Could I Have Saved My Child?

It took years to forgive myself.

I’d been warned. I’d been shown what was coming. I could have intervened. I could have been there. I could have saved my child.

But I hadn’t. I didn’t. If I had just…

Real Dreams

In Global Mom: A Memoir, I wrote about a dream I’d had of our son Parker two months after he’d drowned. The dream was especially forceful and allowed me to see and feel the setting he was in after death – a vivid, bright realm beyond mortality – as well as what he was doing there and with whom.

When I’ve had a dream like that, (in my life I’ve only had a few), I immediately write it down and share it with one or two others so it’s fresh and they’re “witnesses” to what I’ve been taught.  Because they have a different resonance than my run-of-the-mill bad digestion dreams, I feel a certain stewardship over their content. The Japanese call these real dreams.  They are gifts. You treasure them. You don’t thoughtlessly parade or banalize them. That being true, it was a little risky to publish one in a book. But I don’t regret that I did.

Then in On Loss and Living Onward I devoted a chapter to a dream I’d had exactly one month prior to losing Parker. In that dream, I was chasing after a toddler version of Parker (wearing a small version of the blue swim trunks we’d bought together when he was 17), who was being swept away in a small river that passed under a bridge, a passage from whence his little body never emerged. The dream was strangely corporeal. I actually felt the sun beating on my head, the icy spray of the water flecking my forearms, gravel cutting my bare feet and wild grass scraping at my ankles as I ran along the shore. I was sweaty, agitated, shaking and breathless when I awoke.

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But that dream was not the only one I had about Parker’s accident before that accident happened. What I’ve never published is the following dream, a second one.  I used to call it God’s Final Warning.

The Second Dream

From my email to a confidant:

The second dream I had exactly the week before his accident. By then I’d managed the bulk of the move to Munich (at least our beds were set up in the apartment so we could sleep here) and Randge [Randall] had arrived from Paris to be here for legal document signing before I left on the 14th to Utah to be with the kids whom we’d sent on ahead of us, especially to get Parker into summer college.

In the dream I rush into an ICU alone to find the tall, muscular body of a beautiful young male lying face-down on a gurney, a sheet covering him up to his waist. He’s wearing a neck brace and there are tubes coming out of his nose and mouth and he’s hooked up to monitors. He has multiple head injuries and looks bruised and bludgeoned from what I can see looking at the back of his head.

I’m shocked and chilled. I reach for the body and somehow recognize it well. Reason tells me that, because of the head injuries, this is the victim of an automobile accident, so my dreaming but analytical self tells me this is Aaron, my brother,the only licensed driver I know of that would fit the form and height of the man I’m seeing on the table.

My whole chest feels kicked in and I’m keeping myself from wailing. Many people are passing in and out of the room, but I’m the one standing closest to the body whose shoulders I stroke. I speak to the body and groan. We’re that way for a while. Then the body is turned over and it’s not clear to me whose face it is as the swelling and bruising and discoloration are so severe. Blood cakes the hair. There are some facial wounds.

I conclude it’s Aaron and he’s had a terrible car accident on his commute to Salt Lake City for work. He is unconscious and it seems – I’m being told – he will not live. I am weeping and trying to find a hand to hold under the sheet draped over the body. I pray and try to understand. People are in the room at a distance, not people I know well.

Then Randge is brought into the room. He has come in a hurry from far away. He stands to my left then we lean onto each other, supporting a motionless shock. The line of onlookers is up against a far wall. We are ripped open with grief.

I awoke from this dream and was lightly crying to myself, my heart was thumping and I felt agitated – I felt warned –and sat right up in bed. (I was in our little makeshift room here in the apartment, Randge sleeping deeply to my left.)  As soon as I awoke him, I told Randge exactly what I had seen and said I needed to call Aaron right away to warn him to take no risks when driving and to at least go slowly. Then I convinced myself he’d think I’m nuts, some kind of clairvoyant or something, so I left it up to fate and to his good driving skills to avoid anything like what I had seen.

Looking Under the Bridge

Those dreams meant something important. I’d felt that while dreaming them. You know how that is? When you are dreaming and it’s as if something taps your subconscious on the shoulder, saying, “Pay attention. Pay close attention.”

Well, the “something important” came rushing at me several days later.

In full force it came rushing, but only after Thursday, July 19th when Parker, standing in his blue swim trunks on the gravelly and wild-grass-lined banks of an Idaho irrigation canal, dove back a second time into a whirlpool under a little bridge to try to rescue a drowning college classmate. It came after his death-grayed body floated a distance down the small river past the bridge and plummeted head first over a lava rock waterfall. After I had hurried to Pocatello in the middle of the night and entered alone in an ICU where Parker lay face-down on a gurney (neck brace, tubes, monitors, head injuries, under a white sheet), after he’d been turned over, after Randall had burst into the ICU from his flight from Munich, after the onlookers lined up against the other wall, after we turned off life support. After the funeral. After it was too late.

