The month of July is a bittersweet one for me. My dad's birthday, our family reunion, Paperboy's birthday, and Mike's birthday. A palatable sadness lingers on July 23rd. The Mandleys aren't as cheerful, we're withdrawn, tears often linger in our eyes….
As time stretches on without our beloved Michael Ryan, I've learned a few things. In no particular order:
Celebrate birthdays. You may not have another. This is an especially hard one for me to follow through on. Through a series of unfortunate events, by the time my 27th birthday rolled around, I came to loathe October 19th. I felt especially guilty in 2009 when my birthday rolled around two months after Mike's death. Why? Well, we never celebrated Mike's birthday. I was unemployed that summer, as was Mike, Meagan was still in Sault Ste. Marie wrapping up her internship, and our family reunion fell that same weekend. I had even bought a cake and took it to the cabin with me, thinking we could have it with dinner Thursday night or something. We never did eat the thing, not that Mike was overly fond of sweets to begin with, and instead I threw it out the following Monday just before I left to return to Royal Oak. It was his last birthday, and we never even celebrated.
This year, I've made a vow to do something, anything on my birthday. For Mike.
Keep letters, cards, ticket stubs, or anything else that may be important. The other night I was talking to my dad about a trip he, my grandfather, and my uncle are taking later this summer to Ishpeming. My dad told me my grandfather had a rather befuddled look on his face when my dad asked where they would be staying, and it occurred to my dad that my grandfather's intent was to drive the five hours from our cabin to Ishpeming, look around, maybe have a beer, and then go back to the cabin. A few days later, I happened to open a Bible and found three letters my grandmother, who passed away in 1989, had written to me. In one of the letters she wrote what I now know was a very sarcastic letter regarding a trip to Mobile, Alabama she and my grandfather had taken. I just sat there laughing (and joyfully crying) at the sarcasm and realized I need to make a copy of this letter for the three travelers before they embark on their trip.
When someone asks how they can help, tell them what they can do. So often we find ourselves listening to a friend talk about how overwhelmed they are with something and we ask how we can help, yet never are our offers considered. When Mike died, our wonderful neighbor Christy cornered me in the yard and asked what she could do to help. Her mom had already dropped off a huge deli platter with salads and breads and condiments, and here was Christy offering more. I shrugged and said we had things handled. She glared at me. "When's the last time your living room was vacuumed?" she asked. I gave a startled laugh. "Okay, okay. The house is fine, but we could use some coffee." "Wait here," she told me. So I did (you do NOT go against a Lawson woman, I'm telling you). She came out with not one but three bags of Godiva coffee. Morning coffee never tasted so good. She also snuck into the house a few times that week and did up our dishes and stuff. Why?
Because when someone asks how they can help, what they're not saying is "I love you and I want to take away this pain for you as much as I can."
Try and take as many pictures as possible (good, silly, casual, whatever) of moments you don't want to forget. I've unfortunately learned this the hard way. With the exception of my FB cover art, there is not a single picture of my brother and I together. I had thought we would take one at his wedding. I thought we'd perhaps take one at my wedding. But our family reunion was one of the last opportunities we had to take one, and we didn't.
Go ahead. Be emotional. My family has never had a problem with this. We talk. We laugh. We yell. We fight. We bicker. We're sarcastic. We make fun of each other (though there are certain things that are absolutely sacred and we know that). We try to inject as much humor as possible into every situation. For example, on Monday night I was talking with my dad and he started sniffling while he told me about going to the cemetery for Mike's birthday. So my dad is really starting to sniffle, a sure sign he's about to cry, and I asked, "So… how many people heard you?" You see, my dad sounds like a Wooki when he's crying. I'm not even joking. Ask my mom or Meagan. A full on, related to Chewbacca Wooki sound. You can't not hear it. And my dad started laughing when I asked this. And through his tears and laughter, he confessed: "Pretty much all of Genessee county." My dad's at that age where he really doesn't give a shit. His words, not mine. But accurate nevertheless.
Tell your friends what they mean to you. My friend Liz is not an emotional person. She hasn't given her own grandmother a hug in she doesn't know how long. It's just not her. But the night I called and told her about Mike dying, I ended the call with, "I just want you to know that I love you." And Liz said she loved me too. I about fell off the couch.
In truth, I never could have made it through that week without my friends. My first call was to Brande'. All I could say was, "I need you here now." And she packed a bag and jumped in the car and came down from Cadillac. She was literally in her car, though thankfully she had pulled over, when she called me back to ask why exactly I needed her. But there had been no hesitation after that initial call. She stayed by my side constantly during those first two days and was holding my hand when I left a rather incriminating voicemail on Dipshit's phone (thank God Dipshit wasn't murdered during that time. I would have been Suspect Number One and for good reason). She made sure I ate (chicken mcnuggets, as she knew they're one of my faves), helped us debone chicken, told stories about Mike with us, joked around about going home with my dad….
And Amanda was the one I ran to after Brande' left and there was no one to shelter me from all the people at our house. My dad and sister loved having everyone around, my mom was indifferent, and me? Well, after making funeral arrangements, straightening out Mike's uniform situation, calling Mike's friends to tell them the news, listening to everyone tell me how badly they felt for my parents and Meagan, trying to be strong for my parents and Meagan… I wanted nothing to do with people. So I jumped in my car and drove to Amanda's. I parked in the driveway and before I even made it threw the gate, Amanda was out the door and picking me up, literally, from her driveway while I bawled my eyes out.
And that's one of the most important life lessons ever. Friends are the ones who are in your perfect family. Because they make the choice to be there.