The Grief Beast

All images in this post  © Intellectual Reserve

All images in this post
© Intellectual Reserve

Hers was a telling admission. After three years of regular interaction during which she avoided mentioning our family’s loss, she was now moving away. First, though, she said she needed to talk to me: “Privately, please? I need to get something off my chest.”

When she approached me that last day, head low, trying to smile, I saw regret in the tears that quickly filled her eyes. I listened. At first, she tried to laugh (her defense mechanism), but couldn’t quite hold that smile in place as another part of her began sobbing. Right there, in a pew at church.

“Dang!” she giggled, her hand to her mouth. “I can’t believe this. I’m such a boob!”

And I sat, staring, waiting.

moon bridge

Then she shook her head, smiled briskly, and took the breath of someone ready to dive off a cliff. What she shared sums up a whole host of complexities that are part of facing, acknowledging, and entering into another’s grief: “A parent’s worst nightmare,” she shuddered, “I hope you’ll forgive me, but I just didn’t dare get close to it, to you.”

Ah-ha. Now I understood her months of unease around me. Her nervous chirpiness. Her bursts of laughter. She wasn’t afraid of me. She was afraid of my Grief Beast.

**

iguazu falls

The Grief Beast, for lack of a better description, is a hybrid of Jabba the Hut, Sasquatch and Grendel. His head scratches any twenty-foot ceiling and he does not speak; he swills. He is warted and hairy and lumpy – a shaggy, matted, slate-khaki thing with fur balls and sodden patches formed from sitting for long stretches in pools of tears and mucus.

The Beast emits a sharp-sweet rotting compost odor that can make your eyes burn, a fact that makes me wonder how others – the non-grieving – cannot smell him out; or if they do smell him out, how they can pretend he’s not there. He trails you everywhere, tethered to your heart, shedding molting fur and spreading his sickly aroma wherever his deep sloppy footprints leave their trail. His breathing, if you want to call it that, is gravely and loamy –subterranean – with moistness that slithers right down your collar suffocating you when you have to go out in public or respond to the flip line, “So, tell me about your kids!”

biggest aurora

When you awaken day or night, he is right there, squat at the side of your bed, glaring. When you try to move, he insists on moving with you or even climbing on your back, which makes every effort arduous and weighted, like slogging through tepid, thigh-deep oatmeal. He skulks and overbears, his shadow spreads to every corner, even those inaccessible, private ones. He appears one day like that, and is there for the longest, eternal time. But in those first days – and this is the dilemma his presence creates – you are still learning how to live with him and how to respond when others ask, even if just with their eyes, what on earth the matter is.

Well, clearly, he is the matter. He is the matter with the earth and the whole universe. He is something that really matters.

Grief matters. He is real.  And he is bigger and more obstinate – more dangerous and more uncomfortable – than most of us would care to know first-hand.

adaptive roots concrete jungle

**

Some of us, when we encounter someone else’s Grief Beast, react to it like we are face-to-face with a grizzly bear: we slap our hands over our eyes and run, shrieking.

Others of us freeze then tiptoe away slowly, unable to breathe a word, straitjacketed.

Others grab for weapons. We want to do something to beat it back, beat it up.

Others think, “Hold on now here. I’ve seen Beasts something like this one before. Maybe I’ll do the same thing to this one I did to that other one to get rid of it.”

Others size up The Beast, concluding that, heh, he’s not such a big deal after all. A bit exaggerated in all our minds, if anything. A big, Spielbergian Special FX.

above the canopy

Still others pretend The Beast is a wooly apparition that will skulk off into a forest if he’s just ignored long enough.

On the whole, we are either scared stiff and begin fidgeting, laughing, juggling, whistling in the dark – whatever our learned defense mechanisms might be, or we spectacularly underestimate just how vicious The Beast is.

All these knee jerk reactions are human. And we humans, by nature, are really not all that courageous.

It takes courage, a special kind of courage, to face The Grief Beast.

walrus

We might have learned some forms of  faux courage along the way – toughness, callousness, brazenness, dare-deviling our way through life –  but those are lower forms of courage because they are in their most elemental particulars (if you could check out their ribosomes under a microscope, let’s say) self-preserving, not self-giving.  And self-giving is the most elevated form of courage.

(Voilà, and there you go. Melissa’s philosophy in a nutshell. Take it or leave it.)

colliding rivers, geneva

If we’re self-preserving in the face of another’s Beast, we’ll react in certain ways: Is this thing dangerous, am I going to get hurt? Infected? Shredded? Just like him?

Or, if I reach toward him will I get the Beast riled and he will run amok?

And what if someone. . .well, what if someone. . . what if I should cry?

moutn rainier

So, to avoid all of the above we do not acknowledge the distress, no matter how huge it might be. We never bring up the horrible, sad thing. We don’t say a single word. Not even the name of the thing that summoned The Beast in the first place: the name of the deceased. We make the tragically wrong assumption that that must be what the guy with The Beast hanging on a thick iron chain wants, too. Although it’s his Beast for a while and he’s chained to it, he wants to forget the Beast, wants to talk about anything — snow tires, the best antacid medication, Snooki’s lipgloss – anything but The Beast.

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Fearing for everyone’s lives, we sidle away graciously, deftly, eyes darting, chins dipped, heads turned slightly to the side, hands steadied. Surely we don’t want anyone around here to get their heads grizzled off. Under our breath the bereaved can almost hear our whispers, “Easy boy, Eeeeeasy.

raft of canoes

Yes, it takes a certain breed of courage – a courage-in-vulnerability – to address and enter into another’s pain, to look right into the eyes of someone’s Grief Beast, acknowledging its presence. This courage is not casual or flippant; it’s not the kind of pretended courage that tosses its head back cavalierly, dismissing with lots of proverbs and greeting card couplets the threatening dimensions of the Beast.

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In fact, I’m not entirely sure that real courage needs to talk that much.

What might it do, then, this kind of courage I’m advocating for? I’d wager it’s counterintuitive for some of us. It is, at least, for me:

I think this kind of courage will walk up. It will look at the guy, his chain, his Beast. It will reach for the chain, asking to hold it, weigh it. (He had no idea, until he held it in his own hands, just how heavy that sucker was.)

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And then Courage will take a seat next to the guy. There, Courage can feel the struggling unevenness of the guy’s heartbeat, the coldness emanating from his skin.  Courage will certainly sense the Beast’s muggy breath, its putrid stench, its murky shadow. Courage might ask, after a spell, “Please. . .can you tell me?”

Or. . . it might not ask.

Because this is the secret: Courage is able to sit. It is able to wait right next to the guy, right beneath The Beast. It will sit, in fact, as long as both guy and Beast allow, and in that silent sitting Courage will discover that its most pressing questions are somehow, wordlessly answered. Courage won’t need to ask a thing.

Buddhist monks chant at Pongour Falls, the largest waterfall in Dalat, Vietnam.

**
world's edge

From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried as you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.
—Stephen King, Different Seasons, 293

Standing Right On The Hinge

On the river's edge at a place called Monkey Rock.  This is where our son lost his life.

On the banks of a place called Monkey Rock. This is where our son lost his life.

It doesn’t matter how educated, moneyed, or smart you are: when your child’s footprints end at the river’s edge, when the one you love has gone into the woods with a bleak outlook and a loaded gun, when the chaplain is walking toward you with bad news in her mouth. . .Your life will swing suddenly and cruelly in a new direction, and if you are wise . . you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there, standing right on the hinge, holding out its arms. And if you are really wise, you will fall against it and be held.
– Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me

Monkey Rock Falls Sideview

**

Every week for a year after the accident, the assistant headmaster from Parker and Claire’s school in Paris called us in our new home in Munich.

“Hi, Randall, Melissa. Just checking in, guys. How. . . how are things this week? Your health? The new school? Claire and the boys, how are they managing?”

There was a tentativeness in our friend’s voice, the faintest hint of fragility that I never would have anticipated watching him hand out diplomas, joking with and embracing students at the Paris high school graduation just over two months earlier.

Looking Downstream (mid-bridge)

We’d taken this one great shot of him the moment Parker received his diploma: huge smiles, both of them, and Parker’s massive hands grasping this man’s shoulder, ready to reach forward to hug him.

Parker had known Mr. H. well. (I’ll call him “Mr. H.”, although many parents, like us, were on a first name basis with him. I now consider him a brother.)

Monkey Rock Falls (close-up)

“Coolest guy,” Parker had told me after one of his early morning math and chemistry tutoring hours in this man’s school office. “Totally cool and just a great person.”

And totally private. And just your consumate professional.

He not only tutored students in his office nearly every morning before regular class hours, but he ran a big, transient, culturally complex studentbody and faculty. The demands were constant. The pressures from parents, faculty and the board were sometimes exacting, I’d imagined over the years, and the expectations probably constricting. But this man had managed for decades to lead with diplomacy and vision and was respected for his warmth and fairness.

Solid. Imperturable. Not once had he struck me as a man who could crack.

But now, a week into the new school year for him in Paris and for us newly-arrived in Munich, I heard undeniable fissures creeping up the contours of his voice. Was he heartbroken? When he’d finally been able to find words, he said he was.

Heartpulverized.

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“What I means is. . .are you and the kids. . .you going to make it?”

“We’re making it,” Randall offered, holding back emotion. “But we’re not sure. . .we might need to move back to Paris. To your school. We need community. We need our people.”

“And we’re not finding it, them. . .here. . .Not yet.”

I said this into the receiver but was focusing on Randall. I felt sorrow taking the shape of a question mark in my bones: Drooping, head-to-breast, curved to submission, one single tear drop dangling, suspended there in helpless isolation.

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My husband knew full well I was not unpacking – not even touching – the rest of the same moving boxes we’d been working through the week we lost our firstborn son to tragedy at a water accident that occurred during a pre-college camp. Not until we all – parents, children, my husband’s employer, schools – agreed we had no choice but to stay in Munich.

At this point, though, that scenario seemed highly unlikely given the circumstances. We all ached and cried daily to go back to our “home” where people knew us and loved our son. A place where the fresh, ragged-edged hole in the universe could be looked into straight on, where the emptiness might be acknowledged, and we could feel a modicum of comfort.

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It’s then Mr. H. proposed something: “Hey, um, I’ve been working on an idea. But I want to pass it by you before I go any further with it. I’d need board consensus as there’s definite – what should I say? – definite risk involved. There’s no precedent for this, so it could be misunderstood, but in spite of the risks. . .See, this week alone I’ve had student after student in my office. Students, faculty. Every day, all day long, it seems. They’ve all needed to talk about Parker.”

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Here, his voice hit a speed bump, stalled, then heaved itself over the pain. “Other teachers are having the same experience. Kids here are really traumatized. Some are angry at the universe that such a thing could happen. A lot are confused. . .I mean, there’s such sadness. . .if you could imagine. . .”

There was a pause.

“Yeah. I think maybe you guys can imagine.”

The narrow culvert where four young men were sucked into a hidden whirlpool. Three survived.