When my two dreams and their matching reality came together, a deep terror set in. It paralyzed me. All I could conclude was that I’d fatally ignored God’s  3-D cinematic warnings given an entire month and then a week ahead of time. Plenty of lead time to have yanked fate off its tracks. Plenty of time to have saved my own child.

Yet I hadn’t.

Why not? Why had I not? Why? Why?!

Monkey Rock Falls

The Eternal Now

For so long I wrestled with every psychological angle. Had I been worried what others would think if I told them I, some homemade visionary, had had a couple of disturbing dreams, so please no water activities this summer? And we’re going to be walking everywhere for a while, no cars? Would I make everyone too anxious to live if I said I’d foreseen a male loved one in his last moments in an ICU scene? Or was what kept me from using these dreams to prevent tragedy something worse, something far more sinister, a character flaw, like  a chink of sloppiness, selfishness, distraction, irresponsibility?

Whatever the reasons behind not having advertised the dreams, what it came down to in my mind was that I was to blame. And that meant that beyond the gutting of grief, a boulder of guilt weighed on top of me. I shared that boulder with only a very, very few.

This is what a confidant wrote when I shared my boulder of guilt:

Warnings that you didn’t heed? No, no. Please do not torment yourself with such thoughts. These dreams were, rather, preparatory glimpses into what we mortals call “the future.” God, we know, is not bound or limited by our understanding of time and space. For God, all eternity is one Eternal Now. Somehow, through God’s great power and mercy and your own maternal in-tune-ness, you were permitted to see into the Eternal Now for two brief moments. You were a Seer. You are right to see these experiences, these dreams or visions, as evidence of God’s grace and as a testament to the fact that, for whatever terrible and holy reasons, this was taken into account in the cosmic scheme that includes your beautiful Parker.

What you hear from my friend’s message is that after much time packed with much spiritual work, (seeking God’s guidance through meditation, study, questioning and waiting for concrete answers, seeking to live close to Parker’s ongoing spirit, serving others as lovingly as I was able, gathering evidence of God’s loving kindness to our family and to me personally), I grew settled on this matter. I no longer felt I was solely responsible for his death. I accepted (and was not conquered by) death.

Could I have used those dreams as megaphone warnings to my family and circle of friends? Could I have forbidden all water activities for the summer? Forever? Could I have locked away every male I cared for who fit the description of the man I’d seen in my dream ICU? Kept them from cars? Cross walks? Random falling timber?

(You see how quickly love, grief, and longing wax irrational.)

I suppose so, yes. I could have done all of the above. But would having done so assured their survival? And as important, perhaps: Would having done so also have wrung out the very life from life, “killing” everyone another way? Never allowing them to live? Heaping on them fear, anxiety, foreboding?

Such questions.

But let me ask again: If my dreams were given not as forewarning, (knowing that even with such forewarnings I couldn’t have prevented my son’s accident), but were given as comforting communication to be recalled in the world of after, what does all this mean?

For starters, a conventional worldview that rejects any reality outside of the physical realm we inhabit cannot offer sufficient meaning in this riddle. A worldview that denies some kind of spiritual circuitry connecting my dreaming spirit with a much Higher Source of Light and Truth, (whom I call God), doesn’t offer meaning, either. Even quantum mechanics and parallel universes don’t account for these exquisitely personal communications and their broader, this-world (irrigation canal and ICU) context. And most especially, those theories are incapable of addressing the especially precious, abiding, and reciprocal relationship I have felt all along  with my guide, my God.

But my friend’s Eternal Now. That’s something I can sink into. As cosmos-bending and challenging to our puny minds as might seem a loving God caring for each of us from the middle of an Eternal Now, it does take it all in : Horror, holiness, time, relativity, space, us, something-far-beyond-us, everything.

In the end, (if there is an end), that notion of everything sits very, very well with me.

Sweet dreams to you all.

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(Evening spreads over the irrigation canal leading to Monkey Rock.)

Fête de la Musique: Making Music and Memorializing

February is my memorial month, four weeks of sifting through archives of dozens of journal entries, hundreds of emails, multiple early book drafts, and other previously unpublished writings so that I can remember, reconnect, literally re-collect, and offer something valuable to you.

It’s a tender and unpredictable process. In spite of my especially heavy professional and private schedule this month, I’ve found myself at my computer in the middle of the night more times than I can count, often listing with longing, tears blurring my vision (or streaming freely) as I return to pieces of writing and living that have shaped me profoundly, and to others I’d somehow forgotten.

