Global Mom: Wednesdays With the Louvre

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post: “French School, A Scream”)

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At least as French, but more exquisite to me than sword fighting, was our Wednesday afternoon ritual. In fewer than ten minutes, even with traffic, we could drive from Parc Monceau to the Louvre, park, dart right in, take our lunch at one of the cafés near the glass pyramid (wherever there were the fewest tour groups), wipe our mouths, and, sketchbooks and pencils in hand, make our way to the Richelieu wing.  That is where we found our private sanctuary, the Cour Puget.

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The Cour Puget is a three-story tiered hall flooded with natural light. Its ceiling is a variation on the famous I.M. Pei glass pyramid. . .

cour puget ceiling. . .Its walls and statues nearly all bone-colored marble.  Entering, you might feel you’re walking into the reception hall of heaven. At least we did. At nine and five years old, our two youngest were normally kinetic experiments gone awry, but when we entered heaven. . .

cour puget 1. . .We all settled into a new rhythm that stirred our creative juices into a mellow foam. This is the setting that made the three of us feel we were artists. More important than becoming artists, though, we became each other’s intimates.

Once – and only once – we thought we’d wander over to the Cour Marly just across the corridor, check out what the Renaissance statutes there were up to; but it didn’t feel right, didn’t feel like our place. “Our place” was the Cour Puget, up on the top tier on a marble bench against the wall.  After a few minutes, one of us would be sprawled or curled up at the foot of the statue we were sketching.  The guards who rotated daily came to expect the three of us there at about the same hour every Wednesday afternoon. A nod, a reciprocated “Bonjour les enfants”, and we knew we were in our element.

“So, who do you think this guy is?” I asked, Dalton on one side, Luc on the left. We were staring up into the piercing eyes of Caton d’Utique.

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“And check out the serpent,” Dalton said, turning to see a Mr. Universe Spartacus wrestling the beast to the ground.

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“But why’ve they got this statue of John Kerry?” Luc asked, walking over to a bust of the French scientist, Cuvier.

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We would go home and Google the background of our favorite statues, then go back the next Wednesday to make up stories, stories we wove into a screenplay, we three floor-squatters.  Ours was an elaborate screenplay about the Louvre and its statues and all the lives embedded in stone. Dalton cast his imagined movie, role-for- role as we three sat with our sketchpads on our laps, capturing a young Joan of Arc or a dying marathon runner in the gentle brilliance of the Cour Puget.

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In every way those Wednesdays were a delight to me. The light, no matter what the weather outside, was always brighter during those hours than anywhere else in the world.  I was with my children, we had baguette crumbs on our sweaters, the sky was warm, we were surrounded by history and beauty and tourists, tourists we realized we were not.   We basked in great art and created mediocre art ourselves, but more importantly, we created a moment that defined the three of us as part of this place, part of each other. I saw to it that a woman in a Louvre children’s bookstore hung my boys’ two best completed works on the official corkboard. We laughed in the van that their artwork now hangs in the Louvre.
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**
(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: French School, A Scream

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Scooting Through Paris”)

Entrance to Parc Monceau

Entrance to Parc Monceau

Sometimes, Randall took the Vespa to the office because his work was just across the street from Dalton’s school. The two would head off together, helmeted and wearing biking gear, Dalton holding around his Dad from the back. They could drive right up to the gilded gates of the Parc Monceau where inside was the splendid converted mansion that housed l’École Active Bilingue. Here, Dalton spent his days and earned his French stripes.

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The Parc Monceau is about as far from Norwegian barnepark as you can get. In fact, it’s much closer to a Japanese Zen garden, only without bonsai trees, a stone replica of Mount Fuji, and bamboo rakes for everyone to comb the sand. And because it’s French, it is sumptuous but just about as ornamental. This elegant park is where Dalton, and then Luc when he joined the same school a year later, spent their recré, or recess periods every day. Dressed in navy and white uniforms, they stood in packs – boys here, girls there – for their thimble-full of outdoor time. Half an hour of a nine-hour day.

Parc Monceau through the eye of Claude Monet

Parc Monceau through the eyes of Claude Monet

Under the shade of huge old sycamores, the children huddled to play a rousing set of billes, marbles.  They sometimes drummed up a modest round of tag or ran after one another’s Yugio cards, very popular that year.  But that was the extent of their movement for the day. “Your boys should participate in one or two sports outside of class,” the diréctrice of the school had advised me in our first private consultation. “Swimming, soccer, tennis, anything you can find to energize them will help them metabolize all they’re learning.” She was a small boned woman with a strong brow and imposing presence, flawless Parisian French, and always a gold insignia ring on her left pinkie finger.  For someone so no-nonsense, she sure wore delicious perfume.

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

“This is why we have the open Wednesday afternoons,” she continued. “The children are encouraged to do all their sport then. I suggest you sign them up. Vite, vite!”

After the requisite bureaucracy for which I was braced this time around, we did sign them up: swimming, chess, choir, tae kwan do and then finally because we were in France, we of course signed up both boys for escrime.

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fencing 1

That’s pronounced  eh-scream, which should have made me nervous, but somehow didn’t.  That is until I saw that the boys’ fencing instructor had no right ear. It was a detail that inspired in me both confidence (hey, this guy really fences!) and worry (hey, but, uh. . . .?) The gymnasium full of twenty young fencers in tight white unitards and mesh-fronted helmets looked like an audition hall for Star Wars Stormtroopers wielding swords instead of lasers. For months and months they swung fearlessly, my two youngest did, while mincing and shuffling back and forth, arms raised just so, feet poised just so, an exhausting and beautiful discipline cum sport cum art. Fully French.

fencing 2

Not Your Father’s Cologne

Image: wikicommons

Image: wikicommons

Like blades puncturing a gray tarp, the spires of the Cologne (Köln) cathedral (Dom) shoot with sanguine self-assertion into an upperworld, an otherworld. Audacious, virile, epic – the Kölner Dom’s pitch is stratospheric, almost enough to make you veer off the road as you swing into town at night, as we did last Friday.

“Whoah. Can you see that?” Twelve-year-old Luc, reading in the back seat, dropped his book and pressed his face against the window. “Whoah. Whoah-ho. Okay, that’s cool.”

The medieval architects of Europe sought to create an on-your-tippy-toes, to-the-very-finger-tips skyscraping of celestial proportions. Their aim? To scratch heaven’s underbelly with stone. Or better, to replicate heaven with it.

Today, this church is a spiny anomaly in a landscape of squatty or swirly modernity. But centuries ago when it was built, the Dom was seen as a meeting place of spheres. God descending to men. Men ascending to God. Heaven as down-to-earth and earth as up-to-heaven. People all over the then-known world made their pilgrimages just to arrive at its doors, touch its walls, fall on their knees, and crawl up to its altar.

And now we were cruising through Friday night rush hour traffic to get our peek.

“So, imagine this one, guys: in World War II, this whole town was completely flattened. Two-hundred-something air raids. About 1,500 tons of explosives, of which 1,000 of those were incendiary. Remember Dresden?”

“Of course. Yeah, we remember Dresden,” Dalton said quietly.

Image: wodumedia

Image: wodumedia

“By the end of the war. . .let’s see.. .yes, by the end of the war less than 5% of the inhabitants were still here. Many had been killed; most had been evacuated from the ruins. I also read that virtually all of Köln’s 11,000 Jews had been deported to concentration camps or murdered on the spot. All six synagogues had been destroyed. Only one has since been rebuilt.”

Silence.

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We were within a few streets from the cathedral. We had to hang our heads out our windows to try to see the whole structure, it was that tall. Built over the span of six-hundred years by the hands of mostly nameless artisans, and without as much as a forklift or a power saw, the cathedral dominated the whole night sky.

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“What else, Mel?” Randall was navigating the inner city’s labyrinth of one-ways. Our GPS spoke to us in German, like a Lufthansa flight attendant murmuring politely from our glove box.

“Well, the urban planner responsible for rebuilding the city after 1945 called Köln ‘the world’s greatest heap of rubble.’ Except –” I opened my window to try to get a photo as we came around a corner, “except this cathedral.”

We parked, bumper to curbside, in front of a blackened Emerald City.

“Seriously?” Dalton asked, stepping out of the back and into light rain. We walked right to the front doors, my camera at the ready.

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door handles, main entrance

door handles, main entrance

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“Yeah, I’d say seriously. She was hit I don’t know how many times by allied bombs – seventy-something, I think – and she never collapsed, if you can believe it.”

I shielded my lens from the rain.

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“And that’s gotta be thanks to her flying buttresses, right?” Luc cracked a smile and lifted his brows to Dalton.