The narrow culvert where four young men were sucked into a hidden whirlpool. Three survived.

“So, your idea?” Randall spoke. I noticed as if for the first time that his pants were hanging like an old tent on his body. He’d lost over 10 kilos (twenty five pounds) in one month. His face was hollow, his neck gaunt. Over the coming weeks he would lose much more weight and his heartbeat would, for the first time in his life, become irregular.

The irrigation canal that feeds into the culvert, meanders to lava rock falls, were water plunges into a placid lagoon.

The irrigation canal that feeds into a culvert and meanders toward lava rock falls. From there, the water  plunges into a placid lagoon.

“This is the idea. I want to see first how you’d feel about it. I’ve been discussing doing a Parker Fairbourne Bradford Memorial at the school. As soon as possible. End of this month, even. The more I talk with other administrators and faculty about it, the more I see it might be a healthy thing, even a powerful thing. Good for us, for you, for Parker’s memory.”

“A Memorial?” I felt heat kindle behind my ribs and through to my spine.

Looking Upstream (mid-bridge)Looking Upstream (leftside)

“People need to make sense of what’s happened, you know? Most found out through email and Facebook and texts over the summer. That went like wildfire. Lots of people have had to process it alone. Some have managed to get together, mourn together. But some were out of the loop and have just found out this week. Seems to me everyone needs a place to express their feelings and their love, to make sense. They really need to see you. They need to come together. . .”

Come together.

The sign that was finally posted a full year after the fatal accident.  The day Randall come to visit, it lay rusted on the ground, rammed, it seemed, by a vehicle.  He tied it up with blue string.

The sign that was finally posted a full year after the fatal accident. The day Randall came to visit, the sign lay rusted on the ground, rammed, it seemed, by a vehicle. He stood it erect and tied it up with blue string.

Come Together. These were the very words I’d heard in my head all week long between the ICU and the funeral, the funeral where this administrator himself and a small entourage of Paris high school students and their parents had been present. They’d flown in from all over the world, flown in to come together in a small chapel in Utah.

Come together. Right now. Over me. I couldn’t shake the Beatles no matter how hard I tried.

The helicopter that transported our son to the Portneuf Regional Medical center.

The helicopter that transported our son from a local hospital to the Portneuf Regional Medical center.

Portneuf Medical Center

**

The evening of the 22nd of September, 2007, our family sat on the front row of a packed school auditorium in a school in Paris while faculty and students paid tribute to our son. Behind us were youth and their parents, work colleagues of Randall’s from all over central, eastern and northern Europe. To each side we saw our many church friends who in most cases had no affiliation with the school, but who knew and loved a certain boy. In front of us was the stage from which specific faculty members and students closest to Parker spoke (tenderly, frankly, humorously, musically, poetically, mailed in from abroad, recited across the silence), and where a large screen hung onto which were projected pictures and live footage of this young man now gone.

Mr. H. and our younger boys on our favorite Paris bridge, le Pont des Arts.

Mr. H. and our younger boys on our favorite Paris bridge, le Pont des Arts.

If you want to know what that moment felt like to the mother, you’ll have to suspend disbelief. I tell you that it was like getting a blood transfusion with fire. My body shook like a furnace overstocked with coal, on the verge of exploding. Great, deep, sweet, healing pain.

This, as I think of Kate Braestrup’s words, might be what love standing right on the hinge is about. It has something to do with the saving fire that can come from those who, only a moment earlier, had been regular body-temperature folks. Just like you and me.

They were no more than professional acquaintances, maybe. No more than who we all try to be: nice, decent people anyone might pass right by in the hallways or chat with casually at the water cooler. They might even have been no more than the friends of the friends of the parents of the students who did no more that sit next to our children in a history class or in a jazz band or on the bench during basketball season.

But they brought fire.

They brought time and talent and effort and artistry, too. But I have to be clear: it was not the special effects and the sound system in and of themselves that ignited fire, although all of that was meaningful and exquisite, and we will never, ever forget them. While humbling to us, all that was not our focus. And these good, caring people of course knew that. What was our focus – and what was the source of our transfusing fire – was the reality of the faces of people who knew and who cared. It was seeing people come, cry, stare in shock, sit and hold each other. When those faces were lined up in a community, they became a living firewall against the encroaching winter of the soul.

Aaron Hubbard with Melissa on Pont des Arts (June 2011)

Aaron Hubbard with M, D & L in 6th Arr (June 2011)

When our sorrow, whatever that sorrow might be, pushes us to that howling outer-ledge where a blue glacial wind threatens to suck us into a crevasse of despair, part of our nature might stare blankly – drained, as it feels, of will – down into that icy bottomlessness.

Maybe for the length of one breath we stare.

The gravesite without its stone.  The ground was frozen. We waited until spring when things thawed.

The gravesite without its stone. The ground was frozen. We had to wait to install it in the spring when things had sufficiently thawed.

Maybe longer.

December. First visit to the grave after the July funeral.

December. First visit to the grave after the July funeral.

But there is another part of us, a wiser part, as Braestrup calls it, and that part will look around for love. It might only glance at first, eyelids low, fearing what it will or will not find. But in time it won’t just glance a bit, nor will it roll its eyes at itself, at its hurting need for love.

No.

It will scavenge like a beast dying of hunger. It will yowl to the empty clouds and bray across the flat horizon for love. It will howl from the bottom of its lungs rendered stiff and brittle from cold. It will limp and then collapse and then belly-crawl for love.

And there, right there, love will be.

Coach and athletic director, and Parker's retired basketball jerseys they school framed and hung outside the gymnasium.

Coach and athletic director, and Parker’s retired basketball jerseys the school framed and hung outside the gymnasium. The memorial jerseys hang there still.

Armbands with the initials and number of the player who was no longer. A kid named Phil had them made.  Their cheer was "One, Two, Three, Parker!"

A teammate named Phil had these armbands made.  They carry the initials and number of the player who was no longer. The team cheer that year was, “One, Two, Three, Parker!”

Right there, next to us, will be love holding out its everyday arms. Its stranger or next-door-neighbor or school administrator-made-brother arms.

Right there on the hinge we find it so that, instead of falling over the ledge, we fall against them. And we are held.

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Continuing: Aaron D.

Longsuffering. What does it mean?

Aaron, summer 1994, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

Aaron, summer 1994, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

Parker, summer 2006, 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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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We, returning the favor, kept an eye on Aaron. Aaron watched this, our little Parker, grow into a toddler.

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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.

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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. . .

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Aaron, Melissa, and our accompanist after performing an evening of Broadway favorites for a Norwegian audience.

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.

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The above portrait Aaron took while babysitting in Oslo’s Frognerparken. As innocent as it looks, the two were crushing ants.

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He married Elise, a Viking-type from Minnesota. . .

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. . .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.

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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 his children

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,

Aaron

**

Eliza & Wes lighting candles for PFB in Venice (June 2010)

Antonini, Part 2

yad vashem tree

Yad Vashem

“Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name (yad vashem) better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).

**
avenue righteous

My brother Aaron, a teenager at the time of this story, hiked up to the entrance of Yad Vashem, the Mount of Remembrance on the eastern side of Jerusalem’s Mount Herzi. It was early November. The skies were the color and texture of old, wadded aluminum foil, and there had been rain throughout the night.

Under his sweatshirt Aaron held a small camera, and in the front pocket he fingered again for the scrap of paper entrusted him by his parents. On it was the name of Antonini’s wife written in ballpoint pen, and a number indicating in approximately which quadrant of this sprawling garden her tree should stand.

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Here, both victims and heroes of the Holocaust are commemorated through statuary, architecture, various forms of artwork and this grove referred to as Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. Hundreds of trees are planted here for non-Jews who risked everything to save the lives of Jews. Antonini’s “kranke katholische Frau” numbered among them. Past the tree honoring Corrie Ten Boom,

ocarrie ten boom

Beyond the plaque to Oscar Schindler,

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Aaron found her tree and her plaque.

Weeks later, about when November turned to December, in some small apartment in Warsaw, Antonini received a letter and a small collection of photos of a tree and a plaque standing in distant Jerusalem. He showed them to his wife. The two were grateful beyond their ability to express, but Antonini tried to write their thanks anyway in a letter he sent to my parents.

vad vashem children

The Letters

Over the next four years, Antonini’s letters from Warsaw, Poland arrived in my parents’ white wooden mailbox in Provo, Utah. Each letter, a modest single page and some times two, was written on fine onionskin paper, the likes of which folks in America rarely used anymore, let alone wrote on. Antonini wrote with a fountain pen. The penmanship had the sort of meticulous formality you might find in a calligraphy primer from the 1920’s; beautiful as you hold it up to the light, the letters a physical curiosity, even an objet d’art. We’d gather to look at them, I remember, like scientists gather to scrutinize delicate new specimens of nature, microbes, fragments of a mystery.

But scrutinizing is all we could do to those letters.

Antonini wrote only in Polish.

This he’d warned about upon our first meeting when, over Polish-Chinese cuisine, my parents had promised to correspond. And this would just have to do. However much he’d mastered a Yiddish-tinged spoken German, he’d never learned to write it. And so, apologizing, here came the letters in his native tongue. My parents took them to a professor friend at the local university whose specialty was Polish translation.

“Dr. Dalton, remind me. Who’s this man again?” The professor leaned back in her chair after making her way through a paragraph from Antonini’s first letter. She’d been tracing with her finger the florid loops and perfectly spaced slants, crosses and dots. “You said you met him where?

“At the monument to the Jewish ghetto uprising, central Warsaw,” my dad said. “So, what does he write? What can you tell about him? He’s been through a great deal, of course, and his wife has been ailing for some time, I think, so maybe. . . is it all disjointed?”

The translator smiled. “This is. . .Disjointed? Ha, no, not at all. This is. . .how should I put this? This is elevated Polish, Dr. Dalton. A magistrate’s vocabulary. And look at this, you see here?” She pointed to the lean of the ink letters. “This is noble handwriting. Sign of a high education.”

“Cultivated, you’re saying?”

Very. An elegant man. Erudite. Even the sentence structure. You know, that sort of old world, fine upbringing. Now, what’s this guy’s story again?”

What was this guy’s story?

More than most of us could ever begin to comprehend.

The Choir

My parents and Antonini continued corresponding, they writing to Poland in German, which Antonini and his wife somehow translated well enough, and Antonini responding to Utah in Polish, which the local professor read, always with some comment about the level of linguistic refinement.

Then, a few years after our first meeting over steamy bowls of Polish chow mien noodles, my mother, then a soprano with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was on her way with them on a European tour that was stopping in Poland. She wrote to Antonini, of course, to arrange a meeting and, above all, to invite this cultivated man, the one whose beloved older brother had been among the 39 members of the Warsaw Philharmonic to lose their lives in the Holocaust, to a performance from this, arguably the world’s most famous choir.

At the time on that tour, the first Mormon meetinghouse in Poland since WWII was going to be dedicated in Warsaw. This was, for those few isolated but faithful members of the church, (like the ones we’d met with in 1987 in the photo below) a landmark day. And it so happened that the choir would be in the country. The choir.

