Longsuffering. What does it mean?
Aaron, summer 1994, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway
Parker, summer 2006, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway
In the next few posts, I’d like to share with you some vivid examples from our family’s story of loss that illustrate powerfully, I think, what suffering along with and for a long time with someone can look like.
These are fleshed-out profiles of real people with names and faces and any number of private pains themselves, people who rushed to our need, their own souls ripped wide with loss and love. And then after rushing toward us they stuck with us – they stick with us even today, well over five years from impact – in their quiet acts of contact.
I can only describe their longsuffering as godly.
But they’re gonna be mad as Hades I’m outing them here in a post.
Well? So be it.
I can’t resist sharing these stories because they’re so resonantly, humanly beautiful. But I’ll only do so with a caveat: this is not intended to read like an Oscar line-up of This Year’s Best Supporting (and Suffering) Actors. It’s not a competition and by no means do I want to incite comparison, guilt or resentment. And I’m not doing this to “pay back” these people. Neither is this to thank them. Heaven knows, I will never in my life be able to adequately pay back or thank them.
What I want to do here is offer images you can hold on to – models, ideas, inspiration. Maybe you’re wondering to yourself, “What can I do to show compassion to my suffering friend?” or, “It’s going on seven months, now, and she’s still not back to her old self. What now?” or, “Who am I to insert myself into another’s grief? Won’t that be pushy? Presumptuous?” or, “I’m not such a touchy-feely gal. Tears? Not me. How can I mourn with someone and still be sincere?”
After several posts on the “Don’ts” (or the “D’s”) of co-mourning, I’m ready to give it to you with both barrels on the “Can’s” (or the “C’s”) of this topic. These stories and profiles might offer answers to those questions and more.
Let’s start with longsuffering, which for the sake of alliterative tidiness, I’ll call Continuing.
Meet Aaron. (Or re-meet Aaron. You know him already from the Antonini posts, when he took pictures of the tree and plaque in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem.)
Aaron is my baby brother. In spite of the fact that I changed his diapers, fed him his bottles, helped teach him to eat and walk and do his hair and pick up girls, the nine year gap in our age has become insignificant over time. Today he is in many ways my equal, and in most, my superior. My friend and confidante, my flesh-and-blood balm.
He was a gorgeous, blonde Viking type as a kid, a small Odin with a Norse God voice, and precocious gifts for music, language and humor.
Those gifts, clumsy and folksy as they were when he was little, became something well-toned as he matured, and have all congealed to bring our family comfort in our experience of losing our son, his nephew.
Aaron was more excited about graduating to the role of uncle (Parker was the first grandchild in my family) than he was about graduating from high school.
In fact, a favorite story is about teenaged Aaron waltzing into the hospital where Parker was born, a girlfriend on his arm, sashaying right past the stern-looking security and the white-clad nurses and the stethoscope-toting doctors, and cruising (as you could do in 1989) right into my delivery room. Parker was not yet 5 minutes old. I was in a compromising position, (to put it delicately), when Aaron whipped the curtain right open.
“Aaron?! Get out of here with your girlfriend,” hissed Randall, the protective father.
“Whu?!? [pause] She’s NOT my GIRLFRIEND!!”
I might be wrong here, but I believe there never was a second date with that traumatized girl.
While we both finished graduate school and Aaron finished high school, Randall and I were living in the same small university town where my parents live. So Aaron was often asked to keep an eye on his nephew. This mean he often strolled his adorable nephew on a strategically-mapped out path around the university campus in a mega babe magnet antique Viennese perambulator we’d snatched on auction.
We, returning the favor, kept an eye on Aaron. Aaron watched this, our little Parker, grow into a toddler.
We watched Aaron grow into a young man. And when he had a serious girlfriend (not the one from the delivery room scene, mind you), he taught Parker his first pick-up line, which was in the answer to the following question: “What do you say when you see ______?” (Insert girlfriend’s name.) The one-year-old nephew’s trained answer? “Hubba, hubba.”
I hope that particular tool didn’t serve Parker well later in life.
At nineteen, Aaron did what many Mormon youth do, and left on a full-time volunteer mission for the church. He was assigned to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Even today, he can melt kryptonite with a single, sizzling Spanish greeting.
After his two years’ missionary service, Aaron stayed for months with us in Norway, where he fell in love with all things Norwegian. . .
Aaron, Melissa, and our accompanist after performing an evening of Broadway favorites for a Norwegian audience.
. . .and he bonded deeply with his nephew Parker and toddler niece, Claire, and with our own Viking, Dalton Haakon.
The above portrait Aaron took while babysitting in Oslo’s Frognerparken. As innocent as it looks, the two were crushing ants.
He married Elise, a Viking-type from Minnesota. . .
. . .and they had children of their own, who also grew attached to Parker when, nearly every summer, he would attend sports, music and youth camps at the university in their home town in Utah.