(I’ve decided twelve-year-old boys, like some twenty-year-old boys I taught in college, just can’t get enough of flying buttresses.)

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“Dude, check out the flying buttresses,” Luc elbowed his brother, snorting and giggling, pointing to the cathedral’s exterior stone arches that support the weight of so much wall with windows.

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Lovely sons, these, who can correctly identify parts of a building’s anatomy.

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The following morning, knowing I had only a few hours before we would leave town, I made my way back through her doors. By my third hour there, hundreds of other visitors had joined me.

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In the next two posts, I’d first like to share with you what I saw and thought as I looked not only at this magnificent tribute to faith, but also at all the people there with me, looking, too. The post is called, “Beseiging God.”

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Then, I’ll explain the reason for our family’s trip to Germany in a post entitled, “Praying Like a Good Sport.”

Hope you’ll be there.

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This work is licensed under aCreative 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.

Fast Friends

Monkey Rock, sunset.

Monkey Rock, sunset.

“Naked, except for my water sandal stuck on my hand. Both my hips were dislocated.  Yeah, I was like . . . like pretty beat up, I guess.  Had some bad cuts all over the place especially this huge gash on the back of my head plus all these massive bruises.   Yuh, they said I was near dead.”

The young man’s voice over the phone was as lifeless as his body must have been when Idaho Search and Rescue had found him, “washed up,” as he told us, “pretty close to five miles downstream.”

“Five miles?” Randall asked into the receiver.  I scooted closer, still taking notes on my laptop. All this was going into our growing file: “What Happened At Monkey Rock?”

“Yeah,” the guy sighed then stalled. Then he caught his breath. “Yeah, five whole miles, if you can believe it. The rescuers told me if I hadn’t floated face up and flat on my back, well, you know. . . I would’ve never made it.”  He stopped again. Randall pinched his brow between his index finger and thumb while I held my hands ready over my keyboard, waiting to taken down the rest.

“Yeah.  I know,” the voice said, “I should’ve  died. I’m. . .uh. . .I’m real sorry about your son.”

Meet Robb.  Here, he's carrying 2-year-old Parker on his shoulders.

Meet Robb. Here, he’s carrying 2-year-old Parker on his shoulders.

How did Randall and I, who now lived in Munich, Germany, end up in this conversation with a kid from a place called St. Anthony, Idaho, someone we’d never met, but who was going to prove to be vital in understanding the accident that took Parker’s life?

To answer that question, I need to veer a little bit into my religious beliefs. But I only do so hoping you won’t, 1) be offended, 2) feel preached to, 3) mistake me for a manic ascetic, or, 4) think I’m running for the papacy.

Meet 2-year- old Luc.  He is being carried on 14-year-old Parker's shoulders.

Meet 2-year- old Luc. He is being carried on 14-year-old Parker’s shoulders.

The way we made this important connection has something to do with fasting. As our immediate response to the news of Parker’s accident, Randall and I and our entire family and many of our close friends fasted. In fact, when I’d gotten The Call close to 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 19th, my immediate instinct was to shut down all eating and drinking. Randall’s inclination was identical. Claire’s, too.  And my parents.  And my siblings.  And my closest sister-friends, who either rushed to my side or kept closely connected in other ways.

Meet 2-year-old Claire and Robb's 2-year-old daughter, Audrey.

Meet 2-year-olds Claire and Audrey.

One of the first things Randall did while he agonized, waiting for his flight from Munich to Idaho, was to call Serge, our dear friend and the regional leader of our church in Paris, and ask him to invite the hundreds of members there to join in a communal fast for Parker, a boy many knew well.  Then Randall called Lutz, the regional leader of what was going to be our church in Munich. Lutz sent out the request, asking those church members to do the same for a family and a boy they did not yet know.  Only later did I learn that others around the world, some of my faith and many not, having heard of Parker’s accident, began their own private fasts and prayer vigil.  I can’t tell you how many people were joined with us in this intense spiritual focus over two days, but it was many.

Meet Robb and his wife, Jacque, and their children hiking Norwegian mountains with us. Norway.

Meet Robb and his wife, Jacque, and their children, including Audrey, hiking Norwegian mountains with us.

The habit of fasting for strength and clarity stuck with us throughout the months that followed Parker’s death. Again, this desire to fast was instinctive, not the adherence to a rote tradition dressed in sackcloth and ashes.  And while it’s true that to some extent I could not eat, there’s no food known to man that was going to give me the kind of spiritual strength I needed to pull my family through the tar-filled abyss I felt trapped us neck-deep.

So once a week, from Saturday to Sunday evening, Randall and I fasted. Fasting meant clearing out, airing out, making room for more spirit, growing more focused, making ourselves receptive for whatever whisperings (or turbo blasts) God might send our way.

Robb, Jacque, and children at the top of Norway's Preacher's Pulpit.

Robb, Jacque, and children at the top of Norway’s Preacher’s Pulpit.

Then on August 19th, the first month marker of the accident, in an email exchange with our lifelong friends Robb and Jacque, another pattern began.  

“It’s for solidarity,” Robb wrote. “Can we just fast with you guys on this day? Because really, what else could we do for you from all the way over here in Massachusetts?” 

Some sixty-seven months later, they’re still at it, these two, joining us in fasting on the 19th of each month.

Parker atop Norway's Preacher's Pulpit.

Parker atop Norway’s Preacher’s Pulpit.

More background: we’d left the States (and the funeral and the cemetery and the accident site) for Munich without a complete picture of what had happened the night of July 19th.  The local news had gotten it wrong.  The local police and university authorities were unsure.  There were rumors and variations of rumors mixed with speculation and hearsay spreading quickly in small town Idaho, and when word of this got back to us, we hurt and were deeply sad.

Randall, Melissa, Parker and Claire heading up to Preacher's Pulpit.

Randall, Melissa, Parker and Claire heading up to Preacher’s Pulpit.

So Randall and I wanted to get to the bottom of things.  We pursued every lead, every name, every telephone number for weeks on end.  What we did know was that this place called Monkey Rock was a favorite gathering place for locals, was private property, but had never been marked as such.  Significantly, the local canal authorities had also told us that they were unaware of “any other accident in this canal like your son’s, Mrs. Bradford.”

Colin, Robb and Jacque's son, on Preacher's Pulpit.

Colin, Robb and Jacque’s son, on Preacher’s Pulpit.

Which was confusing.  The first local television coverage featured an interview with the area’s sheriff, who’d said, pointing to the canal, that everyone in those parts called this place “The Meat Grinder.” Names like that aren’t given without footnotes, so we set out finding out what those footnotes were.  How to do that? From the other side of the world? Having never lived in Idaho? Having never visited there except for the events surrounding our son’s accident? Knowing only the smallest handful of people anywhere in that area? With everyone involved now dispersed, gone their separate ways?

Claire and Audrey, Preacher's Pulpit.

Claire and Audrey, Preacher’s Pulpit.

As we gathered information (taking testimonies over the phone from people who lived in the area, paramedics, students who’d been  at the site of the accident), we saw it would be necessary to meet face-to-face with the county’s canal board. This was a panel of gentlemen who oversaw water and irrigation rights in what was southeast Idaho’s rich farmland. We wanted to explain what had happened to our son in one of their canals, the very canal they had been led to believe was harmless.

Claire and Audrey, whale watching, Maine, U.S.A.

Claire and Audrey, whale watching, Maine, U.S.A.

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We set a date, early April, for that trip to Idaho. And we continued fasting and praying as did others on our behalf, like Robb and Jacque, who knew we were searching doggedly for more information that would help us piece together a story that would make a difference at that important April meeting.

Bronx Zoo, New York City

Bronx Zoo, New York City

On March 3, Randall and I received this email.  (As context, at this time Robb was filling a volunteer position as the bishop or pastor of his LDS [Mormon] congregation in Massachusetts.) The mail began:

Jacque and I had a strange experience today that I wanted to tell you about.  I’m still shocked and don’t know exactly what to make of it.  I can’t ascribe it to mere coincidence.

I spoke in our meetings today about finding joy in fasting, and about the happiness that comes from following this gospel law.  I spoke about how our own family has been strengthened through our fasting on your behalf, and how focused fasting and prayers from around the world have hopefully fortified your family with the Spirit and with the pure love of friends and family.  I didn’t go into details of the accident, since Jacque spoke about Parker last week in her address, and I did myself in August in reference to the merciful doctrine of the resurrection.

[Of note: Jacque told me later that, although as the bishop’s family they were used to inviting people over nearly every Sunday for dinner at their home, on this given day Jacque was flat out not up to it. She has a demanding career as a corporate consultant with a Fortune 500 company, travels a great deal, they have four children, it had been one of those weeks. Her plan? To hunker down with her family curled up in jammies  around nothing more than big, cheap bowls of cold cereal. And sleep.]

