Comparing: Sorrow That The Eye Can’t See

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Their holiday greeting cards? Picture perfect, every last one. Fifteen years ago, all in matching pastels romping in the surf at Cape Cod. Ten years ago, all four kids plus Mom and Dad swinging in the arms of their backyard maple tree. A couple of years after that, rumpled and ruddy-cheeked vogueness in a glittery snowscape with that year’s added essential; Bogart, the Labrador retriever.

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Because she is more sister than friend to me, I’d known for some time what kind of patchy reality lay beneath the airbrush of these annual images. In fact, I knew the moment when there wouldn’t be any more holiday cards. Well, not for a while, at least. In any event, never another one with Dad.

“Melissa, I’ve found. . .found out something. It is terrible. Something so terrible. . .”

Her voice on the phone dissolved into darkened tones that barely rose above a whisper. I had to hold one hand over my eyes to block out the sunshine that ricocheted off the blunt blows she narrated through restrained anguish.

She’d discovered a lie. The lie. Then more lies. Lies that revealed a separate apartment. A hidden bank account. His falsified business trips.  His serial affairs.

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I had to sit down. My legs were liquid.

“How long has–?”

Years, Melissa. I think this has been going on. . .I can’t. . . I’m having a hard. . .it’s hard just breathe–”

“And you’ve got proof–”

“It’s all right here. I’m holding it in my hands. Receipts. From his pocket when I was supposed to take his jacket to the cleaners. And I started tracing where he was making bank withdrawals. They weren’t where he said he was traveling. And then I found the messages left on the cell he forgot in the car when I dropped him at the airport. I had this haunting feeling and so I. . .there were those expenses he couldn’t explain. . .the erratic behavior. . and all his lavish gifts for me when he’d stay away an extra weekend. . .Penance payment, I see that now. Oh, Melissa, what am I –”

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Her voice, usually smooth and thick as fresh cream, erupted in one jagged sob. She sucked in the breath of someone going under for a long time. I had to lean back flat on the sofa to get enough breath myself; my lungs cramped so I folded over onto my side and cried along with her. We talked for two hours straight.

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What did they all mean, her twenty-something years of steady devotion?  Supporting him through grad studies? Having and raising babies while he climbed the ladder? Four preteens then teens then getting the eldest off to college? Where did I go wrong, she kept asking me, Did I misread his tension, she asked, Every marriage has its stretches of tension, I said, But all these recent inexplicable blow-ups, she told me, Did I do something? Put too much pressure on him, she’d asked, and No wonder he was at the gym every free hour, it seemed, getting fit. Lean. Buff. He told me I should be grateful he was keeping healthy. Not letting himself go. 

With eyes closed, I listened. Their manicured holiday cards pulsed and swirled on the screen of my mind.  And I remembered her phone voice from a year earlier, telling me he’s started getting mani-pedis, Melissa, body waxing, weekly massages. 

Oh, these men and their midlife crises, she’d said.

And I’d said, Uh. . . not the crises I know. What’s going on? You’d better find out.

Then she’d released the single, heavy pant of a work horse.

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“Honey, looks like I’ll have to stay over here another weekend,” he’d sighed when calling from New York. Or San Francisco. Or London. Or was it Bangkok this time? “This new CEO’s got me on this huge project and, well. . .You know.”

Somewhere along the way he’d developed a new laugh. It was a shrink-wrapped kind of cackle. She’d hardly recognized it as his, had hardly recognized who he seemed to be.

Yes, that was it.  He seemed to be someone. His presence, less frequent but more theatrical, made her uneasy. Why do you need all these new designer carry-ons? She’d asked that once. He’d nearly blinded her with his flippant, anger-propelled spittle, and that time he left before the weekend at home was even over. Sooner than planned. Sooner than promised.

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When she found him out, when she told him his betrayal was exposed, he was indignant. And then he was utterly infuriated that she would “humiliate” him like this. Then, as quickly as he’d spiked in a rage, he’d softened.  He’d cleared his throat, dredging up an apology. He’d asked,”Why can’t we just stay together? For the sake of propriety?” He would keep his “other side” quiet, he said. Not disturb the children with it. That way, there would be no public shame.  “We can keep things clean and tidy.”

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In any case, she shouldn’t tell her parents about this, he warned, his ears pinned back. And his parents? He strictly forbade her to speak a word. The tip of his index finger thudded with each syllable into the countertop as he made. his. point.

The day she told the children was the same day she filed.

And then she fled.

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Within a month and without raising her head or her voice, she’d sold the house and moved to a place far away. She would start over there, she hoped, start over after two decades living the only life she knew. She would start over wearing the safe sheath of anonymity. She could create a new identity in a network that she prayed would hold up the bundle of rubble that was now her life.  The rest of her life.

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Severed  by several hours on a plane from him didn’t remove her from the whole blistering distress that she now realized had dragged on for years. A desert of a marriage. Parched.  So arid it made her throat dry and her lips crack even though sometimes she was crying and sobbing lying on her side on the floor of her closet in this old basement rental. And now that the legal process was in full swing, that shrink-wrapped persona of his was showing signs of splitting at the seams. He warned her she’d not only mess up everyone’s lives, but she’d never make it in the world on her own. “Look at you,” she heard his voice sneering over the phone, “Do you have any skills?” He warned her that she was unmarketable.

Or had he said, “Unremarkable”?

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With verbal sleight-of-hand, he turned the children against her, planting suspicion and blame in their hearts. He softly undermined her, and then with spite and fear hissing through his incisors, told her she was acting ungrateful for all the years of service he’d poured into her.

And what about my gifts? He asked in a call where she finally had to give him her lawyer’s name because from now on all communication would go through that office. You’re sure not acting very grateful for all my gifts.  There was that pout again. He had mastered it and other methods of manipulation. Or so he thought. She was growing Teflon shoulder blades off of which these machinations were sliding.

She lowered herself into the sofa they’d bought together so many years ago. Times like this, she did question herself. Where did I go wrong? Were we ever in love? Wrong for each other from the very start? What does he mean? We had loved each other. This sofa. That time he held me in his arms, passion and loyalty igniting us like thirsty kindling.

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As the tale often seems to go, he’d conveniently and quickly all but drained their joint bank account. That, while her lawyers’ fees were accumulating, so finances forced her to give up on the basic requests for financial support.  And now he was claiming “emotional devastation” that rendered him unable to work, so naturally he couldn’t possibly pay alimony or child support or help with a mortgage. But he swooped by when he could, Dad did, dipping in and out of the family’s world like a pelican, scooping the surface with his big beak, dripping and losing things as he flapped away through the air.

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To fill in for his absence, he posted Facebook images with him smiling broadly at the theater or on a seaside junket with his new single friends.

“Recovering” was the subtitle he wrote.

Recovering is what she was still fighting toward when, in the middle of the night, she got the call about our son Parker’s accident.  And now my sister-friend was at my side, comforting me.

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**

This woman could be a composite of many of my divorced sisters and brothers.  Many of them, hearts widened from private excavation, have stood silent vigil during our family’s great sorrow, praying and figuratively stroking my back with their long, swan-like gestures. We hardly need words, these friends and I. The magnetic pull of pain links our hearts, locks our eyes. We each know something about death.

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As I’ve observed the residual, cumulative, compounding effects of so many marriage-death stories, I think of something I read from Gerald Sittser.

For context, Sittser lost his wife of 20 years, his young daughter and his mother all in a random lone-road accident for which the other driver, who was drunk, escaped prosecution. (To pour a ladle of acid on that sizzling pile of shock: in that same head-on accident, that driver also killed his own pregnant wife). We’ll agree, I think, that Sittser can speak with authority about cataclysms:

My own loss was sudden and traumatic, as if an atomic blast went off, leaving the landscape of my life a wasteland. Likewise, my suffering was immediate and intense, and I plunged into it as if I had fallen over a cliff. Still, the consequences of the tragedy were clear. It was obvious what had happened and what I was up against. I could therefore quickly plot a course of action for my family and me. Within a few days of the accident I sat down with family and friends to discusss how I was going to face my grief, manage my home, raise my children. …

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My divorced friends face an entirely different kind of loss. They have lost relationships they never had but wanted, or had but gradually lost. Though they may feel relieved by the divorce, they still wish things had been different. They look back on lost years, on bitter conflicts and betrayal, on the death of a marriage. Anger, guilt, and regret well up when they remember a disappointing past that they will never be able to forget or escape. My break was clean; theirs was messy. I have been able to continue following a direction in life I set twenty years ago; they have had to change their direction. Again the question surfaces: It is possible to determine whose loss is worse?
-Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 31-32

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**

This year our family, like yours, received lots of holiday cards. Many of them have images of picture perfect families. I love these people (and cherish their pictures).  I’m grateful for them all.

The images that hold my stare the longest are the ones whose current private stories I know best. It’s that intimate knowledge that allows me to see through a glossy likeness to reality.  In some pictures there are gaping holes or percolating anxieties. I see them.  There are also hidden triumphs – survival stories, stories of super human change – that even the best photographer can’t simulate.  These pictures remind me to focus there in my chest for the low rumble of “sorrow that the eye can’t see.”

