write. It's just where I am in this moment. Thanks for sharing it with me (if you made it this far).
by Liz Johnston
Imagine if we knew ahead of time, exactly how and when we’d die. How would that change the way that we live? The choices we’d make? Imagine if we knew, at the moment our picture was being snapped, that that would eventually be the image our family would choose for our obituary, prayer card or funeral program. What would that feel like? Too morbid to ponder? Maybe.
But when left with the reality of your son’s life cut short at 24, you do a lot of such pondering. When did he actually get sick? What could I have done differently? Did he have a good life? Was I a good enough mother? Did I do anything to cause this? I suppose on one level, the answers don’t matter any more. I can’t go back. The only thing I know for sure, without a shred of doubt, is that Jordan always knew he was loved, is loved, and by so many people.
Since Jordan has left this earth, I have gotten 10 tattoos in his honor. I am averaging about 1 per month at this pace. Sorry mom, I know they bother you. Sorry hubby, I know you don’t care for them either. But as any tattoo artist can attest to, getting tattooed can be therapeutic for some people. It certainly does not change your situation or make your pain go away. But it feels good to physically and permanently honor what’s in your heart. And however twisted it may sound, sometimes I seek the physical pain of a tattoo needle to dull the pain in my chest.
Tattoos are healing in the sense that whatever it is you are trying to feel, convey, remember, honor, reclaim.... you wear it. Forever. For me, it’s an unwavering, undefinable, undying love for Jordan that I hold in my heart and wear on my sleeves (and chest and wrist). The beautiful name we gave him, his notoriously small and scratchy handwriting, his football numbers, his coaching whistle from Diege, the anchor he and his Rhody brothers wore on their uniforms, a football, his birthdate next to “No Ordinary Love,” the beautiful poem my brother wrote about Jordan’s many tattoos. And lastly, the small heart he colored and message he misspelled from a mother’s day card many years ago. They all capture a part of him, a moment in time, or something that is signature Jordan, but mostly, they are all pictures of a love I can’t describe in words.
I’m grateful I didn’t know, at the time he gave the card to me, that I’d eventually feel the need to wear that like a tattoo. I’m glad I didn’t know ahead of time that one day I’d desire the pain of the needle just to quell the pain in my heart. When I look at pictures of myself from the past, I note the blank canvas that is my skin, with a sigh, and wonder if I’d have so many tattoos if he were still here. Doesn’t matter; he’s not. When I look at pictures of him from the past, I wonder, with a shudder, if he was already sick, and if I’d only known......but then I have to stop. It’s too much. And it doesn’t matter now.
I can’t change the past. And I’m glad I can’t see the future. But my love for Jordan, well, that’s the past, the present, the future, all of eternity and probably even of past lives. There’s no beginning and no end to a love like that. Which is why I wear it like a tattoo.
There are so many gifts you can give a grieving parent: a story, a memory, a smile, a hug, a picture, all reminders of their love for the person they’ve lost.
Lately I have been showered with gifts. Last week I received an email from a high school teammate of Jordan’s. In it he shared a hilarious anecdote about Jordan daring him to grow a neck beard (sounds like my son). He also shared openly about how Jordan changed the way he’ll live his life. “When people ask….I will stick my chest out with pride as I tell them about my teammate Jordan Sebastian, what an honor it was…..we are all better for having Jordan in our lives for however short a time.” These words—this letter—like others—a precious gift.
Yesterday a colleague offered to share a folder of pictures she’d taken and saved of Jordan when he was a middle school student here. (It is also a gift to work at his alma mater where my colleagues knew and love him.) She asked with trepidation if I would like to have the pictures, probably for fear that she’d sadden me. But pictures of Jordan—especially those I haven’t seen—are nothing but a gift.
Last week I got a phone call from one of the Deans at Western Kentucky University where Jordan was doing his masters work in Sports Administration. After offering his condolences and conveying how highly regarded Jordan was by the entire faculty, he shared the news with me. Jordan is posthumously being awarded his master’s degree. The dean also asked if I would like to attend the celebration to accept Jordan’s diploma for him-- as his name will be read at graduation. Naturally, being a proud but grieving mom, I burst into tears, barely able to finish the conversation. I was so grateful, but I wondered, what’s the point of a posthumous degree anyway? He can’t use it. He can’t frame it. He can’t add it to his resume or hang it on his wall.
But I can. We all can. This too is a gift.
We can all take that diploma and frame it in our minds to bring into focus the struggle of others. We can all use that degree, adding it to our metaphoric resume of things that inspire us. We can all hang it on the walls of our heart to remind us to have hope in the darkest of times. Jordan scheduled new classes, worked on projects and papers, read countless textbooks and articles—even from the hospital, at a time when he was fighting for his life and feeling like shit. If that type of relentless dedication doesn’t deserve a master’s degree—then I have no idea what does.
Jordan’s degree is a symbol of passion, hard work, self-pride and hope. It is a gift I will cherish forever. I know Jordan is proud. As am I. We all are. That is the point of a posthumous degree.
Nothing in my life matters anymore. Jordan was my motivation for everything. I worked hard to provide for him; I lived better because he was watching; he motivated me to be my best self and I wanted the best world for him-- now now he’s gone.
On the other hand, everything matters— matters with urgency and matters exponentially more than before. Every second is precious, every experience to be cherished, and each opportunity golden. How is it possible to live in both of these realities?