Robb continued:

During the church meeting, Jacque noticed a missionary; the dark suit, white shirt, tie and name tag hard to miss on his 6′ 5″, near 300 lbs. of solid muscle.  (He played football for the past year and a half at college.)  He is physically imposing, and brand new (today was his first day in our congregation; he’s just arrived here in Massachusetts).  He looked overwhelmed and lost. Something made Jacque walk right up to him and invite him to dinner. 

[And I’m guessing something made Jacque plan on something other than cereal.]

Parker with Audrey and his siblings in Brittany, France.

Parker with Audrey and his siblings in Brittany, France.

Robb went on to describe how, after dinner, over dessert, they cleared the table, kicked up their feet, leaned on their elbows, and started in on a conversation with this quiet, unsure new missionary.

Shoreline, Brittany, France.

Shoreline, Brittany, France.

“So, tell us all where you’re from,” Jacque asked, setting out the makings for an ice cream bar.

“Idaho,” came the answer. “St. Anthony, Idaho. A farming town near Rexburg.”

Robb and Jacque and their children looked quickly at each other.  The fact that their dinner guest came from Idaho wasn’t so remarkable. Countless missionaries come from Idaho. But he came from St. Anthony, the address of Monkey Rock.  

“St. Anthony, Idaho?” Robb said. “Well, okay. You know of a place called Monkey Rock?”

The young man, mid-scoop, went whiter than his vanilla ice cream.

“Monkey Rock?” He put down his spoon. “I almost died there.”

And the football player went on to describe the following, which Robb writes in his email:

Best friends, our Paris apartment

Best friends, our Paris apartment

As a junior in high school, just three years ago, he was doing what he says all the kids in that area do for fun; he went bridge jumping in the rivers and irrigations canals. His favorite place was at a confluence of an irrigation canal and a river, joined near a bridge, just above Monkey Rock.  He explained that he had jumped off that bridge other times, but always when the water level was lower.  He’d never had any problems there.  This time, however, the water was up to within a foot of the underside of the bridge.  He didn’t know it at the time, but that made the undertow much more powerful.  One buddy jumped into the water, was spun around by the undertow and spat out on the other side.  Then he, our missionary dinner guest, followed, and jumped into the exact same place but was dragged down into the circular current.  He was held underwater, cycling around and around.  He struggled for what he said felt like minutes, then with his last strength, struggled to swim out, but hit the back of his head on a rock and was rendered unconscious.

He said that going limp must have allowed his body to slip beneath the powerful eddy and into the moving current underneath.  He said his unconscious body flowed with that current and over the lava rock falls that give Monkey Rock its name.  His high-school friends continued to search for him in vain in the murky water cycling below the bridge.  A group of college students downstream saw his shape move underwater beneath the falls, but did not come to his aid.

Colin and Audrey present when Parker received an ordination in the priesthood.

Colin and Audrey present when Parker received an ordination in the priesthood.

Before we even finished reading the email, we called Robb and Jacque in Massachusetts. How could we talk with this missionary? Robb arranged for that to happen, and this is where I bring you back to a phone conversation between Randall and the young man, the exchange that began this post.

Robb and Colin at that ordination

Robb and Colin at that ordination

“Doctors told me later I’d been unconscious underwater for probably 6 minutes. Being unconscious probably kept my lungs from filling with water and kept me from drowning.  I really should’ve drowned.”

“And your massive but lean body weight, that probably made you slip beneath that powerful undertow into the underlying current,” Randall said, wiping his hand over his forehead and then dragging that palm down the thigh of his jeans.

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“Yeah, and my friends on the shore couldn’t spot my body, so they were panicking, running up and down the rocks and scrub brush, screaming for me, then they called 911 on their cells. And 911 sent Idaho Search and Rescue.  They thought they were coming for a body pick up.”

Many phone calls later – conversations we always recorded, helpful discussions with this young missionary’s parents, with the head of Idaho Search and Rescue, with a local journalist whose own son had nearly lost his life there, too, who’d pushed doing a story on canal dangers but had been told he could not – after nearly a full month of nonstop long distance investigation, we discovered detailed, verifiable, chilling footnotes that explained “The Meat Grinder.” This place, among locals at least, was notorious.

Robb far right, after Parker's ordination.

Robb far right, after Parker’s ordination.

“Kids are getting caught up in there all the time,” Brett Mackert, the head of Search and Rescue told us.  “I’ve had to save a couple of them by dragging them out with my jumper cables.  These canals are nothing but death traps.  But they’re not marked, you know? No danger signs, no ‘No Trespassing’ signs, nothing. And I guess a foreigner like, well yeah, someone from France – what’d you say? He’d been one week there? Right, well, he wouldn’ta had a clue of the trouble in there.”

Parker, Dad & Mom (Melch Psthood Ord - Versailles, March 11, 2007)

With all this information in hand, we traveled days later from Munich, Germany to St. Anthony, Idaho.  There, in a small white municipal building, we met with the county’s canal board.  With us were my parents, the missionary’s parents, Brett Mackert, the journalist I just mentioned, other interested locals, and a hydraulics engineer who described the dangers of this particular canal’s construction, features that created the Bernoulli effect; a fierce confluence of currents that make suction that’s capable of pinning even heavy objects in a perpetual vortex.

Picnic at the Grand Canal of the Château de Versailles

Picnic at the Grand Canal of the Château de Versailles

Robb and Audrey, Versailles picnic

Robb and Audrey, Versailles picnic

Unlike the missionary who dove intentionally into the whirlpool like many others we eventually learned of, Parker and his classmate had been standing in relatively calm and waist-high water downstream from the vortex which is hidden under the bridge, when an invisible undertow sucked them a few feet upstream, pinning them. It felt, the survivors said later, like the spinning barrel of a washing machine lined in rebar and chunks of raw cement.

Ellery, Audrey and Abigail with Dalton and Luc shortly after Parker's passing.

Ellery, Audrey and Abigail with Dalton and Luc shortly after Parker’s passing.

Right here I’d love to say that this meeting of ours launched a county-wide initiative to make safe or at least mark dozens of irrigation canals. But I can’t say that.  And that’s not the point of my writing. My writing is to drill my focus and yours on the light that has burned off many of the biting ironies of this tragedy. Part of that light is shared here, as Robb ends his email:

Claire and Audrey, college roommates.  Both young women are serving today as full-time missionaries for our church. Claire, in Italy, Audrey in Sacramento, California, Spanish- speaking.

Claire and Audrey, college roommates. Both young women are serving today as full-time missionaries for our church. Claire, in Italy, Audrey in Sacramento, California, Spanish- speaking.

This thing seems more than a mere happenstance, yet we don’t know what to make of it.  What are the chances that this young man would arrive in our church building today, that we would invite him over, and that we would discover right now when we know you need it most, this story of all his life stories?  What are we to understand or gain from this connection?  The only thing that seems certain is that Jacque and I feel a renewed, acute aching for you both.  We feel renewed love and affection for you and your entire family.  We continuously pray for you all, and pray for God’s mercies for you.  We remember you and we proudly remember Parker.

Jacque and Robb, Easter 2008 in Trento, Italy.

Jacque and Robb, Easter 2008 in Trento, Italy.

The boys in Trento. Colin departs soon on a full-ime mission for our church in South Dakota, U.S.A.

The boys in Trento. Colin departs soon on a full-ime mission for our church in South Dakota, U.S.A.

I can’t guess what this means to you, reader. But for me, there is a delicate but traceable connection between the active love from these friends and the fact that some missionary from St. Anthony, Idaho lands just in time at their Massachusetts kitchen table. And there would be other events, equally remarkable and equally inexplicable, at least in purely rational terms, unless perhaps you believe as I do in a reality larger than this often cramped and occasionally dismal mortal tunnel you and I are belly crawling through.  There are those happenings, our family’s been blessed with many,  that perforate the obscurity, that pierce through it in shafts of air and light and understanding, making this passage a conduit, as I see it;  bright and vibrating with hope and sloped, even if imperceptibly, on that long grade heavenward.

Our kids, Brittany, France.

Our kids, Brittany, France.

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: Grief Olympics

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My friend Andrea is a prodigious athlete.  She runs for speed as well as for endurance. She fenced in college (she’s a wizard with weapons), then took up competitive running long ago, and has since finished or placed in I cannot tell you how many biathlons and triathlons.

The gal frightens me.

As she does anyone who gets in front of her on the track, because – eh-hem, move over – this is one driven creature.

That she’s also a scientist frightens me, too. (We already know how I feel about things numerical, and I recall science requires a few numbers here and there, and so we’ll just move swiftly along from that topic so I don’t break out in isosceles-trapezoidal boils.)