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The day of the choir concert, there were many church authorities and representatives of the press filling the entry halls of the Warsaw Marriott Hotel. The crush of bodies made it hard for my mother to make herself stand out in case Antonini should arrive, and just as hard for her to watch for a small man she only remembered as a living Rembrandt with a black beret and a gray trench coat. What if she couldn’t find him? She began to wonder as she craned her neck above the crowd if Antonini had even received her last letter confirming where and when they would meet. And if he’d received it in the first place, what if his plans had changed? He’d given no telephone number – maybe he didn’t even have a phone – and my mother could only be reached at this hotel. She’d be one of many women wearing identical gowns. Would he recognize her? For a moment when time was running out before departure to the gatherings where the choir would sing and local political and church authorities would speak, and still no Antonini appeared, she thought of writing his name in big black letters on paper she’d scrounged from the reception desk. She’d hold it above her head, and even (this would be my mom) sing out his name operatically above the noise of the crowd. “An-to-ni-ni!” Just to get his attention were he hidden in there somewhere.

The buses were being loaded. Group after group of choir members pushed toward and out the doors. Altos lined up, still no sign of Antonini. Then the sopranos. No sign. And there, when enough bodies had finally cleared out of the lobby, in a corner stood a smallish balding man with white sideburns. He wore no beret, but he was in the same grey trench coat of years ago.

“Shalom,” my mother said to a man who appeared much older and far more frail than she’d remembered him. Immediately, she thought she saw the face of someone recently widowed. But she didn’t ask. Not in that crowded, hurried moment.

“Shalom,” he said, reaching to shake her hand, and then the two exchanged the three, light traditional Polish kisses on the cheek and my mother, always warm, drew this gentle friend into her arms.

Quickly, and with little talk, she ushered Antonini towards a man she’d had waiting, a Juliusz Fussek who, after years living in the U.S., had returned to Warsaw with his English wife Dorothy as a volunteer representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They served for over five years in his mother tongue and fatherland.

The two Poles – one Mormon, one Jewish – spent the afternoon deep in conversation, comparing notes, finding common bonds, and sitting in a place of honor watching the choir perform.

There had been little time, given the choir’s tight schedule, for my mother to talk with Antonini as much as she’d hoped. But from her place in the middle of the soprano section, she searched for and kept an eye focused on this soft face that responded with awe and radiance to the music that poured over him. After the concert ended and the choir members were required to return to their buses and hotel to proceed to the next venue, my mom and Antonini had to share only a brief goodbye.

Again in the German/Yiddish of years earlier, they clasped each other’s hands and vowed to continue this correspondence. Maybe there would be another chance to meet like this again? The choir tours every few years, my mom said. And she and my dad always seem to find themselves returning to Europe, she said with a smile.

“Aber bitte,” she added, “richten Sie die schönsten Grüße an Ihre liebe Frau aus.”

But please give the kindest greetings to your dear wife.

Those eyes of his changed shape, their surface shone, and something subtle shifted in his white brows. Did his lips part to say something? Was that single, short breath the prelude to a sharp-cornered secret? But then he let the breath out again as his lips drew upward in an unsteady curve.

He saw the bus was leaving. She had to turn to go.

And so Shalom.

And in return Shalom.

To Be Continued

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Actually, there’s no “to be continued” here.

I’m sorry I’ve brought you all the way to this spot without providing a good old-fashioned Hollywood ending, some remarkable revelatory connection, an incredible coming-together, a place in the narrative where the music swells and the cameras zoom and all the broken pieces slip magically together and it all makes poetic sense. Denouement and the slow fade.

But we never heard again from Antonini. To my parents’ next letter, no response.

And to another letter, still no response.

All the blank spaces in this story – who was and what happened to his wife, what about his regal handwriting and sophisticated Polish, his beloved David, all his history – to this day they remain blank spaces. I’ve never been able to track down the archives of the Warsaw Philharmonic orchestra to verify that the last concertmaster before the orchestra dissolved during the Nazi’s occupation of Poland was, indeed, a man named David, Antonini’s beloved older brother. And we never knew Antonini’s Jewish family name, since he’d adopted a new identity just as he’d adopted a new life, so it’s been virtually impossible to trace the family.

The blanks stay agape. And as a story teller, I’m sorry for that.

So why, then, tell this story at all? What’s the point?

The point is that a man suffered stupefying loss, grieved for forty years, met some strangers on a public square, they connected in their fumbling white-tennis-shoed touristy way, and that simple link lifted a heavy stone from the man’s heart.

And (here is the point of the point of the point), the strangers were lifted by him.

How? In the very way reading his story here has both sobered and lifted you. Real people who survive real horrors touch us, inspire us, show us what it means to continue, that it is humanly possible. Continue grieving great loss. Continue loving throughout the life that remains.

Would it surprise you to know that, when tragedy touched my life, my thoughts sailed straight for Antonini? My mind scavenged instinctively for stories of loss and living onward and I found I had such a story right at hand. It had a face and a voice, eyes like an artist and a worn-out black beret.

The man who by that time was probably gone from earth, (my calculations put him at 91 years old today), came back with quiet spiritual force in my imagination to show me how continuing is done. It began with a simple Shalom. It goes on simply with Shalom.

**

This week my husband received a Linked In message. A senior level colleague with whom Randall has nearly no regular contact, but who knew about the loss of our son Parker, took the time out to follow a nudge, (I’ll call it a spiritual prompting), to send a word. It said:

“Randall, I am sure you must still be hurting about Parker. I know this because of the happiness I derive from watching my sons grow up. This causes me to think of you. And while I acknowledge you’re still hurting, it was really good to see your smile on your Linked In profile.”

Did this man have any way of knowing that he, in that 2-minute investment of time and sincerity, did something holy? Did he realize that that brief reaching out showed that he is continuing with us? Did he have any idea that a four sentence email message lifted a heavy stone from our hearts? That he realized Yad Vashem by giving “a place and a name” to our deceased son?

Parker on Linked In. As public a square as the one where we met Antonini in Warsaw. But there you have it: comfort.

And do you think he’d calculated that he was sending that comfort on the very day of the 5-½ year anniversary of our son’s death?

I think probably not.

IMG_1493

Antonini, Part 1

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All of today’s photos come from the private archives of my father, David Dalton. He recently gifted me with 20,000 shots cataloguing our family’s life. This post I gratefully gift to him on his 78th birthday. Love you, Dad.

It was late autumn of 1987 in Warsaw, Poland as my parents, my husband and I found our way down what the Poles call Memory Lane, a street whose existence, however much its name sounds like a Nat King Cole tune, marks one of the most bitter delineations in modern history.  This was the border of the city’s former Jewish ghetto.

Only meters from our path was where the infamous month-long resistance had taken place, biggest of its kind in World War II, when 13,000 Jews – men, women and children – lost their lives fighting the Nazis’ effort to empty the ghetto with violence. Nearly all of its inhabitants were sent to the their deaths either right on their doorsteps or in outlying extermination camps.

On this particular morning we eventually found ourselves standing in the shadow of the looming grey stone monument to the resistance. It is, appropriately, a massive wall with sculpted figures emerging from the surface, thrusting hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, and bare fists into the air.

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I stamped my feet lightly against the late October chill and my husband wrapped an arm around me. We followed my mom, who was, as always, reading aloud to us from a guide book.  My dad, meanwhile, was in the middle of the square taking pictures. I could see he was also trying to keep warm, as a puff of vapor rose from his mouth.  Despite the late morning sun creeping over the upper edge of the 36 ft. (11 meter) tall monument, the world was chilled and palpably sober.

Then from a distance, I saw a white-haired man in a black beret and gray trench coat approach and begin talking with my dad. In a minute or so, my dad waved that we all should come. Quickly.  As I came closer, I saw the man held a small bunch of flowers laterally across himself, almost like one would carry a child.

“Shalom,” the man said to each of us as we approached.

“Shalom,” we each responded.

“Peace.”

And in return, “Peace.”

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The man was maybe sixty years old, compact and softly contoured with a face hauntingly reminiscent of a late Rembrandt self-portrait. The conversation as we entered it was an oddly functional hybrid of Yiddish (spoken by the stranger) and German, from the rest of us.

“Antonini,” my dad held his hand toward the man while turning to us to explain, “has come today on behalf of his kranke katholische Frau,” (his “sick Catholic wife”), whose birthday it was, and who’d asked that flowers be laid on this memorial site. The man and his wife had followed this ritual for decades, Antonini explained. Every birthday and on all other significant dates during the year, the two came here zur Erinnerung, or in remembrance.

With the hands of a butcher, I thought – thick  fingers, padded palms – Antonini carefully laid the flowers at the foot of the monument, then stepped back on his thick-soled brown leather shoes.  They looked like they were at least twenty years old but had been meticulously maintained ever since. Probably polished them this morning, I thought. He was dressed neatly yet modestly, and from where I stood now at his side I focused on his white sideburn that matched the shock of hair just over his ear. His profile was placid, almost immobile, as he looked up  at the monument and into its vigorous and oversized faces chiseled in stone.

“We’re so sorry your wife is ill, Antonini,” my mom said. “Why, if we might ask, would your Catholic wife want to pay special tribute to those lost in the Jewish uprising?”

His arms held politely to his sides, Antonini now brought his fingers together, lacing them at the tips, then lifted and dropped them once with a single breath. “Warum?” he sighed.

Why?

“Because this,” he said, glancing at the monument, “is our story, my wife’s and mine.” His eyes fell to the ground a few feet from where we stood, to a large engraved metal disc made to resemble a manhole cover. This, we’d read earlier, was the first monument to the uprising, a reminder of the manholes through which hundreds of Jews had lowered themselves into Warsaw’s sewer system in order to smuggle goods or to escape annihilation on the street. Countless many had hidden for days and weeks in those sewers, and upon trying to emerge, the Nazis fumigated them with Zyklon.

“This story,” my dad stepped closer, “your wife’s story, your story, would you mind sharing it with us? Unless, of course. . .forgive me. . .it’s too pain-“

“Nein. Ich meine, Ja. Ja, natürlich,” Antonini interjected warmly, “natürlich kann ich sie Ihnen erzählen.”

No, I mean yes, yes of course. He wanted to share the story with us.

That is, if we wanted to hear it.

Over a two-hour lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Warsaw’s main square, (my dad had asked Antonini where we could take him for a warm lunch; this was his choice!), Antonini shared his story.  We sat at a corner table with the window and its filmy white lace curtains at my back. I remember the afternoon in vivid film clips and didn’t miss a single detail of Antonini, neither his soft mouth as it molded around the German with its Yiddish lilt, nor his expressive eyes that were tokens of a life beyond my comprehension. We wrote it all down:

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I was seventeen when I fought in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis who had overtaken Warsaw. Along with all of the other Jewish teenaged boys I knew, I was shipped off to Lublin. I was separated from my family, from my beloved and gifted older brother, David, who was then the concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. By a miracle and driven by my concern for my family and neighbors whose fate I could not know and was pained to imagine, I eventually escaped from Lublin. I made my way back to Warsaw. What would I find there? From my family, who still remained? And if they did remain, in what condition?