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Now here’s a card.  Handsome children I’ve known most their lives, and their beautiful mother I’ve known from all the previous holiday cards, the sister-friend I’ve known through her great grief and through mine.  The father? Long gone, although featured, I assume, on another airbrushed holiday card that’s gone elsewhere in the world. In this card in my hand, the mother’s unfussed good looks are arresting, enough to stop the eye mid-scan.  Enough to stop a train.

There’s something more than cosmetic beauty there, however, can you see it? It’s so much more than gleaming teeth, her best profile or well-lit features. In her eyes shines something the eye untrained for depth won’t see.  Part softness and sorrow, part hope and courage, there is something my eye zeros in on that keeps me there and makes me swell toward her in closeness.

There is – I think I can describe it now – there is a density of wisdom, a laser look.   But it’s even more than that. There is an intensity of light, the sort many might ask for or even try to superimpose or edit into their image at whatever the price. But the real thing, the real light, few would ever willingly pay for.  It’s that sharp-sweet serenity gained on a level far below shiny surfaces, hidden well beneath the thick lid of images: it is down here, I know it, beneath the comfortable pace of daily breath and at a place so interior only great time and effort will attain it, right there at the invisible and excruciating scraped-off surface of the soul’s bone.

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Who am I to judge another

When I walk imperfectly?

In the quiet heart is hidden

Sorrow that the eye can’t see.

Who am I to judge another?

Lord, I would follow thee.
__
Susan Evans McCloud

Comparing: The Heartchip

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I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes–
I wonder if It weighs like Mine–
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long–
Or did it just begin–
I could not tell the Date of Mine–
It feels so old a pain–

I wonder if it hurts to live–
And if They have to try–
And whether–could They choose between–
It would not be–to die–

I note that Some–gone patient long–
At length, renew their smile–
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil–

I wonder if when Years have piled–
Some Thousands–on the Harm–
That hurt them early–such a lapse
Could give them any Balm–

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve–
Enlightened to a larger Pain–
In Contrast with the Love–

The Grieved–are many–I am told–
There is the various Cause–
Death–is but one–and comes but once–
And only nails the eyes–

There’s Grief of Want–and grief of Cold–
A sort they call “Despair”–
There’s Banishment from native Eyes–
In Sight of Native Air–

And though I may not guess the kind–
Correctly–yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary–

To note the fashions–of the Cross–
And how they’re mostly worn–
Still fascinated to presume
That Some–are like My Own–

-Emily Dickinson

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Let me begin with a story I’ve told in parts elsewhere.

With this story, I want to launch a multi-post discussion about “Comparing”, a sticky issue and one of the most complicated “C’s” with regards to loss, grief and co-mourning.

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Little Parker (aka Petit Parker, or “P. J.” for Parker John ,or also “Peej”) is Renée and John Hall’s son. He and his twin sister, Penelope, were conceived a few short months after our Parker’s funeral, which Renée attended. She’d flown to Utah from her home in Paris, which is where we Halls and Bradfords lived and loved each other, and where our strapping “Big” Parker had been assigned with Randall to be what we in our church call “home teachers.” That assignment means that once a month, son and father hopped on the family scooter to zip across town to check in on the Halls, one of their several stewardships in our congregation.
Back then when Big Parker was alive to visit them, the Halls had three girls under the age of six; Abby, Hannah and Axelle. These princesses always donned their pink net tutus and fairy wands, tiaras and pastel feather boas to greet their home teachers, then showered them with squeals of love and laughter. Big Parker was the monthly celebrity in their home.

Our Parker picking up his brothers Dalton and Luc and the gates of their school with Abby and Hannah Hall. Photo taken by Renée.

Our Parker picking up his brothers Dalton and Luc at the gates of their school with Abby, Hannah and Axelle Hall. Photo by Renée.

When word was official that our Parker did not survive his coma, John Hall was the second person in the world to call us. He phoned Utah standing surrounded by members of our church congregation in the courtyard in front of our meeting place in the heart of Paris.

“But. . .”, I could hear his usually voluminous voice shrivel to a whimper, “But, how can. . .how. . .how can this be true? I’m so. . .just. . .” His voice kept cracking. “We love you guys so much,” he said, every syllable pressed dense with sadness.

If you can imagine Jeremiah Johnson weeping and stammering through a phrase, you’ve got an image of our friend John grieving.

I remember virtually everything about the moment Renée took me aside during one of our visits to Paris that first year. Her blonde shoulder length hair was tucked behind one ear. She was wearing fire engine red. The sun was pouring in the window behind me on the right. Many others were in the room. And she took me over to a chair, whispering with joy dipped in sadness, “Melissa, no one knows yet, but John and I decided to have one more child.” She touched her stomach and shrugged, “And it’s two.

I reached and took her forearm, smiling with my brows furrowed.

“And if one’s a boy,” Renée said, her bright grin starting to tremble in its edges, “We’ll name him Parker. Is that okay with you guys?”

The first time we met Little Parker.  Major Parisian rainstorm outside, but we felt familiar refuge at the Halls'.

The first time we met Little Parker. Major Parisian rainstorm outside, but we felt familiar refuge at the Halls’. This ia a picture of a perfectly healthy baby.

When Parker and Penelope came into the world, they made the perfect sparkly disco spotlight over an equally snazzified family complete with ultra-octane parents and those three twirling princesses. At the Hall home things were kept at a rollicking clip with high-froth-quotient parties, spontaneous dance-a-thons, theme picnics in the local parks, and frequent excursions to Euro Disney.
And Euro Disney is, in fact, exactly where the Halls were on February 20, 2009. That date would have been Big Parker’s twentieth birthday. That was the day Parker Hall (just eight months old) contracted pneumococcal meningitis.

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When I got the phone call in Munich that Little Parker was in a medically induced coma and probably wouldn’t make it another day, I caught the next plane to Paris. Folding and refolding the waxy white airplane napkin, I couldn’t block out possible scenes of an ashen-faced Renée folding up baby boy clothes to be boxed or given away. I tried to suppress the impossible notion of my boy’s name being a curse. I foresaw the fragility that would invade and potentially reduce these mighty parents, this magnificent family. I narrated to myself the story of loss Renée would yearn to tell. And I feared all the ears that wouldn’t want to hear it, that would never ask to hear it, that sacred but scary story of the dead child. The story that so few can acknowledge straight on. The phantom child that makes the parent a specter, a bitter jinx in life’s otherwise carbonated cocktail mix.

At l’Hôpital Necker Enfants Malades and cloaked in paper gowns, masks, and gloves, Renée and I entered the isolation booth where her Parker lay motionless, his swollen head and listless body wrapped in gauze and sterile cotton, the hospital staff avoiding eye contact while attempting light conversation.

It was a still life (nature morte) of unspeakable but crashing familiarity. The volume of my pleading inner dialogue with God and with Big Parker—“Make him live! Strong brain! Strong lungs, strong, strong!!”—was so loud, I was sure the staff would ask me—s’il vous plait!—to keep my thoughts down.
From that weeklong coma Little Parker did miraculously return to life. But it was not a strong life.

Cerebral meningitis had ravaged his system leaving him deaf, hydrocephalic, convulsive, shunted, and cut and sewn so many times his head looked like a Spirograph drawing. He was gravely compromised neurologically, his gravitational vector was shot, he was droopy and unresponsive, and he had to be fit with cochlear implants in order to retrieve – 10%? 5% of his hearing? – if any hearing at all.

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John and Renée and their four girls began teaching themselves sign language—both in English and in French. They also began a family journey of fortitude and despair, faith and disappointment, a journey whose description I dare not even touch. I’d do it injustice, get the essentials all wrong, flatten it to a cheap little subtitle. Who am I to tread on such hallowed ground? So, for firsthand descriptions of their ongoing challenges, you’ll want to go here.

Renée, like Melissa, writes full-bodied e-mails. Over these past years, we’ve tracked one another’s experience with loss, amassing volumes that describe heaven’s severe but benevolent teaching methods, the wonder of small joys, the isolation and irony that come with the most defining trials in life, the sharp and bruising contours of grief’s landscape, the deepening spiritual experiences hardly transferable by written word, and our love and hope and yearning and passion for our two Parkers.

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With Renée I am confident I can unload my private pain liberally, and she’ll scoop it up and hold it right there, against her gut. As a matter of fact, I think she holds it within her gut, because her own burden has carved out room for feeling something of its weight. She’ll weigh my burden there, absorbing it within her own. This is how I envision it.

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There, in her gut, when she carries all she can of my burden, does she feel its entire weight? She’d be the first to say, no.

And, no, I cannot feel or understand the entirety of the weight of her burden, either.

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We’re both sensitive and sympathetic people. And we share a common, eternal bond. But we sister-friends cannot fully feel the weight of one another’s hardship.

Or “heartchip”, as my Luc once called it.

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And there’s something more, some thing vitally wise about how Renée weighs my heartchip. She doesn’t deposit my heartchip on one side of a scale and deposit her heartchip on the other side, waiting with Dickinson’s “narrow, probing eyes”, sizing up whose – Renée’s? Or Mélissa’s? – is the heavier of the two.