Here’s a photo I found in my midnight rummaging. The accompanying text is from Global Mom, where I bring you here, the Pont des Arts, a bridge over the Seine where the music of life is pulsing over the Cit of Light. These are the last lines before the lights go out and his pulse stops under a bridge in an irrigation canal in rural Idaho.

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It was the night of the Fête de la Musique. Throughout that June night, Paris vibrates with its annual city- wide festival of music, when musicians of every sort—madrigal choirs, rap artists, reggae bands, orchestras, flamenco guitarists, string chamber ensembles—are free to make their music any place they want in the streets or in concert venues and for as long as they can hold out. As the name Fête de la Musique says, it’s a music party; but fête is pronounced just like faites, the imperative form of to do, making of the title a typically French jeu des mots or play on words: “Do music!”

Nothing could have suited our firstborn better. Parker, who as I’ve written was part of a circle of local percussionists, met with them on the Pont des Arts for many hours of pure drumming explosion.

Walking toward that bridge, you could feel the electricity thrumming in surging beats already in the ground and through the air. Crowds had already packed the bridge, so the children couldn’t see over all the heads, and Randall and I couldn’t see around all the bodies to find Parker. But we knew he was there somewhere. Maybe listening. Maybe hanging out with friends one last time.

As we moved closer, Dalton and Luc, who could see under people’s arms and between their knees, spotted their big brother. “Hey, Parker!” Luc yelled. But the drum beating was so thick, you couldn’t hear your own voice as it left your own mouth, let alone hear the voice of a waify seven-year-old.

Luc pulled me by my hand toward the crowd, then motioned to Randall to hoist him on his shoulders. “The crowd!” I yelled over the din, “there must be hundreds!” At least four or five hundred people on that one bridge alone, and they split apart just enough so we could edge our way toward the source. And there he sat, djembe between his knees, the white boy with blue-gray eyes, his hair cropped very short to his well-shaped skull, the American boy (but who would have ever known?) named “Par Coeur” by the likes of Shafik, his closest Tunisian drumming buddy, and five others all of African descent. There they all were, swaying and pulsing to the pounding of their own djembes and large tub drums, or rocking, eyes closed, as they pummeled their instruments together.

The energy could just about lift you off your feet. It made the bridge tremble and sway. And standing there in the push of all these people, I sensed I had to hold myself together, had to keep myself from throwing my arms in the air and spinning for sheer delirium. This was a Paris I understood, a place where millions of people sing their songs and beat their rhythms but do it all at once. Somehow, it’s not cacophonic but something beyond it, a grand intimacy and intimate grandiosity strung along the river and its several bridges.

Over those bridges, under those bridges, behind the museums, in front of the Metro stops. Children, old people, all colors, all persuasions, tourists, policemen, the homeless, the political elite. Everyone on one night crowding the skies with their music. In the center of this—really in the physical center—sat my boy, the one who’d banged into pieces my big Tupperware bowls on linoleum in New Jersey and broken to splinters my mixing spoons on the wooden kitchen floor in Norway. Who’d gotten his first drum set from a retiring musician down the street on our island and had beaten the sticks to a pulp. Who every Thursday late afternoon and in the fifteenth arrondissement of this city, had shown up for his drum lessons from a French percussionist with a long gray beard tied neatly with a red macramé bow. There was this son, shoulder to shoulder with the world, whamming and jamming with his people—all people, everyone and anyone who would stamp and clap and catch the hem of his rhythm.

“Dad?” I heard Dalton trying to raise his voice to get Randall’s attention through the noise. “Dad?” our blonde and reticent eleven-year-old was standing, a bit self-conscious, awed, visibly, by his brother. Not as comfortable yet in his skin as this muscular drummer was, but every bit as thoughtful as your average fifty-year-old.

“Yes, Dalton?” Randall crouched down to hear better.

“Dad,” Dalton was watching the movement ripple through crowd encircling the place where the seven drummers sat, feeling the surge of the drums’ cadence. “Dad, do you think . . . heaven’s anything like this?”

Randall and I laughed a bit then smiled. But Dalton was sober, stone cold serious.

I’ve held those words as if in plaster in my mind. And I have had to wonder.

Protect Then Push: How a Sanctuary and Service Helped My Grief

“Protect then push. Protect, protect, protect, protect. Then one day, you’ll need to push.”

The woman advising us knew what she was talking about. Joyce Ashton was a bereaved mother herself as well as a professional grief counselor who’d written and lectured with her husband Dennis about major loss and bereavement. We were sitting in their living room in December, five months after our 18 year old son’s burial.

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The gravesite without its stone. The ground was frozen. We waited for a spring thaw.