But what gets my attention more than anything Andrea is or has done, more than her fencing jumpsuit or orange lycra shorts for her latest what-have-you-thalon or even her mad scientist lab coat, is the heavy cloak she wears as a mother.

She has three boys and one of them, her firstborn, Ethan, is severely handicapped.

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Ethan suffered hypoxic brain injury at birth. This left him with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, severe developmental delay, no purposeful movement.  He cannot form words, he cannot crawl, sit up straight or walk, he cannot care for himself in any way, he cannot see. He is ten years old but his developmental equivalency is measured in months. His unending medical needs make Andrea and her husband Chris’ home a battle zone with concourses of nurses and therapists trudging in and out both day and night.

Then there are those wars with school systems. The wars with insurance companies. The wars with the armies of medical professionals.  The wars within Andrea’s own chest cavity. The list of assaults goes on.

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My firstborn, on the other hand, was ill precisely three times in his whole 18-year-and-five-months of mortality. A few hours total of illness, I’d wager. Maybe twenty hours, tops.  A mild allergic reaction to citrus juice. A normal inner ear infection.  And of course that one time I gave him food poisoning with a bad batch of bolognese. All that night, my 12-year-old convulsed and heaved between polite color commentary, assuring me from his crouched position over the toilet that it was (barf) not my fault (buuuurrrrrlch) and that he (puke) would be okay for (whaaagh) basketball (hurl) tomorrow.

That, in a nutshell, is what my son knew of illness. That’s all I witnessed of my firstborn son’s conscious suffering.

In the time we’ve known each other, Andrea and I have exchanged notes on the nature of major loss. In these exchanges, I have never felt that she has pitted this grueling day-to-day loss of her son against another loss she does not know, the sudden death of my son. She has never even intimated there’s competition between the two, a sort of Grief Olympics, you might call it. And I try, I do, to give her and her stunningly beautiful Ethan the same respect. I hope she senses that. I readily admit to not knowing the air pressure of the kind of galaxy Andrea and her family inhabit.

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But layer by exhausting layer, her story has given me the gift of beginning to understand something I did not understand five and a half years ago, at a time when I swore to heaven I wanted to experience Andrea’s galaxy firsthand.

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It was that first night I stood in the ICU over the body of my robust, muscular, athletic but comatose son.  That was the night I poured out my tears to my Father in Heaven and vowed that if He would let my child live – in any state whatsoever, just live – I would care faithfully for this child of mine. I would consecrate all I was and would ever be to caring for my boy as God would.

Let me keep my son,” I wept and pled and begged and insisted. I picked a fingertip-deep hole in the naugahyde arm of the metal-legged chair, I remember, drilling the idea into Divinity’s head. “I can already see in my mind where we’ll set up his hospital bed in the Munich apartment. Right there. I know where I can find daily medical care. I’ll educate myself, I’ll suction his lungs, adjust his oxygen, do nothing else in life besides care for him, stay with him. Read him Goethe and play him Brahms and stroke his stoney limbs.  God in heaven, don’t take him from us. We’ll all die.  I need him. I’ll die. . .”

They were furious prayers. I get sweaty just writing them.

What was I asking for? I didn’t know then in my breathless desperation. Andrea has an idea.  But I did not.  In that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the cliff that we were standing on that had us dangling over the abyss. Had God granted those pleas, I don’t know what person I would be now, stroking the arms of whatever remained of my son, herding strangers in and out of my home, funneling every nanogram of energy and every last cent into sustaining a life that is disintegrating before my eyes anyway. I’ll tell you: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be writing books. Or writing this blog you are reading right now. I would have no surplus anything for such an undertaking. I would maybe have to take up running really hard and really fast for the sole purpose of  metabolizing the raging hurricane that bangs relentlessly in my thoracic cavity. Maybe I would become a triathlete. Maybe I would crop my hair to a snappy-sleek black Powerwoman ‘do.

And I would wield some real as well as some figurative swords. Maybe.  But can I know? Can any of us know what we would do with someone else’s lot? Maybe instead of becoming stronger I would cave. Maybe my whole family would die and I would die, too. I would hope not, but really: how can I know?

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Observing Andrea, I get a flimsy, fleeting glimpse of just a corner of only the slightest edge of an expansive world I was asking for that night in the ICU. And I marvel, thinking I wouldn’t make it.

But then I think, well.  . . I ‘ve made it this far through something else. . .

And finally, I must digest the plain reality that my fate and my loss have been of another sort.

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“Isn’t it odd?” Andrea wrote in a treasured email exchange, “You’re grieving the son you once had and lost.  And I’m grieving the son I never had but am losing every day.”

And she will lose him. She knows that. Which makes the enormous effort in keeping him alive that much more – how can I describe this? – that much more godly, in my eyes.  Andrea moves hour after hour after week after month after year along that crazy split path that reminds me of two side-by-side moving sidewalks, the kind you’ve stood on in airports – with one going quickly in this direction,  and the other going quickly in the other direction – she straddles that impossibly schizophrenic and simultaneous divergence of both frantically sustaining and inevitably losing the life of this beloved, perfect son.

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Now you tell me: is there any harder race than the isometric marathon of the soul?

So my friend Andrea, a weapon-wielding, race-running, warrior of a mother would be the last to say she’s in some competition about whose loss is worse. As if, with all that she and her family are dealing with, she has bandwidth for enlisting in some sort of Grief Olympics.

But she does have an Olympian’s spirit, which her oldest son, who coos like Chewbacca and sighs like the newest initiate to Mount Olympus, has inherited in full.

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For starkly beautiful descriptions of Andrea’s ongoing life with Ethan, go here and here and here.

Dispassion

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It’s a spring afternoon of 2009, nearly two years following Parker’s death, and the counselor at our children’s school in Munich has invited a short list of students and faculty whom Dalton has hand-selected to gather in an empty upper floor room during an extended recess and lunch period.  The whole building will be empty during that hour, the counselor’s assured us, so that we can count on no disturbances whatsoever.  We’ll need this time.  Dalton’s been preparing for many months for this moment.

“Now, all of you’ve been invited here specifically by Dalton,” the counselor begins after we’re all settled. There are about a dozen girls and boys sitting to my left and my right in a circle, twelve and thirteen-year-olds all of them.  Dalton’s favorite teacher, his English professor, is sitting directly across from me, and Randall is to my immediate right. The four chairs to my left separate me from Dalton.

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“He’s invited you,” the counselor continues, “because he has something he wants to share and he trusts you. What we will discuss today stays here, unless Dalton invites any of you to share this information further. Is that good with you, Dalton?

He nods.

“Good with everyone else?”

Everyone else nods.  I’m focused on the middle of the circle where we’ve set Parker’s djembe, his treasured African drum.

“I wonder,” says the counselor, “if you all could just note on this slip of paper I’ve given you something that you’ve lost. It can be something intangible or it can be a home or a person, anything. But I want this to be a thing whose loss has really hurt you. Maybe it still hurts you. Just write it down and then you can place your paper on top of here.”

She points to Parker’s drum.

I watch as these kids and their teachers soften, and a spirit of thoughtfulness and sincerity seeps around the circle.  I also watch Dalton carefully. He had been sleepless and cramped on the floor of the bathroom all night.

“I’m not sure I can do this, Mom,” he’d said as I’d wiped his forehead with a cool washcloth around 3:00 a.m.  He was on his side in a quasi fetal position.  “What if. . what if I tell them and. . .”

“And. . .and what?” I asked, running the cloth under cold water again. I squeezed out the excess. I dabbed his face.

“What if I tell them and they just. . .they. . .” He was sweating, holding his stomach.

“They don’t do anything? What if they don’t care, you mean?” I knew my boy. And I knew this same leaden, justifiable fear. What if I bare my soul to someone and he leans away from, not into, the conversation? What if I expose the enormous hole in my torso and no one sees it, no one feels it?

That’s the great fear.

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And that is why, for nearly two full school years, Dalton has made acrobatic contortions at school to avoid any discussion about his family.  He’s done everything to avoid mentioning his brother, the one who had been Dalton’s living idol one month before he’d arrived at this new school, the same one who had been buried two weeks before landing here.  In this new community, everyone asked that thing you always ask when you meet the new student, “So, do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Dalton decided to lie.  He had no older brother.

But the deception and the denial were literally making him ill.

So on a spring day during a noon hour, we’re in a schoolroom where the students are writing down and then talking of their various losses: grandparent, aunt, uncle, pet. They write about lost friendships and missed opportunities and forfeited stability because of moving from country to country their whole lives.  Some write down a lost possession – their home in another hemisphere, for instance – some write down “lost time”.