Whose scale sinks lower.

Who of the two of us deserves more sympathy.

Who wins at Sufferier Than Thou.

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While every bit as analytical as mine, Renée’s eyes don’t seem focused on tit for tat, ledger-keeping competition, on who wins in this ponderous loss lottery. She only wants to understand, I know this fabulous thing about her, and in that focus outward, she accepts that both our burdens of loss are simply unique and therefore the losses weigh differently.

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Heavily.

Constantly.

But differently.

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She also knows that what we two sister-friends have lost imposes a tonnage that changes life forever. Knowing that seems to be more than enough for her to bear.

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By choosing to hold my heartchip next to her own heartchip instead of pitting them against each other, she frees herself from a few things.

First, she frees herself from the corrosive effects of self-pity. If you were to meet Renée on the street, you’d call her the joie de vivre lady, as the policeman in her Parisian neighborhood does. Blondely buoyant with a vibrant red-lipped smile, neon lime green rubber boots, all her kids piled willy-nilly on a doggoned circus act of a double stroller, her life percolates with merriment as if painted, carpeted, wall-papered and wardrobed all in Merimekko.

parker H on stairsRenée also frees her heart from the weight of harsh judgement. Sure, she gets impatient (as do I) when folks call petty things tragique! and when mere inconvenience – a basic blip – makes some people rage, stamp and whine.

(Confession time, everybody? I get more than impatient. I get rabid. But I realize, too, that that was once me.)

But Renée’s heart remains supple, juicy. Hers is the kind of heart the Arapahoe Indians call the moist heart, which, in their tradition, is the sign of a fully developed heart. Pardon the cuteness, but her own heartchip has not made her heart into a chip.

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And she frees herself from carrying resentment towards others. (You are right if you sense more cuteness coming.) There might be substantial, ongoing, cumulative heartchip, but look here: Do you see a chip on this lovely shoulder?

**

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The very attempt we often make in quantifying losses only exacerbates the loss by driving us to two unhealthy extremes. On the one hand, those coming out on the losing end of the comparison are deprived of the validation they need to identify and experience the loss for the bad thing it is. He sometimes feels like the little boy who just scratched his finger but cried too hard to receive much sympathy. Their loss is dismissed as unworthy of attention or recognition. On the other hand, those coming out on the winning end convince themselves that no one has suffered as much as they have, that no one will ever understand them, and that no one can offer lasting help. They are the ultimate victims. So they indulge themselves with their pain and gain a strange kind of pleasure in their misery.”—Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 32-33

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

Big Parker, age 10, on a Parisian amusement park ride with his Mom.

Continuing: Aaron D.

Longsuffering. What does it mean?

Aaron, summer 1994, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

Aaron, summer 1994, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

Parker, summer 2006, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

Parker, summer 2006, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

In the next few posts, I’d like to share with you some vivid examples from our family’s story of loss that illustrate powerfully, I think, what suffering along with and for a long time with someone can look like.

These are fleshed-out profiles of real people with names and faces and any number of private pains themselves, people who rushed to our need, their own souls ripped wide with loss and love. And then after rushing toward us they stuck with us – they stick with us even today, well over five years from impact – in their quiet acts of contact.

I can only describe their longsuffering as godly.

But they’re gonna be mad as Hades I’m outing them here in a post.

Well? So be it.

I can’t resist sharing these stories because they’re so resonantly, humanly beautiful.  But I’ll only do so with a caveat: this is not intended to read like an Oscar line-up of This Year’s Best Supporting (and Suffering) Actors. It’s not a competition and by no means do I want to incite comparison, guilt or resentment. And I’m not doing this to “pay back” these people. Neither is this to thank them. Heaven knows, I will never in my life be able to adequately pay back or thank them.

What I want to do here is offer images you can hold on to – models, ideas, inspiration. Maybe you’re wondering to yourself, “What can I do to show compassion to my suffering friend?” or, “It’s going on seven months, now, and she’s still not back to her old self. What now?” or, “Who am I to insert myself into another’s grief? Won’t that be pushy? Presumptuous?” or, “I’m not such a touchy-feely gal. Tears? Not me. How can I mourn with someone and still be sincere?”

After several posts on the “Don’ts” (or the “D’s”) of co-mourning, I’m ready to give it to you with both barrels on the “Can’s” (or the “C’s”) of this topic. These stories and profiles might offer answers to those questions and more.

Let’s start with longsuffering, which for the sake of alliterative tidiness, I’ll call Continuing.

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Meet Aaron. (Or re-meet Aaron. You know him already from the Antonini posts, when he took pictures of the tree and plaque in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem.)

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Aaron is my baby brother. In spite of the fact that I changed his diapers, fed him his bottles, helped teach him to eat and walk and do his hair and pick up girls, the nine year gap in our age has become insignificant over time. Today he is in many ways my equal, and in most, my superior. My friend and confidante, my flesh-and-blood balm.

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He was a gorgeous, blonde Viking type as a kid, a small Odin with a Norse God voice, and precocious gifts for music, language and humor.
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Those gifts, clumsy and folksy as they were when he was little, became something well-toned as he matured, and have all congealed to bring our family comfort in our experience of losing our son, his nephew.

Aaron was more excited about graduating to the role of uncle (Parker was the first grandchild in my family) than he was about graduating from high school.

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In fact, a favorite story is about teenaged Aaron waltzing into the hospital where Parker was born, a girlfriend on his arm, sashaying right past the stern-looking security and the white-clad nurses and the stethoscope-toting doctors, and cruising (as you could do in 1989) right into my delivery room. Parker was not yet 5 minutes old. I was in a compromising position, (to put it delicately), when Aaron whipped the curtain right open.

“Aaron?! Get out of here with your girlfriend,” hissed Randall, the protective father.

“Whu?!? [pause] She’s NOT my GIRLFRIEND!!”

I might be wrong here, but I believe there never was a second date with that traumatized girl.

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While we both finished graduate school and Aaron finished high school, Randall and I were living in the same small university town where my parents live.  So Aaron was often asked to keep an eye on his nephew. This mean he often strolled his adorable nephew on a strategically-mapped out path around the university campus in a mega babe magnet antique Viennese perambulator we’d snatched on auction.

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We, returning the favor, kept an eye on Aaron. Aaron watched this, our little Parker, grow into a toddler.

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We watched Aaron grow into a young man. And when he had a serious girlfriend (not the one from the delivery room scene, mind you), he taught Parker his first pick-up line, which was in the answer to the following question: “What do you say when you see ______?” (Insert girlfriend’s name.) The one-year-old nephew’s trained answer? “Hubba, hubba.”

I hope that particular tool didn’t serve Parker well later in life.

At nineteen, Aaron did what many Mormon youth do, and left on a full-time volunteer mission for the church. He was assigned to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Even today, he can melt kryptonite with a single, sizzling Spanish greeting.

After his two years’ missionary service, Aaron stayed for months with us in Norway, where he fell in love with all things Norwegian. . .

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Aaron, Melissa, and our accompanist after performing an evening of Broadway favorites for a Norwegian audience.

Aaron, Melissa, and our accompanist after performing an evening of Broadway favorites for a Norwegian audience.

. . .and he bonded deeply with his nephew Parker and toddler niece, Claire, and with our own Viking, Dalton Haakon.

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The above portrait Aaron took while babysitting in Oslo’s Frognerparken. As innocent as it looks, the two were crushing ants.

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He married Elise, a Viking-type from Minnesota. . .

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. . .and they had children of their own, who also grew attached to Parker when, nearly every summer, he would attend sports, music and youth camps at the university in their home town in Utah.

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Aaron and Parker were soon so physically similar, they swapped clothing. They also shared a passion for basketball (at Aaron’s invitation, Parker was able to attend Utah Jazz games), and music, (Aaron kept Parker stocked with classic rock singles). They’d reached that fabulous pinnacle where uncle and nephew are friends. The two had their own repertoire of private jokes.

Aaron with Parker and his children

Aaron with Parker and Aaron’s children

In the summer of 2007, Aaron was thrilled that Parker, who had lived several times zones and expensive airline tickets away all his life, would now be enrolled in college within a morning’s drive away.

Early one day just after I’d arrived on vacation in Utah from Munich, where we’d been unloading moving boxes after leaving our home in Paris the previous week, Aaron sent me this subject line email from a labor delivery room:

It’s a BOY, 8lbs 7oz, 21+”, Thurs July 19 8:23AM, mom and baby doing great‏

Precisely 12 hours later, big cousin Parker would be in a tragic drowning accident. By the middle of that night, I would be at the foot of my comatose boy who lay face down on a gurney hooked up to life support in an Idaho Regional Medical Center. Aaron would come into that room sometime in the middle of the early morning darkness. In one instant his eyes would take in the scene, and in the next breath his big frame would slump with a blow against the heavy door. He would brace himself and call his nephew’s name in one deep, gulping sob. And I would fall against my big baby brother’s chest. Comfort. Compounded pain.

