Makeshift Wagon Trains

When you move internationally and often, you’re granted many unusual opportunities and significant blessings. I’ll admit that.

I’m afraid, though, that my most recent posts have been a bit of a Charm-Glam Gallery, parading the deep pile rug of ivy on the ancient stone wall, the personalized fireworks, the corner château.

You’re asking by now, doesn’t Switzerland have garbage cans? Couldn’t she have shot those?

(Honestly, I’m still looking for them. And believe me, junk is stacking up.)

Up to now, though, I’ve only hinted at some of the challenges and costs of this nomadic life: The uncertainties of school-or-no-school; house-or-no-house; chaotic moves; disastrous moves; language panic; that teetering load of stress everyone’s expected to shoulder with aplomb and without complaint.  And I’ve only hinted at them because, compared to the biggest cost, the one I want to share with you today, I think they’re all pretty darn wimpy.

Hardly worth mentioning. (Although I mention them anyway. For texture, I suppose.)

The one major cost of moving so often and so far every time is the cost I’ve been saving up just for this post.

I’ve been saving up, in fact, until this very day, the 21st, to write it.  This is maybe too self- revealing, but I will risk writing it because it must be said: Every 21st of every month since the 21st of July of 2007, is a day of extra reflection, a hunkering down day for our family.  And many who know us intimately hunker a bit, too.  In solidarity.

So here you have it: Today it’s been 5 years and 1 month since we turned off life support.  We circled a gurney in an Idaho I.C.U. and witnessed enormous promise, perfect health, loving humor, and a powerful heartbeat expire with one breath.

With that breath, the universe titled wildly on one side, and Meaning itself threatened to careen down that slope off the edge and into the bottomless pit of oblivion forever.

But it did not.

Why didn’t it? Why hasn’t it yet?

I’ll tell you.

It has something to do with a wagon train


The last month we lived in Paris, Parker was trying on his cap and gown for high school graduation and making arrangements to spend his summer enrolled at a Freshman Academy at university.  I was simultaneously packing up our life and sending it, crate by crate, to Munich.  It was to be our next home. We felt God’s hand in it, so I was optimistic though bracing myself for all that a Big Move and sending off our first to University requires.

And in a split second disaster struck.  There was a freak water accident and frantic phone calls. Local helicopters and transglobal corporate jets. A regional medical center in Idaho with, oddly, a French name, Port Neuf.  There were hours of holy and horrifying silence. There was a form slipped across a counter with its time-sensitive request for organ donations. There was the word “mortuary.”

And then there was a funeral.

“I think I see an element of grace in this,” a fine and loving woman had whispered that morning of Saturday, July 21st, as she and others watched our huddled family shuffle back into the I.C.U. room to take our final farewells from Parker before life support was to be turned off.

“This is all happening just as they leave Paris for a new life in Munich,” she had added. “No haunting reminders of Parker everywhere they turn, none of those painful memories that point to his absence.  They can start all over.”

My mom, always so on-the-money, was just that once innocently and completely off-the-mark.

As were we.

What we did not know then but have learned since, is that disaster calls for regrouping, rebuilding, and reorienting.  It calls for people — your people — and even a small handful of them will do.

You need people with eyes that look into, not merely at or past, you; eyes that see your present stillness not as aloofness or faithlessness or bitterness, but as what this peculiar stillness is:  shock, injury, gouged-out emptiness, a silent scream, openness, waiting, and a swelling understanding that gives way to profound reverence.

You need people who neither require small talk nor big talk — nor any kind of talk at all for that matter — to understand when you cannot talk at all or when you crave talking all night.

You need people who know and recite the old stories of who you were, who will help you make sense of the story that has ripped wide your life, people who will stay with you while you agonize over whatever story must fill the blank pages ahead.

And all of this hushed storytelling (or this speaking silence) you need to be able to share while you shed tears and take steps into the next, unbelievably empty hour, reorienting.

And this is where a wagon train rolls in.  I believe that one of the core reasons why more of my pioneer forbears who buried their loved ones along their brutal westbound route did not curl up in the sagebrush or snow, themselves debilitated by the heart-exploding pain of grief, is that they lived — and their loved ones died — in wagon trains.

Survivors carried with them a closely bound, unbroken mourning community, a ready-made bereavement group.  I do not doubt my pioneer ancestors were also helped on their march forward by real but unseen spirit beings, some whose own bodies lay freshly dead in shallow graves or frozen in the bed of a hand cart.