All our years –– over 15 at that time –– of living outside the US, yet it had never once occurred to us to spend the holidays anywhere but the country in which we lived “abroad.” Until now. We fled our drafty Munich monastery with hastily packed carry-ons and flew a world away from isolation that weighed like a glacier on our spirits. We arrived in the Rocky Mountains of the American west where family waited to take us in.

The children needed levity. I couldn’t even give them a strand of cheap tinsel. Randall was down thirty pounds (12 kilos) since July, ashen, his eyes sunken. I moved like a burn victim released from a year in solitary confinement. My five months of deliberate retreat from human interaction and the terrifying world out there had left me, when I now stepped off the airplane, blinking at lights, recoiling from sounds. Brittle and liquefied, jittery and ready to melt into any caring arms. I was both.

As we sat in the Ashton’s living room speaking short hand known to the grief-stricken, I knew Joyce’s advice to “protect then push” was right. And that Balzac was wrong. “Give to a wounded heart seclusion,” he’d written, “consolation nor reason ever effected anything in such a case.”

At least Balzac was partially wrong. Seclusion had been a gift to my heart. A severe gift. But just that afternoon while meditating a clear inner voice instructed me: “Retreat was a gift to you. But you can’t stay there. If you do, you might never emerge. And if you wait too long to emerge, too much will have died in the meantime. You must go out.”

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From the US, I wrote this email to a friend:

You worry about my withdrawal. Don’t. I know that every tale of spiritual rebirth is a tale of withdrawal:  to the wilderness, into a whale, into a vessel, into a tomb, into a mountaintop, into a grove. . .This is no surprise, as mortal life itself is a descent from the light and warmth of preexistence into a dark and isolated womb followed by the stressful entrance into a world of blaze and clatter. (No wonder infants howl at birth!) Right now, I’m in gestation, huddling tightly in a womb. I will learn everything this sanctuary can teach me.

I also wrote in my journal about Christ’s model of protecting and pushing:

Been studying Matthew 14.  Many careful readings.  Christ’s love of his cousin John the Baptist, Christ’s grief at JB’s violent, cold-blooded murder. Some of Christ’s disciples had been John’s disciples, so they were grieving, too.  How He longed to go into a desert place apart – isolation – to grieve, (did He commune with the Father there? With the Baptist?) but He couldn’t tarry there long because so many needed Him.  And how Christ turns in compassion to the throngs needing His blessing. None of their burdens was as great as his. Lame? Blind? Leprous?Just hungry? He was bearing all of them, and more. He bore it all. Still, he didn’t dismiss them. Was his compassion awakened/enlarged due to His  “acquaintance with grief” (Isaiah), his sudden loss, a loss foreshadowing His imminent crucifixion? He actively turns towards others as an extension – completion? – of his grieving process.  And what happens? The great miracle of loaves and fishes, itself a type and shadow of the Last Supper. 

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A week after seeing the Ashtons, getting that inner voice public service announcement, and reading Matthew 14, I sat in another room, this time in Germany. I’d contacted the gentleman who oversaw our church congregation in Munich, telling him I needed to meet with him as soon as we were back in town.

That man (whom we call our bishop) was a truly good soul, a sympathetic, soft-spoken young father and first-time expatriate doing his utmost to lead our scrappy little gaggle of members. And I had the distinct feeling that we terrified him. Or at least really worried him. Or presented him with a peculiar challenge.

From the start we signaled we wanted no visits, no leadership responsibilities, in spite of two decades of back-to-back leadership “callings” in our congregations everywhere we’d lived. In fact, I’d told our bishop to please not even call on me to pray aloud in meetings. Not because I couldn’t or didn’t want to pray (what else was I doing all week long, anyway?), but because every time I bowed my head –– I knew this –– I poured out tears like a jug gushes water.

As a couple and family we were working so hard every day and night all week long to just keep breathing, to keep ourselves together, to access spiritual strength and get the divine guidance we craved, not to mention to deal with the many unanswered questions about Parker’s accident, the fallout in the lives of others involved in that accident, and the potential legal implications. Every day was dire. Every day was a face-to-face encounter with The Big Issues.

And we’d just arrived in a new country. So there was that.

But Sundays. They weren’t like the sanctuary that was my weekday world, not much like our makeshift monastery. What could be, though, but a morgue? At church we tried to swerve around but couldn’t help but hear the normal chit-chat, those hallway conversations about how tough it was to not have 24-hour pharmacy drive-throughs. How irritating to not find diapers sold in bulk. How annoying that there weren’t more cinemas that showed movies in English. And how hard it was to send a son off to university, or on a mission, or to some place without decent WIFI.

And this all made us feel like we were aliens, sensitive to the point of being skinless, flinching and wincing at normal human behavior: glibness, facile answers, chirpiness, glee, dogma-as-bandage, platitudes.

We regularly side-stepped out.

People side-stepped around us.

