The Last Noël — From On Loss and Living Onward

OUR LAST PARISIAN Christmas. And because we would be sending Parker, our eldest, off to college in June, we knew it would also be a “Last Christmas”—our last Christmas with all of us together, at least like this.

So I’d run myself ragged with holiday preparations: writing and direct- ing and performing in the church Christmas program; writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our ninety-five annual Christmas missives; decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and “getting into the holiday spirit.” At least that was the euphemism.

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That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I am not proud to write about. Instead of making merry with my family, I holed myself up in my bedroom for a couple of hours. In the stillness of that dark room, my body heaped unmoving upon the bed, the universe could have whispered into my heart, warning me that this would truly be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son.

Relish this evening, the universe could have stirred in me, as preparation. Memorize its every detail. Plant yourself in the middle of the scene and draw your family very, very close. Your child’s eyes—stare into them right now and learn by heart the patterns of his irises. Do you see their delicate blue-gray, their lively pupils, the way they stretch and contract in darkness and in sun- light? Do you know how much you need those eyes? This boy? His life?

There were no such messages from beyond. Or if there were, I was too distracted and far too tired to hear heavenly whispers or divine warnings or to feel celestial shoulder-tappings.

Something did, however, tap on my shoulder. And something did whisper. And something did warn me that this would be The Last Christmas with Parker. And that something was Parker himself.

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THE LAST NOËL: A TRUE CHRISTMAS STORY

“MOM?”

Her son, whose voice normally had the resonance of a foghorn, was whispering from the doorway.

She was on her side, knees curled up slightly, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum. Her eyes stayed closed. She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night lamp, away from the door, which she’d closed a couple of hours earlier, barricading herself into silence and as far as possible from the everyday holiday noises that emerged from the end of the hall: Kitchen sounds, a swirling, tinkling holiday CD, conversations between teenagers, the low word or two from Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in house slippers. A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there. Noises she simply wanted to escape. For as long as it would take.

She was doing it again, that thing she sometimes did. She was retreating into silence. She did this, usually, when she had overdone things. And she did have this tendency to take on too much, to leave herself no room for reverence, for breathing, for reflection, for rest. How many years had she done this? Why did she never learn? Another year-end marker and look, no change. Same old, same old. Old. Old. She felt old.

She tugged the purple comforter up to her eyes, which were leaking a lone, languid line of tears. Like a fine finger tracing with its tip, the saline trail went from the right eye over the bridge of her nose and into the corner of the left, or from the left eye down the left temple, slipping into the ear canal. Her nose grew wet in the same moment, and so she drew in one quiet sniff.

“Mom?” a voice came from the doorway. “Look . . .” the voice was moving closer behind her, “Listen, Mom.” It was her eldest son, and now he was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed. “Please, don’t do this,” he said. “Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider shifting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired. So bone-deep tired. And sad.

He sighed, her eldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sound that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? His maroon one, she remembered.

Should she just turn around and face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair that’s a bit soggy now, with tears drizzling past her ear and down her jawline? Just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some mirth into her limbs? Just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a toy train track—switch gears, flip some switch, just head back out? Smiling? Humming Bing Crosby?

She remained silent and still, hoping he’d think she was sleeping deeply.

This is when he tapped her right shoulder. And then he left his hand there. The heat traveled all the way through her, into the mattress (as she envisioned its course) and to the floor. How she wanted to respond. But her jaws were clenched, holding in all the softer feelings her heart held in its pulse.

“Why don’t you say something, Mom? What have I done? Okay, so I should have cleaned up the dishes first. But c’mon, they’re done now. Just . . . just come out there. Come see.”

She had lodged herself too far into the silence to creep out so easily now.

Tired of speaking, giving orders, answering to everyone. Tired and worn out. Another year: gone, wrung out like I feel, squeezed dry to its very last particle. Here we are again. Christmas. I should be keeping everyone’s spirit aloft. But I’m flattened.

Then she heard the lightest tap-tap on the door, and the sound of the door’s edge shuuuuushing over carpet. The smell of her husband’s cologne. She pulled the purple up over her head.

“Hey,” came a voice from the doorway.

“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his dad’s. And heavier. “Honey, we’d love for you to come out. Just eat a little dinner, ’kay? And then watch the movie with us. Maybe? No big production. Just be with us.”

So, so tired. And so emptied, clean out. All this pressure to be happy. Please. If you could let me be alone.

Her oldest son made a sudden move. His voice came from above her, now. “Alright. I’m just . . . I’m going to change things here.” There was ballast in that voice now, a clip on each consonant. “Mom. Mom? Get. Up. And. Turn. It. Around.”

