Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013. All photos from Milan’s Duomo.
How do you celebrate the birthday of your deceased child?
Yesterday, February 20th, would have been Parker’s 24th birthday. Days like these can be hard and lonely. I have to resist the temptation to self-medicate under feathers packed into three hundred count cotton, and have to turn my back from the pit of quicksand. If I don’t, I’m a gonner.
Until last year, I thought the suction of oblivion, powerful on certain landmarks like yesterday, was maybe just my fault, the curse of my sensitive nature. Until I came across enough statements – dozens – from other parents, who had the same experience.
Actress and bereaved mother, Marianne Leone Cooper, was frank in her memoir Knowing Jesse,about losing her 17-year-old and only son, and wrote that although she can star in a TV series, laugh til she cries, and host a hundred for a holiday party, there are still difficult days like Jesse’s birthday, when she is overcome with tears and longing and craves an entire day in bed. It’s then that she challenges herself to stay engaged with people. Love them. Serve them. Share her son with them.
But I couldn’t follow it yesterday because I had work to do, and my work is writing, and writing is a doggoned solitary pursuit.
So I kissed by kids goodbye at 7:15 a.m. sharp at our front door, waved them off to school, then walked straight to this computer. And I worked.
And I worked for hours. Eleven of them. Straight. One ten-minute break every two hours. All generators running at a low, that constant hum, pushing toward a self-imposed deadline: dinner time, February 20th.
Let me quickly explain what deadline I’m referring to.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve authored two books, both of which are in different stages of getting out the publishing door. One, an anthology entitled Grief and Grace, is presently stalled a bit in the approval process. I’m desperate to get that work into your hands and can promise it will indeed happen, I just can’t tell you exactly when. I’ve been including quotes from Grief and Grace in this blog since this moment , when, saddened by the senseless killings in Newtown, Massachusetts, I decided to devote as long as it takes on this blog to the topic of loss, grief and mourning.
Up to that point in the life of this blog, however, I’d been posting regularly on a different manuscript, my other book, Global Mom: A Memoir, slated for bookstores in June. In those entries, I’d taken you along on our family’s journey from New Jersey to Norway to France, had looped back for some extra Norway scenes I thought you would appreciate, and was heading back to France again, (as our family did), only this time to the heart of Paris.
Uh, yeah. If I’m not mistaken.
(I totally sympathize if you sometimes come here not knowing quite where you are on the world map. It feels that way to live it.)
What has all this blogging and booking meant? While I’ve been posting every week on Grief and Grace, and while, to my complete surprise also increasing my readership, (thanks in part to this post and the award it received called “Freshly Pressed”, granted by our blog host, WordPress), I’ve been quite busy off-blog, getting Global Mom ready for design lay-out and then publication in a matter of weeks.
Put neatly: my ankles are swollen and other things are flumpy from all this dadgum sitting.
“Publication in a matter of weeks” means now’s when things get granular: I’m running out of time to condense a tad here, expand a bit there, source-check, send pages to Norwegian, French, German, Austrian, Chinese and Singaporean friends, to make sure that my observations of their cultures stay just on this side of landing me in jail. Pretty soon is when someone, my editor, I guess, yells, “Uncle!”, and confiscates my computer. No more fiddling. And I develop an ulcer over all I wrote but shouldn’t have, all I should have written but didn’t, and why I didn’t think to wash my hair the week those candid shots were taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, one of which, the very last image in this post, will be gracing a book cover. But ah, the rest of my family is so, so heartbreakingly beautiful. . .
Which rambling preamble brings me to yesterday. It brings me – books and blogs and the forces of destiny – to February 20th, what would have been my beautiful boy’s 24th birthday.
As I watched for months the approach of this date, I made a personal commitment a little like Marianne Leone’s: I’d devote that day to being literally or at least literarily as close as possible with others and my son. I would get this book done-done. For him.
In the eery soundproofing of Swiss silence, (tell me: can you hear individual snowflakes thawing where you are?), I worked. Head low, eyes swimming, shoulders tensing, ankles spreading, I worked. I read and read and compared versions and tweaked and cleaned and read and read more. My breaks I took only when I’d clicked “send” on the chapter going to my editor. Otherwise, I didn’t budge.