But what I also believe and appreciate now, is that in addition to that constant spiritual support, there was also mortal support: the inestimable power found in the eyes and voices of others in the wagon train. Those eyes had witnessed their friends’ losses, their voices still spoke their lost one’s name.  They were part of the shared stories.  They lived them.  In fact, they had helped write them.

Even if what they shared was only silent presence pulsing to the rhythm of a creaking wagon wheel, these brokenhearted and wretched souls shared their suffering with one another.  They knew, as Paul wrote, that “whether one member suffers, all the members suffer with it,” (1 Cor. 12:26). Each loss that was shared unified them in their sufferings because every single loss was known, felt, and mourned by the whole body of that wagon train.

Munich, through no fault of its own, was not our wagon train.  It was full of strangers who had not known us all those years when we were intact and innocent, buoyant and carefree, let alone two weeks earlier when we stood broken at the side of a grave of a beautiful boy named Parker. And this, you understand now, is the inestimable cost of moving over and over and over again: you forfeit your safety net. You trade off stability for mobility. You peel off from any potential wagon train. When the unthinkable hits, you desperately scour the horizon for the refuge found in being known.  And you find only strangers.

Strangers are not a wagon train.  And in their effort to no longer be strangers, ask questions.  Harmless people—mothers at the bus stop, shop owners behind cash registers, old couples walking dogs, jaunty mail deliverers, genteel neighbors — ask typically harmless questions.  But the harmless “Are these all your children?” or “Do anything special during your summer vacation?” were so hurtful they cut off blood flow to my head. They ripped off my emotional armor right there in broad daylight.

For all those who made up our new world I realize that we might have seemed anti-social, chronically jet-lagged, clinically depressed, or rip-roaring mad, particularly when we cried silently through church meetings or ran out of them altogether. But I grew tired of fielding chats about weather, and was weary of dodging casual questions that were worthy of only my most reverent response and the other person’s most reverent listening. Parker’s story was such precious matter for which the clunky tokens of everyday talk were worthless.  And all these new emotions were at once too colossal and too subtle for words, so I wasn’t about to flatten them in some generic packaging of common vocabulary to dole casually.

But you can only stay curled in on yourself inside your shell for so long before you morph into a snail: moving like a slug, dragging on the ground, formless, nearly inert, wearing the same slimy clothes day in, day out.

At a certain point, and nudged by God, I know and am grateful for this, I realized that by every method available in our highly-connected world, I could drum up a virtual, makeshift wagon train.

And so I did.

Today, that train consists of people who knew us and/or knew and  loved our son before July 2007.  But many who did not know him or us before recently.  They have learned to love us and him and speak openly of him in spite  of never having known him in life.  Among those who are linked in this train are magnificent families who have also buried a child, parents and siblings whose stories would knock your breath away as they have mine.

There are parents who have cared for and then buried chronically and terminally ill children. . .

There are widows and widowers who have pushed through pain and loneliness to raise their children well though singlehandedly. . .

. . .Survivors of cruel divorces who manage to embrace others and trust in love’s power to bring life out of desolation. And there are people who are struggling to carry the weight of their hidden and unspeakable burdens. . . And there are just loving human beings who, though not acquainted with tragedy themselves, face it in our faces and enter into it with courage and authenticity.

Every July for four years, this wagon train has gathered sometime very close to July 21st. There, as happened a month ago today, in the splendor of Utah’s Rocky Mountains, we draw ourselves first into a circle. . .

. . .Tell what loss (or whose legacy) brings us to the Parker Fairbourne Bradford Memorial hike. . .

Give firm hugs and fill our water bottles . . . And head up the trail.

For a few hours we talk. . .

Laugh deeply. . .

Tell stories. . .

Whisper questions, cry a little, stop shocked in our tracks. . .

Carry each other. . .

Sweat our share (and part of someone else’s share). . .

And eventually. . .

We all get to the top of the mountain.

Where, like the pioneer wagon trains did at the close of every stretch, we follow a tradition. . .

We sing.

(All photos courtesy of my talented and loving friend, Jonna Robison, the blonde beauty in the black tank top who is featured, appropriately, right in the middle of the “Laugh deeply” shot.)


© 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.

14 thoughts on “Makeshift Wagon Trains

  1. Thinking of our beloved Parker and remembering his playful, yet soulful personality and large, generous heart. So grateful that we’ve been climbing literal and figurative mountains together for over 2 decades now, friend and honored to be in your Wagon Train, always…..