She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled completely over, from left to right, opened her eyes, and found she was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans. Then the son knelt. His eyes met hers. He looked right into her. She’d never seen this look, at least not from him. The earnestness and resolve. The deliberateness.

“’Kay, I’m not going to add any drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all, you know? This is it.” He pounded a fist into the carpet and shook his head.

Was he trembling? What was the stiffness in his lower lip? In his chin?

“And so I want us to celebrate and have the Spirit. So will you please come out and be with us? Now? Mom?”

He took her hand, which gesture was a bit odd, but not too odd right then, and she let him take it. She felt each of his calluses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.

“Come on.” Now he was whispering so low she could hardly hear him. “Come on in here with me.”

The gesture, a tug, unlocked something in her bones and she moved, almost effortlessly, letting the purple wrap crumple to the floor as she trailed her son and her husband down the hall, into the light, the noise, the company of her family. The other three children looked at her, stopped tinkering and quibbling, and went quiet. A suppressed or hesitant grin and, “Hi . . . Mom!” came from the youngest child, who wriggled his nose under the round little red frames of his glasses.

“Okay. Everyone?” The son holding his mother’s hand announced in the middle of the room, “We need to have a prayer. We’re going to turn things around here. So . . . we need to pray together. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”

It was the prayer of a full-grown man. His mother—and everyone—felt its substance settle on their shoulders. They knelt for a moment in silence. But not that resistant, withholding kind of silence. This was the silence of soft awe, and like the invisible bending-swelling of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things around.

“Please . . .” the mother said, “I am so sorry,” and she looked around the circle. “It’s just been too much . . . again . . . and I needed to get some . . . distance. It’s not you, it’s— ”

“No, Mom,” the daughter said then cleared her throat, “it’s a lot, and we sometimes don’t know when we’ve made stuff hard for you, and—”

“Or when we’re bad—” said the six-year-old, who, the mom now noticed, had stars and candy canes drawn in neon marker all over his cheeks, chin, forehead, and forearms.

“No, you’re not bad,” the mother countered, as the innocent flamboyance of round red-rimmed glasses and temporary Christmas tattoos urged up into her throat a flash flood of regret and tenderness, “and this is not anyone’s fault . . .”

As the mother spoke, her words disgorged a whole swamp of apologies, into which all the children and the husband now waded with their own apologies.

Then they embraced, got off their knees . . . and embraced again.

The ten-year-old son, eyes darting as if with guilt, put his arms around his mother’s waist and asked, “You want me to scrub the stars and candy canes off him?” She shook her head and squeezed his shoulders, then watched him scuffle off with the youngest child at his side, turn back once, his eyebrows raised to be sure he’d understood—the body painting’s okay, then—and then trot down the hall, acting The Protectorate to his little brother, who skips alongside him, blonde bowl cut bouncing.

Before long, there was laughter, ruckus, and the King’s Singers decking every hall with fa-la-la-la-las.

Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, shoulder-to-shoulder, nestled deep into the soft brown overstuffed sofa. He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. She, while watching that son in her peripherals, scanned the life encircling her.

Dad brought in trays of homemade eggnog. Daughter wore a new light blue fleece bathrobe and flannel pajamas on which miniature pink snowmen and reindeer danced amid snowflakes. The middle son reassembled a Lego figurine while the youngest held a pillow up under his chin, a chin that sported, like a fluorescent target, a neon gold felt tip marker star planted smack dab in the center.

That Christmas Eve, the family clustered in the plush comfort of sofa and solidarity, just like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could re- member. With mouths edged in eggnog, and with eyes groggy or wide, they nuzzled. All six of them. And they followed (or at times mirrored) the black- and-white sweetness of their favorite holiday film, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

That Last Noel, life was just that: wonderful.

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The First Christmas Without Him. The Second Christmas Without Him. The Third and The Fourth and The Fifth . . .

Peering into the long tunnel of Christmases that are yet to be without Parker, our family has kept to the ritual of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I have held onto this holiday ritual even when so diminished and devastated by death that all I could do was hold back tears with one arm around my ribcage and the other around my family’s shoulders.

That first Christmas after Parker died, though sliced to the bone by the scythe of sudden loss, I felt nothing like the depressive slump I’d felt the last Christmas when our boy had been alive. Oh, I was distressed, even despair- ing. At times, I was even quietly, privately deranged with pain. And a couple of times, I whispered that I was afraid we wouldn’t make it, meaning that our marriage, our sanity, or our very hearts might fail.

But we sat together and we watched the film. And we’ve watched it every Christmas since. This movie—a classic about the sacredness of each imperfect human life, the triumph of family and community, the intervention of celestial beings—has become a symbol of our decision to live, even thrive, instead of utterly drowning in grief.