Not one, however, writes about losing a big brother.

“Thanks, everyone,” says the counselor.  “Well, you’re here today because Dalton has lost something that is extremely valuable to him, more precious than almost anything else in his life.” The counselor is no way maudlin, just serious but warm.  I breathe heavily with love for her and for what she’s doing, with love for all these youth who are taking their lunchtime to be sitting here, circling our boy.

“And because Dalton cares so much about this thing he’s lost, and because he cares about you, too,” she adds, “he wants to share some of that loss with you. Is that good?” She scans the circle. All eyes are fixed, alert. “Okay, Dalton, would you like to share with us?”

I watch my boy – soft, blonde, cautious, eyes like chips of aquamarine –- I watch him take a breath. I watch the muscles around his mouth, the place you usually catch the first cracks of breaking apart. I also watch his friend, a small Jewish Israeli boy named Itamar, who’s sitting at Dalton’s elbow, his mop of almost-black hair just brushing into his thick dark lashes, those huge soulful eyes watching Dalton, our Nordic prototype, as he begins to speak slowly, deliberately.

“I want to tell you. . .” Dalton begins as he stretches his fingers out on a gold-brown spiral bound book he’s been holding flat on his lap, “I want to share with you someone who is important to me. This,” he lifts up the album of Parker to show an enlarged photo of a handsome teenager with dark hair, a crimson red rugby shirt and half a grin, “This is my big brother. His name is Parker.”

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Burning creeps up my face and I look over toward Randall with an impulse to take his hand in mine, but I don’t because in the tension of the moment I know the slightest movement could topple things. I wipe my palms discreetly on my pant legs.

The counselor is smiling at Dalton, helping him along. His English teacher is quiet, her eyes large and already rimmed in shine. The boys and girls in the circle, as I quietly look around, are motionless, reverent, even.

“Parker is what I have lost,” Dalton adds.  He lifts his brows, his mouth is pinching and then shaking a bit, “He passed away in a water accident not so long ago when he was trying to save another student from. . .”

And right then, a sound like a rabbit being injured arises from behind Itamar’s dark mop of hair that is now hanging toward his lap, and his delicate shoulders under a black and rust speckled sweatshirt were rounded over.  They’re shaking. Dalton stops speaking, and turns his widened eyes toward Itamar. The black-haired boy raises his head. There are already tears dripping down the light olive face, and pain transforms those brown eyes.  He’s crying openly, like this is his own loss.

As if by synergy, Dalton’s eyes fill with tears, too, but his eyebrows are raised. These are tears of surprise. But more than that, they’re tears of relief and joy, the look you’d see on someone who’d slaved day and night for weeks but still never thought he’d deserve to pass the big final exam, but got – holy cow!—the highest score in the class. Surprise, relief, joy! Then Dalton touches Itamar’s shoulder, as if comforting him, while Itamar continues to wipe the flow of tears with his grubby, oversized sleeve.

“I want you to know about what happened to Parker,” Dalton says,  “because he’s a great brother and he’s so important to me.”

While the rest of the world outside our building grows more and more quiet (I wonder what’s happened with the afternoon recess and all the children’s laughter and screaming from moments earlier), Dalton begins narrating with a stronger voice.

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He sits straight and tells a bit about the pages of the album, holding each up and turning the book so everyone in the room can see: Parker holding his arms around his two younger brothers at basketball and volleyball championships;

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Parker with arms around his family at high school graduation;

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Parker hiking with his family;

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On family vacations;

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Teaching Dalton and Luc to bike or swim;

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Hanging out and watching movies with Claire and his brothers;

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Going to church;

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Eating his favorite, ice cream;

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Laughing in the sunshine and goofing around beneath starlight;

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Pictures of a real live person, a brother, friend, an actual human being. A reality.

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The students are first speechless, and two girls to my right are wiping under their eyes. Everyone – every last person, I note – is leaning into the conversation, reaching their attention toward this story, asking to hold the book themselves if Dalton doesn’t mind. Could they just see – his name’s Parker, right?– if they could see Parker. If Dalton could just hand them all his pictures of this real person, this brother named Parker.

**

Compassion does not always look like Itamar.  It’s not always unfiltered emotion, the free flow of tears. (And by the same token, not all tears express compassion.) Some people cry easily, unselfconsciously, comfortably. Some weep with abandon.  Others are biochemically unable or culturally forbidden to show tears.  Still others might suppress tears for selfless reasons (they’re worried about how their tears might affect others); others will not cry for selfish reasons (they’re concerned about how their tears will reflect on themselves).

More often, (and this should make co-mourning possible for all of us, even the most severely tear-challenged) compassion might look somewhat like the students and teachers in that circle.  Some cried. But more didn’t.  Still, everyone had certain traits in common, all of which were facilitated by the wise (and compassionate) counselor.  Everyone was present. They came, gave their time, opened their ears and hearts.  They gave the moment their full attention.  They didn’t tell Dalton (or Itamar or anyone in their circle) to stop crying, nor did they show any signs of being uncomfortable when they themselves started crying. In all, the impact of the moment came from everyone’s posture: they leaned into the story. They spontaneously encouraged Dalton to tell more, to share all he wanted, because he could be sure it would be honored by and safe with them. There was no question that they cared. Dalton became a new boy thanks, to a great measure, to that one liberating and loving moment.

I’ve revisited this schoolroom experience so many times in my mind, wondering about the significant, even life-altering learning that might have been lost if instead of compassion dispassion had driven our approach to grief.  What if no one had provided a safe environment for Dalton to share his sorrow, his Parker?  If someone (a parent, a teacher, a friend) had instead told him to forget his brother, to get to work and lose his self-pity in some distraction, to get on with life, to suck it up, pull his wagon, keep a stiff upper lip, to be big boy? (He had, after all, turned thirteen by then.)

What if someone had instructed Dalton not to cry, not show any vulnerability, not to articulate what is of deepest and eternal value to him? What if he had been trained already at that age – the age when society and hormones are already well at work impelling boys into a toughening phase – to mask his pain (which would mean masking his love), by playing the stoic, the macho?

What would those other students have not experienced, if they had not been in that room? Watching a young man be frank and tender, another moved by pure sympathy to sobs? If they’d never witnessed their teachers, too, all adults and authority figures, also moved and softened?

And what would I have missed, had I not observed this precious, powerful hour when my child, frightened by his sorrow and sorrowful because of his fears, was able to express and receive love? Love in the form of an Israeli boy who had never met or seen or talked with a person named Parker, but who was, by some sudden rush of unadorned humanness, able to feel something of what his friend was feeling.

As if that list of learned lessons is not enough, there’s more. I’m not quite finished with our story yet.  The classroom is still full, we’re still in a circle. Let me share with you the last thing we would all have missed, had we not allowed this hour to happen.

At this point, the room on that second floor of the school building is rather quiet, except for some whispering as Dalton begins turning pages and narrating his photo album, and the sound of Itamar blowing his nose into a tissue the English teacher has just handed him. Students start to chat softly, two and two, as they pass the Parker book around the circle.  I keep my eye on Dalton, whose entire posture has changed from closed and shadowed to open and gleaming.  He’s pointing to the page with a shot of Parker playing a drum solo in his senior class talent show at his school in Paris: “Of everything Parker did,” Dalton’s smiling now, “basketball, volleyball, swimming, hanging out with all his friends, even eating ice cream. . .I think what he loved the most was drumming. That’s why we brought his drum today.”

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Right then, from directly beneath our feet and as if on cue, someone begins playing a drum set.  An explosive, vibrating drum riff that goes and goes and goes. It startles Dalton, the English teacher shoots me a glance, I reach to squeeze Randall’s hand, two of the boys look at the floor then all around the walls and then back at each other, perplexed but oblivious. And Itamar holds the tissue at his nose.

I softly shake my head. Randall grins.  By that time, these kinds of coincidences aren’t entirely new to us anymore.

We listen for several more minutes while Dalton tells all he can about his brother, and while some stranger wielding pretty wicked drum sticks tears it up under our feet.

The kids need to return to class, the tin of cookies we’ve shared is down to crumbs, light is shining through the windows, there are no more tears, and the invisible drummer retreats to whatever mysterious place he’d come from.

But his silent rhythm follows us all the way home and beyond.

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Disallowing, Diminishing, Dismissing

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(These photos I took last weekend on a family outing to the medieval village of Gruyères in the foothills of the Alps, less than an hour’s drive from our home. I only realize now after writing this post, that in these shots Randall is wearing the leather bomber jacket I mention below. I also note that these days he wears a smile far more than he wears tears. But he’s never wanted to remove the stains.)