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I was so weak when I finally reached the city that I could only crawl in silence, terrified with every movement that I would be sighted by the enemy and tortured or murdered on the spot. At some point I grew delirious from hunger and fatigue and collapsed in the middle of a street.

I was awakened when someone, I did not know who, lifted me and carried me quickly out of sight and into a home. It was the home of a Catholic family who then fed me and gave me water to drink. They proceeded to care for me in every way they could although they, too, were victims of war with food and other goods in scarce supply, their own health and well-being at serious risk.  They then hid me for many, many months in their basement.  They hid me, as a matter of fact, until the war was over. They saved me.

When the Nazis retreated from Warsaw I finally discovered the horrors that had happened to my people.  Flamethrowers and smoke bombs had been used to drive out or kill all the inhabitants of the ghetto.  All those left had been shipped, as I had been, to extermination at Lublin, Treblinka, and other concentrations camps.

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The resistance had ended a month after it had begun when, with the press of one detonator button, Warsaw’s great Jewish synagogue had been instantly turned to rubble. In the end, after searching everywhere, I found that my entire family – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and my dear David – had died.  I was alone in the world.

The Catholic family gave me more than the gift of survival by hiding me under their roof.  They gave me a future. They advised that until it was absolutely secure for Jews to move freely in society, I should change my identity.  Antonini is the new name I took; I had to deny my Jewishnesss, and for years ceased to speak Yiddish or Hebrew.

And in time the remarkable happened: their daughter and I – we had been through so much together – we married.  I married the Catholic daughter of my adopted Catholic family, the only family that remained for me.

To my knowledge – and I must believe this is true, since I have been in Warsaw all these forty years since and know the Jewish community here well – I am the last living survivor of the Ghetto Uprising.  I am where that terrible story ends.

We finished our lunch.

Asking what time it was, Antonini apologized but he really needed to get home to his ill wife. While we paid the bill, we had all the leftovers packed up for him to take home, although the waitress puzzled openly at the idea of “leftovers.” (The people she knew, people who had known real hunger, never ever had food, what was it called? “Left over”? ) But she found three large glass jars in the kitchen, filled them with everything we hadn’t been able to touch for all our fixation on Antonini’s story tellng, and put the heavy jars in a nylon sack.  After thanking us for that extra food that would make for his wife’s birthday meal, Antonini shared one parting detail:

“In Jerusalem in the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, a trees stands in honor of my wife.  We received a formal letter with a picture and identification attached inviting both of us to the dedication.  Signed by prime minister Menachem Begin. Framed. It hangs in the middle of our apartment wall.”

We clapped and laughed in quiet celebration for our friend, and told him how wonderful an honor that was.

“Yes,” he nodded, his head titled slightly to one side.  “But of course we could never afford to travel,” Antonini’s eyes were, for the first time in over three hours together, not just glassy with tears but spilling over with them.  “And now my wife is too ill to make the trip. She’ll probably never see her tree.”

With that, my parents looked to each other, my mom sat up ramrod straight, beaming, and my dad’s usually professorial face softened, melted. He let out a single, muffled laughed. Then he lifted one eyebrow.

“Antonini,” my dad said, clearing his throat and leaning his whole weight on his elbows on the table, looking Antonini in the eyes, “it so happens that our youngest son, Aaron, will be in Jerusalem in two weeks. He is part of the study abroad group we are leading in Vienna, and some of the students are going to be visiting the Holy Land.”

My mom jumped in, “Can we give you a gift, Antonini?  Can we promise you that Aaron will visit the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles for your wife?”

“He’ll take a picture of the tree, of the honorary plaque,” my dad said, “and then may he send that photo to your address? A belated birthday gift? To your wife?”

And in one slow-mo instant right in front of me I witnessed a transformation. Our Rembrandt portrait came to life.  His lips parted. Then they pursed.  Then, almost imperceptibly, his eyes widened. Then he bent into his shoulders, slowly placing one wrinkled hand and then the other across his chest. He shook his bald head to one side and then, heaving a sigh, to the other. Then he brought his stare up to meet our collective stare, and spoke in half a voice, “Heute haben Sie einen schweren Stein von meinem Herzen aufgehoben.”

“Today, you have lifted a heavy stone from my heart.”

With those words we all embraced, exchanged addresses, and watched our Antonini walk away, a big bag of bottled egg foo yong and fried rice hanging at his elbow.

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As he walked up the street and around the corner, I felt the words, “heavy stone” echoing in my mind and I focused on the weight of that sack, the one Antonini was going to carry alone and all the way home. How far did he have to go yet, I wondered. How many blocks? Would the weight of the bottles break the handles of the sack? How many times would he have to stop, bend over, place the bag on the ground, straighten his tired back, rub those padded palms together and knead those thick fingers, bend over again, switch arms, heft the sack and trudge on, one step at a time?

He’d insisted, though. He’d said he could carry it alone, the bag, that he didn’t want to burden us with it. Really, his home was not far, he’d smiled with those moist painter’s eyes.  Not far at all.

And you know? I believed Antonini. He’d be fine. He was resilient, after all.  One of the great survivors. The last of his own people.  Certainly if anyone could carry a weight all alone, it was he.

So I waved one last time as he came to the last corner, waved with both arms in the air and raised up on my tip toes. Auf Wiedersehen! Bye! Shalom!

I don’t have to tell you I was pretty young and inexperienced. Dewy.  Unscarred. You’ll forgive me, I hope, that back then I’d had little visceral experience with the harsher realities of life, and so although drawn to Antonini and captivated by his story, I wonder today: did I see him?  Did I truly see and experience who he was? Because I know only now that I had no eye, really – no cellular sense – for the ponderous but invisible weight of his vast loss and lasting grief, the burden of his lifelong loneliness.

Maybe Antonini could manage just fine without me. Chances are he did.  And that evening, he and his sick Catholic wife had a joyous dinner during which he had his own unusual story to tell of a family of foreigners who were at the monument that morning. How they listened to the story. How their son – Aaron, a good Hebrew name!– is traveling to Jerusalem. . .

I can go for days on the fumes alone of that thought.

I wonder, too, what might I have learned from walking – continuing, listening, carrying even a bit of Antonini’s bag of leftovers – just a few more steps? A few more steps or even, if he had let me, the rest of the way home?

**
Antonini, Part 2 in our next post. . .

The Frozen Sea Within Us

For my 100th post, I pay tribute to an author who has inspired me since the first time I read him.

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Roger Rosenblatt is one of those language crafters whose sparseness and blank-stare honesty catch me right here, square in the throat.  One paragraph of him, and I want to huck anything I ever wrote and start all over, one hand and all adjectives tied behind my back.

Intimate. Precise. Reduced. Penetrable. Bruised. Wryly funny. And rumbling with electricity like thunder in your breast pocket.

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Rosenblatt also buried his daughter, Amy. Two of his books, Making Toast and Kayak Morning describe, respectively, his life at impact and a year later. From Making Toast:

Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon, thirty-eight years old, pediatrician, wife of hand surgeon, Harrison Solomon, and mother of three, collapsed on her treadmill in the downstairs playroom at home. “Jessie and Sammy discovered her,” our oldest son, Carl, told us over the phone. . . . “Mommy isn’t talking,” [Jessie] said. Harris got to Amy within seconds and tried CPR, but her heart had stopped and she could not be revived.

Amy’s was ruled a “sudden death due to an anomalous right coronary artery”—meaning that her two coronary arteries fed her heart from the same side. . . . Her condition, affecting less that two thousandths of one percent of the population, was asymptomatic; she might have died at any time in her life.
––Roger Rosenblatt, Making Toast, 2, 3

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I’d travel far and pay a hefty price to merely sit for an hour and listen to Mr. Rosenblatt talk about his daughter Amy, about his writing about Amy, and about his writing, period. Maybe you’ll feel likewise after the following, the last page of another Rosenblatt book, entitled, Unless It Moves The Human Heart:

You must write as if your reader needed you desperately, because he does. If, as Kafka said, a book is an ax for the frozen sea within us, then write with that frozen sea in mind and in view. See your reader, who has fallen through the ice of his own manufacture. You can just make him out, as he flails in slow motion, palms pressed upward under the ice. Here’s your ax. Now, chop away and lift him up by the shoulders. And what do you get out of this act of rescue? You save two people; your reader and yourself. Every life is exposed to things that will ruin it, and often do, for a time. But there is another life inside us that remains invulnerable and glimpses immortality. For the writer that life exists on the page, where it attaches itself to every other life, to all the lives that have been and will be.

…To be the writers you hope to be, you must surrender yourselves to a kind of absurdity. You must function as a displaced person in an age that contradicts all that is brave, gentle, and worthwhile in you. Every great writer has done this, in every age. You must be of every age. You must believe in heroism and nobility, just as strongly as you believe in pettiness and cowardice. You must learn to praise. Of course, you need to touch the sources of your viciousness and treachery before you rise above them. But rise you must. For all its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy of your love. Love it. Have faith in it. Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing– word after word after word.

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Amen, Brother Rosenblatt.

Amen.

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Freshly Pressed?

Here we are, five of our six. I'm including today a selection of my favorite photographs from my previous posts.  All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy! So glad you're here.

Here we are, five of the six Bradfords. I’m including today a selection of some of my favorite photographs from several of my previous posts. All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy!

Hello, everyone. It is great to have you here.

Judging by the variety and number of readers this week’s Freshly Pressed incident (and what doyou call it?) has drawn here, we’ve got some rich times ahead. One of my readers suspected that I probably didn’t fully “get” what it means to be Freshly Pressed, but that reader was gracious in suggesting that it was probably best that way.

And I didn’t.

And it is.

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I don’t mind this little flurry of recognition. It would be false to say much else, since we serious writers ache to create something someone will find worth reading. And we’re a bit tired of being that Someone, reading to ourselves. (Oh, the echoing drone of one’s own voice in the caverns of one’s head.)

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So it’s heartening to have you here, reading as you apparently are. Your presence is invaluable to me, and I want to honor it with vivid, meaty material that will invigorate thinking and stir feeling, and open up the possibility of a nourishing connection between us, all of us.

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I write because for me, writing is a physical and spiritual imperative. Is it also like that for you? If the significant happens – in my world, or in The World – I feel compelled to engraven it, pin its largeness down, trap it somehow. Then I lean close and marvel at watching its complexity or simplicity crystalize on the page. My readers, I hope, share in that marveling, not, of course, because I am marvelous (although my husband seems to think I am, dear guy), but because the potential of our human reach irrefutably is. Words stimulate and facilitate that reach. Almost all of us, when we were babies, reached – and touched and connected and established ourselves as a teeny but proud pinprick part of humanity – first with words.

So. Here we are. May I explain some things?

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I write long.
You’ll want to get a drink. And oxygen tanks.

