"God's your Guardian, right at your side to protect you.
Shielding you from sunstroke, sheltering you from moonstroke.
God guards you from every evil, he guards your very life.
He guards you when you leave and when you return,
he guards you now, he guards you always."
Psalm 121:5-8 (The Message)
We've just finished a 3-day Ben birthday celebration, as my "baby" turned 9 on Sunday, June 24th. All things considered, it went well. We missed Mark, for sure, he loved a good party...he WAS the party, in fact. It's amazing how one person can grab the center of attention, and everyone gravitates to them...they are always in a good mood, always ready with a smile & positive reinforcement. That was Mark, for sure.
Knowing that, I was a bit apprehensive as his cousin Janet, and her husband, Robby travelled via car to visit for the day on Saturday the 23rd. They live in Seattle, so we haven't had the opportunity to see them in person since Mark died. I realize it will be hard for all of us. My boys are so excited to see them, and although there were some tears shed during the day, it was a memorable visit, filled with laughter and shared memories. That's what I love about family...you can not see someone for years, practically, and once you are in their presence, it's like you were never apart. The connection cannot be broken. You have a shared past, for better or for worse. You love the same people. You've either grown up connected to them, or aquired them through marriage. That was day 1 of the Ben-athon Birthday.
Day 2 was actually Ben Wallace's birthday. Memories flooded back to me, of course, as I faced another "first" without Mark. I remember Ben's entrance into the world, face-up (doctor called it "sunny side up"). Mark joked that Ben wanted to see where he was going, hence the turn of the head and body as he was born. He didn't sleep for over 24 hours, all the while taking in his new world, with those big soulful brown eyes. I can see Mark cradling him in his arms for the first time, just like it was yesterday. I am so thankful for all of the wonderful memories we have.
We had dinner with friends that evening, then prepared for a small sleepover (only 4 boys) on day 3. More friends offered their pool while I transported AJ to baseball practice. We returned with copious amounts of pizza and had an impromptu party by the pool. Cake and presents followed at our place.
I'll be honest. I was ready for the Ben-athon to end. He was getting a bit full of himself, and my house looked like a disaster zone. Plus we had to get AJ ready for his first All Star game last evening.
AJ and Mark were baseball soul mates. The love of the game coursed through Mark, and AJ was the heir apparent. From the time that kid was 3 months old, Mark would stuff him in beside him in the recliner, in front of our bigscreen tv. I remember vividly him not being able to hold his head up, as Mark propped him carefully beside him as the 2002 NCAA basketball tournament was on. Spring training was only a month later. We've travelled to Arlington numerous times to see the Rangers, Oklahoma City to see the AAA Rangers/AA Astros (and OKC Thunder). We took AJ to Baltimore at age 7 months to see the Orioles play. We've been at Busch in St. Louis, and Fenway in Boston. In other words, we're a baseball family.
So, as I dropped AJ off for batting practice, an hour before the game's start, and pulled away, it hurt. I glanced in the rearview mirror, fully expecting to see his daddy walking beside him, taking big strides, a grin a mile wide on his face as he gave encouraging advice and last minute instructions to his boy. Instead, I saw a tall, lanky 10 year old--resplendent in all white All Star gear--walking alone, pulling his bat bag behind him. It's not fair. Still, after 11 months, IT'S NOT FAIR!
I was the one talking to AJ before the game, telling him he was capable of doing whatever the coach asked. He was hesitant to go in and pitch. I told him he was Mark Howell's son, and that he had the skills. I also reminded him that he was not alone, that both God and Mark were walking right beside him. We prayed in the car before the game.
He was called in from 1st base to pitch, top of the first, with two outs, bases loaded, and the score 2-0. I prayed. Hard. He suddenly looked so fragile to me on that mound. He walked in a run. But no one else. He got the third out, and went on to pitch two more full innings. The kid's got potential. We ended up winning 15-3. The temps were a few degrees above 100.
Ben usually doesn't come along for games. He just doesn't care for the sport. But he made an exception last night, to support his big brother. As we readied for bed, I was suddenly worn out. Every night I lay with both boys in their respective beds, but last night I simply could not do it. I crawled under the covers, with a boy on each side. AJ headed off soon, but Ben hesitated. I told him that he was now 9, and that surely he could just, for this once, try to go to bed unassisted. All he needed to do was turn on the nightlight, turn off the dresser light, and crawl into bed.
He begrudgingly went. Soon thereafter, I heard crying. It started out small, but before I knew it, I heard loud, gutteral sobbing, and words. With ceiling fans running, I couldn't make them all out, but he was talking to his daddy. I did recognize "why did you have to leave me?". Staying in my bed while he was crying was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I felt like a terrible mother. But I also knew that this was, to my knowledge, the first time he's really let go, let his feelings spill out, since Mark died. It was something he needed to do.
After what seemed like an eternity in his room, he went to the bathroom, where he continued. Coming out after another 5 or so minutes, I called to him, and pulled him back into my bed. He was a snotty mess. I held him, and told him that tears were healing. And even though it felt bad while doing it, he would feel better afterwards. I also told him he could stay in my bed, but it would be the last night. He needs his space. I need mine. But I held that big boy, cradled in my arms, just like I've seen his daddy do thousands of times. And the crying soon became whimpers, and sleep came.
I think the culmination of the Ben-athon, and being at the ball park brought back a multitude of memories for us all, and Ben, who has not grieved openly much up to this point, reached his breaking point. As hard as it was to hear and see, it was necessary. In the midst of the mourning, I felt relief. Relieved that he was finally letting it out, where he can deal with the pain.
This morning, I ask him if he feels better after crying. "Oh yes, Mom, but it's still hard."
Yes, Ben, I know. It will continue to be hard. But it's still oh so sweet.