I’m not sure. But I am.
I am angry that people have seemingly moved on. That they have the luxury to do so. That they are back to business as usual and that I am so alone is this sadness.
On the other hand, I am so grateful that the people I love are able to be happy. Changed forever, but happy. Why shouldn’t they be? Life does go on. People are resilient. Myself included. Only difference is—I will never move on.
Monday, I visited the cemetery on my way to work. I never go in the morning, but felt compelled to. I watched myself from the outside--as if in a dream state. I felt sorry for this mom, on that foggy morning. Leaving the only set of footprints in the snow before she knelt for a while. And I thought, for everyone who did not have to start their morning here, today is a good day.
Ironically, after my visit to Jordan’s grave, I too had a good day.
I’m not sure why. But I did.
by Liz Johnston
This is probably going to come off as harsh..after all, I am home, I am sick, cranky, irritable and chronically saddened....but do me a favor? Could you please STOP complaining about your kids growing up? Please?
Okay, on the one hand, I get it. Change is hard. When your kids grow up--they need you less. Which is a loss- of sorts. I’ve been there. I’ve lamented the passage of time, the loss of the baby phase, shed tears over the first day of kindergarten--the going off to college. I’ve complained. I’ve posted.
I regret that now. Not my feelings--because all feelings are valid. But I regret saying things like “please stop growing!” or “I want my baby back.” I regret it for every mom or dad who has a child stuck at one age for all of eternity. I regret it for every mom or dad that has to celebrate the birthdays of others (the celebration of aging) and can’t do that with their own.
I regret it for my son. Who’s life at every stage was precious. I regret it for us, his mom and dad who cannot watch him get passed 24. Ever.
You’ve heard the old adage “do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” Well I’d amend that. Love your child with all your might. Love every stage. Be grateful for time-- and its passage. Do not regret that your child is growing older. Be grateful your child is able to. The alternative is unspeakable.
by Liz Johnston
People frequently tell me--“you’re so strong”. They don’t see me on the days I am brought to my knees with pain--the days I can’t catch my breath from sobbing. They say “I don’t know how you get out of bed,” but there are days I struggle to do just that. They say “ I admire your love and grace,” but they are not there when I’m punching walls or furniture with fury. (My wrist is black and blue in fact.) I am not always strong; I am not super woman; I am not always gracious. But when I am asked how I endure, my answer is always the same: Love gives you courage. And I have a lot of courage.
When I was 24 and found out I was pregnant--I had dropped out of college; I was working in retail, (translation I was broke) and I was not married. I had no idea who I was or where I was headed, but the love I had for my unborn child gave me the courage to be a mom despite all the obstacles. And it changed me forever.
When Jordan was 24 and we found out he was sick--the world fell out from under my feet; I was terrified and pained to the core for him, for me, for the entire family. But the love I had for Jordan gave me the courage to care for him, to be by his side, to give him hope and keep myself together, despite my utterly broken heart. Again, I am changed forever.
And now there is the world without Jordan--the hardest place to be. I don’t know how much time I have here, but I do know that I am only able to endure it because of my love for him-- and because of his for me. It gives me the courage to do so.
I have the courage to breathe; I have the courage to get up everyday; I have the courage to teach middle school; I have the courage to start a foundation; I have the courage to celebrate the birthdays of other children when mine is gone; I have the courage to run for office; I have the courage to get healthy; I have the courage to laugh with friends; I have the courage to weep with grief. I even have the courage to be still.
I have the courage to live--all because of love. All because of Jordan.
by Liz Johnston
Today I am 50. Imagine my mother’s surprise when she realized there were 2 of us entering the world that day! While I am sad that my mother and twin sister Ingrid couldn’t be here to celebrate with me today--I am grateful for them and for all who were with me. My friends and family have held me up and encouraged me this past year. And for my birthday--I feel more loved than ever.
I need to say that birthdays and other holidays, while still joyous, are always a little sad without all of my entire family here in CT, and even harder for the past 10 years without my father. But now, without Jordan, they are unimaginably hard. We are all missing him. But I feel like I’ve been close-lined. It’s hard to imagine how I will possibly live without him. However, my purpose here on earth-- and my identity as his mother-- continues. So must my life.
Jordan is my everything. How could I celebrate my life without celebrating him? He brought meaning to my life. He brought pure and unconditional love to my life. I will never go through a holiday or birthday without mentioning Jordan. I will always honor his memory and share his story. Wherever I am, whoever I am with. Jordan wanted to have a big party for my 50th. So I am celebrating my life today for him. For my parents who gave me life and love. For all of my friends and family who love me. And for myself. How can I not celebrate this beautiful life God gave me? As sad as I am, I do cherish every day.
And as long as I am alive, Jordan’s memory will live on. Through my love for him, through my stories of him, through the foundation, through all of the kids we will help for years to come. So thank you to all who have rallied for us. Thank you to my tribe for taking me as I am. Thank you for supporting me now and in the future. You have helped me feel less alone and more inspired. And thank you to my loving husband for always having my back. No matter what. Even in the face of all my loss, I have been blessed in this life.
Our time on this earth is so tenuous, so uncertain. Which is why we must grab ahold of every day we are given. Let’s celebrate life today; let’s celebrate each other; let’s celebrate our love for Jordan. Let’s live 2018 with more love, more kindness, and more purpose. Let’s dominate this thing called LIFE!