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I write books.
Two are in either the editing or legal approval phases as we chat right here, you and I.

The first to be published (with Familius and later this spring) will be Global Mom: A Memoir, and is about our family’s 20+ years on the international road. I’ve been posting excerpts of that manuscript here every week for some time, now.

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The second book is an anthology (with a chapter-long essay as introduction) on loss, grief, and adaptation. Its title is Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward. Here, I post liberally from its 300+ pages of wise and varied voices.

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I also write short.
I am a published poet and will post some of my (long-ish) shorts here. I’ve posted several pieces already; dig a minute and you’re bound to find them.

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I also write creative personal essays.
Some have been published in journals and other blogs, and one recently garnered an award. I’ll post excerpts of them here, too.

I am beginning a children’s book
It will address loss and living onward and will be done in collaboration with a gifted illustrator. I’ll ask for your input. You’ll meet the illustrator if and when she’s ready to be revealed. Her work alone is worth hanging around for.

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And finally,

I am a poser of a photographer.

I’m learning to blend my newfound wonder for photography with my life-long and hard-core passion for the written word.

That’s this cozy sky blue/ocean blue blog you’re sitting in the middle of right this very moment.

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What else, you ask, can I expect when I come here to visit Melissa? (Besides, you mean, long-ish, probing posts that sometimes leak tears and sometimes crackle with laughter?)

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The last posts, as you’ve perhaps read by now, have treated some “Don’t Do’s” of co-mourning: Don’t judge or preach, don’t disregard or disappear, don’t enforce arbitrary deadlines, etc. Over the coming posts, you can expect me to examine the nature of “Can Do’s” in the face of great grief. In two posts from now, for instance, I’ll tell about the necessity of “Continuing” by introducing you to Antonini, a family friend, who was the last survivor of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Enough to reduce to moltenness any brittleness in our spines, that post should not be missed.

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Through the posts beyond that, and with your help, we’ll delve into the experience of the death of a beloved. What does it mean to a mother? A father? A sibling? Grandparents? A friend? An extended community? Strangers? What are the implications of tragic loss for our faith? For our non-faith? In other words, what can we learn, broadly and specifically, from death and other losses? What meaning do we deliberately or indiscriminately assign to suffering, to “mortality’s primary companion,” as one insightful reader here put it?

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At that point, I’ll update our Table of Contents. By then, Global Mom will be ripe for public consumption and you’ll probably want to return with me to those excerpts and our family’s years living in Paris, (where I last dropped off my readers somewhere on the rainy cobblestones near the Louvre), then continue to Munich, then Singapore and finally to where we live now, in Switzerland.

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There’s plenty to share with you about Switzerland, as there is about Sicily, where our daughter lives as a missionary (really – who’s going to believe this?) among the Mafia.

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And I will faithfully update you on news on Grief and Grace.

**

Before we all finish that morning cup, stretch our arms and brush the wrinkles out of our pants, a parting quote from Peter Wehmeier’s, Picasso und die christliche Ikonographie.

If I can claim a personal mantra as a writer, this would be it:

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In the face of death, art’s duty – indeed, her raison d’être – is to recall absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, surmount isolation, and facilitate the expression of the unutterable.

**

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Again, thank you for coming here. For all the reasons listed in that quote, I hope you’ll come often.

Dispassion

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It’s a spring afternoon of 2009, nearly two years following Parker’s death, and the counselor at our children’s school in Munich has invited a short list of students and faculty whom Dalton has hand-selected to gather in an empty upper floor room during an extended recess and lunch period.  The whole building will be empty during that hour, the counselor’s assured us, so that we can count on no disturbances whatsoever.  We’ll need this time.  Dalton’s been preparing for many months for this moment.

“Now, all of you’ve been invited here specifically by Dalton,” the counselor begins after we’re all settled. There are about a dozen girls and boys sitting to my left and my right in a circle, twelve and thirteen-year-olds all of them.  Dalton’s favorite teacher, his English professor, is sitting directly across from me, and Randall is to my immediate right. The four chairs to my left separate me from Dalton.

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“He’s invited you,” the counselor continues, “because he has something he wants to share and he trusts you. What we will discuss today stays here, unless Dalton invites any of you to share this information further. Is that good with you, Dalton?

He nods.

“Good with everyone else?”

Everyone else nods.  I’m focused on the middle of the circle where we’ve set Parker’s djembe, his treasured African drum.

“I wonder,” says the counselor, “if you all could just note on this slip of paper I’ve given you something that you’ve lost. It can be something intangible or it can be a home or a person, anything. But I want this to be a thing whose loss has really hurt you. Maybe it still hurts you. Just write it down and then you can place your paper on top of here.”

She points to Parker’s drum.

I watch as these kids and their teachers soften, and a spirit of thoughtfulness and sincerity seeps around the circle.  I also watch Dalton carefully. He had been sleepless and cramped on the floor of the bathroom all night.

“I’m not sure I can do this, Mom,” he’d said as I’d wiped his forehead with a cool washcloth around 3:00 a.m.  He was on his side in a quasi fetal position.  “What if. . what if I tell them and. . .”

“And. . .and what?” I asked, running the cloth under cold water again. I squeezed out the excess. I dabbed his face.

“What if I tell them and they just. . .they. . .” He was sweating, holding his stomach.

“They don’t do anything? What if they don’t care, you mean?” I knew my boy. And I knew this same leaden, justifiable fear. What if I bare my soul to someone and he leans away from, not into, the conversation? What if I expose the enormous hole in my torso and no one sees it, no one feels it?

That’s the great fear.

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And that is why, for nearly two full school years, Dalton has made acrobatic contortions at school to avoid any discussion about his family.  He’s done everything to avoid mentioning his brother, the one who had been Dalton’s living idol one month before he’d arrived at this new school, the same one who had been buried two weeks before landing here.  In this new community, everyone asked that thing you always ask when you meet the new student, “So, do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Dalton decided to lie.  He had no older brother.

But the deception and the denial were literally making him ill.

So on a spring day during a noon hour, we’re in a schoolroom where the students are writing down and then talking of their various losses: grandparent, aunt, uncle, pet. They write about lost friendships and missed opportunities and forfeited stability because of moving from country to country their whole lives.  Some write down a lost possession – their home in another hemisphere, for instance – some write down “lost time”.

Not one, however, writes about losing a big brother.

“Thanks, everyone,” says the counselor.  “Well, you’re here today because Dalton has lost something that is extremely valuable to him, more precious than almost anything else in his life.” The counselor is no way maudlin, just serious but warm.  I breathe heavily with love for her and for what she’s doing, with love for all these youth who are taking their lunchtime to be sitting here, circling our boy.

“And because Dalton cares so much about this thing he’s lost, and because he cares about you, too,” she adds, “he wants to share some of that loss with you. Is that good?” She scans the circle. All eyes are fixed, alert. “Okay, Dalton, would you like to share with us?”

I watch my boy – soft, blonde, cautious, eyes like chips of aquamarine –- I watch him take a breath. I watch the muscles around his mouth, the place you usually catch the first cracks of breaking apart. I also watch his friend, a small Jewish Israeli boy named Itamar, who’s sitting at Dalton’s elbow, his mop of almost-black hair just brushing into his thick dark lashes, those huge soulful eyes watching Dalton, our Nordic prototype, as he begins to speak slowly, deliberately.

“I want to tell you. . .” Dalton begins as he stretches his fingers out on a gold-brown spiral bound book he’s been holding flat on his lap, “I want to share with you someone who is important to me. This,” he lifts up the album of Parker to show an enlarged photo of a handsome teenager with dark hair, a crimson red rugby shirt and half a grin, “This is my big brother. His name is Parker.”

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Burning creeps up my face and I look over toward Randall with an impulse to take his hand in mine, but I don’t because in the tension of the moment I know the slightest movement could topple things. I wipe my palms discreetly on my pant legs.

The counselor is smiling at Dalton, helping him along. His English teacher is quiet, her eyes large and already rimmed in shine. The boys and girls in the circle, as I quietly look around, are motionless, reverent, even.

“Parker is what I have lost,” Dalton adds.  He lifts his brows, his mouth is pinching and then shaking a bit, “He passed away in a water accident not so long ago when he was trying to save another student from. . .”

And right then, a sound like a rabbit being injured arises from behind Itamar’s dark mop of hair that is now hanging toward his lap, and his delicate shoulders under a black and rust speckled sweatshirt were rounded over.  They’re shaking. Dalton stops speaking, and turns his widened eyes toward Itamar. The black-haired boy raises his head. There are already tears dripping down the light olive face, and pain transforms those brown eyes.  He’s crying openly, like this is his own loss.

As if by synergy, Dalton’s eyes fill with tears, too, but his eyebrows are raised. These are tears of surprise. But more than that, they’re tears of relief and joy, the look you’d see on someone who’d slaved day and night for weeks but still never thought he’d deserve to pass the big final exam, but got – holy cow!—the highest score in the class. Surprise, relief, joy! Then Dalton touches Itamar’s shoulder, as if comforting him, while Itamar continues to wipe the flow of tears with his grubby, oversized sleeve.

“I want you to know about what happened to Parker,” Dalton says,  “because he’s a great brother and he’s so important to me.”

While the rest of the world outside our building grows more and more quiet (I wonder what’s happened with the afternoon recess and all the children’s laughter and screaming from moments earlier), Dalton begins narrating with a stronger voice.

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He sits straight and tells a bit about the pages of the album, holding each up and turning the book so everyone in the room can see: Parker holding his arms around his two younger brothers at basketball and volleyball championships;

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Parker with arms around his family at high school graduation;

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Parker hiking with his family;

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On family vacations;

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Teaching Dalton and Luc to bike or swim;

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Hanging out and watching movies with Claire and his brothers;

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Going to church;

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Eating his favorite, ice cream;

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Laughing in the sunshine and goofing around beneath starlight;

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Pictures of a real live person, a brother, friend, an actual human being. A reality.

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The students are first speechless, and two girls to my right are wiping under their eyes. Everyone – every last person, I note – is leaning into the conversation, reaching their attention toward this story, asking to hold the book themselves if Dalton doesn’t mind. Could they just see – his name’s Parker, right?– if they could see Parker. If Dalton could just hand them all his pictures of this real person, this brother named Parker.

**

Compassion does not always look like Itamar.  It’s not always unfiltered emotion, the free flow of tears. (And by the same token, not all tears express compassion.) Some people cry easily, unselfconsciously, comfortably. Some weep with abandon.  Others are biochemically unable or culturally forbidden to show tears.  Still others might suppress tears for selfless reasons (they’re worried about how their tears might affect others); others will not cry for selfish reasons (they’re concerned about how their tears will reflect on themselves).

