Grief and Loss / Inspiration

Five Years Later: Remembering "One Mother’s Dream"


The night before my son died, I opened mail, standing in the kitchen. My boy sat at a round table, watching. Soup heated on the stove. I had worked all day, and needed to attend a class later that evening. He had stayed home from high school, sick with the flu. I opened a white envelope, and in it was an advance copy of Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul 2 containing a story I wrote, “One Mother’s Dream.” I said to Justin, “OH! Our story arrived!!!” A grin lit his face as he replied, “Let me see!” I looked at him, then asked, “Would you like me to read it out loud to you?” “Yes,” he said.

I opened the book, and began reading out loud. Occasionally I snuck a peek at him. His entire body emanated love.
I don’t have words to describe the experience–best I can find right now is as if compassion and grace pulsed between us, expanding floor to ceiling, wall to wall. When I finished, I looked at him and said, “Justin, I love you. I’m so glad you are my son.” He replied, “I  love you, Mom.”

Later, when I came home from my class, he was asleep. I looked into his bedroom, pausing. His sixteen year old boy body was buried in flannel sheets and a lumpy down comforter encased by a denim duvet cover I’d sewed for him years earlier.

The next day was a Tuesday. I had to go to my office in Denver, an hour away.

Justin asked to stay home from school, said he was sick. His head was warm. I dampened a washcloth, adding a few drops of lavender essential oil. I held my hands on his forehead, softly saying, “I’ll stay home honey.” He said, “No Mom, I’ll be okay. You go.”

I left barely in time to make an 11:30 lunch meeting. I’d put the telephone near him, already dialed his Dad’s office so all he had to do was press redial if he needed anything. I told him I wouldn’t call, in case he was asleep. I asked him to call me when he woke up.

By 2:30 when I hadn’t heard from Justin, and he wasn’t answering the telephone, an eerie, icy coldness gripped me. I couldn’t explain it–a slight panic grew in me. I called my husband, Jim, asking if he’d heard from Justin. He said, “no.” I asked him to go home and check on him. I insisted. He was at work too–but he was only twenty minutes away from home. I knew if he couldn’t, I would drive home from Denver to Fort Collins. “It’s really important, please,” I said. Jim promised he would. I hung up the phone, wrapped a few things up, and left the office to cross West 32nd Avenue to get a double espresso before a few more hours of meetings.

In the middle of the street, my cell phone rang. Answering quickly, I listened to my husband carefully speak five words: “Justin has taken his life.”

I stumbled toward the sidewalk, beginning to moan, “No, no, no.” I needed to stop time. Questions erupted in me: Why? How? What if…? If only…? Suddenly I stopped. A very deep part of me began to ask, What am I going to do with this?

I didn’t want this, wouldn’t choose it, but from a faraway place, I knew I would have a choice to make. Blessed shock began to flood my veins, numbing me to full comprehension of the nightmare beginning to unfold. My life had already borne witness to God’s transformative grace in difficult circumstances. I could only hope that this would be no exception.

Five years have passed. It is 2011. I now live in Alaska, with my two dogs. The anniversary is 24 January. But my body remembers a Tuesday. And then that Wednesday, and days following. Memories return more frequently now–from days and years prior to 2006. I smile and laugh often, even as grieving roars through me, taking me by surprise. I’m not sure how a forty-eight year old woman can cry and moan in agony, knees to gut. It is a wave I ride. It comes less often now, and resembles a shorebreak wave. Harsh and powerful. However, I’ve learned to stay with the current, the flow. I’m not afraid I will drown. I’m grateful for salty tears, and my son’s life.

I suspect that if he could, Justin would rock me now–like I did him when he was a boy. In truth, he often does–through dreams, signs, jokes, nature, my writing, and in conversations with people who share stories. Death is a part of life, and life is part of death. Perhaps life is a sacred circle, and the circumference is love. I’m grateful for God, for family, for friends, and for strangers. Most of all, I’m grateful for my son. I’d chose him again, again, and again.

This is a link to the story, “One Mother’s Dream.” It’s my story of becoming a foster adoptive mother, Justin’s mother.  It’s also Justin’s story of a forever family.

I love you my son. I’ll be okay. I know you can hear me, too.

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4 thoughts on “Five Years Later: Remembering "One Mother’s Dream"

  1. Good evening Mrs. Bernecker,

    As always in September as the date approaches the 27th, I begin to anticipate the day so that I can look into the sky and simply say “Happy Birthday!”

    Today I stumbled upon this page as I was thinking about your son. And at the same moment I opened the page, “You’ll Be In My Heart” by Phill Collins came on my Pandora station. And to this day I still associate the song with the service and Justin. And for some reason the coincidence gave me the urge to introduce myself. I am Kacey Rohloff and a class mate of Justin’s from Poudre. I am sure you have not heard of me before, but I had been friends with Brittany Ellis since elementary, and am best friends with Jackie Leonard, and I still talk to Eric Bernclau once in a while. I am rather more distant from the rest of Justin’s friends, having always been on the periphery. I read that you enjoyed the stories others share, so if you have a minute I will share my story of Justin.