What was I reading? I was reading the last eight chapters of this 26 chapter book. I have to admit I’d put it off, fearing where it might take me, because it is potent material: the narrative that starts with the last hours of Parker’s life and stretches over the five-and-a-half years of our family’s life without (and with) him in this world.
In other words, I spent 11 hours not only reviewing Global Mom, but reliving Grief and Grace.
I spent my dead son’s birthday with him. In every line. Filling every margin.
I revisited the death chamber of the ICU, which spilled over with love and light brought by seen and unseen loved ones.
From Global Mom:
We brought all the waiting family and friends into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed. There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. As Parker’s body had by that time been turned over onto its back, we could freely study and memorize his face during these, our last minutes of private communion with him. As heads bowed, I looked around. I felt that reverence or that illuminating presence, that vibration, only greatly heightened, and realized in an uncanny way for which I cannot account even as I write this, that everything was exactly as it was supposed to be: the shape and placement of the windows; the slant of late morning light on the floor; my own hands so ice cold their nails were bluegray; Randall’s soulful expression like a late Rembrandt self-portrait; Dalton whose bearing and depth was of a forty-five year old; Claire with her open, light-filled stare; my parents, so vulnerable and shaken; the soft faces of friends and family; the sense that others, unseen but real, were there, filling in all the blank spaces. And Parker’s Adonis form under a perfect sheet of white.
On the next page, I’m standing again in his funeral, where a sea of faces full of compassionate anguish looked at us and sang a closing hymn that practically blew out a Mormon chapel’s walls and roof. Pain erupting in joy.
From Global Mom:
“The funeral,” Randall whispers, “It was. . .just. . .I can’t believe they all came.” I don’t want the children to notice our tears; weeping is almost all they’ve seen and heard and done for two weeks straight.
“They flew across the world, all those people,” I look down at our hands, gripping one another’s. He shakes his head; “How could they. . .? I’m just . . . And the music. . .” We tilt our heads to where our crowns meet. I feel him shaking.
The day of your own child’s funeral is the day you should never live to see. It is, in the imagination of those anticipating it in the abstract or in the minds of those observing it from afar, the hardest possible day of any parent’s life. It is the day when the father should collapse with a heart attack, one thinks, or the morning the mother should do something dangerous in her bathroom. The day you should never ever live to see, you parent. The day you would of course never want to relive.
Yet here we are, The Father and The Mother, bent together in Row 34 of an airplane, aching to relive it frame-by-frame. The day was that brilliant – brilliantly excruciating and brilliantly exquisite – like the sun that seemed to affix itself stubbornly at its peak, a sun that wouldn’t be dismissed from early morning until early evening, perched there on the topmost rung of sky like the high sounds of a bugle’s call, punchy, relentlessly scorching and brassily happy. All those things at once. That was the day.
In the next chapter, I returned to Munich, the place of our exile, and remembered those who, though stymied in their efforts to connect with us parents, swooped in and carefully cradled our disoriented children. I read of teachers and church goers and work colleagues and utter strangers, I saw friends calling across the globe and emailing at all hours with wise counsel and sorrow in each syllable. I revisited revelation and miracles for which there can be no explanation unless one considers and accepts the reality of a spiritual world. Everywhere, I saw a tall, handsome young man whose highest post-mortal priority was and still is to minister to his family.
From Global Mom:
Somewhere in those half-sleeping, half-waking hours that immediately followed, all the lights went on in my inner dream cinema. Parker was there.
I wrote in my dream journal:
He was standing, smiling and fully in his element, in the center of a crescent shape of five people; two figures to his left, two to his right. He wore a light blue rugby shirt with a collar, white horizontal stripes and short sleeves, faded jeans, and sandals. Both his hands were in his pockets and his head was turned to look intently at the person to his left. That person, carrying some stacked books in her arms and dressed conservatively, was talking quietly to him. The setting was campus-like, with a backdrop of brilliant, glimmering green trees, and there was a neo-classical building like a specific one I knew from my own alma mater’s campus. Behind this crescent of figures, there were just a few other figures, all in their late teens or early twenties, crossing behind Parker and going up and down these steps into the neoclassical building.