Aaron was with us in the last minutes, and at my request lay his hands on my head to bless me and give me strength. He also blessed his nephew in similar fashion. And when we all gathered and sang church hymns around the gurney, I felt the suboceanic currents of my brother’s voice loosen everything holding my physical body in one piece. We two sang as we’d never sung before.

And when everything was over, it was Aaron, looking 20 years older than when he’d arrived on the scene, who drove us – skinless and imploded – the 5 hours south to my parents’ home.

Had silence ever sounded so crowded?

Then, when everything started up, (and it starts abruptly: funeral, obituary, fielding phone calls and emails, housing out-of-town and out-of-country visitors, outlining funeral sermons. . .) Aaron took charge. Muscularly. Like some Nordic god.

What did he do? And how did he do it? I’m sure I’ll never know a fraction of all my brother did as he actively suffered alongside his sister and her family.  But I do know that he was constant, cautious and tenderly attentive. Here is a sampling of what he offered. For anyone longing to help a loved one in acute grief, these ideas might be a good place to start:

Presence: He came to the ICU, was utterly discreet and reverent – peripheral – and remained there until the end. He came to us later in Munich to spend that first Thanksgiving with us. He brought his daughter as a familiar face for our boys, who, at that time and in that stark new place, had no friends and were starved for someone who also loved and missed their big brother.

Mechanics: He arranged to have poster photo collages of Parker’s life made that were displayed at the viewing and funeral. He put together slide shows of Parker with music for the viewing.  He wrote the obituary, saw to it that it was in several local papers, and delivered it at the funeral. He was our on-site event planner, holding multiple reins and staying one step ahead of every practical detail. And there were  many.

Spokesman: He fielded phone calls and emails, relaying to us information that was to us logistically pressing, and holding on to many other message that were important and useful when the timing was appropriate. He also contacted the reporter at a local television station, whose story about the accident had been written and aired too quickly and was therefore misleading and needed correction. (The reporter and station manager later apologized to us for broadcasting mistakes and did a follow-up story.) Randall and I were scrambling to do so many other things while also trying to protect ourselves in those first days, trying to maintain equilibrium and gain clarity.

Music: Aaron arranged and participated in a male vocal quartet that performed at the funeral. As a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he was able to take handheld (and disallowed) live rehearsal and performance recordings of brief segments of given pieces and send them to us as special, private messages of love. He often sent other musical selections via iTunes or simple email attachments. Early on, he sent gorgeous, classical selections. Eventually, he sent pieces that he associated with Parker – or, as he often confessed, wished that he had associated with Parker while his nephew was still among us, such as rock classics with complicated drum solos, for instance. He knew how important music is to us and that the right music (and lyrics) would give us strength and comfort.

Broadening the Legacy It was Aaron who suggested establishing a music scholarship in Parker’s name at the university where he’d been enrolled.

Emails, texts, Simple Subject Lines: In those early, harsh months after we’d arrived freshly bereaved in a new country, Aaron was ultra-attentive to us via email. For us, emails, SMS and snail mail were literal lifelines. They provided a virtual community in our isolation, allowed us to interact and respond only when we had energy for it, and protected our privacy, which during times of unpredictable and acute pain, can be a vital blessing. Aaron’s weekly and bi-weekly mails since July 2007 number into the hundreds in the “Aaron” file in my email account.

Although some of these emails were epistles, most were not. In fact, many messages have been simple subject lines and an iPhone image. Or a subject line and a You Tube link. Or a subject line and a bootleg recording of a piece of music. Or, in several cases, just a subject line.

What I want to underscore here is that for me at least, the length and artistry of the message, though inspiring and valuable, were actually not what was essential. What was a blessing was simply my sweet brother’s presence – right here on my screen – the realization that his heart was broken, too, and that he was thinking of us once in a while throughout his day maybe, as busy and demanding as his day undoubtedly was. What his messages spoke to me was love: that he loved us and he loved Parker, and that Parker’s life and death mattered. That all our lives (our lives that must continue in spite of amputation) and all our deaths (even the death of hope and spirit that Aaron, with his love for me, was battling against) matter.

**

The last song on the [Tabernacle Choir] broadcast this morning was the Choir’s ‘standard,’ a beautiful arrangement of “Come, Come Ye, Saints” — I was a useless mess during the fourth verse as I could only think of Parker lying there, peacefully, alone, after all the tubes were removed.

**

We’re with you today in our hearts; wish we could do more than that. On the one hand, I suppose that today has been particularly difficult for you — on the other, I know they’re all excruciating. Last night as I slowed at an intersection near campus and turned up the hill, I saw someone unloading a car with bags to take into the dorms — turns out that it was for a conference and not the beginning of the school year, but it gave me a little shudder nonetheless. So I figure that if I double that feeling, multiply it by a thousand, raise that to the 3rd power, grind salt, pumice and shrapnel into it and add a vat of emptiness, I get maybe a glimpse of your feelings.

**

Below are most of the messages I received in the days & weeks following the accident. I believe I mentioned some of the messages to you, but probably not all. This weekend finally allowed me a chance to consolidate them for you. Perhaps they’ll add a modicum or more of comfort for you today. Big, transatlantic hug.

**

I hadn’t expected a response to my last mail. Please don’t feel like you need to respond. I’ll just keep sending you “impotences”– all my attempts to help that, I don’t know, might not help at all – and just to know that you’re getting them is all I need. Stay focused on your incredible husband and wonderful children, and we’ll have oppty to catch up at some point. I love you so much.

**

I can’t be there with you but attached is a bootleg recording (from Thursday’s PM Tabernacle Choir rehearsal) of a new, textless arrangement of “If You Could Hie To Kolob” that we sang this morning on broadcast and will be singing at a big performance this coming week. If you listen really closely, you….can’t hear me anyway, but I was thinking of how much Parker would have liked, well, likes, this arrangement.

**

School starts tomorrow and I can hear the new freshman yelling over at the dorms. Ugh.

**

On the drive home, I heard Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” which, as rock goes, is extremely rhythmically complex and has a phenom drum part. I wondered whether Parker had ever heard it, and started thinking of songs I know with great drum parts that he probably wasn’t familiar with, and how I would have liked to have made him a CD of them — I imagined him with his headphones on replicating, after probably just a few tries, “Dropping Bombs on the White House” (The Style Council — whose drummer, incidentally, was 18 at the time of the recording) and its cool drum solo. And then I realized that with the possible exception of a few beats in the Versailles basement (and I don’t remember any specifically; it just seems likely to have occurred), I NEVER heard Parker play the drums in person, and hadn’t heard him recorded until the last couple of months. My loss.

**

Mel, I biked to the cemetery the other day; as I approached Parker’s monument on the grass, the ah-mazing drum solo coda of Steely Dan “Aja” was playing on my ipod – check it out.

**

Stuck in the typical freeway parking lot for an hour tonight coming home from work, replaced a church talk on my stereo w/ EW&Fire, cranked it, was jamming and thinking how much Parker would have loved the drums on this.

**

We sang “Come, Come ye Saints” as you know, this morning. It was exactly five years ago today that I experienced what I’ve described previously to you, below; this morning I was seeing the ICU throughout the song and as we headed into the final verse had a bit of a tough go of it, although not as pronounced as it was in ’07. It was meaningful to me that you guys were watching the broadcast; I hope it meant something to you, as well. Incidentally, I was asked to give the prayer before last night’s pre-performance rehearsal, was thinking of you specifically and mentioned you indirectly among “those who grieve deeply” at this time.

Seizing up and hoping the cameras didn’t pan to me, at the end of the Sunday July 22, 2007 Choir broadcast when we reached the fourth verse of “Come, Come Ye Saints.” I knew the song and knew in advance that we were going to sing it, but still wasn’t braced for the body-blow dealt by the wide-screen, hi-def Technicolor image that revealed itself to me in that very instant: Parker, beautiful and bruised, lying on his stomach, with Randge at his left elbow, Melissa at his feet.

If you ever see me singing that during a concert, conference or broadcast, even years from now, know that this very image will be in my mind at that moment. I know that you will experience much the same from certain triggers, for the rest of your lives. I’d hug you at every one, if I were there.

**

And finally, a very recent mail:

**

Here’s a photo of the kids lighting candles in Venice for Parker‏:

Love always and from all of us,

Aaron

**

Eliza & Wes lighting candles for PFB in Venice (June 2010)

Why Dispensing Dogma Doesn’t Help Another’s Grief

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(These photos I took in Paris while celebrating the 850 yrs. anniversary of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Notre Dame, like my faith, like yours, should be a sanctuary in this world of pain.)

It sounds like a paradox, but the same religion that can be at the very heart of the greatest peace and sweetest solidarity during one’s journey with grief can also be at the root of some significant pain and even alienation.

My experience in this regard is not unique.  In researching and hearing firsthand the stories of the bereaved, I’ve come upon the same phenomenon time and time again.  For many grief-stricken, additional and sometimes permanent injury results when the co-mourner, instead of consoling the sorrowing person, counsels her by dispensing religious clichés or platitudes or authoritatively delivering personal opinion disguised as doctrine. This means figuratively standing at a pulpit and preaching down to the person curled up on the ground in pain.

Sadly, the story is as old as the Bible.