    Starting high school I was the painfully shy and quiet girl in and outside of class. My first day of German I met Justin. For some reason this cute kid with blue eyes decided to notice me. And so I quickly became the subject of many attempts to get a smile, laugh or startled jump clean out of my seat from being poked. And I must admit your son was quite successful at this game, much to my irritation, embarrassment and pleasure. Justin was the first to begin breaking me out of my shell in high school, which was quite a feat I must say. We sat next to each other for the rest of the year in German and became good friends. I will be honest, after a few months of friendship I grew to like him beyond just friendship, though he was with Brittany. And I never interfered. By January I know that I had fallen for him, as much as a fifteen year old can understand of such things. But I was also very content with being friends as I value my friends as family, and love them just as fiercely. And no one could make me laugh so easily as Justin. We talked about fishing and riding and biking and had decided during an in class note writing session one Friday that we would hang out that weekend. He walked me to my next class and I remember he gave me such an unfathomable look just before turning away and I could only wisper “Good bye.” It took me years to work out some of the things I saw in his eyes that day.
    Turns out I became very busy with my sister’s birthday plans for the weekend and never called him (I did not have a cell phone at the time). I felt so terribly about making plans and blowing him off that I couldn’t wait to make it up to him. And after a couple of days of his absence I received the news early Wednesday morning. It then fell upon me to hold it together to break the news to many and look out for them as well. From 9th to 12th grade my class lost four students and never was there such absolute silence throughout the school as there was for Justin. I am sure you know just how important he was and to so many. His presence and absence was greatly felt at Poudre.

    I was heart broken and it was at the viewing, into a long and desperate prayer that I understood Justin had been received by the Lord and was in Heaven. And I remember the resulting joy at his new home bubbled fourth and my relief was great. Knowing that I could deal with his absence, as long as he was okay in the end. Justin has remained in my memory since. Having the experience of his friendship and loss prepared me for telling my best friend Laurie the following year that the best boyfriend she ever had and loved had passed away and helping and guiding her through that grief, and even preparing my own heart for losing her as well. I owe Justin beyond that as well. Remembering so far back on his memory has kept me from unwise decisions in relationships, knowing that I need that type of friendship to be a base in any serious relationship. Jackie and I very close still and we reminisce about Justin every once in a while. I am better for having known your son. And really I have come a long ways from that shy and quiet girl, and breaking out of that all began with our friendship.

    Thank you for loving Justin. I know he thought the world of his family. It makes me very glad that he is so loved. I hope you can add my story to the many you have heard and have yourself of your son’s life.

    Sincerely,
    Kacey

  2. Oh Kacey,
    You have blessed me this evening with writing. My heart is so full, and I know that Justin must have cared deeply for you. You clearly describe his amazingness. He was, is, so full of life. I know those deep soul looks, and the teasing and laughter. I remember when he came home from German class, and told me, “You can call me Dieter.” I said, “what?!” He explained you had German names in class–he liked his.
    I like to think of coincidence as synchronicity now. I smiled so fully when you said the song began to play–he often shows up in music to me. I’ve stopped disbelieving it, it is what it is, and I trust it now. The message is usually comforting, or fills me with laughter, or renewed purpose.
    Indeed, he has gifted you–definitely with the compassionate presence you have with others. More-so though, with your insight, “I need that type of friendship to be a base in any serious relationship.” This will be a lifetime gift, and a very wise insight, true for everyone.
    I thank you for sharing your story, and I cherish your words and memory. I hope our paths cross one day. I live in Alaska now, no longer in Fort Collins, yet ‘d love to meet you in person.
    May Justin’s mischievous spirit accompany you when you most need cheering, or a friend close to your heart. A favorite quote (paraphrased) from a young reader book he led me to on Valentine’s Day in 2006: “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you, don’t go back to sleep. Ask for what you want, don’t go back to sleep. The veil between two worlds is thin and people are going back and forth. Don’t go back to sleep.”
    Live your life fully, love deeply, and laugh often. The boy with amazing blue eyes loves you still. Thank you for caring for me.
    –Pegge

  3. PS: As I posted my reply to you, a song by Sarah McLachlan began to play: “I will remember you / will you remember me / don’t let life pass you by / weep not for the memories, weep not for the memories …” I am smiling. Thank you.

  4. I stumbled into this and though I have not seen you, Justin, or Jim for many years, I feel absolutely stricken with sadness reading this – several years later. I have two children of my own now and I cannot even imagine. Thank you for the positive impact you had on my life many many years ago, and I pray for you and your family.

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