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“Mel,” my husband said as he inched toward me, an open letter in his hand, “I think I need to talk through this one with you.”

Randall was wearing a brown leather bomber jacket, the one he’d bought Parker for his senior year in high school. Throughout the five months since Parker’s death, my husband had been wearing that jacket every day; on his long drive to the office, during his lonely lunch hour walks, during 15 minute breaks hiding in his car in the underground parking lot, on that lonely, howling drive back home. By now, the leather was so speckled and discolored from tearstains, it looked like armadillo hide. A pockmarked hand-me-down from his dead son. A mourning uniform. An extra heavy skin for his skinlessness.

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As he stood there, I could see fresh stains on the chest of the jacket. They looked like cartoon exclamations – “Pow!” or “Bam!” – dark bullet holes all spiky round the ridges. Randall’s eyes were red, and he tugged the jacket around himself when he sat on the sofa, then held the letter in both hands, unable to read it to me.

I took the paper and saw it was from a valued friend, a person we respect and love, a good and devoted church associate from many years earlier, a person with whom Randall had been able to remain in contact despite all our geographic moves.

As Randall stared at the floor, I read the letter to myself. By the fourth sentence I knew why it had triggered tears and the feelings Randall would “have to talk through.”

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Our friend was writing with concerns. Some mutual associates had reported having seen Randall, and noted that Randall was “still quite sad.”

And so our friend felt to check in. And felt compelled to offer some advice.

I hear you’re still very sad, Randall, the letter began. So I feel a responsibility to ask: Are you praying? Reading your scriptures? Attending your church meetings? Have you tried fasting? When was the last time you attended the temple? Have you pondered on our Father’s plan of happiness?

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At this point in telling you this story, I’m already so uncomfortable, and realize I’m cornered. No matter how I continue here, I know I’ll sound petty or pouty or jerky or prickly or a dark shade of snarky.

So I’ll quick-edit to the sweet ending, three months later, when Randall and I just happened to run into this very friend at a large international conference. We’d long since folded up that letter and tucked it in a safe padded place in our hearts, but when I first sighted this friend from across the expansive hall teeming with people, there was the faintest smell of a burning memory, darn it, with its distant sizzle and tiny paisley swirls of smoke.

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I was recalling how Randall and I had coached each other through the compounded sorrow, reasoning that this friend must have written that letter with love and concern, maybe even desperation. This friend had probably seen others who, in the wake of tragedy, had lost their grasp on (or had pitched altogether) their faith. So our friend was intervening.

But this kind of intervention hurt. It hurt because the unsolicited counsel felt almost like a reprimand, particularly since we had been praying, reading, attending, fasting – doing all those things listed. What’s more, we’d being doing them not because anyone had prescribed them, but because our souls utterly craved them. We craved them with a wild feral hunger I find difficult if not impossible to describe.

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It was not the points themselves that were bad, of course. In fact, living in a way that draws you close to the Spirit is vital to strengthening the soul under the burden of grief. Vital as in a question of life and death, I’d say. No, it wasn’t the points. It was the dispensing of the points in that context that was not helpful. Because the implication was that our grief was incompatible with faith. How could we be sad – still sad – and still be faithful?

Or the reverse: How could anyone be faithful yet still be sad?

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What would have been a more helpful letter? Maybe something like this:

I hear you’re still very sad, Randall.
And of course you are. I’m still sad, too. Very, very sad.
Love, your broken-hearted friend.

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Randall thought many times of writing back to this friend, and was in fact in the process of doing so when we miraculously landed in the same building on a warm April afternoon.

In that big hall we met eyes, this friend and I, and I recognized right off that the look in that face across the room was one shadowed with something that looked like remorse. I, though, was smiling. Broadly. In a matter of seconds, my heart felt full and tender towards him. Who can explain it?

So where was my husband? I craned my neck to find Randall. He’d want to see this friend, I knew it.

“Honey!” (I blurted it too loudly for the setting,) “Randge, hon-ey!” (My heart was hopscotching and blowing shiny soap bubbles everywhere) “Look who’s here!”

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I corralled our friend through the crowd and right up behind Randall, who was talking with someone else, and when I whispered the friend’s name, Randall whipped right around. In an instant, their two faces simply melted.

“Please, Randall,” this friend said, head shaking, eyes cast downward, “I’m so sorry for that letter, so sorry for. . .I don’t blame you if you’re angry with me, I was so – “

“Angry? No, no. I love you.”

And I could see: My husband really meant it.

In the middle of the packed hall, the two embraced. Lots of folks were greeting and hugging in that hall, I couldn’t help but notice, but this hug right here was the most moving of all possible hugs.

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It was a genuinely golden moment.

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Yes, I know I’ve unfairly bungee-jumped the narrative from the hurt point A to the hug point Z. This is because between B and Y there’s a whole dense volume of soul-shifting and an expansion of understanding that would rip the seams out of a snug little blog.

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(I might refer you to Dostoyevsky, who can really get under the fingernails of forgiveness.)

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I can add this brief aside, though: Grief requires forgiveness. From the first minutes. And from all sides. And for many reasons. There’s no way around that truth.

**

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Some of us on the outside of a tragedy looking in on it might be afraid of the sheer magnitude of what we see. We think perhaps things will be better if we reduce the grief – diminish it – as we might with a three-year-old child overreacting to a stubbed toe. “There, there. You don’t need to cry. Now be a big boy, pull yourself together and go out and play again.”

Or we advise, and in advising we try to manage another’s grief, disallowing it for what it is.

Or we simply dismiss another’s agony, as in any of the following statements:

You know, it could’ve been worse
These things happen to everyone
I sent my daughter to college and it was so hard I almost died. I guess death is even worse?
I sent my son on a mission and it nearly killed me. Death must feel worse?
Well, at least he died as a baby. It would have been worse to get to know him
Remember you have to be strong
Don’t let your kids see you crying
At least you’ve got other children
Your grieving can distract your deceased from her mission
Don’t wallow; Don’t dwell on it
Buck up; Suck up
But separation is just for this life. . .
You’ll just have to. . .
I’m sure you’ll be okay. Just give it some time

(The word “just” sends the message of simplicity, smallness. Traumatic loss is neither simple nor small.)

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The above comments, I’ve concluded, are almost always rooted in misunderstanding.

So here is a brief note to stimulate understanding: If grief lasts more than X months or if it is neither tidy nor capable of putting on a happy face, is this a sign of moral or spiritual weakness? Is grief a sin? Is grief a sickness to be cured? Is it necessarily pathological?

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As a possible answer to those queries, I suggest that faith is not only entirely compatible with grief, but it can be that there in the depths of grief, there where you feel your bones ground into the roughest bedrock of grief’s valley, that faith can acquire greater density and a far brighter and more durable luminosity than you have ever before known.

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**

From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward

Mostly I have tried to avoid [grief] by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life had not fallen apart. But your life has fallen apart, the illusion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then you keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.
—A. Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 72, 73

One must grieve, and one must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief. One must refuse the easy escapes offered by habit and human tradition. The first and most common offerings of family and friends are always distractions (“Take her out”—“Get her away”— “change the scene”— “Bring in people to cheer her up”— “Don’t let her sit and mourn”) [when it is mourning one needs]).
—A. M. Lindbergh, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, 215

After great pain a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions—was it He, that bore?
And Yesterday—or Centuries before?
The Feet mechanical, go round—
Of ground or Air, or Ought,
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

—E. Dickinson, “The Hour of Lead,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 272

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When I try to take myself back to that time, to recall the terrible numbness that I lived in, I recoil in fear. I never want to go through anything like that again. Originally, these songs were never meant for publication or public consumption; they were just what I did to stop from going mad. . . .
When [“Tears in Heaven”] came out, it was the biggest-selling album of my entire career. . . . But if you want to know what it actually cost me, go to Ripley, and visit the grave of my son.

—Eric Clapton, Clapton: The Autobiography, 250, 254; Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor died when he fell from a fifty-third-story window in New York City.