More often, (and this should make co-mourning possible for all of us, even the most severely tear-challenged) compassion might look somewhat like the students and teachers in that circle.  Some cried. But more didn’t.  Still, everyone had certain traits in common, all of which were facilitated by the wise (and compassionate) counselor.  Everyone was present. They came, gave their time, opened their ears and hearts.  They gave the moment their full attention.  They didn’t tell Dalton (or Itamar or anyone in their circle) to stop crying, nor did they show any signs of being uncomfortable when they themselves started crying. In all, the impact of the moment came from everyone’s posture: they leaned into the story. They spontaneously encouraged Dalton to tell more, to share all he wanted, because he could be sure it would be honored by and safe with them. There was no question that they cared. Dalton became a new boy thanks, to a great measure, to that one liberating and loving moment.

I’ve revisited this schoolroom experience so many times in my mind, wondering about the significant, even life-altering learning that might have been lost if instead of compassion dispassion had driven our approach to grief.  What if no one had provided a safe environment for Dalton to share his sorrow, his Parker?  If someone (a parent, a teacher, a friend) had instead told him to forget his brother, to get to work and lose his self-pity in some distraction, to get on with life, to suck it up, pull his wagon, keep a stiff upper lip, to be big boy? (He had, after all, turned thirteen by then.)

What if someone had instructed Dalton not to cry, not show any vulnerability, not to articulate what is of deepest and eternal value to him? What if he had been trained already at that age – the age when society and hormones are already well at work impelling boys into a toughening phase – to mask his pain (which would mean masking his love), by playing the stoic, the macho?

What would those other students have not experienced, if they had not been in that room? Watching a young man be frank and tender, another moved by pure sympathy to sobs? If they’d never witnessed their teachers, too, all adults and authority figures, also moved and softened?

And what would I have missed, had I not observed this precious, powerful hour when my child, frightened by his sorrow and sorrowful because of his fears, was able to express and receive love? Love in the form of an Israeli boy who had never met or seen or talked with a person named Parker, but who was, by some sudden rush of unadorned humanness, able to feel something of what his friend was feeling.

As if that list of learned lessons is not enough, there’s more. I’m not quite finished with our story yet.  The classroom is still full, we’re still in a circle. Let me share with you the last thing we would all have missed, had we not allowed this hour to happen.

At this point, the room on that second floor of the school building is rather quiet, except for some whispering as Dalton begins turning pages and narrating his photo album, and the sound of Itamar blowing his nose into a tissue the English teacher has just handed him. Students start to chat softly, two and two, as they pass the Parker book around the circle.  I keep my eye on Dalton, whose entire posture has changed from closed and shadowed to open and gleaming.  He’s pointing to the page with a shot of Parker playing a drum solo in his senior class talent show at his school in Paris: “Of everything Parker did,” Dalton’s smiling now, “basketball, volleyball, swimming, hanging out with all his friends, even eating ice cream. . .I think what he loved the most was drumming. That’s why we brought his drum today.”

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Right then, from directly beneath our feet and as if on cue, someone begins playing a drum set.  An explosive, vibrating drum riff that goes and goes and goes. It startles Dalton, the English teacher shoots me a glance, I reach to squeeze Randall’s hand, two of the boys look at the floor then all around the walls and then back at each other, perplexed but oblivious. And Itamar holds the tissue at his nose.

I softly shake my head. Randall grins.  By that time, these kinds of coincidences aren’t entirely new to us anymore.

We listen for several more minutes while Dalton tells all he can about his brother, and while some stranger wielding pretty wicked drum sticks tears it up under our feet.

The kids need to return to class, the tin of cookies we’ve shared is down to crumbs, light is shining through the windows, there are no more tears, and the invisible drummer retreats to whatever mysterious place he’d come from.

But his silent rhythm follows us all the way home and beyond.

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Disregard, Disassociation, Distance

More of my photos from Gruyères as a respite for your eyes

More of my photos from Gruyères as a respite for your eyes

This opening story, like the last one I posted, is dangerous but instructive and essential. It is also, I hope, beautiful. Not beautiful in the conventional sense, but beautiful in its discord-leading-to-resolution. Before sharing, I want to explain that I’ve already passed it under the eyes of those implicated, and in their humility and loving-kindness they’re willing to have it shared publicly even if it’s not too terribly flattering at first. They want it told.

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Two months into our new life in Munich, two months after burying our son in another country, and my parents have not contacted us yet.
No phone calls. No emails. And I’m growing despondent.
But do I call them?
No.
Why not?
Because I’m overwhelmed with sadness, for one thing. I’m saturated with our three children’s sadness, with my husband’s sadness, which sad saturation is compounded, of course, by the demands of an international move managed under extreme physical and psychological impairment, and in the vacuum of no familiar support community, a vacuum that’s gaining suction with every week that passes.
Why else am I not calling? As strange as it seems I am afraid.
I am afraid that family and friends are now done. They’ve moved on to brighter things, lighter things.
And then the trailing question to that thought strangles me: is that what they’re expecting me to do, too? Be done? Am I supposed to “get over it”? Get it behind me? Get to work? Get myself together, get a grip, get on with life, get a life?
I’ve never done this before, this incomprehensible and inescapable  pain, so I don’t know the rules. I do know, however, that I’m doing really well just getting up.
I’m afraid of other things, too. I’m afraid of what might happen as soon as I open my mouth, afraid of the inadequacies of language to transmit what I can barely understand myself, afraid of puncturing the thick and sacred walls I’ve built around this island of grief we’ve been shipwrecked on.
Furthermore, I’m afraid that my call will be misperceived as a prompt for pity.
But here’s the main thing: in spite of all of the above and far deeper than every other fear, I am afraid that if no one talks with me about my son he will begin to slip from my grasp. He will disappear into oblivion. I recoil at a quote I find from Russian author Alexander Pushkin, “Oblivion is the natural lot of anyone not present. It’s horrible, but true.”
So this, fear instructs me, is how I will lose my child a second time.
Confused, overwhelmed and afraid, I go even deeper inside. I climb down into a crater I’ve dug with my nails in the middle of my grief island. And I crouch there. I go very, very quiet. And a wee bit crazy. Bereaved parents – even those in the very best of circumstances – often feel crazy. Just ask them. I get a bitter little swig of the crazees.
I crouch. I wait. I watch. I wait. And wait.
I wait more.

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Last week of October and a gunmetal gray day presses down on the Isar river outside our apartment window. The leaf-shedding trees I’ve been watching daily, hourly, are emaciated, stripped down to bark nakedness. I am in my robe. It is midafternoon. The phone rings. It is my parents. The call goes something like this:
(They’re both addressing me on speakerphone. Their voices are slightly unnatural, and remind me of pastel taffy. Sugary softness wrapped in wax with tight twists at both ends.)
“Our whole California trip was just wonderful, Melissa. Very enjoyable and relaxing.”
Pause.
“. . .Um-huh.”
Pause.
“Yes. Mom and I thought the hotels were comfortable, and the weather, well, what did you think, Donna?”
“Very comfortable. Unseasonably warm. . .even balmy. . .”
Pause.
“. . .Um-huh.
Pause.
“And then there was the hotel swimming pool. Kidney shaped. Too cold, but deep aqua tiles. Pretty to look at.”
Pause.
“. . .Um-huh.”
And so forth.
When we hang up, I drop the phone on the bed. I’m immobile with exhaustion. I can’t lift my head. From one half-opened eye I see on the bedspread that I’ve left a dark blue tear-print as big as a tile-lined kidney-shaped swimming pool.
Alone in this small, dim bedroom I feel all my cells collapsing and my bones turning to syrup and my torso cramping and my neck muscles tensing. Then I hear an animal in me yowling very quietly through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw.
And I fall majorly apart.
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Who knows how long it lasts.
At some point I pull myself together, gather my wits, blow my nose, pray out loud, cry a few words to Parker, and call back my parents. That conversation goes something like this:
(My voice is also slightly unnatural, like I’m just coming out from under anesthesia.)
“Mom?”
“Oh, it’s you again, honey. Good, good! Did we forget something?”
“I. . .I need. . .” I have been lying on my side, but now I sit up to assume my erect, well-planted persona. This way I can breathe and project better. “I am going to say something now. . .”
“Melissa? Did we do something? You sound. . .Wha – did we say the wrong thing?… Sweetheart?”
(“David, come back. Hurry. She’s on the phone.”)
“Mom?. . .I need. . .what I want is. . .” I close my eyes. “Can we just talk. . .talk about. . . about what matters?
By now my dad, who’s turned off the speakerphone, has the receiver close to his lips. His voice vibrates in its lowest register. I know this voice: panic-control mode.
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“Melissa? Now tell us please, honey. What do you need to talk to us about?”
I try to speak, but it’s too physically demanding to push words ahead of the crying that is surging, it seems, upwards from the floor of my gut, so I make some incomprehensibly muffled sounds. My parents wait patiently on their end of the line as I begin filling up that kidney-shaped pool with the tears of a child.
Infantilized. I’m six years old again, needing my mommy and daddy, I think while I keep fighting for breath between gasps and whimpers, scrambling to find my mind, find myself. How can this be happening? I don’t know how to control any of this. This forty-something someone, the one who just a short season ago was resourceful and commanding enough to referee several major international moves, plucky and outspoken enough to lecture before hundreds, a turbo-chargedjoie de vivre Type A type. . .That someone is replaced by a mucus-drooling amoeba, a formless heap of swollen-eyed sweaty-stale bathrobeness that can’t form a single pronounceable shape in her rubber-slobbery mouth.
“Melissa?” My dad’s now whispering.
“Oh, Melissa, dear, what did Dad and I do? Was it the pool, honey? Oh, darling…” my mother’s voice is cracking. “That’s it, David. I knew it. Oh, I. . .Should we, should we not have said the word pool?. . .David, you see? I just knew we’d say something wrong–”
“No! NO, Mom.” I drill a fist into the mattress. “No! I. . .I just – I need to talk. . .But. . .I can not talk about just anything. I have to talk about Parker. About him. I need us to talk about Par—
The dam ruptures. The floodgates smash. Deluge. Tides of tears. From both sides of the Atlantic.
Remorse.
Apologies.
Love.
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Hurriedly, my parents explain that they’ve intentionally not called for so long to “give us room”. They didn’t want to “open any wounds”, they say. They didn’t want to “remind us of our loss.”
“The longer we didn’t take contact,” my mom’s voice is twisted with pain, “the more awkward we felt about calling.”
“You hadn’t been calling us”, my dad interjects softly, “so we reasoned that you must have been doing well. . . enough.”
Which they knew was probably unlikely, they say, but they had at least hoped. . .And in the worst case scenario if in fact we weren’t doing well we probably wanted to be left alone. “Were we wrong?” my dad asks.
“Besides all of that,” my mom cuts in, “we’ve been traveling, you know, and lecturing,” which I know was their way of finding a practical distraction from heavy things. My dad, during those days around the funeral, had been discreetly clenching his chest. I didn’t know how much of the weight of grief his aging heart could bear. He probably needed reprieve. “Death, like the sun,” wrote La Rochefoucauld, “are not to be looked at steadily.”
They explain to me how hard it was to decide to finally call, that before they dared pick up the phone, they’d agreed on a game plan. No mention of anything even remotely associated with Parker. And by all means keep the tone upbeat and frothy – light, feathery talk – to divert attention from, you guessed it, the mammoth Isle of Grief I was sitting on, the one as big as the whole Atlantic ocean between us. The one getting bigger by the moment.
I have no words. I wrap a moist, shredding tissue in and around my fingers, which are stone cold.
“Melissa, sweet daughter,” my mom’s voice is loosening as if massaged with oil. “We love you, honey, and we’re so sad about Parker we can hardly. . .” There is silence. I hear the unfamiliar sound of my mom trying to talk through tears.
“What your mother’s trying to say,” my dad adds, “is that we can hardly breathe.”
Now it is the far more unfamiliar sound of my dad struggling through tears.
“We are sorry, darling.” Mom has the voice of a young girl.
“And,” Dad clears his throat, “we’re deeply, deeply sad. Mournful. You know,” he speaks so softly that if I close my eyes, I could swear he and my mom are sitting on the edge my bed, “this is all so new to us. We don’t know how to do this well. But let’s change this, can we? Can we change this and stay in this horrible thing together? Please?”
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Every blessed day from that moment on and for months on end, at three a.m. Mountain Standard Time, my mom, unable to sleep for her own suffocating sorrow at losing her beloved oldest grandchild, called Munich.

