It has been said that grief feels a lot like fear.
And part of grief does, I’ll agree with that.
There is a part of grief that soaks through our dendrites with the same adrenalin cocktail that comes with acute panic, wild-eyed disorientation, and dry-mouthed dread.
Part of grief shows up like that. Yessir.
But it’s just a part. A teensy, peripheral, lite-weight part of grief.
At least grief as I’ve known it.
The rest –- and this is the predominant part, the part that goes deeper and lasts longer than you really want to know from me right here in a friendly little blogpost — is an Armageddon-like assault on the body, the mind, and the spirit. A head-first, G-force drilling to the center of the earth.
A joint-wrenching, marrow-draining, jaw-locking, capillary-bursting, limb-flailing catapult into regions of the soul you never knew existed and, once crawled through, ever thought you’d emerge from sane.
Let alone walking upright.
In other words, grief — the out-of-the-clear-blue-decimation kind of grief; the major-loss kind of grief; the grief that naturally follows the sudden and violent loss of your cherished child, for example — goes way, way, so very way beyond fear.
Where does that comparison — grief = fear — come from? Some observers might think the reason grief feels like fear is because they assume the bereaved harbor one specific fear: the fear of forgetting the deceased.
While I cannot speak for the entire human race, the fear of forgetting isn’t anywhere near the root of grief. I’m not even convinced that that specific fear exists at all. At least for me, the supposed inevitability of somehow forgetting my son Parker never figured and still does not figure into my grief.
True, I had no idea at the beginning what things would look like years down the road, (if, in fact, I would make it far enough to see that road). But from the moment of implosion when major grief smashed like a meteor through the crown of my head rearranging my vision and view of the universe forever and allowing me to see things in better-than-Blu-Ray-bazillion-pixel clarity — things as they really are — I knew in one blow and intuitively there was never forgetting.
And now, I’m here. A few years down the road. Five, to be exact.
And what do things look like? What does grief and its (supposed) “forgetting” and (certain) remembering look like from this vantage point?
You’re looking at it.
During that week in Provence, as close as we could get to the 21st (our family’s holy day), we all stood right on what for us is holy ground.
Make that, my men stood. I sat. On a rocky outcropping below the Pont du Gard’s eternal arches, I kept my horror harnessed just like my camera strap around my neck, my fear and grief channeled through a telephoto lens, making an effort, (as I know Randall was doing), to be lighthearted and playful with the boys.
Who wants to rein in this kind of explosive joy?
This primal, golden exuberance for sunshine, for flight?
For each other?
But now I realize that they were probably making an effort to be joyful, too, these sons of ours. They know, just as we do, of course, that these are the same stones from which Parker always jumped. And considering how often we came here, that’s a lot of jumping. A lot of his DNA rubbed deep into these minerals. A lot of our family’s collective memories are pressed with his presence. Right here.
The summer of his drowning (in some very small, obscure and unmarked irrigation canal in southern Idaho, by the way), he’d been right here first. A month to the day, actually, previous to the accident.
He’d drawn a crowd that afternoon at the Pont du Gard. He’d stood up on a rocky ledge next to his then eleven-year-old (and somewhat pensive) little brother Dalton. Both were wearing blue swim trunks. The French elementary school class on the lower tier of the bridge, there for a class outing, began chanting — screaming — at the top of their lungs, “Les Bleus! Les Bleus!!” (“The Blues! The Blues!!”), which is the nickname for the French national soccer team. They wanted the two boys in blue to be the first to jump.
Of course, Parker wanted to make it worth their chants.
He swiveled right to them, to all those little innocent children, and waving those big volleyball player arms up and up again in the air, got them screaming even louder, “Les Bleus!!”
He put his hand to his ear, like, “Can’t hear you!”
Then quietly and from behind, Dalton, the timid one back then, stepped forward and grabbed his big brother’s hand. They smiled, Parker whispered something down to Dalton, Dalton pursed his lips and nodded, and then the two erupted with, “Un!! Deux!!! Trois!!!!!!”
And to the cheering of the children, the two in blue sailed hand-in-hand into midair.
It’s all there as I peer through my lens amid shadows that are slinking down the stones of Pont du Gard. I know my light is fading. I only have a few minutes to capture these few minutes. Behind my camera, I slowly realize I’m humming “Bookends”, baby Parker’s favorite Simon and Garfunkel song.
(You think I’m making this up for dramatic effect. But I’m neither that strategic nor that good. Ask Glen and Anneli, who survived a round trip drive from Philly to D.C. crammed into a subcompact with Randall, Melissa, and 18-month-old Parker. Like a cracked record, our toddler asked — barked — from his car seat, “Time It Was?! Time It Was??!!” We adults, naturally (what was the option? It was a small car and a long drive) complied. From our cassette player in the car stereo we played that single thirty-second song. Nonstop. Over and over and over again. And over again.)
The lyrics Parker knew by heart and sang all his life long:
Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you
The boys will appreciate these photos one day. And so will I. I have no idea — no one does— just how very precious our photographs might be for us one day.
But since I do not agree with Simon and Garfunkel that photographs and memories are “all that’s left you”, because I know that my son has not left me, not literally, and that there is more comfort than to merely revel in memories and scrapbooks alone, that I can have a continuing , non-forgotten relationship with him, — because of all that, I am not fearful about losing my photos. Nor my memories. Nor my memory.
This is what makes a mammoth difference in my life going forward: I do not remember my son. By that I mean that I do not simply “re-member” him, not in the pulling-him-back-here, reminding myself, looking back and re-collecting way. Why not? Because he is here, of course. A member of us now as ever he was. Pulled tightly to our sides, not trailing from behind us. Looking ahead with us. Collected already in our midst. And as that present presence, I am creating memories with him. In the here-and-now.
Those who leave us early (and if we really, passionately love them, whenever they leave is bound to feel like “early”), they take on another shade of vividness, and are just as real, though much harder to share with others who are not willing to pay the price for imagination and faith. In my reality, Parker is every bit as present as he was when he was last at the Pont du Gard. But I have to tell you: His realm, superimposed on ours, is much more brightly colored now than any of the darkening waters of this existence.
He is far more radiant now than ever he was when bathed in the shimmering sun slicing beneath Pont du Gard.
Since I know this in my bones — that he is here with me, and with his father, and with his sister and with his brothers and with the countless many who loved him in life and continue to love him in another frame of life— since I do know that he is here and not gone to some nebulous elsewhere, then my task for now is pretty straightforward:
Take the heavy camera off my neck.
Tuck away the lenses.
Call to my beloveds:
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 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.