Grief is not a hurdle that we jump over at will or a barrier that we can avoid if we are careful. After his wife’s death from cancer, C. S. Lewis recognized the all-encompassing reality of grief: “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” (A Grief Observed, 11).
—W. Simsic, Cries of the Heart, 10

My father told me, “Mother is sick, she went to the hospital and she died. That’s it—there is nothing more to say.” I was 13. He did not take me to the funeral, and I was not included as a mourner in any of the family’s rituals. As a teenager and as a young woman, I always experienced a sense of malaise for which I have no name, as I got older, I learned I was grieving for my mother. I found words for all the things I was feeling. When I finally asked my father about his behavior—he said that was the advice he was given, to simply carry on and not dwell on the loss.
—Thirty-five-year-old woman interviewed in Silverman, Never Too Young to Know, 9

Most bereaved children like to remember and talk about the deceased with friends and relatives. Unfortunately, there is a phenomenon called “the conspiracy of silence” that makes it difficult for others to talk about the dead person because they are afraid of hurting the bereaved’s feelings. The bereaved person, on the other hand, has hurt feelings when people won’t talk about the deceased with them.
—Erin Linn, 150 Facts About Grieving Children, 10

My brother came in and he said, “Ma died” and he just started crying. Then I started punching walls and stuff. I was punching all over the place. I broke one of the pictures in my room. I smashed it all over the place. I was mad. I just went around the house punching everything. Getting mad and freaking out, punching everything and just crying and stuff. I cried the whole night. I didn’t even sleep. I guess my father would have liked me not to be mad and stuff and punch things, but I couldn’t stop.
—A nine-year-old recalling his mother’s sudden death, interviewed in Phyllis R. Silverman, Never Too Young To Know, 85

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How do you survive as a couple? How did we work out our differences? We talked, we love each other, and we held each other and we began to appreciate that we were different. . . . Each of us was grieving on different levels. I was very sad at the beginning, and he was very rational. . . . When we went to bed, I would talk about my feelings so I could go to sleep—and then he would have it all and he couldn’t sleep. He got to the point where he said, “Don’t talk,” and then that would breed resentment in me. It was a while after Ellen died, but we got to a place where we could hear each other.

—Interviewed in Phyllis Silverman and Madelyn Kelly, A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children, 133

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Many people tried to make [our surviving daughter] feel responsible for Steve and me, counseled her to “take care of us” because our son had died and it was “so much worse” for us. I encouraged her to ignore this advice. . .
Yet I’ll never forget one thing she told me after many years had gone by. “I didn’t lose my brother but my parents; you were never the same after that. You got old.” That is absolutely the naked truth. Our home was broken in a way that could never be fixed or returned to the normal it was when Adam was alive. Gray hairs popped out where they hadn’t been any before. No matter how hard we all tried to be present with each other, the grief irrevocably created emotional chasms. Moments of closeness faded into the wall of pain we each had around us. Adam’s absence was huge.

—Merryl Webber, interviewed in Redfern and Gilbert, The Grieving Garden, 139

But why celebrate stoic tearlessness? Why insist on never outwarding the inward, when that inward is bleeding? Does enduring while crying not require as much strength as never crying? Must we always mask our suffering? May we not sometimes allow people to see and enter it? I mean, may men not do this?
And why is it so important to act strong? I have been graced with the strength to endure. But I have been assaulted, and in the assault wounded, grievously wounded. Am I to pretend otherwise? Wounds are ugly, I know. They repel. But must they always be swathed?
I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see
.
—N. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 26

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The tears came freely, and I did not attempt to refrain them when I was alone. Indeed, for over a year, there was no day I did not weep, and I did not find that tears cut me off from her. It was the tearless void that severed us at times.
––Sheldon Van Auken, A Severe Mercy, 182

Giving myself to grief proved to be hard as well as necessary. It happened in both spontaneous and intentional ways. I could not always determine the proper time and setting for tears, which occasionally came at unexpected and inconvenient moments, such as in the middle of a college class I was teaching or during a conversation. I was surprised to see how inoffensive that was to others. If anything, my display of grief invited them to mourn their own losses, and it made the expression of sorrow a normal and natural occurrence in daily life.
—G. Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 42

During one particular time of prayer, I was lying prostrate with my face on the floor. I had just said to the Lord, “Something new needs to happen here.” I meant it in terms of my relationship with God and with John-Paul [his son who died]. “I am tired of the grief, the heaviness, the loneliness, the longing, the ache in my heart.” Just then someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was my friend Ed Greey. He bent down and said, “Can I talk to you?”
I got up and followed him into the kitchen. Ed is a big, strong, man’s man kind of guy—camping, fly-fishing, a genius with his hands. He was crying. No, he was weeping intensely. He put his hands on my shoulders and said through his tears, “I don’t know what’s happening here. All I know is that God has given me a burden for you—I feel the weight of the grief and sorrow you’ve been carrying these months. And I think God wants me to tell you that he wants to lift it—the grief and the sorrow—and give you joy. And, Gregory, he wants you to know how much he loves you.”
That was it. There were the two of us, standing in the kitchen embracing one another and weeping. As I think of it I am reminded of an amazing line of poetry I heard years ago while driving in the car:
There must be men among us whom we can cry [with]
And still be counted as warriors.

—Gregory Floyd, A Grief Unveiled, 157–59

Lake Geneva as we descend to our home

Lake Geneva as we descend to our home

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

The Maasai and Rites of Passage

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Late in the afternoon of December 29th, 2011, the eve of our Dalton’s 16th birthday, together with our travel friends you just met in the last post, we were invited by Masenga Lukeine, our bilingual Maasai guide, to visit a local boma. Masenga himself has a simple but modern apartment in the big city, since he works during the weeks as a guide.  But weekends, he rushes back to his wife and child in their boma. To be at home there, he first changes his clothes, shifting a century or several, and sheds all his modern accoutrement.  What’s complicated, he explained to us, is that when he goes home to the boma, he has no place to put his things. No shelf for a cell phone. No cubby for his camera. Those things he has to leave in his 21st century home with its shelves built for private property, a concept so far removed from the Maasai culture.

Masenga Lukeina, our Maasai guide

Masenga Lukeine, our Maasai guide

“Boma” is Maa language for community/settlement, and Masenga wanted to take us to a boma lying between the Ngorongoro Crater (a 2,000 ft deep, 100 sq. mile large caldera—a virtual petri dish of African wildlife) and the borders of the Serengeti.

DSC_6416DSC_6417DSC_6448DSC_6461DSC_6488DSC_6504This area is what science calls “The Cradle of Humankind.”  Mankind is to have sprung here; the earliest signs of human life, in fact—dating back over 3.7 million years—have been discovered and preserved within miles of where our tents were pitched. Spending our son’s birthday (not to mention the birthday of the Son of God) in the “The Cradle of Humankind” felt significant to me, and in more than just a poetic kind of way.

But you see I’m already getting ahead of my story.
Let’s get back to the Maasai and their boma. . .

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The Maasai, as you probably already know, are a dominant tribe indigenous to eastern Africa. Nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai populate sizable swaths of Kenya and Tanzania where they herd cattle, (which they consider both sacred and theirs by divine right), sheep and goats, subsisting almost exclusively on their meat, milk and blood.

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For centuries, they have lived in polygamous clans governed by strict patriarchal rule, which weaves an iron clad fabric of social stratification. As a result, the boma is a formidably fortressed refuge from modernity.

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But it’s not an impenetrable fortress.  Generally, the Maasai feel endangered by modernity and its free market system (the governments of Kenya and Tanzania have acquired and zoned much of what the Maasai claim is their rightful land, moving them into areas similar to native American reservations), and in an effort to hedge against their culture’s subsequent instinction, the Maasai have had to maneuver inchwise into the free market.  They occasionally allow foreigners ––folks with cameras and computers and power to share the Maasai stories broadly the way I’m sharing them here –– to enter their settlements and observe their ways. What do we encroachers from the 21st century observe?  Besides gathering fantastic stuff for a photo essay, there’s much that should be apparent to you in a moment or so. . .

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When, that afternoon, our Jeeps approached the thorny acacia thistle hedge boundary of this particular boma of a dozen or so huts, the first to greet us was the boma’s senior chief, followed by men from all six ranks of elders including the young spear-carrying warriors.

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This Maasai boma, Masenga told us, had never before welcomed western visitors like us.  Their chiefs had been resistant to the idea, fearful that the odd, creamy-fleshed androids with light eyes and blonde hair, fitted pants with zips and buttons, and their bulky digital cameras slung around our necks like strange black calabashes would somehow appeal to their younger clan members, drawing them from their cultural obligations. Polluting them. They could not afford to lose the rising generation to the strange suction of the 21st century.

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Trailing Masenga, we came face-to-face with about four-dozen Maasai all draped in brilliant reds and blues, their distinguishing tribal colors. I smelled farm and only farm. I saw the stretched earlobes, the yellowed eyes, the perfectly round heads, and everywhere in adults (as I’d noticed with Masenga), the two missing lower and center teeth. They’d been removed in one of the many Maasai rites of passage, the childhood “maturation” ceremony. With a single jab of a blade. Without anesthetic. Or tears.

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And though everyone was swatting flies from their faces, I felt the clan’s regal bearing, their dignity.