**

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The newly bereaved are incapable of thinking of anything else but their loss and their past. Buttoning a collar, folding gym socks, stapling homework, putting a key in the ignition, sitting and staring and feeling their own heart beat–all of it is downright freighted, barnacled, throbbing with loss. If we as co-mourners think it is our job to fill our interactions with our grieving friends with empty chatter in order to not “remind” the bereaved of their loss, or if we feel things will be better if we never say a word, we are mistaken. If we think it’s better we all pretend nothing happened, and that we as friends are safer staying far away, we are also terribly mistaken.

Being thus mistaken, we might find ourselves returning to our broken friends much (too much) later saying the following. (I will protect the identity of the speakers, but want you to know that these are not fiction. They are quotes with good people’s faces behind them):

“I couldn’t speak to you. Your story kind of intimidated me.”
“I just didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. I am so sorry.”
“I was afraid I’d say something that would hurt you more.”
“I didn’t want to get you worked up about the past.”
“I figured you wanted space.”
“I’ve never known loss, so I don’t know how to do this.”
“I didn’t want to impose myself.”
“Your pain frightened me. You looked too sad to approach”
“I felt totally helpless. I kept trying to find something original to say. But I guess I never found that thing.”
“You were so sad for so long, and I was worried. I thought the gospel was supposed to fix these things.”
“We didn’t know how to help you find closure.”
“I’ve been an awful friend. Honestly, I’ve been so distracted with other things in my life.”
“We thought we’d wait a few weeks until you looked like you were over the worst part, until you were healed. Then it seems the weeks passed so quickly and, well. . .”
“I know it’s been a few months since I last checked in. Can you catch me up?”
“A parent’s worst nightmare. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I just didn’t dare get close to it, to you.”

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The newly bereaved can become despondent and/or angry and/or resentful if we as co-mourners choose to avoid them. If fear, discomfort , self-absorption or self-consciousness drive us to silence or to a literal detour away from them (and down another aisle in the grocery store, for instance), the bereaved will probably interpret this as a tacit disregard of their loss. We needn’t ambush them with attention or crush them with affection. But if we disassociate ourselves from them while we wait at a distance for them to “get over it” , we not only lose the great blessing – for them and for us – to help them in their greatest hour of need which will offer us a chance for great spiritual bonding with them and with heaven, but we risk disappearing from that relationship definitively. The process of mourning is by nature constant, constantly changing and communal; it is not something distanced friends can later “catch up” on.

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So we have a challenging dynamic here. We grief-stricken have to ask ourselves: is this harmful conspiracy of silence partially our own fault? I have a hard time admitting it myself, but I’ve concluded that yes, it’s partially been my fault. This conspiracy of silence was partially my fault because, as is typical and understandable of those battling with the huge physiological and psychological demands of acute grief, I simply did not have it in me to coach others on how to reach me.

And, as the story of the phone call illustrates, the very idea of coaching others – even the most intimate and lifelong confidantes – on how to grieve with me was loaded with traps and cul de sacs and second-guesses and frustration.
I have reason to believe that in this respect, my story is not at all unique.
From all that I have gathered in five years of studying this, most bereaved generally don’t want to force on anyone a conversation about their deceased loved one although a continued conversation is exactly what they want and need.

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Why are we bereaved so tentative, then, about initiating such conversations? There are as many reasons as there are grievers. But here are just a few possibilities. What if people stare back dully (as some will), or look at their watches (as some will), or grow jittery and awkward, stuttering with no response except maybe, “So. . . is it therapeutic for you to talk about your [son, sister, wife, father] like this?” (as some will.)
What if they quickly change the subject?
As many (most) undoubtedly will.

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Challenging dynamics, indeed.
And of course they are challenging. They are challenging because there is little in life that is as intimate as the loss of it, little that is as delicate and multidimensional as the living’s personal response to it. And someone else’s loss puts my own mortality in boldface. And certain cultures are squeamish about touching on painful and unphotogenic issues. And, and, and. But all these And’s don’t absolve us from the charge to counter the old modes of response with something that is authentic and broken in ourselves. Because true religion (what happens between us human beings in extremis) is supposed to be challenging. How else are we to be brought to Christ but through challenging dynamics? Challenging relationships?

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**

What will happen to us when we find ourselves not in a supporting role in a drama of in extremis, but when we are the lead figure? When the tragic loss is our own, not our neighbor’s? And then our parents don’t call and we feel the first heart-hardenings of despondency. And then church members appear incapable of engaging in our life so colored with mourning, and we feel the slightest simmer of resentment. When a sibling here or a sister-friend there disappears, it seems, from off the face of the earth, and we smell a small saucepan of outrage boiling on our frontal lobe.

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When our heart begins feeling a bit dried out, then brittle, then crusty from anger, curling up around the edges under a low grade fuming, toasting under the grill of judgment, blistering beneath the scorch of our own expectations?

What then?

We might call to mind Job, who lost livelihood and life, family and friends, all his possible supporting actors: “He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintances are verily estranged from me./ My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me.” (Job 20:13,14)

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And in the final chapter of his book, this man who has literally nothing left to lose, offers up a precious intangible. He offers forgiveness.

Upon seeing God clearly for the first time, (“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye seeth thee”), Job feels compelled to repent “in dust and ashes.” When he does, God announces that Job will be acceptable when Job “prays for his friends.”

Job’s trial is not complete, his refinement not perfected until he forgives and prays for and on behalf of those who have added to his misery.

He has seen God. Now he is being asked to be as God. Stripped of all former glory, ground into the dust, mocked, misjudged, condemned, abandoned.

And still worthy to become the High Priest only on condition of mercy and forgiveness:

“And the Lord turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends.”

What might that prayer have been, the one Job spoke on behalf of his friends? I suspect it would have prefigured another prayer uttered by the only true and great High Priest:

“Father, forgive us all for we know not what we do.”

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**

From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward

If you and I want to be free of the bitterness that estranges us from others and eats away at our own struggle to find joy again, we are going to have to forgive and pray for the friends who have let us down. They might not deserve it. In fact, they probably don’t. But then, we don’t forgive people because they deserve it; we forgive them because we’ve been forgiven so much by God and because we want to keep in close relationship with God.
–Nancy Guthrie, Holding on to Hope, 68

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings—never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.
—N. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 35

There’s only one thing worse than speaking ill of the dead—and that is not speaking of the dead at all.
—Anonymus

It seems impossible to me to understand the cruelty of friends and family who desert parents at such a time. But in my research I found countless couples who had horror stories to relate, such as a brother, once close, who stopped calling his sister shortly after her child died, or friends who were never heard from again after the funeral.
–H. Schiff, The Bereaved Parent, 102

Good friends are like angels. Our friends brought us God’s presence and love. They did not solve our problems, as if grief were a problem to be solved. They did not dispense pious phrases. Our closest friends allowed us to be in as much pain as we were in and did not trivialize it by trying to move us beyond it. The angel in the garden did not say to Jesus, ”There, there.” In fact, we do not know what the angel said, or if the angel said anything at all. We are quite comfortable with not having anything to say.
–G. Floyd, My Grief Unveiled

Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.
–Thomas Merton

Disallowing, Diminishing, Dismissing

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(These photos I took last weekend on a family outing to the medieval village of Gruyères in the foothills of the Alps, less than an hour’s drive from our home. I only realize now after writing this post, that in these shots Randall is wearing the leather bomber jacket I mention below. I also note that these days he wears a smile far more than he wears tears. But he’s never wanted to remove the stains.)

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“Mel,” my husband said as he inched toward me, an open letter in his hand, “I think I need to talk through this one with you.”

Randall was wearing a brown leather bomber jacket, the one he’d bought Parker for his senior year in high school. Throughout the five months since Parker’s death, my husband had been wearing that jacket every day; on his long drive to the office, during his lonely lunch hour walks, during 15 minute breaks hiding in his car in the underground parking lot, on that lonely, howling drive back home. By now, the leather was so speckled and discolored from tearstains, it looked like armadillo hide. A pockmarked hand-me-down from his dead son. A mourning uniform. An extra heavy skin for his skinlessness.

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As he stood there, I could see fresh stains on the chest of the jacket. They looked like cartoon exclamations – “Pow!” or “Bam!” – dark bullet holes all spiky round the ridges. Randall’s eyes were red, and he tugged the jacket around himself when he sat on the sofa, then held the letter in both hands, unable to read it to me.

I took the paper and saw it was from a valued friend, a person we respect and love, a good and devoted church associate from many years earlier, a person with whom Randall had been able to remain in contact despite all our geographic moves.

As Randall stared at the floor, I read the letter to myself. By the fourth sentence I knew why it had triggered tears and the feelings Randall would “have to talk through.”

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Our friend was writing with concerns. Some mutual associates had reported having seen Randall, and noted that Randall was “still quite sad.”

And so our friend felt to check in. And felt compelled to offer some advice.

I hear you’re still very sad, Randall, the letter began. So I feel a responsibility to ask: Are you praying? Reading your scriptures? Attending your church meetings? Have you tried fasting? When was the last time you attended the temple? Have you pondered on our Father’s plan of happiness?

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At this point in telling you this story, I’m already so uncomfortable, and realize I’m cornered. No matter how I continue here, I know I’ll sound petty or pouty or jerky or prickly or a dark shade of snarky.

So I’ll quick-edit to the sweet ending, three months later, when Randall and I just happened to run into this very friend at a large international conference. We’d long since folded up that letter and tucked it in a safe padded place in our hearts, but when I first sighted this friend from across the expansive hall teeming with people, there was the faintest smell of a burning memory, darn it, with its distant sizzle and tiny paisley swirls of smoke.