For me, living onward with loss has depended to a great extent on the

deliberate and repeated choice to fight back the torpidity of despair. Plung- ing into the depths of despondency was the greatest temptation I have ever resisted in my life. While I had no suicidal thoughts—how could I ever abandon my loved ones, and especially in a time like this?—I simply wanted life to go away. Forever. When the character of George Bailey weeps that frenzied, feral cry on the frozen bridge, I understand and I weep with him.

To resist the cold, icy drag of despair, I learned over time that I needed three things: steadiness, illumination, and as much love as the world and heaven could offer or I could dredge up to give.

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Steadiness. In early grief, almost all of my physical energy was devoured by the task of remaining steady and keeping my family steady. With no extra capacity for physical exertion, I slowed down as never before. I walked, talked, and even breathed at a different pace than had been my normal hyper-drive. I lacked the wherewithal for those old patterns of excess. What is more essential, though, I had no need for them. In fact, they repelled me. Grief overwrote my usual frantic scramble from distraction to distraction—however worthy those distractions might have been—and replaced that speed with heavy-duty Zen. Corporeally, I felt greatly weakened—like recovering from major invasive surgery—but that fragility allowed me to become very spiritually focused. Like this, my spiritual antennae were stretched to full extension. And it was in that steadiness that I found the knowledge and meaning I needed in order to live what on the outset seemed an unlivable life, a life bereft of our eldest. Thereafter, I made a deliberate effort to devote myself to single-mindedness. By steadying myself through frequent and focused mediation and prayer, I resisted the gravitational pull of despair and distraction, so common in today’s loud, frenetic, and some- times abusively demanding world.

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Illumination. Retreat alone was not my sole response to grief. At a certain point in my experience—many months after my son’s death and after as long a time of concentrated meditation and searching prayer—I felt a clear spiritual impression. It told me that if I stayed holed up much longer in the nautilus of grief, if I resisted engaging in life, if I folded myself over my heart into a work of emotional origami, if I crammed myself into a foot- locker of loss buried under the boulder-slate-and-ash landslide of anguish, I might never emerge at all. And even if one day I did come out, much else might have died in the meantime. I had a choice: I could remain cut off from others and become grief’s slave, or I could extend myself toward others and remain grief’s student. The former choice would bring atrophy and sorrow, the latter, growth and joy. I took small, significant steps to connect with others, accept their gestures of service, and to serve them.

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Love. This service—some rendered, much received—opened up flood- gates of warmth that counterbalanced the icy river of despair. Like George Bailey, I was rescued by the realization of love rushing in from all sides: for and from God; for and from family; for and from friends and even strangers. The flow of loving-kindness coaxed me out of despair, led me through that tension between resisting and reengaging, between self-protection and service, between fearing and trusting, between loss and living onward with love.

So as simplistic as this might sound, the First Noel, the Last Noel and all the Noels that will follow are tales about learning love. For me, while my love for my son has been grief’s reason, it has been that same force of love that has proved grief’s rescue. As wrote Leo Tolstoy, “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”

If this is what “healing” feels like, then I suppose I am its rehabilitating patient. I can with quiet confidence say today something I could never have imagined on the outset: It has been love, the decision to open up to the possibility of it, and the deliberate choice to receive and to share it—again and again and in spite of certain risk—that has brought me off of that bridge overlooking despair and back to life. Into a fragile, imperfect, (and some- times terrifying) but also a miraculous, sweet, and yes, even a wonderful life.

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2015. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name. You should also reference the original work, On Loss and Living Onward, (Familius 2014)

Casting Hands—From On Loss and Living Onward

ON MY WRITING desk stand statuettes made of white plaster. They are nearly identical in size and shape. Each statuette consists of two hands clasping each other. If you knew the rings my husband Randall and I wear, you would know that in each piece one of the two hands belongs either to him or me. In the first statuette, one of the hands—bony, veined, and with long fingers just right for playing the piano—wears my distinctive triple-linked wedding bands. In the second statuette, one of the two hands is thick, with Randall’s substantial fingers, broad oval nails, and custom-made ring with its small stones and the engraving “ASP 2007”.

Each of our hands (Randall’s hand in one statuette, mine in the other) is wrapped snugly around yet another hand. It is a fleshy mitt of a hand, a hand with slightly swollen fingers that do not bend quite like ours appear to be bending. The nails are gnawed a bit at their tips. The knuckles have wrinkles I could recognize in a line-up of a hundred other hands. These are, after all, the hands of our son Parker.

