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
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.
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.)
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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. 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.