I’m surprised they tolerated us as much as they did. Mourning, especially with strangers, takes super human patience and a divine dose of sympathy. I know everyone was doing their human best.

What resulted, though, was a vacuum-packed existential isolation, a loneliness-to-the-point-of-desperation I’d never felt before in my lifetime exacerbated by the fact that it was happening exactly where we’d always felt most at home: in our faith community.

So as I was saying … I asked for an interview.

“You wanted to talk, Sister Bradford?” my bishop asked, his eyes open and soft.

“Well, not really. I don’t want to talk. But I know I need to.” I think I was already crying.

“Please. Please, tell me what’s on your mind, on your heart. How can I help you?”

He was tall with a visible goldenness to him, this man. He held his hands folded on his desk. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

How could you help me? Ideally, I thought, ideally … you could weep long and hard with me about our son. Or not even cry. You might ask about him. But I won’t beg you or any of my brothers and sisters here to feign interest, pretend heartache. No, can’t do that. Solicit sorrow?

“I’m …” I interrupted my own freight train of thought, “I think I’m ready to help. I’m ready to reach out and do something here. Do you have something I can do, something you need me to do?”

Bishop: “You want to serve here at church?”

I nodded, still crying into my lap. A box of tissues came from his hand.

I looked up from my lap. He was gracious, silent.

Then he took a long breath. “Well. That is interesting, Sister Bradford.”

Me: “??”

He went on: “We’ve been praying and fasting and discussing over the holidays while your family was away how we could serve you, how we could possibly help your grieving family. And we got the impression that as soon as you were ready, Sister Bradford, you would tell us. And when you would tell us, we would have work for you to do.”

Me again: “??”

“How ready are you to serve, Sister Bradford? What can you take on? I want to be very sensitive to––”

I remember in that moment feeling a single rusty engine rev exactly once in my lower thoracic region. I butted in:

“––Whatever … whatever you need me to do. I am ready. I want to share what we’ve learned, what we’re learning.”

He leaned back in his chair. He smiled. Then he leaned forward: “We’d like to ask you to teach the teenagers. Sunday School.”

I nodded.

“And … seminary.” (An extra weekly  youth instruction.)

I nodded.

“And would you teach the women’s class?”

Nod.

“Once or twice a month?”

Nod. Nod.

“Would you be able to teach the adult gospel doctrine class?”

Nod. Smile. Two engines churned. Maybe a third.

“Every week?”

Nod. Smile. Joy-heat rising.

“And there is … one special and wonderful sister, a shut-in for years, serious health problems. But she lives 45 minutes away. You have a car. Can you visit her?”

Slow nod. Big eyes. Little sniffles.

“Every week?”

Nod.

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Once I got that  gig up and running, a couple of months later I also began team-teaching mid-weekly evening classes –– what we Mormons call Institute ––a gospel study course for all young adults in the greater Munich region.

You might say I found “push.”

I also found loss. By that I mean that as I pushed myself in an effort to serve others, I connected with people and  there found more loss than I had previously known existed among us. It was everywhere, in all forms. (I could make a list here, but you know as well as I do that that list would use up all my battery and yours.)

Before major loss became my personal story and not someone else’s fiction, I was oblivious to much of its world, its look, its contours, its devils.  The hook is this: Once loss was my story it wouldn’t have been enough––in fact it would have been a reverberating secondary loss and a dead end story –– to remain withdrawn in that narrative cul de sac for good. That wise inner voice had instructed me: Don’t let your sanctuary become your sarcophagus. I had to push.

So strengthened from my months in retreat, I now served. As much as could. And at the same time, so many, many people served our family. We wept three years later when we left our community in Munich.

If I lost my monastic retreat, it was never meant to be my permanent residence. Because outside its protection I found life.

And Inspiration. Power. Friendship. Help. Wisdom. Answers. Guidance. Comfort. Love. Tenderness. Meaning. Hope. Compassion. Holiness. Visions. Answers. Strength. Light. Vigor. Humor. Resilience. Relief. Brothers. Sisters. Community.

Loaves. Fishes. Miraculous Nourishment. God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love’s Life Preserver: First Aid in the Face of Grief

What is it about expressions of love that helped us so much in the face of great grief? Maybe the following metaphor might help you understand.

The expression “drowning in sorrow” was more than a metaphor for us; we knew it day and night in our repeated day terrors and nightmares wherein we relived Parker’s last minutes. Figuratively, too, the vortex of grief had us grabbing for each other’s hands, gasping for air, but we couldn’t always help each other up from the vicious downward suction.

And wouldn’t you know it. That is just when some fearless, grounded friend expressed love for us, for our three living children, and for Parker, and right then it felt like someone had extended an arm or hurled us a life preserver.