In one statuette, my left hand grasps Parker’s right. In the other statuette, Randall’s right hand, which wears Parker’s American School of Paris class ring, wraps firmly around Parker’s left. A college student who had been at the site of the accident that ultimately took Parker’s life had removed Parker’s class ring when he was dragged, unconscious and blue-lipped, out of the water. His hands were already swelling while students tried frantically to administer CPR and offer prayer blessings to their friend who was not breathing, and this student knew that Parker would want his family to have his ring. Sobbing and yelling, “Don’t leave us, Frenchie! Wake up, Frenchie!” the boy tucked the ring into his swim trunk pocket. He handed it to Randall after we’d turned off the life support and released Parker from two days of coma and from eighteen years and five months of mortality.

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Sometimes, that scene of horror is all I can think of when I look at these statuettes. Life cut off too soon, like the two plaster pieces themselves, which stand on their wrists, rising, as it seems, upward from out of this desktop, almost giving the impression that the forearms, elbows, shoulders—the rest of the human forms to which these hands belong, the whole person—might be somewhere below my desk, in an unseen, underground, under-desk world.

Other times, when strangers happen to see them—for instance, the man repairing our Internet line—I let them imagine that these statuettes are nothing more than a lovely, balanced set of clasped hands set in plaster. Like bookends, perhaps. Or artsy paperweights.

But balanced bookends and weights were notions far from our minds in that impossible hour when those hand casts were made. That hour was 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 26, a week to the day from the incident that had cost our Parker his life. It was the first day we had seen his body since we had been ushered away from its still-warm flesh lying so leaden in an ICU. There our son lay before us again, but this time a waxy surrogate, a cheap wax museum replica.

Evacuated, I thought as I entered a utilitarian room crammed next to a corner office in the mortuary. An empty garage, was the impression that came when I approached our son’s form draped with a grayish-green blanket on what must have been an examiner’s table. We’d come that late morning with Kristiina, our dear friend, and her sister.

“You might want something solid and lifelike to remember him by,” Kristiina had offered when she had visited my parents’ home the Sunday night before. She had spoken as she had stood: uncertain, frozen, as if inching out on a tightrope, her half-whisper holding back the panic I knew her spacious heart was trying to clamp down to size.

“Lifelike? Uh . . . uh-huh. Maybe that would . . . be . . . a good idea.” Randall had been steady, respectful. I had held my hands beneath the kitchen table, where they were shaking as if with the beginnings of palsy. My legs, as I had stared down at them, felt as if I had just emerged from hibernating in an ice cave.

“My sister has helped make these for the parents of stillborn infants a few times,” Kristiina had added, her eyebrows raised in apology, her tone steeped in mourning. “She’s never done someone as . . . large . . . and who had been so alive . . . as . . . ” Her mouth knitted itself into a curved and twitching pucker, her blue eyes flashed in desperation, and we all hung there for a moment on that incredibly taut but delicate line between knowing an alive Parker and comprehending a dead one.

I had stared at them both, Kristiina and her sister, trying to find words. An impulse hinted that I should respond like the old Melissa would have responded. How did she used to talk? How did she form words? How did she speak without sobbing? That person was gone, I knew it. Syllables, like rough wooden blocks, dropped out of my mouth, I think. Clumsy, polite words of habit. But they conveyed nothing of the typhoon that was battering and boiling throughout my mind.

At the mortuary on that Thursday morning, Kristiina and her sister silently mixed buckets of quick-dry plaster, solicitous and servant-like at Parker’s feet. Randall and I stood in a dizzy stupor at our stations on either side of our son-replica, tracing his stiff shoulders with our fingertips. In one movement, father and mother took the hands of their firstborn, wrapping their fingers around his, and buried the blended parts wrist-deep into buckets of a mixture the color and consistency of gelatinous oatmeal. I noted how my boy’s flesh held less life than did the wet plaster itself. I shook off the plaster, shook off the experience, feeling in the moment as if I’d defiled the sacred, hoping that this would one day end up being worth the desecration.

And Kristiina was right. It has been good to have something solid to remember Parker by. But these hand casts are more than mementos. They are far more than objects reminiscent of the physical closeness we once shared with our son. For us, they are sacred tokens pointing to an expansive spiritual reality that bursts the limits of flesh-and-blood closeness.

To explain the spiritual reality that these plaster casts symbolize, I need to share one of several profound occurrences that marked my early months of grief and has remained with me, vivid and comforting, ever since. It has made these clasped hands into monuments of reverberating, clarifying truth. I don’t share this with every visiting Internet repairman, although I sometimes wish I could.

