I sorted through a basket filled with Lego’s, which all had “Justin” written on them, to find the one that spoke to me. The one I picked was a grey Lego, with his name written in blue ink, followed by a blue heart. The blue ink matched Justin’s beautiful eyes, and the heart, well, it matched my own. I couldn’t believe that I was here to say goodbye to one of my son’s best buddies.
I noticed that Ben immediately stiffened. I think it hit him when we walked in to the church that his friend was truly gone. Now, being a pre-teen, I have no insight to what his emotions really are, but I have no doubt that he was hurting. I think it was all avoidance until the reality of Justin’s service came calling. I have asked him as delicately as possible if this makes him question his own medical journey – which he astutely states that he can’t be compared to any other neuroblastoma case – but how can you not think about that? If even just a little? Regardless, stoic has been a very good descriptor of my Benjamin, until today.
The church was packed. So many family, friends, and fans there to say goodbye to our Ninja Warrior. Ben didn’t want to take part in walking past Justin’s casket but Madeline did. It was the same at my mother’s funeral. Madeline needed the closure on some level but Ben was not comforted by seeing the body laying in state, so he chose to sit on his own and process it without viewing my mother’s body. It was the same today. As Madeline and I passed by Justin’s casket, I reached in and touched him one last time, feeling the cold stiffness that had so offensively taken the warmth away from our friend. Being an adult I felt completely childish in mentally repeating the mantra: “He’s not here, he’s not here, he’s not here, he’s in Heaven” in an attempt to soothe myself from what was before me. I maintained my “mommy mode” and hugged Madeline as we walked past our friend to the finish line of getting to hug Justin’s mommy and daddy.
Lori enveloped both of us at once. Madeline and I were shaking with sobs. Lori said “Yeah, that’s how I feel, too.” How she remained standing was beyond me, as my knees were shaking and threatening to give out. I picked up her hand to kiss it, and noticed that she still had on her hospital bracelet. The one that stated she was Justin’s mommy. His protector. The one who made decisions. The boss. When you enter the hospital with your child, you get one of these unfashionable bracelets. The kiddo gets a white one and the parent gets one that is orange and says “GUARDIAN.” It connects you to your child. And the tug at my heartstrings told me that I would do the very same. I would want every last piece of evidence that connected me to my child.
YOU’RE TAKING HIM AWAY FROM ME! I’M HIS MOMMY! I WANT TO CRAWL IN AND CUDDLE HIM SOME MORE!! I’M NOT READY!!!!
Please. Don’t take my son. But she was left with the cold fact that he was gone. So, the bracelet stood as a simple, yet powerful, reminder that her role would never change. She is and always will be Justin’s mommy, no matter the circumstances. I hope she wears that bracelet until it rots off. I know I would.
When we got to Justin’s daddy, I failed again at having any words to say. The sobs were still happening as he hugged me tight. “Justin’s job is to look after Ben now,” he whispered to me as my sobs grew stronger. Darn it. I was failing at this comforting gig big time. I shook my head with my eyes closed tight so I wouldn’t have to see the pain in his eyes and I wouldn’t reveal the fear in mine. I grabbed Madeline’s hand and walked back to where Ben and Matt were sitting.
While we were waiting for the service to begin, I watched the slide show of Justin flashing on the enormous screen. It was fitting to see him on such a huge screen, because he was truly larger than life! He was such a happy child, full of energy, and honestly, no fear. He enjoyed every darn minute of what was given to him! And boy, was he a dancer! There were several videos of him dancing, namely to “Who Let the Dogs Out.” (Go ahead, sing the woof… woof, woof, woof, woof part!) As we were sitting there waiting, I watched the procession of mourners pass by. One dear friend, Terri, caught my eye and I couldn’t stop watching her. She was there with her husband and three children. As she stood in line, still quite far away from Justin, she looked toward the casket. Her eyebrows furrowed as she started to bite her lip. Then one of her sons turned around and she changed her facial expression to take care of reassuring him in whatever he needed. And as he turned back around, her eyes glanced back toward the casket. Almost as soon as she looked, her eyes shot to the ceiling as if to say, “This is too much.” And the look of pain that shouted “THIS IS NOT FAIR!” nearly sent me over the edge. Her heart was breaking. For Justin being gone. For her friend Lori’s unfathomable loss. For having to set aside her own fears and feelings to comfort her children. For the unfairness of it all. I can’t read minds, but if I had to guess, she wanted answers as to WHY. It’s not fair to put my thoughts into what she might have been thinking… maybe it was just me who wanted to know why. But watching her emotions range from “It’s okay” in an effort to calm her son to “WHY?” hit the nail on the head for me. My mind was running the whole gamut.
Which led me to look down at my own son, quietly sobbing, eyes toward the ceiling in hopes that looking up would make the tears stop. I reached over to smooth his beautifully soft hair and dry his eyes. Then, that crazy kid, he said “I wish I could do something to make this all better. For you. For everyone.” And as the service ended and Madeline was crying her pretty eyes out, Ben moved close to her to hold her hand. He laid his head on her shoulder and comforted her as best as he could. Always the strong one, my Ben. Always my hero.
And before they carried Justin out of the sanctuary, Lori reached out to touch her son one last time. They had already closed the casket but it didn’t matter. She smoothed the surface of what held her son, knowing that that’s where his soft, beautiful head would be. I felt her heart saying “I’m still here, Justin. Mommy’s still here.” He knows you always will be, Lori. We all know you always will be.
I have to mention that the greatest moment of Justin’s service was where Lori invited us all to dance to “Who Let the Dogs Out.” Madeline and I shook our tail feather, but Ben just couldn’t. I’m worried about my kiddo. I know I have to let him grieve in his own way, but I cannot help but be truly concerned with where his head and heart are currently. I know it will require me to put aside my own feelings, fears, and worries, but whatever I have to do, that will be my quest. I so desperately want him to be okay. To get to be a normal boy. Just like Justin always wanted to be.
As we were leaving, Ben went up to Lori to give her a hug. Lori got down on one knee to speak to Ben directly. She held him by the shoulders and with heartfelt love, she told Ben that he was Justin’s hero. Ben folded into her arms as they both cried. Just when I thought I was out of tears, they came flooding back. I hope that Ben can always be an extension of her Justin in some way. I want us to be a good memory for her – although my juvenile mind sometimes wonders if that’s possible. I love her. I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want our continuation of this cancer battle to hurt her. I don’t want to remind her of the pain. I want to remind her that we LOVED that boy of hers with our entire heart and always will. And that her son paved the way for medical treatments that will hopefully save my Ben from the same fate. Honestly, this is so hard to put into words. The fear, the pain, the agony, the unknown… I just don’t know how to aptly express it without sounding like a total wacko. Too late, I guess.
Anyway, today was beautiful. Today was horrendously sad. Today was more than a goodbye to our Ninja. Today was a gathering of family and friends and Justin fans. We were all there for him but we were all there for each other, too. If we take nothing else from this, we must learn that TODAY IS PRECIOUS! Get out your Ninja gear and fight those important battles yet have enough silliness in your soul to “let the dogs out.”
We owe that to Justin.