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.

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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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