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Sometimes that love came to us in words, spoken or written. We have hundreds of archived emails, some of which I’ll share in future posts. We received beautiful, simple letters by conventional mail. We got text messages over months. Phone calls. Soft, cautious conversations that warmed and strengthened us.

Other times, words were unneeded. Love came as a penetrating glance from across the board room. In the form of a CD of gentle music in a padded envelope in the post box. As a single hand placed steadily on the shoulder. Other times it was in a dozen of Aunt Yvonne’s Tangy Lemon Bars.

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Whatever it was, that act of love was like a life vest that actually buoyed us up. We could grab on to something bobbing on the surface, filled with the spirit, at once lighter but at the same time more powerful than the darkly spinning whirlpool of grief. For that moment we could breathe. For a while our hearts felt sturdy. Something about simply knowing someone was there on the shore next to us reaching for us – something I still cannot explain but am forever indebted to – gave us hope and stamina to keep fighting from giving up and being pulled completely under the waters of despair.

These people who showed us love  (certainly not all members of our faith, by the way) lived by instinct the spirit of a certain well known discourse from Mormon scripture. In that passage I’m thinking of, an ancient prophet outlines what is required in order to enter into the fold of God. His list is instructive: Be willing bear one another’s burdens; Be willing to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort; Stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things.

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Here I notice that this charge to mourn and comfort—to sorrow with and to offer power (comfort = con-fortis = with power) to others –– benefits everyone, not just the person drowning. Mourning and comforting are soul-deepening and life-saving also for those who try to rescue. By practicing compassion, we are practicing pure religion, which means we experience being liberated from our own limiting egos to be connected – bound, sealed – in profound unity with others. We discover the thrill of being part of something larger than ourselves, the soothing place of communion, the safety of community.

“Standing as witnesses of God” means standing in for God on the edge of another’s whirlpool of grief, ready to risk our comfort, our safety, our egos, and if necessary our very lives in pulling against the weight of someone else’s discomfort. That calls for great and abiding feeling, soul-deep empathy, even fiery absorption.  For most of us, that calls for learning a whole new depth of love.

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Love, then – more than therapy, drugs, diversion, anything –  is the ultimate aid in grief. It is, at least,  the “first aid,” as in the French, premier secours, secours deriving from the same root as the English “to succor.” To succor is to love – intensely, immediately, selflessly and unselfconsciously. Its nature propels that urgent dash to save in the very first moments, that breathless rushing in, that racing-to-resuscitate sort of behavior.

That kind of love is precisely the kind our grieving family received in bulk and over  weeks, months, years.  We would not be standing if it weren’t for all the love that held us up then and holds us up still.

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(To be continued: “Protect, protect, protect…then push.”)

Shell Shocked or Shelled? What Happened in the Face of Death

I continue my February posts where I draw from files (my early book drafts never published, correspondence, study notes, my journals).

Why would I do this? Because it’s February, and our Parker, gone at 18, would be 27 next week. I’m paddling, (most days with the muscle of deliberate joy and the oars of gratitude), against a familiar downward suction.

As much as for Parker,  I’m here because I’m not done sharing with you what I’ve learned. And I would never want you to leave any interaction with me (in my books, my interviews, my public addresses, my social media presence, even chatting on the street) misled to believe that major loss is either a dead end – you’re captive in this killer swirl forever – or a hurdle you can spring over. Like bungee jumping over the valley of the shadow of death.

No way.

Grief gets its way in my writings. It’s an Orc. Raging, violent, terrifying, devastating. Ugly.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

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But grief, as I’ve experienced it, is mostly something else. It can be this:

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What I’ve learned is that it does no good to share the first image without some promise of the second. You’d discount me as hyperbolic, melodramatic, dark-spirited.

And it does no good to share the second image without some acknowledgement of the first. You’d incorrectly believe that the entirety of grief has fluid lines and feathered shoulders. Knowing grief yourself, you’d maybe discount me as a prettifier. Or not knowing grief, you might, from my writings, be poorly informed when you face others’ grief. “Uh….It wasn’t supposed to be this messy,” you’d think when your grieving friend acts like he’s stalked by Azog the Defiler.

So I give you both. Here, I continue in the ICU, where our son lay in a deep coma:

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 11:30 a.m., Friday, July 20

By late Friday morning our other three children arrived, brought by loving family and friends. The waiting room was overflowing. I didn’t go out there, though, but once, I think.

Claire I kept close to me while Kristiina [Sorensen] and Sharon [Leigh] sheltered Dalton and Luc in a waiting room far down the hall, away from things that hung in suspended animation. I cannot write about Claire. It’s beyond painful. She and Parker were soul mates, our inseparable two from Norway’s barnepark, the team that then confronted French together, shared the same friends, understood one another on a level I’m sure we parents never even approached. We’d sent Parker a care package two days earlier–candy bars, funny dollar gifts, love notes, laughing and joking, imagining his reactions – and now we huddled, whispered, stared at the side of his gurney. Slumped into one another’s arms, we half-reclined in a vinyl recliner, arms wrapped around our shared human furnace of horror.

