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.

Monkey Rock FallsPicture 518Picture 519

“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.

FAM3 2003- GoCH 2Ward PFBd UTadven161

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.

Picture 523

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.”

Picture 530

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.

FAM3 2003- GoCH 2Ward PFBd UTadven156

20 thoughts on “Standing Right On The Hinge

  1. I am reading Kate Braestrup’s book right now!! I am loving it and was really struck by the hinge vocabulary. I love this post. Thank you for sharing the sacred pictures and experiences.

    • jonette—Fabulous! I think Braestrup has wonderful insights and a roomy heart. So glad you are familiar with her! It was a blessing for me to be able to write this post and honor the goodness in others this way. Thanks for coming by and adding a valuable voice. —M.

    • Ma très chère Arlène,

      Avec ton mon coeur je t’envoie mes sentiments les plus tendres, plein d’amour et d’une fidélité éternelle. Je suis tellement contente que tu sois la, et voudrais te revoir une fois ou l’autre dans ta nouvelle vie, surtout avec ton petit (maintenant grand?) T. Peut-être bientôt?—Mélissa 🙂

  2. This would have been so difficult to write…thank you for sharing. December cemetery photo made my heart ache. I love your final lines “Right there on the hinge we find it so that, instead of falling over the ledge, we fall against them. And we are held.” Because there is a promise of hope and there is always LOVE…you have taught me that.

    • Sarah- I had no idea the December photo had ever been taken, let alone had been saved. I was trolling my Father’s archives for Parker-related photos and . . . very hard for me to look at, too. And because I have felt such love, I ache for those who experience tragedy ( or any other significant loss) and do not find that much love ‘waiting on the hinge.” All the more reason to treat even (or especially?) strangers with kindness: either they have just stepped out of pain, are walking in it now, or will step into it the next moment, unawares. The love we share will be healing, protective or a memory of power that will help them not go over the edge. We do our best, imperfectly. Love—M.

  3. I weep as I think of how Mr. H’s sensitivity and inspiration allowed your family to “come together” again with a whole community of co-mourners just when you all needed it most desperately. Beautiful.

    • Sharlee–He would be the first to say that it took other faculty and students to make the “coming together” happen. A community, led by one inspired person, can do tremendous good. Thank you for always “coming together” with me right here. Love, M.

  4. Beautiful. Simply beautiful. Reading bits and pieces of the story, I am beginning to understand it better- what happened and what you and your family have been through. And what you are still going through. And how that landscape has evolved. I am beginning, very slowly, to understand a little tiny bit of what you have learned. How will I keep it- this kind of love- at the forefront of my heart as a director of my hourly actions without the depth of and pain of experience to sear it in place?

    • Maren, I am so glad you’re here. Whew, you’ve asked the question of all questions. Even when we have experienced searing pain, we still have to choose and choose again “this kind of love” that you write about , choose to rivet it at the forefront of our hearts. Pain alone, of course, does not make a heart larger or more tender. We look at the world and see that personal pain can transmute just as easily to bitterness, cynicism, fear and violence as it does to tenderness, sensitivity, hope and peace of soul. I suppose it takes something beyond pain – something continual and reciprocal between people and their concept of God – to keep this kind of love as the “director” of our actions.

      You’ve written so beautifully here, Maren. Thank you!—M.

  5. Dearest Melissa:

    I’ve read nearly all your posts … and am always moved to tears by each one. In my heart I have so much to say, so much I feel, but it all seems so deeply profound as to defy expression (at least in the relatively “impersonal” vastness of a blogsphere environ). I long to look into your eyes and hold you close to tell you of my heart’s gratitude and love, to tell you how much I’ve ached for your loss, and learned from your tragedy, how often I’ve thought of you over these past nearly 6 years, how despite time and distance, we remain connected in our hearts, as we were right from day one.