    • Jacque, you’ve been an active witness to his life, both the first 18 year part everyone could see as well as the one five years since that can’t be seen, but that those who love him and continue to seek for him can feel. Your love has been healing.

  2. As an eight year old girl, Moné had a crush on Parker. He was her first crush and she still remembers him. Thank you for this post, our family has always been without a wagon train and your words have made me feel less isolated.

    • Janina, your sweet Moné, (who will always be eight in my mind) was one of not just a few admirers of Parker, (who will probably always be a teenager in your mind. . . and in the minds of everyone else). There might be blessings to being remembered only as a buff, carefree teen.:-) And I’m glad our lives crossed as they did at church in Paris, which proves that, actually, we’ve joined wagon trains, though as stragglers, everywhere we moved.

  3. Oh, Melissa! Your heart-wrenching, soul-wringing words touched me deeply this morning. As always, your loss makes me cry. For you. For your child–the one I met only as a precious baby. For Randge. For your other children, for Aaron, for your parents . . . For me. For the loss every parent fears–even with our belief system. I have marveled before and continue to do so about your graciousness surrounding Parker’s death and now his remembering. Thanks for sharing. Hope you know that, however far away I may be, it’s a privilege to be part of that wagon train. xoxoMonique

    • Monique, always compassionate and passionate! One of the compensatory gifts of such a loss is witnessing how good humans are and how quickly they’ll respond to another’s sorrow. I’ve been taught a bit about how to respond to tragedy by observing closely the many, many others whose losses are truly unthinkable, serial, violent, and unshareable, which means they can’t share their burden. And those who have lost but in an environment without love, they are the ones who have the most awesome challenge. To lose without love. That is true horror. In our case, there has been more love than we’d ever known existed. It is love (the very thing that makes loss hurt so much) that also makes it bearable. Thanks for your love!

  4. Dear Melissa,

    Oh, Melissa…..I have appreciated your letting me know your beautiful Parker. Hearing of his accident, passing and your pain always affects me very profoundly. I know there have been times when you thought YOU could not live through it all, but it seems to have increased you in ways nothing else would have. Thank you for your example and treasured friendship. Jack and I would like to be part of the wagon train next year, if possible.

    Our love goes across the miles to you all!

    • Geri, I am pretty sure you and Jack would outhike any and all of us up the mountain! Please do come next year if you can. Our family would be thankful. We all have so much to learn from being around you both. Always with love—M.

  5. Melissa,
    It is amazing to me how you seem to know exactly what to write about at exactly the right time. Thank you for sharing your journey through your loss of Parker. I too have felt the burden of answering questions from well meaning new acquaintances. “How many children do you have?” or “Where are your children living?” Torn between acknowledging the existence of my precious Katelyn and sparing others feelings. Thank you for making me part of your wagon train dear friend.

    • My dear Patsy,
      Knowing you and your Katelyn’s story sets parameters around my own loss, as limitless and unviverse-ecplipsing as it has felt to me at times. And those questions, oh they are landmines, aren’t they, but we learn to anticipate and tip-toe around them, mostly to protect that person we’re facing, as you have said. We know too well the abrupt shock and silence in the eyes when we tell the sad truth. And let’s face it, Katelyn’s story, well, it silences a whole stadium. Thank you, Patsy for being in our wagon train, and for graciously introducing us through film to Katelyn’s beauty and vitality. She is surely so grateful for caring parents like you and Bruce, and must be actively guiding you along. Always with tenderness. . . and always giving you permission to be sad. I am sad for you, too. M.

  6. I am honored to be part of your wagon trail…and grateful that following my Jocie’s loss…my circling wagon train includes you and your Parker. Beautifully expressed…you should write a book. Oh wait…you are and I can’t wait!

    • Lisa, that book is on its way, and has been for five years, now. It’s taken time to find the courage and get enough distance so that I can speak in a language beyond a howl. It’s ready. I’m ready. I’ll keep everyone posted 🙂

  7. Our family enjoyed so much being a part of your wagon train again last month, and sleeping in the covered wagon. We love meeting so many wonderful people who share our friendship with you. The myriad of ways you honor Parker\’s life and memory are very meaningful, and I know these experiences touch the lives of so many. Oh how we miss your clan! I\’ll be writing you soon, my friend. XO

    • Jonna,

      And thank you for letting me pinch your excellent photos. It was a highlight of the year to have you and the whole wonderful Rosbison family on the mountain. I miss our hikes, tropical and Rocky. Hugs all around. . .M.

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