Friends To Gather

A woman asked me two months after Parker died, (meaning just six weeks, maybe, after we had arrived for the first time in Germany), whether our simultaneous move from Paris to Munich as well as from wholeness to bereavement, was making our grief over the loss of our son “more complicated.”

“More complicated?” I asked, thinking she meant messy, (which grief always is), or complex, (which burying your child cannot but feel like), or far-reaching, (which it was since it surpassed anything and everything we had felt in our lives), or tragic, (which the loss of promising life in a violent twist of irony surely is and will always be.)

“Yes, complicated.” she said, “After all, you know, you had to leave Paris.”

I listened, head steady.  I didn’t understand what she meant.

“I mean, you are so sad,” she continued, “because. . .I’m thinking. . .because you miss the monuments, right? The cafés? Cobblestones?”

One of my eyebrows twitched.

“All the bridges, you know, and those romantic gardens. You miss Paris. Is that the problem?”

Was that the problem?

I didn’t respond intelligibly, I don’t think.  In my state of mind at the time I probably lacked the emotional distance and energy to walk this well-meaning but mistaken observer of grief through the difference between the loss of lifestyle and loss of life.  Between the passage of place and passage of life. Between moving or remodeling house and the type of demolition I tried to express in the poem, “House for Rent.” That my longing for my child was obliterating, suffocating, that it so sucked the oxygen out of the universe that I was having quite a time feeling much of anything but a protracted, cramping gasp.

That I had not mourned for an instant the loss of Paris the city.  Not her dead monuments. Nor her dead cobblestones. Nor her gloriously grand but dead façades.

That what I did miss, and painfully, were living faces.

I missed Renée and Lala and Ophélie and Claudine.  I missed Valérie and Anastasie and Mary and Anne and Marie-Anne.  Aaron, Chris, Craig, Cathy. Michel and Martine, Phillipe and Lauren, Annicke and Isabelle. Church family. School family. Work family. Neighborhood family.  What Paris had that Munich did not, was neither the historic Arc de Triomphe nor the Louvre, but people who had our history. I missed eyes behind which howled the acknowledgement that forever history would not be right, that it had been bombed straight through.

Eyes that knew.

You’re lucky if you aren’t left to search for understanding only in the eyes of strangers. During that first year, we were lucky. Family and friends made visits to us in Munich. With those visits, we had face-to-face contact with people who knew.  Every so often, in other words, we had community, a gorgeous word that says, literally: “Come. Come be one.”

A friend routed his business trips through Munich.  Another friend, herself in the throes of a cruel divorce, flew to us on two different occasions, bringing with her a powerfully sensitive spirit. Another soft soul came for a week and helped unpack dozens of Paris-to-Munich moving boxes I’d left untouched for many weeks — months — readying myself for a hoped-for (but never executed) move back to Paris, a move back to faces. My brother brought his daughter, my mother brought my father, my sister brought her violin. Parker’s own high school friends, even, brought each other.

With them they brought story after story of Parker.

“And then he just ran — like bounded, you know how he could just bound?” Christina lit up as she spoke, we three others nodding, half-smiling. “Yeah, he’s just bounding to me, like galloping right across the Place Victor Hugo, and he’s waving his arms in the air like this, yelling to me, then he grabs me, he’s panting like this, and tells me,” Christina coughs on a laugh tinged with tears, “he’d forgotten to hug me goodbye.”

She fell silent for a moment.  Megan and Sarah dropped their eyes.  I heard myself swallow.

“Just wanted to make sure he’d said bye to his best bud,” she added, trailing off.

Silence hovered between all four of us.  “Oh, man, I just love that guy.”

“Then you remember that championship volleyball game?” Megan said, “He had his drum — you know that little, uh, that small steel drum he called, what was it? He called it his ‘baby’.”

Christina and Sarah’s “yeahs” tumbled over each other.

“I bought it for him,” I said, “It was. . . so — too — cheap,” I closed my eyes. “I’m so sad —mad!—so sorry, I didn’t get him a really good —-”

“Hey, Mrs. Bradford, it was perfect. Don’t regret it,” Sarah’s eyes fired up.

“Uh-huh,” Christina pulled at a little strand in the carpet, “It was perfect for all those games. It was. You shouldn’t. . .”

Megan and Sarah looked at Christina, who brushed her bangs from her forehead.

Then Sarah reached out to two spots on the floor on either side of her legs and patted them, her palms flat. Patted them softly then louder, Parker-like, post-basketball-victory trill.  The rhythm filled a silence impossible to fill with words.

We talked — or were speechless — like that until 2:00 a.m.

What was this, all this story-telling? And all this silence?  Sitting in our pajamas, cross-legged in the near-dark, on the floor of that Munich hallway, Parker’s Mom and three of his best high school girl friends, all of us talking so eagerly and easily only about one thing. What was all this talking?

Was it brooding? Dwelling? Wallowing?

Or was it what it was? Storytelling.

Telling his story.

Telling history.

Telling history requires knowing and caring passionately about things, which, though visibly absent, undergird the present.  By telling history, we identify and give identity to all those things no longer seen, drawing them into this world of words and speaking, into the current of current events. Bringing them, if not literally back to life, at least into it.

But there are absences for which no language is fitting.  There is at times nothing more apt for great absence than resounding silence.  Resounding silence, however, is not retreating silence. It is not the silence of disengagement, fear, preoccupation or judgment. It is not driven by self-protection, but flows from the pure awe felt at an other’s pain. Resounding silence can be one of the most fluent languages of compassion.