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 7:30 p.m., Friday, July 20

Randall landed at the Pocatello airport and his brother brought him straight to Portneuf. Pallid and panting, he burst through the doors. I first embraced him, then braced him, and then he cried out softly, “Parker. Oh, sweet, sweet son. . .”

My relief was immediate. My sorrow compounded. My heart, having raced to this instant, now skidded to a standstill. This father, squeezing his eyes closed, carefully placed his hands on his son’s exposed ankle then slowly walked those hands up the sheet over the calf and thigh. I zeroed in on those hands, wide and thick, like his son’s, hands which now rested delicately, tentatively, on the son’s lower back. He spread his fingers on that sheet then took his son’s limp hand with its half-opened fist and slipped his own fingers in between Parker’s. His shoulders drew up as if to hold the horror weighing down his head. His face seemed over a hundred years old. And he then turned that face, eyes now closed, upward. Then those eyes, mirrors of devastation, opened to meet mine.

Some things are simply too cruel.

I’ve heard people describe “shell shock.” The traumatized are obliterated, rendered incapable of reason and normal function, stunned into catatonic silence. They fold in on themselves like inexpensive, soaked pocket umbrellas, or go rigid and blank, chalk-like. They splutter and mumble and rock violently back and forth. They heave an armchair or themselves through a window.

“Shell shock” was part of what we felt. No question. We were shocked. Scorched. Thunderstruck. In the weeks and even a couple of months that followed, in fact, we would bear medically diagnosable signs of being mildly concussed, of having had our nerve-endings singed, their pathways rerouted. We routinely asked what year we were living in. What month. What world.

But being “shell shocked” was not all we felt. We felt “shelled,” too, encased in holiness. More electrified than obliterated, enclosed in a sanctuary suspended between two vibrating realms – here and there, earth and heaven – in a small ICU space where we were buoyed up by a rare liquid luminosity.

There was, in that protected realm, also a slight opening, a pinpoint in the center of my closed-eye, closed-ear world. It was very still and very light. I concentrated on that spot. It was warm and steady and streamed forth love and safety. When I felt my way there, I sensed how the entire room filled, like with a rising tide, with that love. With that tide came understanding, a brief glimpse into the crystalline, high-resolution Big Picture. Such love and understanding released rays of purposefulness, which rose like basement light through the planks of an old floor, illuminating things from all angles, crowding and cradling the room.

(To be continued…)

ICU: Things I’ve Never Shared About Losing Our Son

It’s taken eight years, two books, several live interviews, and multiple public addresses on the topic. I think I’m finally ready.

For February, our son Parker’s would-be 27th birthday, I’m going to share some heavies. It’s like doing daily isometrics. That means  that  grief’s vortex tends to pick up in pitch and suction near his birthday, making me long to sink into deep, silent retreat. But I’m not giving in. I’m resisting. Instead of going limp and lifeless, I’m sharing myself every day in person and in print.

One channel of sharing is the hands-on refugee work I’m blessed to be able to be involved in here in central Europe. (If you want more descriptions about that, you can dip into my Facebook, or my MDBglobalmom Instagram and Twitter accounts.)

The other channel of sharing is what I’ll now do here on the blog. Over eight years I’ve written steadily on major loss (journals, early book drafts, study notes, correspondence with wise friends, etc.) Now I want to share some of the more personal – and therefore powerful–pieces with you.

A few of these I’ve been posting on my @OnLossandLivingOnward Facebook page. (Click on that title.) But because some of those texts are long or of a delicate intimate / spiritual nature, I’ve been thinking Facebook just isn’t the right place for them.

So to the blog. Note: I’m not necessarily following any linear progression over the next few posts. I’m pulling what grabs my heart and what I feel might be of most value to my readers. I know some of you want a community of solidarity in your own grief, and I know others want to understand the contours and texture of major loss so that  you can help others in acute need. Your needs are a primary reason I share so openly.

The following piece I wrote within the first month after Parker took his last breath in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to which he’d been life-flighted and was being kept “alive” on a ventilator. I had driven alone and through the night to find him there, comatose.

