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Grieving Mother Pens Book About Her Lost Son

Hartford Courant - 12/13/2019

Toddler Ryan Ramirez was suffering another earache. As very young children often do, he sought the comfort of his mother, snuggling up to her in bed. He had a 101 temperature.

She tried calming him, sang, and said, "I love you." With him seeking a sense of reassurance, he asked, "How big?"

"Big," she replied. "As big as can be."

He nudged the idea a bit more, “How much big is the sky?”

She replied, “I love you how much big is the sky,” wanting those child-like words to convey infinite love for the boy born on her birthday and to whom, along with an older sister, she was then a struggling single parent.

On Dec. 7, 2002, Ryan, then 19, died from injuries in a horrific car crash in Hebron. He was a passenger in a car driven by a drunk driver. His mother, Sherry Chapman, reeled from the loss, grief, and yearning for her son with whom life meshed and bound history and love.

She has charted that journey in recently released book, How Much Big Is the Sky that she independently published. It tells of Ryan’s birth, raising him into his late teens, then overnight losing him forever without warning, and finally coping with the tsunami of feelings that ebb and flow still.

The book is like a sentry’s armament, she said, noting that it’s meant to protect memories from being sucked into a black hole of death where he fades as time goes on. It is still her motherly protection at work, she acknowledged, helping to keep alive the narrative - if only for herself - that children should live longer than their parents.

"People die when memories die, but these are written words. When I die, there will still be these written words," said Chapman, who chose diary-style, real-time storytelling in episodic fashion, rather than self-help with testimonials and anecdotes.

She wants readers to feel her experiences.

It captures the coping with human loss that is often chaotic and sometimes confusing, yet accompanied by a determined quest to find a path forward through this time of gyrating feelings.

“It’s my experience - but it’s also about not letting him die in every way,” said Chapman, who co-founded a group for bereaving parents, family, and friends of teens killed in car crashes.

During a recent interview, she sat at table in downtown Hartford’s Barnes and Noble book store. She was there with a pile of books to autograph, but more importantly, to explain their purpose of retelling her story - as she’s done hundreds of times publicly through her group.

She said her own childhood in which she was raised to think with reason and evidence left her without having a faith-based approach to his loss. Her coping has focused on feelings, absence, reasons, and what someone does about it all in the here-and-now, she explained.

The group she formed and led as president brought that sense of purpose to her life for many years, she said. Called Mourning Parents Inc., or "!MPACT," it gathers together those confronting loss from car crashes so that they bond and advocate safety measures so that other teen deaths could be prevented.

The group has, like her book, an active here-and-now focus. That same desire led her in 2007 to accept an appointment to Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s Taskforce on Teen Safe Driving. In 2008, the panel recommended - which the state General Assembly endorsed and the governor signed into law - tougher restrictions on young drivers and increased training requirements.

Her world had become super-charged with a swirl of activities fulfilling a desire to “do something” about the meaningless death of son, she has said. While doing these activities, she was writing this diary account of both the past and the present about her intertwined life with him.

Writing and documenting were also part of her career involving legal administration matters. This job fit well into the studious, evidence-based and contained individual she had become. Her blond hair swishes from side-to-side as she laughs about the life she had led. She's soft-spoken, but sharply clear when accenting a point.

However, boiling underneath, she acknowledged, were volcanic feelings and a need to tell others about them in this spare-no-details book that lays out the tenderness of expecting lifelong motherhood only to have it ripped away.

"The book was something I had to complete in my lifetime because if I didn't, I would have let Ryan down," she said, with her usual long pause through which she pushes down the feelings.

She stared down at the bookstore’s table showing her book jacket.

It’s an illustration of a mother holding a young child, showing only their backs as they look to an empyrean twilight, with dotted stars in a pitch black and big sky above them. “A Memoir of a Mother’s Love and Unfathomable Loss” reads the subtitle by the drawing.

Inside the book, she tells about moment-by-moment events unfolding for a woman, her husband, her other child as they cope with the crash and it taking Ryan from them. She recalls wondering where fleeting compassion goes when the waiting minutes turn into hours.

Then finality comes, she writes, starting with a walk to an elevator, an exit to a room, and the sight of her lifeless son on a table.

“A part of me wants to lunge toward my son, gather him up in my arms,” she says in the book, “carry him from this room, and say, ‘That’s enough of this, we’re going home now.’ Instead I continue my hesitant walk to the head of the gurney, drawn by Ryan’s face. Oh, Ryan. His face is so terribly swollen.”

"The female nurse breaks the silence. You have to make arrangements with a funeral director," Chapman continues in the next entry, seeing the nightmare sharpen into clear focus that Ryan is no longer a patient there, but a deceased body to be removed.

Other parts take a reader through the wake, tortured nightmares, criminal proceedings against the driver of the car in which her son rode, some of her work in teen safe driving advocacy, holidays, the staunch support of her husband, Michael, who met Ryan as a young teenager and even a phone call by an military recruitment officer asking for Ryan.

The call comes six months after the crash and Chapman didn't know that her son had considered enlisting.

“Ryan’s not here. He’s dead, I add, recognizing how improper this is. But what else is there to say?” she writes in her account in the book.

Chapman said about the book, "I feared I never would complete it in my lifetime. It was just very, very difficult to write and there were so many things that interfered, including my years of volunteer work to save other children, other parents' children."

“So, I reluctantly let go of the activities that were interfering with the book,” she said. “Even that felt like it was a letting go of Ryan, so it was extremely difficult for me. Were I to do that - let go of him in those days where I contributed my time and energy and (because of it) failed to write the book - it would have felt like a loss that I couldn’t retrieve.”

But that didn't happen - because of a mother's enduring love and refusal to fully surrender to time's ever-present tug forward that also creates the past.

“Now that the book is done, it’s like perpetual evidence of my love for him,” she said.

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