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You know about Job. He’s what we’d call today a total rock.  He’s been a missionary, he’s held bumper-to-bumper leadership positions in his church community, he could have been a minister, a pastor, a priest, a seminary teacher, a bishop, any member of your local or regional clergy. “Stalwart” begins to describe Job. But the Bible goes even further: Job is “perfect.”

He’s also doing quite well: the career, the property, the house, the big family. Which could easily make Job the object of envy for small minds looking on. Except that Job’s good. Good and generous with his time and means, kind and charitable in word and action. We read that he’s genuinely humble and doesn’t consider himself invulnerable; he’s always checking his back, harboring an inward fear that he (or his children) might do something to offend God, something to displease Divinity, something to shatter the magic.

And you know what happens next. Shatter.  This total rock of faith and paragon of life-long devotion to God experiences cataclysmic tragedy.

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Make that tragedies.  Cataclysm after cataclysm, tragedy after tragedy.  Out of the clear powder blue he loses his home, his property, his career, his employees, every possible investment and any hope of a pension plan.  Materially, this man is more than leveled; he’s pulverized.

Then he loses his children, every last one of them, in one freak stroke of fate. And he contracts a gruesome illness, so that beyond losing the flesh of his flesh, he loses his very own flesh. Which drives his wife to telling him to give up on God. That would be right before she gives up on Job. Away we see her drive, away over the knoll, away with her bags in the trunk, all this meaningless misery a smudge of dust in her rearview.

The man, our rock, responds as rocks do. He falls to the earth. And there, even with his rent mantle spread in the dirt and his shaved head beating the gravel, his well-trained heart responds righteously: He worships God. He blesses the name of the Lord, doesn’t blame Him foolishly, holds fast to his integrity, and swears through the mouthful of mud he sucks through in his rotting teeth that he will trust in His God forever.

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Enter Job’s three good friends.

Here is where we should all take copious notes. Why? Because more of us will find ourselves in the role of Job’s friends than we will Job’s. More of us will be called to look into the face of another’s tragedy than will face tragedy of our own. But one thing is certain: All of us will find ourselves at one time or another – or many times – taking part in this scenario.  We are destined and we are covenanted to mourn with those that mourn.

So let’s pay attention to this story together.

What happens?

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After fulfilling their Jewish duty by coming and sitting Shiva’s requisite seven days of solidarity in silence, Job’s friends watch in astonishment as their friend  – good, rock-solid Job – erupts, his anguish roiling and gushing over the page.

Job, like many who are mourning, is feverishly reconstructing his universe.  He’s volatile. His pleading and confusion are not pretty or predictable.  He’s prickly in some verses, maybe even frightening in others, and surely foreign to his friends. And he’s erupting with questions only God can answer.

Here is where Job’s friends make their fatal move.  They stand right up (they remove themselves from solidarity with Job, who is figuratively and literally broken and splayed on the ground), and they begin preaching. They have all the answers, typical of those who have not quite yet understood the questions.

You can picture them: Arms folded across chests or fingering their earlocks, scratching their beards, circling dust-encrusted Job, raising one brow, sizing him up, talking.  Can they talk.  Bless their Mesopotamian hearts, but their talk is not inquisitive; it is inquisitorial.  The more they talk the less they seem to care about Job’s pain, and they don’t seem to grasp God’s purposes with him, although they speak as if they do.  The more they do this, the more injury they inflict on their already-injured friend.

At first, they imply that Job probably had it coming to him anyway.  Next, they reason that Job would not be feeling so torn up if he’d had more faith – like themselves, no doubt.  Then they sniff around for Job’s sins and his children’s sins, which they assume must be multiple, given how severely God is punishing him.  Not only stripped to the bone with tragedy, Job’s faith and his rightness with God are doubted by friends, friends who fail him spectacularly.

As anyone wrestling with bone-liquefying pain will attest to, it is not comforting to be preached to, nor to have one’s faith questioned by spectators.  Come to think of it, it’s no fun to have wide-eyed spectators when wet-eyed comforters are what you need. No wonder Job blurts out, “miserable comforters, all of you!” (Job 16:1-2)

**
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While his friends do little to comfort Job, we can be thankful for them. Because in them we have an excellent template for how not to comfort those in need.

The following list of clichés, platitudes and trite phrases is culled from the experience from many aggrieved from my own circle of friends or from the research from authors noted at the foot of the list.

You might wonder, as some have, what’s wrong with some of these statements.  Aren’t some of them at least partially true?  

Yes, some of them might be true and might align with your values.  But the nature of clichés and platitudes is that whether they are entirely or partially true or not true at all, they are overly simplistic and when dispensed too easily, show no hint of co-mourning.  What’s worse, in the case of some statements in this list, the speaker assumes to understand the will of God in another’s life.  What is critical to remember is that the bereaved must come to this sacred understanding on her own, and doesn’t need someone who has no experience in the matter to sum up her grief or God’s will for her. Any attempt to do such will alienate the grief-stricken from friends and maybe, in the worst case, from her faith.

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It’s God’s will

God took him (or her)

God needed your son (your spouse, your brother, your father) more than you did

Don’t cry. You’ll see him again

He lived a good life. He was ready to go

He has just begun his mission a little early

God gave you this trial to make you stronger

You need to be strong. Don’t cry

If you’d had enough faith, she’d have survived (been healed)

She is much better off in heaven. She will be happier there

Because your child took his own life, you will never be together in the eternities

Count your blessings. Things could be worse

Your loved one is freed from this terrible world

You have an angel in heaven

God needed another angel

God doesn’t give us more than we can bear

Keep the faith

Rejoice in all things, including this

There are fates worse than death

She’s gone on and busy in heaven. Don’t distract her with your sorrow

God has selected you for this elite trial

—See Ashton, Jesus Wept, 126–27, 234

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. 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.

(Several of the following quotes appear in my book, On Loss and Living Onward, available through Amazon and other online or conventional retail book sellers.)

Nothing is more barren, to one in agony, than pat answers which seem the unfeeling evasions of a distant spectator who “never felt a wound.”

—Truman Madsen, Eternal Man, 55

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In those early days of my grief journey, I had several minister friends, as well as members of the church, who seemed very uncomfortable with my grief and sadness.  Looking back, I’m quite certain it was an awful experience for them to be around me or my wife. It seemed to us they often used scriptures to try and cheer us up. . .They would tell us to be joyful and give thanks for [our son’s] death and to praise God in all circumstances. Some of my minister friends told me, “Christians with a strong faith will come through this faster.”.. .I listened to them and secretly wished they would finish what they had to say and move on—out of my presence.  The people who said these things were never people who had lost children.  Those who had lost a child knew better.

–Minister and bereaved father Dennis Apple, Life After The Death of my Son, p 122-123

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Please, don’t ask me if I’m over it yet
I’ll never be over it.
Please, don’t tell me she’s in a better place.
She isn’t with me.
Please, don’t say at least she isn’t suffering.
I haven’t come to terms with why she had to suffer at all.
Please, don’t tell me you know how I feel
Unless you have lost a child.
Please, don’t ask me if I feel better.
Bereavement isn’t a condition that clears up.
Please, don’t tell me at least you had her for so many years.
What year would you choose for your child to die?
Please, don’t tell me God never gives us more than we can bear.
Please, just tell me you are sorry.
Please, just say you remember my child, if you do.
Please, just let me talk about my child.
Please, mention my child’s name.
Please, just let me cry.

–”Rita Moran: Please, don’t ask me if I’m over it yet,” Consolatio online

I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of why my loved one had died, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true…

I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did.

Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask me leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listening when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left.

I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.

—Ashton, Jesus Wept, 231

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The posture of grief is on your knees.  Sooner or later, each of us finds himself playing one of the roles in the story of Job, whether a victim of tragedy, as a member of the family, or as a friend-comforter. The questions never change; the search for a satisfying answer continues.

—Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 157

. . . Immediately after such tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—not many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God . . . Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.

And that’s what [you] understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.

—William Sloane Coffin Jr, quoted in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 58; William, a reverend, standing before and addressing his congregation after losing his own child.

Attempting to console those who have lost loved ones . . . by saying it will be better in the next life tends to minimize their immediate pain: “It’s like you’re on a desert island and you are dying of thirst, and someone says, “Yes, you can have a drink, but not for thirty years!”

—Ashton, Jesus Wept, 131

Many bereaved parents do find solace in their faith, but it is also normal for parents to experience a spiritual crisis and question their beliefs. They may find it hard to pray or too painful to attend church. As [one reverend] said, “I tell religious leaders that all of their inactive members are missing because of a loss of some kind.”. . . Sometimes parents don’t return to church because of comments made to them about their child’s death. . . .

Parents are often surprised by comments from others who presume to know what part God played in their child’s death. Responding to such comments can be too painful and parents may choose not to attend church, at least for a while.

—Talbot, What Forever Means After the Death of a Child, 132

There is already enough theological difficulty for those who believe that their activity in the church should somehow protect them from tragedy and sorrow.  Our understanding of the Atonement is hardly a shield against sorrow; rather, it is a rich source of strength to deal productively with the disappointments and heartbreaks that form the deliberate fabric of mortal life.  The gospel was given us to heal our pain, not to prevent it.