Aaron and Parker were soon so physically similar, they swapped clothing. They also shared a passion for basketball (at Aaron’s invitation, Parker was able to attend Utah Jazz games), and music, (Aaron kept Parker stocked with classic rock singles). They’d reached that fabulous pinnacle where uncle and nephew are friends. The two had their own repertoire of private jokes.
Aaron with Parker and Aaron’s children
In the summer of 2007, Aaron was thrilled that Parker, who had lived several times zones and expensive airline tickets away all his life, would now be enrolled in college within a morning’s drive away.
Early one day just after I’d arrived on vacation in Utah from Munich, where we’d been unloading moving boxes after leaving our home in Paris the previous week, Aaron sent me this subject line email from a labor delivery room:
It’s a BOY, 8lbs 7oz, 21+”, Thurs July 19 8:23AM, mom and baby doing great
Precisely 12 hours later, big cousin Parker would be in a tragic drowning accident. By the middle of that night, I would be at the foot of my comatose boy who lay face down on a gurney hooked up to life support in an Idaho Regional Medical Center. Aaron would come into that room sometime in the middle of the early morning darkness. In one instant his eyes would take in the scene, and in the next breath his big frame would slump with a blow against the heavy door. He would brace himself and call his nephew’s name in one deep, gulping sob. And I would fall against my big baby brother’s chest. Comfort. Compounded pain.
Aaron was with us in the last minutes, and at my request lay his hands on my head to bless me and give me strength. He also blessed his nephew in similar fashion. And when we all gathered and sang church hymns around the gurney, I felt the suboceanic currents of my brother’s voice loosen everything holding my physical body in one piece. We two sang as we’d never sung before.
And when everything was over, it was Aaron, looking 20 years older than when he’d arrived on the scene, who drove us – skinless and imploded – the 5 hours south to my parents’ home.
Had silence ever sounded so crowded?
Then, when everything started up, (and it starts abruptly: funeral, obituary, fielding phone calls and emails, housing out-of-town and out-of-country visitors, outlining funeral sermons. . .) Aaron took charge. Muscularly. Like some Nordic god.
What did he do? And how did he do it? I’m sure I’ll never know a fraction of all my brother did as he actively suffered alongside his sister and her family. But I do know that he was constant, cautious and tenderly attentive. Here is a sampling of what he offered. For anyone longing to help a loved one in acute grief, these ideas might be a good place to start:
Presence: He came to the ICU, was utterly discreet and reverent – peripheral – and remained there until the end. He came to us later in Munich to spend that first Thanksgiving with us. He brought his daughter as a familiar face for our boys, who, at that time and in that stark new place, had no friends and were starved for someone who also loved and missed their big brother.
Mechanics: He arranged to have poster photo collages of Parker’s life made that were displayed at the viewing and funeral. He put together slide shows of Parker with music for the viewing. He wrote the obituary, saw to it that it was in several local papers, and delivered it at the funeral. He was our on-site event planner, holding multiple reins and staying one step ahead of every practical detail. And there were many.
Spokesman: He fielded phone calls and emails, relaying to us information that was to us logistically pressing, and holding on to many other message that were important and useful when the timing was appropriate. He also contacted the reporter at a local television station, whose story about the accident had been written and aired too quickly and was therefore misleading and needed correction. (The reporter and station manager later apologized to us for broadcasting mistakes and did a follow-up story.) Randall and I were scrambling to do so many other things while also trying to protect ourselves in those first days, trying to maintain equilibrium and gain clarity.
Music: Aaron arranged and participated in a male vocal quartet that performed at the funeral. As a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he was able to take handheld (and disallowed) live rehearsal and performance recordings of brief segments of given pieces and send them to us as special, private messages of love. He often sent other musical selections via iTunes or simple email attachments. Early on, he sent gorgeous, classical selections. Eventually, he sent pieces that he associated with Parker – or, as he often confessed, wished that he had associated with Parker while his nephew was still among us, such as rock classics with complicated drum solos, for instance. He knew how important music is to us and that the right music (and lyrics) would give us strength and comfort.
Broadening the Legacy It was Aaron who suggested establishing a music scholarship in Parker’s name at the university where he’d been enrolled.
Emails, texts, Simple Subject Lines: In those early, harsh months after we’d arrived freshly bereaved in a new country, Aaron was ultra-attentive to us via email. For us, emails, SMS and snail mail were literal lifelines. They provided a virtual community in our isolation, allowed us to interact and respond only when we had energy for it, and protected our privacy, which during times of unpredictable and acute pain, can be a vital blessing. Aaron’s weekly and bi-weekly mails since July 2007 number into the hundreds in the “Aaron” file in my email account.
Although some of these emails were epistles, most were not. In fact, many messages have been simple subject lines and an iPhone image. Or a subject line and a You Tube link. Or a subject line and a bootleg recording of a piece of music. Or, in several cases, just a subject line.