IMG_4792Pocatello, Idaho: 3:30 a.m., Friday, July 20, 2007

There, in one of the first rooms, under greenish lights, poised impossibly flat and facedown on a gurney was my big boy. More silent and still than if he had been asleep, and propped with a neck brace was this, my oldest child, tubes snaking in and out of his nose and mouth making gurgling sounds, a stiff white sheet covering the length of his long, firm athlete’s body from waist to ankles.  I longed to wrap my self around him, but hardly dared approach his form. I dropped the black overnight bag I’d packed in a frenzy when I’d gotten the policeman’s phone call , and stepped to where I could lean very close to his profile, close enough, even, so that I could feel my own breath coming back to me off his left cheekbone. For an instant I was fooled: Is he breathing? But there was this big white laminate and stainless steel ventilator mocking that hope.

The upper edge of the cotton sheet – I could see it had a Portneuf Regional Medical Center stamp in fine gray font – was crisp, barely outlining Parker’s form beneath. His shoulders I traced with my eyes. I’d known this one mole from birth, these four tiny freckles since that sunburn from the Jersey Shore, I’d bandaged that small purplish scar when he was six. But these fresh gashes like an animal’s claws, where were they from? Parker’s newly-stilled shoulders kept expanding, lifting and dropping evenly, mechanically. I studied that hulking, uninvited machine standing on the other side of the gurney, I surveyed the other strange machines at his side and the stark fluorescent lights and the odd blue woven blankets and my unfamiliar blue fingernails, blue feet. It was a bluewhite coldness I’d never known, a cold that had lethal contours like the iceberg that took down the Titanic.

I reached for his shoulder. It was warm. His forehead and brow were badly gashed. I bent down within inches of the left side of his face and examined the metal scalp staples. His eyes were blackened, bruised, swollen and were slowly oozing a delicate trickle of blood. I froze. His mouth, oh that sweet mouth with its full bottom lip. I traced his hand. My body folded like damp origami.

“I Am Here, I Am With You”

I took his left hand in one of mine and steadied myself in a chair I had pulled as close as I could next to the gurney. Then I found and unzipped my black leather-bound set of scriptures, the first thing I’d thrown into my bag. I opened and began reading in half a voice into his left ear: “For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, And my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and profit of my children.” Parker knew these were my favorite verses from the Book of Mormon, so I chose them instinctively for our comfort. From somewhere within the room – or was it in the room of my soul? – I heard Parker’s familiar low voice, “It’s all right. It’ll all be all right. Thank you, Mom.”

I scooted the chair so my knees were now pushed under the gurney and I could almost rest my chin on Parker’s shoulder and resumed my reading, “Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.”

There were other people in the room, some I hardly knew, but I didn’t have the energy to ask them to leave. A perceptive nurse ushered them away and for a few minutes, I was allowed to be alone in the room. “Parker,” I asked inwardly, my chin to my chest and my eyes closed from distractions of light and ambient sounds, streaming tears down my face and onto the front of my shirt, “My darling, darling sweetheart, what is this? What has happened? Please, can you hear me? Where are you? I know you hear me.”

“I am here,” came the answer. “I am with you. I am right here, Mom.

I could breathe. I supported the weight of the moment with my elbows on my thighs, the heels of my hands over my eyes, my fingers up over my forehead. My scriptures lay open, flat across my knees.

“You must not leave me, Parker. You must not leave us. Oh, sweetheart, I am so sorry, so sorry for this, so sorry.

“Thank you, Mom. I love you.”portrait

Encompassed About

 Looking up for an instant, I was confused that his voice was so clear yet his body so utterly immobile. His mouth closed. His eyes leaking those perfectly steady drops of blood.

I pulled my scriptures up to my eyes. I continued, “Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works. . .”

Another nurse came to adjust a machine and verify some numbers on a chart. I made eye contact with her, but even that quick glance was an unwelcome distraction for me, as I was trying to care for my son. And we needed to be alone, he and I. I reached up and barely touched his face as I read; “Yes, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about. . .”

Then there was activity gathering all around me, some people were moving in front of or beside or behind me, people were asking me questions, trying to be solicitous, interrupting my concentration, and I wanted to cry out that they needed to go far, far away. I was unable to form the words or use my energy for anything outside of my connection with Parker. Just to carve out a private, protected space, I closed my eyes and recited what I could by heart from my favorite passages: “And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth. . .nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.”

I hungered to stretch out alongside my child on that gurney, lie down and breathe with him. For him. Give him my breath. Life support. Life support? Wasn’t that supposed to be me? Hadn’t that always been me?

Life Support

“My God hath been my support,” I kept reading, rocking lightly, rabbinically, my tone flat while tears plopped freely on my onionskin scripture pages. “He hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.”

During those hours that I pleaded with God and cradled my head in my hands, dampening my scriptures with my tears, I felt the hot friction of fear and faith chafing against each other.  I wept quietly but continuously while I fought to breathe for Parker, whose tubes gurgled with air and fluid. I talked at times with those who kept vigil with me. But I primarily talked within myself to my son and to God.

(To be continued…)

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Parker, age 10, at a Parisian amusement park with his Mom.