–Elder Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart

 

For God to foresee is not to cause or even to desire a particular occurrence–but it is to take that occurrence into account beforehand, so that divine reckoning folds it into the unfolding purposes of God. . .God has foreseen what we will do and has taken our decision into account (in composite with all others), so that his purposes are not frustrated.

–Neal A. Maxwell in “All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience” 8, 12

My heart goes out to each individual who bears the burden of mourning.  I share my feelings of empathy and sympathy.  The separation imposed by the departure of a loved one evokes pangs of sorrow and shock among those left behind.  The hurt is real.  Only the intensity varies.  Even though we understand the doctrine—even though we dearly love God had His eternal plan—mourning remains.  It is not only normal; it is a healthy reaction.  Mourning is one of the purest expressions of deep love.  It is a perfectly natural response—in complete accord with divine commanded: “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die.” (D&C 42:45). . .Mourning is neither a sign of weakness nor is it to be avoided.  It, too, is an important part of God’s great plan of happiness. . . Mourning is the lubricant of love at the gateway.

-Elder Russel M Nelson, The Gateway We Call Death p. 22, 33

The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, “It was the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My only consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed in over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

—William Sloane Coffin, “Alex’s Death,” in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 57

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12 Don’t Do’s

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(All photos are from last week’s visit to Le Petit Palais in Paris, where the boys wanted to go to mark our wedding anniversary.)

This is the twenty-second post I’ve tried to write since my last posting. I’ve thrashed around in thought, and thrown every last draft away.
All insufficient. All too much.

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All these lurching starts:

In a study on grief conducted at Yale University. . .
In a study on major loss conducted at Columbia University. . .
In a Stanford University survey on bereavement. . .
In a Mayo Clinic study on the physical repercussions of traumatic loss. . .
In The Other Side of Sadness from George Bonnano. . .
In Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s The Truth About Grief. . .

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In church meetings on Sunday after the Sandy Hook shooting rampage, I sat dizzy with sleeplessness and sorrow, holding my arms crossed stiffly on my lap, a posture I felt would help contain the emotions boiling behind my sternum. Six and seven-year-olds surrounded me. I tried not to stare at them too intensely, tried not to feel too much, focused on not letting tears come again, since I imagined tears would confuse and frighten those around me, especially the children.

That’s when Tina, one of my Primary children, appeared from nowhere. She draped her small fresh body dressed in white and lavender frills across my lap.

“It’s my birthday today,” she whispered as she looked up with her missing front teeth and haphazard ponytail. Then she wriggled onto my lap. I dropped my head onto hers, closed my eyes and smelled her hair. I felt how her small hand – it weighed as much as a passing memory – stroked my sleeve.

“You know, today I’m turning this much!” she lisped, her eyes lively, alive. She held up seven fingers. And though I’m sure that in that moment I maintained outward composure (it helped that the pressure of Tina’s shoulder blades pushed against that heaving sorrow behind my sternum), I began crying inside the safety of my mind, sobbing and running and falling through the sloped fields of my mind.

****

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Delving into this topic with anything more than clinical analysis – in other words, with passion, transparency and candor – has paralyzed me. It occurs to me that I’ve never wrestled so fiercely with anything I’ve ever written. My master’s thesis (written a lifetime ago) was a total, flitting breeze in comparison. A pleasure. A joy.

Now, I have to admit to being locked in place with self-consciousness, which has turned into self-incrimination, which has in turn become a deepening swamp of thick sorrow. Everywhere my mind turns, I know there are vital things that need to be said about this topic, the topic I find compelling beyond all others not because it is my story, but because it is the story at the absolute center of all human stories.

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Yet everywhere I turn I also feel the pointlessness of trying to say these things.

Why?

Because who, really, wants to hear about grief?

And who, really, can stick with it and hear the full and heavy load?

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And who, once hearing, wants to bear it?

Who can bear it?

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Author Joan Didion, in the first paragraphs of her grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking pins down at least part of the problem as I see it. She writes, “The question of self-pity.”

But when I first read her, it struck me that there was not a single teardrop in the entire volume. Its pages are dry as a bone. Dry as Didion.

Still, critics have called her work a “ploy for pity.”

Know what? You just can’t win.

For me, that question of self-pity arose before I ever read Didion, already in the first two weeks after losing Parker, as a matter of fact, when a few observers of our loss softly warned that we parents should not “dwell on it”, should “move on”, should “be strong” and should “beware of self-pity.”

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So before we had really even entered the marathon of grief, we were offered from some on the sidelines instructions about how our grief should be run. Though I’ve long since forgiven the well-meaning onlookers for their unsolicited advice, I haven’t forgotten those words, nor have I let go of Didion. Her voice echos: the question of self-pity. That question follows and hobbles my every move, my every written move.

There are other questions, too. They are the questions that turn my writerly self into an immobile chunk of illiterate limestone:

The question of relevancy.
The question of self-indulgence.
The question of comparison.
Of humility
Of propriety.
Of stoicism.
Of honesty.
Of faith.
Of pain.
Of life.
Of death.

**

In two days it will be 2013. Another New Year. And I am already bracing myself against the probability that the horror at Sandy Hook (and Aurora, and Norcross, and Jackson, Chardon, Pittsburgh, Miami, Oakland, Tulsa, Seattle, Wilmington, Milwaukeee, Texas A&M, Minneapolis and Brookefield) will end up being no more than part of our nation’s Year In Summary.

Can we do something more than summarize? With regards to grief, can it even be summarized? Can it be encased in words? Is this why writing about it is so hard for me? So intimidating?

So intimate?

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Major loss and its attendant grief have been and continue to be the most intimate experiences of my mortality, more intimate than birthing into life or anything associated with producing or giving life. By “intimate” I mean warmly entwined with the Divine while setting me in a place apart from those around me, so many I wish to commune with.

And it is precisely that great difficulty in sharing grief that typifies grief. Grief isolates. That isolation can, if not recognized and met with an empathetic community, engender a kind of chronic loneliness that can lead to crippling alienation.

In other words, grief – misunderstood, misjudged or rushed – can carve a chasm between the bereaved and her community. Grief, in short, can drive her out.

Does it need to be this way? What can we do so it is not?

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Recognizing that grief is impossible to summarize, and saying right off that I’m not much of a fan of addressing big questions with little lists, I’m going to begin with a list anyway.

Here are 12 D’s, or 12 Don’t Do’s to consider when faced with great grief, yours or another’s.

(Take heart, they’ll be followed by 12 C’s, or 12 Can Do’s.)

DEADLINES
DOGMA
DOUBT
DISTRACTION
DIMINISH
DISMISS
DISALLOW
DISCARD
DISREGARD
DISASSOCIATE
DISTANCE
DISPASSION

The first point, Deadlines, is where I’ll begin in the next post, since it seems the most common yet damaging of responses to grief. It has to do with the tendency to impose arbitrary time limits on grief and its sister sensation, yearning. The Deadline mentality seems to quip, “Time heals all wounds”, then sets the clock, watching anxiously for living proof of a false premise. The Deadline mentality has been fueled by the globally popularized yet long-since-debunked “Stages of Grief” theory, to which I will return in detail.

Hope to find you here then.

Swiss Christmas

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From Christmas in the Serengeti. . .

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. . .To Christmas in the Swiss Alps.

 

They say that strong contrasts make for strong writing. But I say that if nothing else, they make for heavily textured living.

So may I begin writing about this, our First Swiss Christmas, by taking you back to a contrasting one, to a Last Christmas? Not our last Christmas chronologically, the one spent in Africa, the one about which you’ve just read.  But the last one we spent in Paris, our last Parisian Christmas.  We’ll always refer to it as that.  At the time, though, we didn’t know it would be the last we’d spend there, as we were still leaning toward staying in Paris from where Randall would commute back and forth for his new postion in Munich.

Despite those details, we did know we’d  be sending Parker off to college in June.  So it was a “Last Christmas”. Of sorts. Our last Christmas with all of us together like this. So I’d run my self a bit ragged with holiday preparations, writing and directing and performing in the church Christmas program, writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our 95 annual Christmas missives, decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and getting into the holiday spirit.

At least euphemistically so.

That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I’m not so proud to write about.  For lack of a more incriminating description, I’d holed myself up. While holed up, the universe didn’t bother to tap me on the shoulder and whisper into my heart, warning me that this would be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son. We weren’t given the luxury of preparing ourselves for devastation.  Usually, if devastation is coming, the universe is preoccupied preparing you in other, extremely subtle ways (besides shoulder-tapping and coded whispers). I suppose we’re all being trained in one way or another for whatever devastation will surely be ours.

But something did tap on my shoulder that December evening.  And something did whisper.  And something did warn me it would be the Last Christmas with Parker.

And that something was Parker himself.

**

The Last Noël

A true Christmas story

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

“Mom?”

Her son, whose voice normally had the resonance of a foghorn, was whispering from behind her, kneeling next to her bed.  She was on her side, knees curled up a bit, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum.  Her eyes she kept firmly closed.