What I want to underscore here is that for me at least, the length and artistry of the message, though inspiring and valuable, were actually not what was essential. What was a blessing was simply my sweet brother’s presence – right here on my screen – the realization that his heart was broken, too, and that he was thinking of us once in a while throughout his day maybe, as busy and demanding as his day undoubtedly was. What his messages spoke to me was love: that he loved us and he loved Parker, and that Parker’s life and death mattered. That all our lives (our lives that must continue in spite of amputation) and all our deaths (even the death of hope and spirit that Aaron, with his love for me, was battling against) matter.
The last song on the [Tabernacle Choir] broadcast this morning was the Choir’s ‘standard,’ a beautiful arrangement of “Come, Come Ye, Saints” — I was a useless mess during the fourth verse as I could only think of Parker lying there, peacefully, alone, after all the tubes were removed.
We’re with you today in our hearts; wish we could do more than that. On the one hand, I suppose that today has been particularly difficult for you — on the other, I know they’re all excruciating. Last night as I slowed at an intersection near campus and turned up the hill, I saw someone unloading a car with bags to take into the dorms — turns out that it was for a conference and not the beginning of the school year, but it gave me a little shudder nonetheless. So I figure that if I double that feeling, multiply it by a thousand, raise that to the 3rd power, grind salt, pumice and shrapnel into it and add a vat of emptiness, I get maybe a glimpse of your feelings.
Below are most of the messages I received in the days & weeks following the accident. I believe I mentioned some of the messages to you, but probably not all. This weekend finally allowed me a chance to consolidate them for you. Perhaps they’ll add a modicum or more of comfort for you today. Big, transatlantic hug.
I hadn’t expected a response to my last mail. Please don’t feel like you need to respond. I’ll just keep sending you “impotences”– all my attempts to help that, I don’t know, might not help at all – and just to know that you’re getting them is all I need. Stay focused on your incredible husband and wonderful children, and we’ll have oppty to catch up at some point. I love you so much.
I can’t be there with you but attached is a bootleg recording (from Thursday’s PM Tabernacle Choir rehearsal) of a new, textless arrangement of “If You Could Hie To Kolob” that we sang this morning on broadcast and will be singing at a big performance this coming week. If you listen really closely, you….can’t hear me anyway, but I was thinking of how much Parker would have liked, well, likes, this arrangement.
School starts tomorrow and I can hear the new freshman yelling over at the dorms. Ugh.
On the drive home, I heard Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” which, as rock goes, is extremely rhythmically complex and has a phenom drum part. I wondered whether Parker had ever heard it, and started thinking of songs I know with great drum parts that he probably wasn’t familiar with, and how I would have liked to have made him a CD of them — I imagined him with his headphones on replicating, after probably just a few tries, “Dropping Bombs on the White House” (The Style Council — whose drummer, incidentally, was 18 at the time of the recording) and its cool drum solo. And then I realized that with the possible exception of a few beats in the Versailles basement (and I don’t remember any specifically; it just seems likely to have occurred), I NEVER heard Parker play the drums in person, and hadn’t heard him recorded until the last couple of months. My loss.
Mel, I biked to the cemetery the other day; as I approached Parker’s monument on the grass, the ah-mazing drum solo coda of Steely Dan “Aja” was playing on my ipod – check it out.
Stuck in the typical freeway parking lot for an hour tonight coming home from work, replaced a church talk on my stereo w/ EW&Fire, cranked it, was jamming and thinking how much Parker would have loved the drums on this.
We sang “Come, Come ye Saints” as you know, this morning. It was exactly five years ago today that I experienced what I’ve described previously to you, below; this morning I was seeing the ICU throughout the song and as we headed into the final verse had a bit of a tough go of it, although not as pronounced as it was in ’07. It was meaningful to me that you guys were watching the broadcast; I hope it meant something to you, as well. Incidentally, I was asked to give the prayer before last night’s pre-performance rehearsal, was thinking of you specifically and mentioned you indirectly among “those who grieve deeply” at this time.
Seizing up and hoping the cameras didn’t pan to me, at the end of the Sunday July 22, 2007 Choir broadcast when we reached the fourth verse of “Come, Come Ye Saints.” I knew the song and knew in advance that we were going to sing it, but still wasn’t braced for the body-blow dealt by the wide-screen, hi-def Technicolor image that revealed itself to me in that very instant: Parker, beautiful and bruised, lying on his stomach, with Randge at his left elbow, Melissa at his feet.
If you ever see me singing that during a concert, conference or broadcast, even years from now, know that this very image will be in my mind at that moment. I know that you will experience much the same from certain triggers, for the rest of your lives. I’d hug you at every one, if I were there.
And finally, a very recent mail:
Here’s a photo of the kids lighting candles in Venice for Parker:
Love always and from all of us,