    This post in particular resonated with me in ways that I can’t convey in words. “Right there on the hinge we find it so that, instead of falling over the ledge, we fall against them. And we are held.” How I love that imagery, that verity, the consummate gift of love that transcends all things in all ways. His love. And all the ways we weak, imperfect, flawed, and struggling mortals can pursue the path of His perfection by emulating – even in small, sometimes seemingly insignificant ways – His love and His undying fidelity. Of all the things we are sent here to accomplish, love alone, is the greatest and best.

    You were born to write and your words and ways and experiences will bless and comfort untold suffering for generations to come. I’m so happy you dug for the strength, determination, and courage to collect your grief and heartache into words which will soothe souls like the balm they were surely intended to be. I love you my friend, and your beautiful family … always. xoxo

    • Vesna- I’m left without good enough words to respond. Thank you for the effusive and sweet note above. It means so much to me that something I write penetrates someone else and leaves that person altered, even in a small way, and reflective and motivated and. . .loved, even. And it means so much that you would read these words and take the time and effort to come by and compose such a note. I’m encouraged and inspired. You’ve left deep, loving imprints here as well as in my heart.–Mel.

  6. Melissa, each time I visit to share in your words I struggle, struggle to maintain composure long enough to read and absorb your words, long enough to feel your pain and long enough to reconcile my own, long enough to have instant recall to a brother and sister now long gone. This may be a misplaced wish at this difficult time but I truly, and with all due respect, hope that in time you will share these writings in the form of a book of remembrance for your dear Parker.

    Your words are powerful, emotional, crafted with skill and compassion. Your story is being told here and must continue for every parent who has lost their beloved child. How much good your words must, and will continue to, do. My parents lost their first two children to Cystic Fibrosis. Mom in particular was never the same. She lived six years of heartache and grief to the likes I cannot begin to imagine.

    I surely do not draw any comparison here nor intrude on the privacy of your grieving. I am touched to the core of my being by every word you write, every moment you share. The photos here reflect something of beauty yet something so deeply painful. These images will stay with you a lifetime. That you had the courage and strength to stand in proximity to the place of your son’s taking just brings me to tears.

    I must imagine and hope, Melissa, that what you share here brings you, your husband, your children, friends and loved ones a closure yet also a sense of connection to the life and loss of Parker. May you live well in his memory. May he remain close to you always and be your guardian angel, your guiding light.

    Bless your dear heart for opening your heart, mind and soul that we might understand, embrace, and know your pain and your celebration. I have shed more than a single tear for Parker and for you this night Melissa. Thank you for these moments.

    Sending hugs to heal…always.

    • Don,

      Kind and caring words from you. I am wise enough to know that the reader is as essential to the quality of the reading experience as is the writer, and so I feel privileged to have found readers like you who bring such a soulful reading to my words. You know, I have dozens of posts in mind – all stacked in a waiting list of a personal calendar – and hope to get to them all. Time is now in the deficit more than courage is. Which is a good sign.

      If my readers were to come spend a day with me in person, they’d be surprised but maybe glad and relieved to experience me as a cheerful, upbeat person, not a morose and heavy-hearted one, that I am deliberate about joy, mine and everyone else’s.

      I like this line you just wrote: “May you live well in his memory.” That’s a gift of a challenge. I owe that to him.

      Warmth to you, Don, and thanks as ever for your scope of compassion–M..

  7. I am really loving the theme/design of your web site. Do you ever run into any internet browser compatibility problems?

    A handful of my blog readers have complained about my site not working
    correctly in Explorer but looks great in Chrome. Do you have any recommendations to help fix this problem?

    • Georgianna, Hi there — This theme is Booklite, and I switched from Sunspot a couple of months ago. Sunspot was more dramatic and eye-catching, maybe. But I needed a simplified format that, yup, looked much like a book. And I wish I could give you hints about how this format would look on Explorer vs. Chrome, but my own readers have reported problems, too. Be warned, though, that when you switch themes, your former content will be reformatted as mine had been, and that can’t be fixed without going into each post and manually reordering images, text, titles, etc. A pain. And time consuming. I’m still chiseling away at fixing it all! Best of luck to you in your blogging. hope you stop here often!—M.

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