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night table 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.

The holly bears the crown. . .

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood. . .

Kitchen sounds.  A swirling, tinkling holiday CD. Conversations between teenagers, the low word or two from the Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in houseslippers.

The silent stars go by. . .

The silent stars go by. . .

A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there.  Noises she simply wanted to escape.

How silently, how silently. . .

How silently, how silently. . .

She was doing it, that thing she sometimes did.  She was retreating into silence.  She was sending a loud signal.

“Mom? Look. . . Listen, Mom.” He was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed, now.  “Please, don’t do this.  Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider scooting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired.  So bone-deep tired.

And sad.

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

He sighed, her oldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sounds that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? Probably his maroon one.

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Should she just turn around, face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair a bit soggy, now, with old tears, just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some oom-pah-pah into her limbs, just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a Brio train track, switch gears, flip some switch, just head back out? Smiling? Humming Bing Crosby?

Let loving hearts enthrone Him. . .

We traverse afar. . .

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

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

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 and held in all the loving feelings her heart held in its pulse.

For unto us a child is born

Oh come, Oh come, Emmanuel. . .

“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 deeply in 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.  

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Here we are again. Christmas. And stymied.

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

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

Sing, all ye citizens of heav'n above. . .

Sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above. . .

“Hey.”

“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his Dad’s.  And heavier.

“Honey. We’d love 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.”

And still their heavenly music floats o'er all the busy world. . .

And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the busy world. . .

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

The 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. Around.”

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled over, opened her eyes, and was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans.

Then the son knelt.  His eyes were at her eye level and he looked right into her. She’d never seen this look, at least not from him. The earnestness and resolve. The deliberateness.

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

“Kay, I’m not going to add to the drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all.  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?

Their watch of wondering love. . .

Their watch of wondering love. . .

“And so I want us to celebrate and have the Spirit.”

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

“So will you please come out and be with us? Now? Mom?”

God and sinner reconciled. . .

God and sinners reconciled. . .

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 callouses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

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

Close by me forever and love me I pray. . .

Close by me forever and love me, I pray. . .

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, quibbling, and went quiet.  A suppressed grin and, “Hi. . . Mom!” came from the youngest, who wriggled his nose under the round little red frames of his glasses.

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

“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 the Spirit. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”

In the dark streets shineth. . .

In the dark streets shineth. . .

It was the prayer of a full grown man, and his mother – no, everyone – felt its weight settle on their shoulders.  They knelt for a moment in silence.  But not that resistant, withholding kind of silence.

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was. . .

This was the silence of soft awe, and like the invisible bending of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things. The mother spoke, but her words opened up a whole swamp of apologies, to which all the children and the husband now countered, wading in with their own apologies. Then they embraced, got off their knees. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

. . .And embraced again.

And so it continued both day and night. . .

And so it continued both day and night. . .

Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, on the overstuffed sofa.

Where meek souls seek him the enters in

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. . .

He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

. . .And she knew all the lines for Donna Reed. . .

Tender and mild. . .

Tender and mild. . .

And the whole family sat together and watched, like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could remember, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

And it truly is.

002

**

“Temporary separation at death and the other difficulties that attend us as we all move toward that end are part of the price we pay for. . .birth and family ties and the fun of Christmas together. . .These are God’s gifts to us – birth and life and death and salavtion, the whole divine experience in all its richness and complexity.” — Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

What Does Grief Look Like?

Rocks remember

It has been said that grief feels a lot like fear.

Late August, and late afternoon, the Pont du Gard near Remoulins, southern France

And part of grief does, I’ll agree with that.

There is a part of grief that soaks through our dendrites with the same adrenalin cocktail that comes with acute panic, wild-eyed disorientation, and dry-mouthed dread.

Part of grief shows up like that.  Yessir.

But it’s just a part. A teensy, peripheral, lite-weight part of grief.

At least grief as I’ve known it.

The rest –- and this is the predominant part, the part that goes deeper and lasts longer than you really want to know from me right here in a friendly little blogpost — is an Armageddon-like assault on the body, the mind, and the spirit. A head-first, G-force drilling to the center of the earth.

A joint-wrenching, marrow-draining, jaw-locking, capillary-bursting, limb-flailing catapult into regions of the soul you never knew existed and, once crawled through, ever thought you’d emerge from sane.

Let alone walking upright.

In other words, grief — the out-of-the-clear-blue-decimation kind of grief; the major-loss kind of grief; the grief that naturally follows the sudden and violent loss of your cherished child, for example — goes way, way, so very way beyond fear.

Where does that comparison — grief = fear — come from? Some observers might think the reason grief feels like fear is because they assume the bereaved harbor one specific fear: the fear of forgetting the deceased.

Hmm. Well.

While I cannot speak for the entire human race, the fear of forgetting isn’t anywhere near the root of grief.  I’m not even convinced that that specific fear exists at all.  At least for me, the supposed inevitability of somehow forgetting my son Parker never figured and still does not figure into my grief.

True, I had no idea at the beginning what things would look like years down the road, (if, in fact, I would make it far enough to see that road).  But from the moment of implosion when major grief smashed like a meteor through the crown of my head rearranging my vision and view of the universe forever and allowing me to see things in better-than-Blu-Ray-bazillion-pixel clarity — things as they really are — I knew in one blow and intuitively there was never forgetting.

And now, I’m here. A few years down the road. Five, to be exact.

And what do things look like? What does grief and its (supposed) “forgetting” and (certain) remembering look like from this vantage point?

You’re looking at it.

During that week in Provence, as close as we could get to the 21st (our family’s holy day), we all stood right on what for us is holy ground.

Make that, my men stood.  I sat.  On a rocky outcropping below the Pont du Gard’s eternal arches, I kept my horror harnessed just like my camera strap around my neck, my fear and grief channeled through a telephoto lens, making an effort, (as I know Randall was doing), to be lighthearted and playful with the boys.

Who wants to rein in this kind of explosive joy?

This primal, golden exuberance for sunshine, for flight?

For each other?

For water?

But now I realize that they were probably making an effort to be joyful, too, these sons of ours.  They know, just as we do, of course, that these are the same stones from which Parker always jumped.  And considering how often we came here, that’s a lot of jumping. A lot of his DNA rubbed deep into these minerals.  A lot of our family’s collective memories are pressed with his presence.  Right here.

The summer of his drowning (in some very small, obscure and unmarked irrigation canal in southern Idaho, by the way), he’d been right here first. A month to the day, actually, previous to the accident.

He’d drawn a crowd that afternoon at the Pont du Gard. He’d stood up on a rocky ledge next to his then eleven-year-old (and somewhat pensive) little brother Dalton.  Both were wearing blue swim trunks.  The French elementary school class on the lower tier of the bridge, there for a class outing, began chanting — screaming — at the top of their lungs, “Les Bleus! Les Bleus!!” (“The Blues! The Blues!!”), which is the nickname for the French national soccer team. They wanted the two boys in blue to be the first to jump.

Of course, Parker wanted to make it worth their chants.

He swiveled right to them, to all those little innocent children, and waving those big volleyball player arms up and up again in the air, got them screaming even louder, “Les Bleus!!”

He put his hand to his ear, like, “Can’t hear you!”

Louder screams.

Then quietly and from behind, Dalton, the timid one back then, stepped forward and grabbed his big brother’s hand.  They smiled, Parker whispered something down to Dalton, Dalton pursed his lips and nodded, and then the two erupted with,  “Un!! Deux!!! Trois!!!!!!”

And to the cheering of the children, the two in blue sailed hand-in-hand into midair.

**

It’s all there as I peer through my lens amid shadows that are slinking down the stones of Pont du Gard.  I know my light is fading.  I only have a few minutes to capture these few minutes. Behind my camera, I slowly realize I’m humming “Bookends”, baby Parker’s favorite Simon and Garfunkel song.

(You think I’m making this up for dramatic effect. But I’m neither that strategic nor that good. Ask Glen and Anneli, who survived a round trip drive from Philly to D.C.  crammed into a subcompact with Randall, Melissa, and 18-month-old Parker.  Like a cracked record, our toddler asked — barked — from his car seat, “Time It Was?! Time It Was??!!” We adults, naturally (what was the option? It was a small car and a long drive) complied.  From our cassette player in the car stereo we played that single thirty-second song. Nonstop. Over and over and over again. And over again.)

The lyrics Parker knew by heart and sang all his life long:

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was 
A time of innocence, a time of confidences 
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph 
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you

**

The boys will appreciate these photos one day. And so will I.  I have no idea — no one does— just how very precious our photographs might be for us one day.

But since I do not agree with Simon and Garfunkel that photographs and memories are “all that’s left you”, because I know that my son has not left me, not literally, and that there is more comfort than to merely revel in memories and scrapbooks alone, that I can have a continuing , non-forgotten relationship with him, — because of all that, I am not fearful about losing my photos. Nor my memories.  Nor my memory.