During the weekend of Parker’s passing, hours after we left his body to be transferred to a mortuary, days before we would make—or even think of making—plaster hand casts, I was lying on my side in bed, knees tucked up toward my chest, arms wrapped around my middle. My pillow was soaked with tears, and my body was throbbing in acute physical pain, crushed, it seemed, as if by a landslide and torn wide open through the torso. The corporeal sensation of such abrupt and violent loss was like having invasive surgery with no anesthesia, or better, like having a bomb go off in the center of my being. We couldn’t escape the feeling of this immense, black, gaping vacancy in that central space—right here, in the fork between our ribs—that our son had just occupied.

Through my silent weeping, I begged God to keep us all—my husband, myself, our three surviving children—from being sucked into the apparent bottomlessness left by this implosion. Although our family was strong and loving, although we were emotionally stable people, although we had profound faith in life being eternal and were certain Parker was in a safe and loving place, we could not imagine, could not physically absorb the impact of life going on without his intertwined with ours. I could not see how we would be able to survive. There had to be help—hoist-you-up-from-under- the-arms-and-keep-you-breathing help—and I knew that kind of help was beyond anything this world could offer.

For several hours, maybe, and probably all night, I whisper-begged continually in prayer, seeking God and Parker, asking that they be close to me and somehow make themselves known to me in a way I could recognize. As nighttime shifted to dawn through the window, another shift began to take place in my mind. Like curtains being quietly drawn open in my spinning and murky mental chamber, I slowly started to see something. I could just make it out—it was initially no more than a foggy, subtle image.

At first I thought it was some sort of textured rope or—no, it was a chain. As I focused on it I saw this chain wasn’t static, but was gently rhythmic, pulsing. Then I could see that the movement came from the links attaching, separating, and reattaching to each other.

These links, I saw as my inner light grew brighter, were hands. Human hands of many sorts, shades, and shapes, glowing against an opalescent background, gently stretching then clasping firmly, pulling one another. All at once, I understood that these were hands from the past and the present, hands of mortals and immortals, reaching and pulling each other along, binding time and timelessness together.

At the same time as this image grew clearer, a feeling overtook me; it went through my whole body, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, expanding in my chest, and that feeling was joy—jubilant, singing, surging, soaring joy. Part exhilaration, part anticipation, that joy spread through my traumatized body, warming and loosening it, and lifting my spirits with an unmistakable tug.

Something was pulling. Someone was pulling me. Mighty but tender hands were reaching for my hand. And my task was to reach. Touch. Clasp. Hold on. And then, once linked, to reach to others.

Maybe what I was experiencing in that flash of insight was a glimpse into the way things are, a brief vision of God’s cosmic machinery, which is one continuous work going on between us mortals, but also between mortals and spiritual beings, between this realm and the neighboring, immortal one. In only those few seconds, I understood that the living and the dead are joined in a loving, interdependent, interactive chain. There was no difference in that chain between the living and what we call the “dead.” They were equally capable beings. Which helped me see that neither I nor my deceased son was alone, forgotten, disconnected, or left without one another.

For the first time, I comprehended in a visceral, palpable way this truth about the interconnectedness of all humans in every stage of existence. As my mind took in this visible chain, my hands felt the unmistakable palms— calloused from basketballs and drums—of my own child’s hands. I understood that not only was Parker “in good hands,” the platitude some had tried to use to comfort me, but that I was in good hands, too. Parker himself was among those good hands. For me. And I am among the good hands. For him. For anyone. For everyone. There is no one—alive or dead—who does not need the reach and pull of another’s hand.

As one person of extraordinary spiritual depth has said:

We move and have our being in the presence of heavenly messengers and of heavenly beings. We are not separate from them. . . . We are closely related to our kindred, to our ancestors . . . who have preceded us into the spirit world. We can not forget them; we do not cease to love them; we always hold them in our hearts, in memory, and thus we are associated and united to them by ties that we can not break. . . . If this is the case with us in our finite condition, surrounded by our mortal weaknesses, . . . how much more certain it is . . . to believe that those who have been faith- ful, who have gone beyond . . . can see us better than we can see them; that they know us better than we know them. . . . We live in their presence, they see us, they are solicitous for our welfare, they love us now more than ever. . . . [T]heir love for us and their desire for our well being must be greater than that which we feel for ourselves.

Eventually I learned that whenever one of my hands reaches to pull along the hand of another—when I serve in whatever way I can, be that by listening, speaking, laughing, weeping, writing, singing, being silent, acting receptively to the subtle impressions I attribute to Divinity—I can feel my own son’s hand clasped in mine, pulling me along. Then I do not feel I am only pressing forward with hope, but that I am being pulled toward that hope, and being pulled toward joy as part of a larger, caring community.

In those moments of clasping onto others, whether by giving strength or receiving it, I sense the luminous bigger picture. We are all, the living and the dead, part of an intertwined effort to bring every last one of us to joy.