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I was recalling how Randall and I had coached each other through the compounded sorrow, reasoning that this friend must have written that letter with love and concern, maybe even desperation. This friend had probably seen others who, in the wake of tragedy, had lost their grasp on (or had pitched altogether) their faith. So our friend was intervening.

But this kind of intervention hurt. It hurt because the unsolicited counsel felt almost like a reprimand, particularly since we had been praying, reading, attending, fasting – doing all those things listed. What’s more, we’d being doing them not because anyone had prescribed them, but because our souls utterly craved them. We craved them with a wild feral hunger I find difficult if not impossible to describe.

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It was not the points themselves that were bad, of course. In fact, living in a way that draws you close to the Spirit is vital to strengthening the soul under the burden of grief. Vital as in a question of life and death, I’d say. No, it wasn’t the points. It was the dispensing of the points in that context that was not helpful. Because the implication was that our grief was incompatible with faith. How could we be sad – still sad – and still be faithful?

Or the reverse: How could anyone be faithful yet still be sad?

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What would have been a more helpful letter? Maybe something like this:

I hear you’re still very sad, Randall.
And of course you are. I’m still sad, too. Very, very sad.
Love, your broken-hearted friend.

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Randall thought many times of writing back to this friend, and was in fact in the process of doing so when we miraculously landed in the same building on a warm April afternoon.

In that big hall we met eyes, this friend and I, and I recognized right off that the look in that face across the room was one shadowed with something that looked like remorse. I, though, was smiling. Broadly. In a matter of seconds, my heart felt full and tender towards him. Who can explain it?

So where was my husband? I craned my neck to find Randall. He’d want to see this friend, I knew it.

“Honey!” (I blurted it too loudly for the setting,) “Randge, hon-ey!” (My heart was hopscotching and blowing shiny soap bubbles everywhere) “Look who’s here!”

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I corralled our friend through the crowd and right up behind Randall, who was talking with someone else, and when I whispered the friend’s name, Randall whipped right around. In an instant, their two faces simply melted.

“Please, Randall,” this friend said, head shaking, eyes cast downward, “I’m so sorry for that letter, so sorry for. . .I don’t blame you if you’re angry with me, I was so – “

“Angry? No, no. I love you.”

And I could see: My husband really meant it.

In the middle of the packed hall, the two embraced. Lots of folks were greeting and hugging in that hall, I couldn’t help but notice, but this hug right here was the most moving of all possible hugs.

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It was a genuinely golden moment.

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Yes, I know I’ve unfairly bungee-jumped the narrative from the hurt point A to the hug point Z. This is because between B and Y there’s a whole dense volume of soul-shifting and an expansion of understanding that would rip the seams out of a snug little blog.

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(I might refer you to Dostoyevsky, who can really get under the fingernails of forgiveness.)

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I can add this brief aside, though: Grief requires forgiveness. From the first minutes. And from all sides. And for many reasons. There’s no way around that truth.

**

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Some of us on the outside of a tragedy looking in on it might be afraid of the sheer magnitude of what we see. We think perhaps things will be better if we reduce the grief – diminish it – as we might with a three-year-old child overreacting to a stubbed toe. “There, there. You don’t need to cry. Now be a big boy, pull yourself together and go out and play again.”

Or we advise, and in advising we try to manage another’s grief, disallowing it for what it is.

Or we simply dismiss another’s agony, as in any of the following statements:

You know, it could’ve been worse
These things happen to everyone
I sent my daughter to college and it was so hard I almost died. I guess death is even worse?
I sent my son on a mission and it nearly killed me. Death must feel worse?
Well, at least he died as a baby. It would have been worse to get to know him
Remember you have to be strong
Don’t let your kids see you crying
At least you’ve got other children
Your grieving can distract your deceased from her mission
Don’t wallow; Don’t dwell on it
Buck up; Suck up
But separation is just for this life. . .
You’ll just have to. . .
I’m sure you’ll be okay. Just give it some time

(The word “just” sends the message of simplicity, smallness. Traumatic loss is neither simple nor small.)

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The above comments, I’ve concluded, are almost always rooted in misunderstanding.

So here is a brief note to stimulate understanding: If grief lasts more than X months or if it is neither tidy nor capable of putting on a happy face, is this a sign of moral or spiritual weakness? Is grief a sin? Is grief a sickness to be cured? Is it necessarily pathological?

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As a possible answer to those queries, I suggest that faith is not only entirely compatible with grief, but it can be that there in the depths of grief, there where you feel your bones ground into the roughest bedrock of grief’s valley, that faith can acquire greater density and a far brighter and more durable luminosity than you have ever before known.

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**

From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward

Mostly I have tried to avoid [grief] by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life had not fallen apart. But your life has fallen apart, the illusion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then you keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.
—A. Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 72, 73

One must grieve, and one must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief. One must refuse the easy escapes offered by habit and human tradition. The first and most common offerings of family and friends are always distractions (“Take her out”—“Get her away”— “change the scene”— “Bring in people to cheer her up”— “Don’t let her sit and mourn”) [when it is mourning one needs]).
—A. M. Lindbergh, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, 215

After great pain a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions—was it He, that bore?
And Yesterday—or Centuries before?
The Feet mechanical, go round—
Of ground or Air, or Ought,
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

—E. Dickinson, “The Hour of Lead,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 272

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When I try to take myself back to that time, to recall the terrible numbness that I lived in, I recoil in fear. I never want to go through anything like that again. Originally, these songs were never meant for publication or public consumption; they were just what I did to stop from going mad. . . .
When [“Tears in Heaven”] came out, it was the biggest-selling album of my entire career. . . . But if you want to know what it actually cost me, go to Ripley, and visit the grave of my son.

—Eric Clapton, Clapton: The Autobiography, 250, 254; Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor died when he fell from a fifty-third-story window in New York City.

Grief is not a hurdle that we jump over at will or a barrier that we can avoid if we are careful. After his wife’s death from cancer, C. S. Lewis recognized the all-encompassing reality of grief: “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” (A Grief Observed, 11).
—W. Simsic, Cries of the Heart, 10

My father told me, “Mother is sick, she went to the hospital and she died. That’s it—there is nothing more to say.” I was 13. He did not take me to the funeral, and I was not included as a mourner in any of the family’s rituals. As a teenager and as a young woman, I always experienced a sense of malaise for which I have no name, as I got older, I learned I was grieving for my mother. I found words for all the things I was feeling. When I finally asked my father about his behavior—he said that was the advice he was given, to simply carry on and not dwell on the loss.
—Thirty-five-year-old woman interviewed in Silverman, Never Too Young to Know, 9

Most bereaved children like to remember and talk about the deceased with friends and relatives. Unfortunately, there is a phenomenon called “the conspiracy of silence” that makes it difficult for others to talk about the dead person because they are afraid of hurting the bereaved’s feelings. The bereaved person, on the other hand, has hurt feelings when people won’t talk about the deceased with them.
—Erin Linn, 150 Facts About Grieving Children, 10

My brother came in and he said, “Ma died” and he just started crying. Then I started punching walls and stuff. I was punching all over the place. I broke one of the pictures in my room. I smashed it all over the place. I was mad. I just went around the house punching everything. Getting mad and freaking out, punching everything and just crying and stuff. I cried the whole night. I didn’t even sleep. I guess my father would have liked me not to be mad and stuff and punch things, but I couldn’t stop.
—A nine-year-old recalling his mother’s sudden death, interviewed in Phyllis R. Silverman, Never Too Young To Know, 85

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How do you survive as a couple? How did we work out our differences? We talked, we love each other, and we held each other and we began to appreciate that we were different. . . . Each of us was grieving on different levels. I was very sad at the beginning, and he was very rational. . . . When we went to bed, I would talk about my feelings so I could go to sleep—and then he would have it all and he couldn’t sleep. He got to the point where he said, “Don’t talk,” and then that would breed resentment in me. It was a while after Ellen died, but we got to a place where we could hear each other.

—Interviewed in Phyllis Silverman and Madelyn Kelly, A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children, 133

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Many people tried to make [our surviving daughter] feel responsible for Steve and me, counseled her to “take care of us” because our son had died and it was “so much worse” for us. I encouraged her to ignore this advice. . .
Yet I’ll never forget one thing she told me after many years had gone by. “I didn’t lose my brother but my parents; you were never the same after that. You got old.” That is absolutely the naked truth. Our home was broken in a way that could never be fixed or returned to the normal it was when Adam was alive. Gray hairs popped out where they hadn’t been any before. No matter how hard we all tried to be present with each other, the grief irrevocably created emotional chasms. Moments of closeness faded into the wall of pain we each had around us. Adam’s absence was huge.

—Merryl Webber, interviewed in Redfern and Gilbert, The Grieving Garden, 139

But why celebrate stoic tearlessness? Why insist on never outwarding the inward, when that inward is bleeding? Does enduring while crying not require as much strength as never crying? Must we always mask our suffering? May we not sometimes allow people to see and enter it? I mean, may men not do this?
And why is it so important to act strong? I have been graced with the strength to endure. But I have been assaulted, and in the assault wounded, grievously wounded. Am I to pretend otherwise? Wounds are ugly, I know. They repel. But must they always be swathed?
I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see
.
—N. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 26

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The tears came freely, and I did not attempt to refrain them when I was alone. Indeed, for over a year, there was no day I did not weep, and I did not find that tears cut me off from her. It was the tearless void that severed us at times.
––Sheldon Van Auken, A Severe Mercy, 182

Giving myself to grief proved to be hard as well as necessary. It happened in both spontaneous and intentional ways. I could not always determine the proper time and setting for tears, which occasionally came at unexpected and inconvenient moments, such as in the middle of a college class I was teaching or during a conversation. I was surprised to see how inoffensive that was to others. If anything, my display of grief invited them to mourn their own losses, and it made the expression of sorrow a normal and natural occurrence in daily life.
—G. Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 42

During one particular time of prayer, I was lying prostrate with my face on the floor. I had just said to the Lord, “Something new needs to happen here.” I meant it in terms of my relationship with God and with John-Paul [his son who died]. “I am tired of the grief, the heaviness, the loneliness, the longing, the ache in my heart.” Just then someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was my friend Ed Greey. He bent down and said, “Can I talk to you?”
I got up and followed him into the kitchen. Ed is a big, strong, man’s man kind of guy—camping, fly-fishing, a genius with his hands. He was crying. No, he was weeping intensely. He put his hands on my shoulders and said through his tears, “I don’t know what’s happening here. All I know is that God has given me a burden for you—I feel the weight of the grief and sorrow you’ve been carrying these months. And I think God wants me to tell you that he wants to lift it—the grief and the sorrow—and give you joy. And, Gregory, he wants you to know how much he loves you.”
That was it. There were the two of us, standing in the kitchen embracing one another and weeping. As I think of it I am reminded of an amazing line of poetry I heard years ago while driving in the car:
There must be men among us whom we can cry [with]
And still be counted as warriors.

—Gregory Floyd, A Grief Unveiled, 157–59

Lake Geneva as we descend to our home

Lake Geneva as we descend to our home