Author Anna Qunidlen, observes the following about speaking or falling silent in the face of loss:

Maybe we do not speak of it because death will mark all of us, sooner or later. Or maybe it is unspoken because grief is only the first part of it. After a time it becomes something less sharp but larger, too, a more enduring thing we call loss.

Perhaps that is why this is the least explored passage: because it has no end. The world loves closure, loves a thing that can, as they say, be gotten through. This is why it comes as a great surprise to find that loss is forever, that two decades after the event there are those occasions when something in you cries out at the continual presence of absence. . . . I write my obituaries carefully and think about how little the facts suffice, not only to describe the dead but to tell what they will mean to the living all the rest of our lives. We are defined by whom we have lost.

—“Public & Private; Life After Death,” The New York Times

Resounding silence requires closeness. It is what happens when you get close enough to the bereaved to hear the echo in his chest as his heart thrashes helplessly in its mortal cage. Or as the bereaved beats his fists on his own bones. At such close range, you feel those blows vibrating in your chest, too.

Even Job’s friends, who eventually make a famous mess of things, begin, at least, with the right impulse:

And when [Job’s three friends] lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent everyone his mantle. And sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.

—Job 2:12,13

This resounding silence speaks wordlessly but wisely.  Its posture is open, like the drop-jawed gaping mouth of disbelief. Or its posture is bowed — prostrate, at times— in front of the blackening threat of oblivion we human beings all face if oblivion is, in the end, what death means to us.

When Jennifer and Olivier, friends from Paris, took the train down to visit us in Munich, there was a moment Randall and I will never forget. It rings and resounds in our memories as loudly as anything we have known in grief.  Jennifer walked across the threshold of our home, set down her bags on the wooden floor of our entryway, and before we could even turn to get her a drink from the kitchen, she froze midstride. Eyes suddenly wide, searching, glazed with tears, she said, “He is not here. I feel it. He is gone.”

With that, we all stood still.



What telling history means, I now understand, is not just talking for talking’s sake, “patching grief with proverbs”, as Shakespeare knows one should not because it kills community.  Nor is it charting methodically through some timeline in order to make a graph so as to pinpoint key events or scientific equations behind tragedy.  Grief is no time for sterile intellectuality because, when things are raw, it is the heart, not the brain, that says “Come be one.”

Telling history means summoning community —come, be one—and when one, one in word as one in silence.  It is the needful practice of narrating and listening, of gathering the debris of something broken and reordering it, blank spaces and all.

No doubt Toni Morrison says this all better than I. In Beloved, and in the words of Sixo who here is describing his friend and lover to Paul D, is a passage maybe you’ve already run across somewhere else.  It has long captured for me the essence of communing, of entering into one another’s hearts, or here, minds:

“She is a friend of my mind.  She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

Five years, nearly, of gathering and piecing lie behind us.  All along that broken and patched route have been friends willing to enter into the story, forming our community.  They’ve searched with us for pieces, picking up some here some there, fumbling with them, fingering the cutting edges. They have spoken carefully of the one who is absent, referencing and even reverencing him by name.  Together, sitting cross-legged in the hallway after midnight, we have held up a few fragments of what was, peering at them in the shared light, breathing in unison as one shard shines, heaving as we turn it around, feeling the shape, bearing the weight.

We have also clutched that weight in hands hanging bluntly at our sides as if we’ve just dropped our baggage. We have stood there, all of us, frozen and wordless in our entryway.


© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

6 thoughts on “Friends To Gather

  1. How could I not finally respond to “Friends to Gather”? It touched my soul as nothing I remember reading has ever done. Your ability to communicate is boundless — I feel somehow like I was present and included in each gathering and in your private and sacred feelings. Thank you, dearest of friends.

    • My sister, Geri — did you know that today, maybe at the very moment you were writing this comment, my Claire and I were talking about you? Here, on the flip side of the globe, we were sitting and talking of you, a woman of such richness and sensitivity that you can enclose two generations—Mom and daughter—with equal tenderness in your arms and heart. Yes, they are private (and sacred) feelings I have shared, and that carries certain risk, except that I know from having shared along the way, that this speaks to and for others. I’m grateful this has touched a heart as deep as yours.

  2. I’ve often wondered about that time– wondered how you managed to move from your support system to a community who’d never met your beautiful boy. Your words reassure me of the goodness of people everywhere.

    • Michelle, the support and understanding come sometimes from the most unlikely sources, the most surprising people. The stranger, at times, offered comfort and soft eyes, compassion. Yes, many friends were constant, tender and inspired — and we made more friends along the way — and that was like heaven. But it was a big surprise, too, to find pain, not comfort, from places and people we would have otherwise assumed we would. This I add just to help those in the fierce grip of early bereavement to not give up completely, to accept when the lifelong friend or family member disappears or adds additional grief, or if it is, for instance, very painful to not find relief in the logical places. An essay I wrote, entitled “Bridge to Elysium” addresses this, and it will be published in the next few weeks in a literary journal. I won’t forget to point readers to it as a resource for themselves or others reeling in deepest sorrow.
      Again, Michelle, thank you for being so thoughtful and coming here. I now you are acquainted with grief yourself.

  3. Maybe you should claim 7 languages—the 7th obviously being that universal one that no one wants to learn, yet is forced to …. fluently. Grief. Sorry you had to become its student.

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