That image of communal movement redefines much for me. Among other things, it sets a question mark behind the notions of “alive” and “dead.” There are many of us breathing types who are less alive than those we’ve buried. And I’ve experienced enough to say with total confidence that many of the “dead” are infinitely more alive than the most “alive” person we have ever known. My son is one of those, the most living among what convention insists we call “the dead.”

And what about me? Will I, then, while living, remain forever the living dead because my son is temporarily separated from me in the flesh? What better mentor than this fully living son who is “dead” to reach back, take my hand, and guide me to live fully, while alive . . . while living?

In my yearning agony after Parker’s death, real comfort and strength have not come solely from the assurance that life continues after we die, but from the knowledge that my child is powerfully present in our family here and now. Our relationship with Parker continues. Personal experience has been the sturdiest evidence for me that I don’t have to wait until the here-after to be a co-worker with my son. It can happen here and now. His hand is clasped in mine, and mine in his. In spite of death, a relationship keeps developing. A bond continues to deepen.

Yes, the normal ways of feeling him close are gone—I cannot call him to my room, cannot get a shouted answer from down the hallway or a phone call or a text message or a note under my pillow on my birthday, cannot anticipate his future, cannot delight in sharing him with others, or any of the millions of other things we living people do to knit our hearts to each other. I will never lose my lingering longing for the flesh-and-blood physical presence of my boy. But there are other ways of feeling his presence.

Being able to feel his presence, like feeling any spiritual impressions, requires a mindfulness, imagination, and faithful effort I never needed before. I am on quiet guard against the noisy voices and clattering distractions of our modern world. I have to shelter my spirit at times, the way I would shelter a small seedling from harsh wind and the torch of the sun.

When I focus on those white plaster hand casts as I am doing now, I see them as bookends to a story that has no end, as weights reminding me of the substance of grace my family and I have known. And I have to admit to a little bit of a miracle: When I look at them and let their reality sink in, I am no longer always taken back to that Thursday morning at the mortuary and the son with stone-cold hands. I am, instead, more and more often taken to that internal image I saw and felt of the joyous continuity of God’s plan for the whole woven rope of humanity. Hands, like these casts that seem to rise from the hidden realm beneath my desk, are always emerging from an unseen, but nonetheless real, world. And they are always reaching toward us. Parker’s hands, the ones whose nails and knuckles I could pick out of a crowd, the same hands that I will in some coming day hold in my own as I stare into his eyes and take in his full-grown spirit self, are firmly cemented—sealed—to mine.

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Randall & Co. — From On Loss and Living Onward

OUR HANDSOME BOY had not grown cold in Room #2 of an Idaho ICU by the time news of his passing had reached every end of our community in Paris. Michel, Randall’s work colleague and tennis partner, was the first to call. Michel’s low, slow words came from Paris through Randall’s cell phone. “It’s not true, Randall!” Michel repeated over and over again, “Oh, my dear Randall!”

Unable to sleep more than five minutes at a stretch, Randall and I had been out walking all night through our childhood neighborhoods. It was now after 3:00 a.m. The previous afternoon, we’d left Parker’s body at Portneuf Regional Medical Center in Idaho and had driven the nearly five hours southward to be with family where we both grew up, in a small town in Utah.

Michel and his family loved us very much, Michel cried. “We hold you all close.”

With the green glow of his cell screen casting death onto his face, my husband listened silently as Michel, an understated Frenchman, choked on sobs as he said goodbye. The confluence of sorrow and sympathy worked its way down to Randall’s knees, and they gave way. His legs folded under his body right on the spot. There he sat in his pajamas, barefoot and curled like a beggar beneath a street light on the sidewalk. He cradled his head in his hands. Peak heat season in the desert west, but all day long his body had quaked as if it were midwinter.

Now Per was calling from Norway, and Randall put the cell on speaker. There under the aloof moon, Randall’s lifelong career mentor reassured us with solemn but straightforward affection: he and his wife loved us.

The next call was from Munich. It was Stefan, Randall’s boss—a big guy, a big presence, but I could hear that he felt reduced by his own total defenselessness. His small, broken cries teetered toward me where I now crouched next to Randall in the darkness.

Then came the whispers, “I’m in the Vatican, lighting a candle for Parker.”

That was Stefano, a work colleague from Rome.

A week later, on the sweltering afternoon of the funeral, there stood other work colleagues who had flown in from all over: Zaki representing all Randall’s associates from Scandinavia; Franck from France; Lothar and Stefan from Germany; Stefano from Italy; Russ from Japan.