Again, Parker was calm, but in no way indifferent, in fact, he was nodding lightly and seemed eagerly engaged. It was clear to me that he was learning something from whatever the young woman to his left was explaining. She was teaching him something, this I somehow intuitively understood, and he was new there in this setting, being introduced to these people, to their conversation and to their ways.
As well as looking wholesome and healthy, he was radiant, cheerful. There were no multiple and severe head wounds, no swollen eyes, no bruises, no protruding contusion over the left ear, no tubes, no corpselike pastiness. Just Parker among all his friends, as natural as the air. Parker as he’d always been, but visibly serene.
As I marveled at all the beauty and tried to get closer to take a closer look at him and perhaps get his attention and interrupt (why was I not able to run to him, to get closer faster?), he turned his head slightly from the young woman still engaging him in conversation at his left. He looked right at me. It was a knowing, intimate glace, and it lasted perhaps five seconds. He looked at me and said nothing, my heart startled, and I understood these ideas: “This is how it is, Mom. This is where I am. I am learning. I am with my people. You have done with me what you did with the other kids tonight: You’ve handed me into someone else’s care to be schooled further.”
And then he turned his head back to his new friends – ah, sweet Parker; your friends always got more of your time than I did, even in death – and the lights dimmed and the picture washed away.
I moved on in my reading to Singapore, where there were such warm waves of love, you could have bodysurfed in the foam alone. I was reminded of the countless kindnesses extended to our family, the private remembrances of a son no one there had ever known but were willing to commemorate.
From Global Mom:
There were friends for hiking up and down Singapore’s hilly tropical rain forest, friends for yoga, friends for making music, friends for serving in church and traveling to near-lying Asian destinations. There were, to our surprise, friends to mourn with, friends to remember Parker even though no one here knew us, no one had ever known of Parker. There was the one friend who remembered every single 19th of every month, the day of Parker’s accident. Or another who digitally designed an up-to-date family photo into which she magically added Parker’s 18-year-old face. The woman who, on Mother’s Day, sent a brief but soothing email, “Hey, thinking of you today. How are you doing?” and the friend who spent months painting Parker’s portrait from a photo, one of the last photos ever taken of him while he played a drum solo in his senior class talent show. People were there on every hand, it seemed, enfolding us in more love and compassion that one family can know what to do with.
I saw in my writing how each of us – Randall, Claire, Dalton, Luc, and myself – had been hugely fortified over time, and how our experience disproved all the conventional language for grief. We had not “lost” Parker; he was in no way “lost” since we knew where he was, nor had we forfeited him to some random cosmic lottery. And he wasn’t actually “dead”, at least not in the sense we’d habitually used that word. Unwatered house plants, our Internet line, your smartphone connection, they were what we call dead.
But Parker? He was more alive than you or me or anyone.
By the time I hit my deadline – I did hit my deadline – I was as bonded to Parker as I’d been in a long time. He was at my elbow, it seemed, nodding, prodding me forward. I had spent the day engaged, if only literarily, in his immortal life and others’ mortal ones. In a small way I was, through my work, serving them by sharing my son’s story with them.
Stiff but satisfied, I checked email one last time. It was our Claire, with this week’s missionary letter:
I wanted to begin the email by acknowledging Parker’s birthday, which is today. I have been thinking a lot about him, and how often, during my mission service, he has shown me in little ways that he is involved with my work here. This week I saw it in a big way.. . .
Eight enthusiastic paragraphs later, Claire had described in detail her brother’s ongoing presence in her life.
I shut this overworked laptop of mine and let peace move over me. It was much softer and far more enlivening than any feather comforters and three hundred count cotton sheets. So galvanizing was this day of comfort, in fact, and so complete was my gratitude, I couldn’t even force myself to stay in bed under my fluffy covers last night.
So I waddled back in here, and for some hours and by the light of my screen alone, I wrote this post to thank my God, my Parker, and my friends like you.