This is what makes a mammoth difference in my life going forward: I do not remember my son.  By that I mean that I do not simply “re-member” him, not in the pulling-him-back-here, reminding myself, looking back and re-collecting way.  Why not? Because he is here, of course.  A member of us now as ever he was.  Pulled tightly to our sides, not trailing from behind us.  Looking ahead with us.  Collected already in our midst. And as that present presence, I am creating memories with him.  In the here-and-now.

Those who leave us early (and if we really, passionately love them, whenever they leave is bound to feel like “early”),  they take on another shade of vividness, and are just as real, though much harder to share with others who are not willing to pay the price for imagination and faith.  In my reality, Parker is every bit as present as he was when he was last at the Pont du Gard.  But I have to tell you: His realm, superimposed on ours, is much more brightly colored now than any of the darkening waters of this existence.

He is far more radiant now than ever he was when bathed in the shimmering sun slicing beneath Pont du Gard.

Since I know this in my bones — that he is here with me, and with his father, and with his sister and with his brothers and with the countless many who loved him in life and continue to love him in another frame of life— since I do know that he is here and not gone to some nebulous elsewhere, then my task for now is pretty straightforward:

Take the heavy camera off my neck.

Tuck away the lenses.

Call to my beloveds:

I’m here!

And plunge.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. 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.

House For Rent

The title of today’s post might be a bit misleading if you are one of those who is following this blog and has just come from reading “Finding Home”.

Today’s post, in spite of its title, is not about rental properties.  At least not literally.

Nor is it a continuation of my list of What I Will Really Miss About Singapore.  (I will return to that list, have no fear.)

It doesn’t even have a logical link to my forthcoming book about the in’s and out’s of international living and raising our children to be global citizens.

It does, however, have to do with raising.

Or razing.

Today’s post is a poem, a poem about the razing of a house, a poem with which I wish to introduce to you  Melissa The Poet.

(And does that ever sound heady.)

I have kept that Melissa over there in the corner all the while I’ve been spreading rather personal prose across your screen. I have kept that Melissa private, sitting in the shadow on her satin pouf, quill and parchment in hand. Sipping mint juleps.  Wearing whatever you imagine a poet wears. All white, maybe? Or an ochre-colored velvet waist coat? Pantaloons? A Tibetan robe?

Or maybe a purple and orange tie-dyed muslin tunic with Mao trousers made of hemp and a large, macramé peace sign hanging around the neck?

I am, in fact, a poet who writes in all sorts of apparel, very often in my bathrobe, or in comfies on airplanes (which should be no surprise, knowing me as you now do), on the backs of napkins in cafés, at 3:47 a.m. on Post-Its kept in my bedside nightstand, in the several neat little notebooks I get as gifts from my husband and other friends. I write literally everywhere there is a flat surface and a source of ink or graphite.

Or lipstick. (Once, yes.)

I need silence to write poetry, since the delicacy of poetic language does not mix well with ambient noise. Even my own breathing gets in the way sometimes, and I realize I’ve been holding my breath for too long as I work through a phrase. (It occurs to me only now that the breath-holding might be behind the hallucinatory effects of my writing.)

When I write poetry, it is often because I have experienced what I call a poetic moment.  Something big or miniscule or multilayered is going on, symbols align, there is a sudden simple clarity, and, well. . . I know it when I am in it.  It stings me then spreads out like the swell of sweet venom, and with that swell, images or clusters of words come all at once. When they come like that, I find I have to grab something quickly to pin them down in this world. Like planting them on the page. Then they start to bloom almost on their own.

(Almost, I said. This is not magic or Chia Pets we are talking about.)

Other times, I write because I am overcome with an emotion, or undone with the beauty of things, or unhinged with outrage.  Or I have a question grating at the underside of my cerebellum, and I hope weaving together a poem will help me see the pattern inside of which an answer might glisten. Like the one white silk thread in a tan linen cloth.

I write in black or blue pen, then I always return hours or days or months later with a red pen and make changes, condense, strike thorugh completely, or encircle the word or turn of phrase that I feel is true and necessary. And start again.  Poetry —to make it vibrate — generally requires a great deal of work.

Often — alright, always — the finished poem surprises me.  It comes up with its own references and connections that I could never have thought of myself. They somehow found me.

And then I send a copy of what I have come up with to a friend or two who know and appreciate poetry, and ask them, “Is it just me, or does this make any sense to you?”

Or, “Too wordy again, right? :-)”

Or, “This I wrote for your sweet mother. It might not be so good, but I mean it from the heart.”

Or, “Does this ring to you?”

Or, “Should I try tossing this into a contest? A poetry journal? The trash can?”

Years ago, when I realized my husband was the man for whom gift-giving was tough, I decided to write him an album of poetry for Christmas.  Then on Christmas Eve, I rolled up each poem which I’d printed on white paper, tied the scroll with a red satin bow, and placed each one between the branches of the tree. I had additional copies made and printed them on thick, sensuous, handmade paper, which I then had bound in a book. I boxed the book and placed it under the tree.  He seems to have loved this personal gift with all my irreplaceable love poems to him. And what’s more, he could not return any of them for another size or color.

The first Christmas after we buried our Parker, that brittle gunmetal winter of 2007, I was burning with poetry —poetry of outrage, of evisceration, of longing, of amazement, of revelation, of gratitude, poetry of The Void — but had no energy to print it out.  Or roll it up. Or put it in a tree.

I had no energy, in fact, to have a tree at all that year. No energy for a single, thumb-sized decoration. I had no energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos my oldest son had helped me open only twelve months earlier.  I could not for the life of me — or for the death of my son — generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.  As I considered the birth of the Savior, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the Son with glory round about and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will.  Lose. Him!!

But I had no energy for wailing.

I did have energy, though, to write the following poem. It has already been published in the literary journal, Irreantum, and has been anthologized in Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, where its peculiar — and necessary — line spacing can be found.

(The exact format cannot be duplicated in a blog, unfortunately. But you can see it if you get your hands on that anthology.)

Since you have made the trek all the way here, I offer you a private reading.

HOUSE FOR RENT

To George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis

(Response to MacDonald’s “living house” allegory, as quoted by Lewis in his Mere Christianity)

 

Imagine, they suggest.

Imagine yourself as a living house

and God comes in (here comes the allegory),

God comes in to rebuild that house

and to rebuild, He destroys you.

Splits you wide open.

Knocks you down to shape you up.  Blows you away to bring you forth

as mansion, His dwelling.

 

Imagine?

Imagine: a structure well beyond any

apt literary construct;

Imagine the literal natal invasion,

factual inhabitation, indwelling, the magnifying internment;

this alive thing with its lush, essential interior,

nautilus of distended tension,

gourd-like terrarium, loamy abode,

an incubation for cumulus nimbus,

spirit under my ribs

or cosmos

in the veiled universe of my belly.

What, kindest sirs, might you imagine about a living house

but what woman need never imagine?

Tell: can you conceive of it?

I am the aquarium,

have known (four times) the thrumming oceanic drag,

fulsome tidepool slosh in pelvis;

sweetest ferocious confined Leviathan

stomping inner tympani,

boom-boom-blooming to omega.

Four times nine moons—

(a moon myself, pneumatic,)

holding that glowing orb

or the finest delicacy:  shrimp-on-wafer hors d’oeuvre in salty brine

burrowing in our shared cell.

Most intimate inmate.

I am the accommodation, the occupied real estate

(most real of all states),

a fleshly floorplan, walls torn down for the guest wing thrown up,

placental planting , deluxe plumbing, organic annexing for the increase.

I am that natural habitat for humanity,

an address for razing and raising,

strung taut with that sturdy umbilical pull until (and after)

birth.

Now, that’s some moving day:

Nude little lord, prodigious squatter, long since incorporated, moves out

trailing furnishings, clutching soul (whose? my own?)

in bloody wash,

the old self eviscerated, inverted, and that

humanangel image (past imagining)

multiplying  upon itself forever

ever

ever

ever. . .

To be such a sanctuary of conception,

to be asylum for small gods and sovereigns, who swell, crown,

Rise to rule and risk life!

At such risk.  At such risk as one can never. . .

 

Can one imagine those same living quarters drawn and quartered

when son-brother-cell mate—

(the one who moved within,

then out of you,

your heart still raw in his hold)—

when that oblation grown lustrous, thunderous, launch-ready,

Is ripped        (with               that                 riiiiipping                   sound)

away?

Hard, benevolent wounding, whose frayed fibers hang,

sodden shreds post-rupture ,

and you, true house, are rent

the cloven enclave,

rent in two, or into

two billion splinters:

tattered scraps of love’s sabotage.

Imagine yourself as this living house, haunted in its

boney scaffolds where memory whistles its blue wind

and you are apart-ment

living house split leveled:                                                                                         he there,

you here,

fetal-curled in your own basin;

or a bunker: hunkered in poetry;

or a ranch: speck on the shadowless prairie, barren and boundless;

or a lean-to:  whole halved to make a whole, now wholly halved.

And now. . .

God moves in

though there is no palace for Him here;

only rubble round the crater,

wreckage ringing the hollow.

But He, soft-handed, (the hands, gored)

comes inside (the side, gashed)

to silently,

sacramentally

recreate from laceration Lazarus

and is at home.

 

**

 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  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.