Dad, boys, funeral Image: A. Crandall ©

Dad, boys, funeral
Image: Angelique Crandall ©

 

And a week after the funeral, jet-lagged and grief-loaded, Randall was required to be sitting in his office. It was the day after we had landed in Munich. Work colleagues met him as he came through the sliding glass doors. Everyone there knew. Phone calls and emails, which had flown back and forth between the US, France, and Germany during the days surrounding and following the accident, had kept Randall’s company aware of our family’s situation.

One German—towering, burly, a legendary connoisseur of lager and cigars—took Randall in his arms and then muffled his own quaking moans by burying his head in his American colleague’s shoulder. On Randall’s desk, two small handwritten notes already lay, penned in German: “Your pain is our pain,” and “We can only pray to God for your healing.” Day upon day, there were flowers, soft eyes, the touch on the shoulder, and respectful requests to “do anything to lessen your work burden, Randall.”

For the first time in his two-decade career, work was a burden, a considerable one. Although some find work a welcome distraction from pain and loneliness, this was not the case for my husband. The idea of “business as usual” was repulsive to him on every level, and discussions of head-count reductions and a new operating model rang with sickening hollowness in the gutted-out space between his head and his feet.

“I want to be a postal worker. Or a cowboy on the range,” he pled with me many times through his own tears that awakened him every morning. “It’s not the scrutiny, or some fear of people seeing me weak, watching me be so broken. That’s not it. It’s the superficiality. I don’t have the heart for it. None of this company stuff matters compared to what I now know . . .”

And I couldn’t blame him. Together, we had undergone a seismic shift. Randall had seen, felt, heard, and in turn learned things of a spiritual nature that altered understanding of the world. Much of what had been of relative value a month earlier—the temporal, the material, the commercial, the superficial—didn’t matter at all anymore. All of that paled in comparison to what he now knew regarding love and loss, life and death, and that fragile silken strand from which all existence hangs.

Moreover, grief had drained his energy. Standing up in the morning was work enough.

During those first weeks back in the office, the predictable routine did steady Randall somewhat, but only enough to fool him into thinking he was “on the mend.” Because of course he was not.

In the middle of an intense discussion about the implementation of the new commercial model, his secretary Patricia passed him an express delivery piece of mail: the bills from the air ambulance that had life-flighted Parker to the trauma center. With one glance, whatever was “sturdiness” folded in on itself like an old dime-store pocket umbrella. “Patricia,” Randall whispered as he took her with him out into the hallway, holding the mail in a hand dropped heavily to his side, “Can you . . . will you please take care of this one for me?” She opened the papers with her boss standing there numbly, his eyes ice-blue pits of despair. And she dropped her head and broke down.

Less than a month from tragedy, and in the throes of an international conference call, an email notice popped up on Randall’s laptop screen: the insurance company needed a scanned copy of Parker Fairbourne Bradford’s death certificate. Mule kick to the gut. Macroshock. Fibrilation. The deadening plunge of the universe into the cranium. And racing to a window for air.

All the bracing against these waves of pain, all the acting as if unscathed (which is, after all, what competent people are expected to do, play The Impervious One), all that harnessing of anguish was physically exhausting for my husband. The lie of stoicism was almost physically impossible for him to keep up, at least for very long stretches.

“I need to retreat and be alone, to digest this, to go into the depths,” he told me. He knew he couldn’t be alone for long with a leadership role at work. So he went underground—literally.

There was something in the building’s underground parking lot—the isolation, the darkness, the hermetic seal of the car doors as he shut himself into the driver’s seat—that liberated and soothed him. There, in his car, he could weep as loudly as he needed to for his lunch break and again for a few minutes in the late afternoon. A lightless car. A lightless subterranean garage. A lightless grave.

But these retreats were brief, ending every time with the ping! of a timer he had set.

A major restructuring initiative was taking place within his company, and Randall knew that if he were not present—and energetically so—many of his colleagues’ jobs (and livelihoods and families’ futures) would be jeopardized. He couldn’t care less about that all-important corporate bottom line; he could, however, care about the human story above that bottom line.

Two weeks back at work (near the one-month marker of our son’s death, and on what happened to be Randall’s birthday) a large group of his colleagues from around Europe who had not seen him since learning of Parker’s passing were convening for an important meeting in the Munich offices.

“How am I supposed to keep up some steely façade for hours of back- to-back meetings and a board presentation?” Randall had asked me that morning, eyes already red from weeping since predawn. “How am I supposed to lead? And with energy? I can hardly dredge up sincerity.”

He’d aged, it seemed, a good twenty years in a month. And by this time I was beginning to wonder if this man in front of me who suddenly looked like a hospice patient would in fact be able to manage the major, visible, and relentless demands of his position. Was this the same man who, just over a month ago, had managed the demands like he’d managed our early morning 12ks: sprinting and racing and laughing all the way through the last 3k, high-fiving me and throwing his sweaty head to the skies: “Don’t get much better ’an dat, does it, babe?!” And I’d slap him on his derrière.

Now I pitied him, pitied what he had to do. All I could do to help was promise I’d be on my knees for him that day. All. Day. Long.

“You call me, hon. Call me any time. Any time. Just make it through this one day, okay? You must. You can.”

I kissed his eyelids as he pulled on Parker’s leather bomber jacket. “Parker will be there with you,” I said. “He knows it’s your birthday.”

Beneath the crushing chest press of sorrow and absence, Randall found his way through the soundless corridors of his company’s building to an empty conference room in an untrafficked corner. Alone there, he knelt to pray. With one foot wedged against a door so no one would enter, he wrestled with fear and longing and confusion so suffocating, he had to raise his head so he wouldn’t pass out. Through the floor and down from the ceiling, he then felt warmth surround and seep into him. It spread its light through his body and he felt, as if from nowhere, a physical reinforcement. “Like love,” he told me later.

What happened next was a personal and a professional triumph. Not a triumph for my husband’s profession, but a triumph for the nature of professionalism across the board and across the world. On that day in some steel-and-stone antiseptically sterile regional office outside of Munich, Germany, something quiet but spectacularly human happened.

Randall rose from his knees and returned to his office where he and his colleague Craig were at a computer screen preparing documents for Randall’s presentation on the company’s major restructuring initiative. Craig knew about Parker. In fact, Craig had received the first phone call after Randall had gotten The Call from me at 7:00 a.m. Munich time: “Honey, come now. To Idaho. Come to Idaho right now.” It was Craig who’d scrambled anxiously, plotting Randall’s emergency flight from southern Germany to southeast Idaho so he could have those last sacred hours with his comatose child. It was this same Craig who’d been Randall’s right-hand man ever since.

Now the two tried to focus on their computer screen while person after person tapped gently on the door, entered, and silently looked straight into Randall’s eyes as he rose to greet them. Then they took him into their arms.

Kari from Finland. José Luis from Spain. Hans from northern Germany. Chris from the U.K. Lars from Norway. Antonio from Italy. Michel from France. Colleague after colleague from two decades of work. It was as if in bodily form the whole panorama of Randall’s career was streaming through his door. From embrace to embrace, Randall wiped his tears, turned back to Craig (who was from Wisconsin, by the way, and was also wiping tears), and the two then cleared their throats and tried to focus on that computer screen again.

Computer screen. Tap-tap. Eyes. Embrace. Tears.
Computer screen. Tap-tap. Eyes. Embrace. Tears.
The sequence went on for hours.
When Randall did have to stand at the end of that day to present in front of all these colleagues, was his heart still constricted with anguish? Was he unable to face their scrutiny? Intimidated? Destabilized? Helpless?

No. No, because he had already looked into their eyes, and there he’d seen injury, vulnerability. He’d seen humanness, intimations of which he’d observed throughout years of interaction, but which had been mostly hidden behind what is called professionalism. Hidden behind titles and door plaques on corner offices, distorted by a razor thin but magnetic bottom line.

Now he felt their humanness resonating from their faces, which mirrored their generous, human presence. Breaking down or falling silent for a second or two didn’t faze him, and it didn’t faze them either. So he simply did what he needed to do, all the time watching closely the eyes of those before him.

Their eyes (maybe this will make no sense) allowed Randall to present with tremendous emotion—hands trembling and heart skittering—about that blessed corporate bottom line. For that day, at least, everyone in that room knew it was not the bottom line at all.

At the end of that memorable birthday, Randall received one last knock on his door. It was Craig. From Wisconsin. He stood there a moment, his GQ square jaw and outdoorsy good looks uncharacteristically stiff, locked mid-breath. Craig gripped the doorknob, holding the door a bit ajar, neither completely entering nor leaving the room.

First, he searched with his eyes out the window. Then he looked at the floor. Then he looked right at Randall.

“I . . . I, ah . . . Randall, I just want . . .” His throat was tight, his voice seemed to go a pitch or so higher than usual.

“I just want to say . . . I don’t know . . . I just don’t know, Randall, how you made it through this day.”

Shaking his head once, Craig caught himself. But not in time. Randall’s colleague broke into one open sob. Then he excused himself and walked out the door.

Dad, boys, Munich, 3 years later Image: Rob Inderrieden ©

Dad, boys, Munich, 3 years later
Image: Rob Inderrieden ©

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2015. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name. You should also reference the original work, On Loss and Living Onward, (Familius 2014)