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I’d done my research, of course. Their polygamy? Because of my Mormon pioneer heritage, I remotely comprehended it. But their resistance to educating their girls? I growled inside. And their bloody rites of passage, especially the cruel (and continuing and incomprehensible) enforcement of female circumcision performed, in many cases, in early childhood? My very bones groaned. Could these people see the indignation I was trying to hide behind my eyes? Could they see my reprehension, my judgment, my sorrow, my seething? And as important, could I see anything in their eyes but all that essential yet messy cultural packaging? Could I see into those eyes, past the unpalatable facts? Most importantly, could I see with their eyes into their world? Into my world?

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Old women. I eyed them. Young wives. I tightened my aperture. Several younger soon-to-be brides toting other mothers’ and sisters’ and aunts’ toddlers on their hips. I searched their faces, adjusted my focus, zeroed in on what lay behind their eyes. There, I thought I saw pluck, intensity, wisdom. There was something else I saw, but I couldn’t interpret it.  Was it resignation? Or contentment? Or was it familial pride? Fatigue? Fear? Hunger? I lacked everything to understand it, though I wished I could.

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These women, I was taught, were the sole architects and engineers of the physical boma itself. Twelve huts made of mud, sticks, cow dung and cow urine comprised this boma, and each was built and inhabited by a different wife.

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From each wife, as many children as physically possible, Masenga told me. A man’s identity was determined first by bravery, and then by the number of cows, wives and children he maintained. A woman’s identity was derived from a similar kind of bravery — toughness and grit—proved first by withstanding  circumcision with no tears, and then by maintaining the boma and all its inhabitants: house-building; wood-gathering; cow-milking; goat-slaughtering; hide-tanning; meal-preparing; child-bearing; child-burying; child-rearing. All such burdens were necessarily delegated among the several wives.

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And so there were many wives, (and many children, and many cows) in the boma, the former two wading in sandals or barefoot in the raw soupy manure of the latter. Stench and muck filled every walkable space.  I’d probably never survive a night there due to the bacteria alone.

But I’ll tell you, I wanted to try to.

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That initial visit (I was taking several pages of notes and was learning the Maa language for body parts) was cut short when Masenga rushed toward us. “The river is flooding. It’s over its banks,” he hissed, short of breath, wide-eyed. “And it’s getting higher every minute. We must leave now and drive very quickly.” I clasped the hands of the two young girls and the blind elderly man I’d been hunched closest to, the ones I’d hoped to interview with Masenga as translator, and I smiled a sad goodbye. I hurried off, notebook in hand. Some elders from the boma accompanied us for help.  They knew well what a flash flood could mean.

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That same river which had been hub-cap shallow a couple of hours earlier when we’d forded it on our way to this boma, was now too deep and swift for any Jeep to cross. Rains moved like great silent shadows on the distant horizon.  The formerly solid road before us was a total, gushing wash.

DSC_7159DSC_7162 Evening is heavy and lightless in the African wild, and soon, our headlights were the only source of illumination for miles. Albert, our driver, was on his radio with other guides in the region, trying to figure out an escape.  We were weaving along the river for an hour or more, trying without success to find a place to cross, our lights glinting off of the eyes of 50 or more head of migrating wildebeest and the occasional jackal or warthog.

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After running out of options, we knew we’d be stuck on the wrong side of the river until waters receded, which could be several hours.  Albert and Masenga were huddled, calmly conversing in Maa.

“Here are some blankets,” Albert offered us.

“There is no place to cross.  Please prepare the children to stay the night in the Jeep,” Masenga said, patting a plaid Maasai woolen throw.

“We might have drinks,”Albert turned to Randall, “But no food for dinner.”

Luc didn’t seem upset about much; “I think this is where you break out in one of your happy songs, Mom,” he said, the drama of the moment overriding his otherwise perpetual hunger.

“But what about crashing. . .” I  asked, looking first at Masenga, then Albert, then Randall, then at my fingertips so I looked casual “Crashing at . . . the boma?”

Everyone else, including and especially our two scientist friends, who were undoubtedly calculating our lack of resistance to the boma’s wealth of bacteria–everyone else seemed, oh, I don’t know, somewhat less enthusiastic.

Nonetheless. . .

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Our Jeep’s low beams framed the boney outline of the familiar thistle hedge, and from the utter darkness of a corner hut emerged a few dark faces, children I recognized from our daylight visit. Within minutes we were completely surrounded by our Maasai friends, and soon the entire boma and the neighboring boma, too, spilled out into the diffuse pool of headlights. Children’s bright eyes circled us in the darkness. Their teeth filled their smiles and their smiles filled their faces and their faces filled the night and before we knew it, music filled the air.

We had LDS Primary songs going from atop the Jeep, (imagine a throng of Maasai kids in a chorus of “Do As I’m Doing”), the whole time warm heads nuzzled up to our ribs, small black hands reached and clasped, stroking our shockingly white arms.

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The flash of Luc’s Life Is Good T-shirt raced past, chased by a gaggle of boys, naked arms flailing, bare torsos cloaked in reds and blues. A cloud of laughter and giggling gibberish floated into the sky.

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From within a Jeep, Dalton introduced Peek-a-Boo, leaving a symmetrical series of nostril fog smudges on every window, and when that grew old, he and Luc drew an audience with a round of beat-boxing. The Maasai caught right on.

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Then our brilliant scientist friend explained the mysterious amusement that was his digital camera. From where I stood, it looked like he was unveiling the arc of the covenant. Its radiance lit up the faces of a pressing crowd of kids, who seemed transfixed as this bearded man with hair the color of cinders narrated, in his strange tongue, “Our Family’s Year in Pictures.” He spoke louder and louder until he was practically barking, a surefire way to make yourself understood in your tongue when speaking to those who don’t speak a lick of it, by the way.
The crescent of unblinking eyes locked on the shining images.
“And this is our skin cancer clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah! Uuuuuuu. Taaaaah.”
“And this is snow. SNOW. White and cold. COLD. Do you know cold?”
“And this is Yosemite. YO. SEH. MEH. TEEEEE.”

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It was right about then that from the darkest part of the darkness and coming behind me, warriors filed in with their spears, coiling into a circle. Their bodies pulsated, the points of their spears rode up and down as they breathed their low, monotone chants. Two young women took me by each arm and led me, singing along with their piercing wails, into the spiral. One slipped two of her bracelets, green and red, onto my wrist. The other girl took the broad, ornate beaded neck disc from her mother who was dancing nearby, lifted my hair, and fastened the collar around my neck. Some surrounding women, stroking my long hair, (I was a freak, I’m sure), tried to teach me how to make the disc roll and rock up and down to my chanting and the awkward flapping rhythm of my shoulders.

(Just a note: White girls can’t flap.)

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I couldn’t flap, but I could belt, and right then I cut loose, wearing my vocal chords raw, while I wailed a string of their sounds to the moon. It came from the soles of my feet, this wholly joyous wave of celebration, this unison movement and exultation, this mix of darkness and light, fear and belonging, awkwardness and fluidity.
I glanced to the left to see Dalton in his kelly green T-shirt next to what we figured was an albino Maasai, kept shielded in daylight from the severe African sun. The albino and then my son sidled up next to me. “Mom, someone’s got to be here to hold you back.

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Next to Dalton was the tallest, lankiest of all the warriors, who soon pulled Dalton right into the center of the circle, shoved a spear into his hand, and with less than a nod and a half-smile, motioned that he should jump.

Jump.

The famous Maasai vertical jump.

The legendary initiation jump.

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Hours later, right up to midnight, we were still jumping. And singing.  And sweating.  All of us.

Until Albert and Masenga got word by radio that there was now one spot in the river low enough to try to cross, although it could be dangerous. We left our Maasai friends with their two or three live torches and their hours yet to go, I guessed, of dancing.  We drove to the river.

I have no shots of that moment when our Jeep went nose deep, headlights under water level into the river, churgeling and gruggling and shlushing up onto the other bank.  A cheer exploded into the crisp night sky, everyone whooped and high-fived and then we waited, holding our breath, on the other side until the trailing Jeep followed suit.

And everyone cheered.

Except, really, me. I fingered my two bracelets listening to their delicate clink – one red, one yellowish green– and turned back to look over my shoulder to see something, I don’t know what.  I smelled the biting acrid residue of the boma still in my hair.  It lingered in me like that for the next couple of days.

Nearly one year since that night, those bracelets sit on a clean white shelf.  Unlike Masenga and the girl who gifted me these, I have more than plenty of places to put my possessions.  The shelf is behind my big soft bed with its several pillows, a pearly landscape of white and silver embroidered linens. Outside the world is plush and pristine. It’s Swiss, after all, well-fed and nearly antiseptic. The cows in this season don’t need their fancy neck bells, bells that make a beautiful but somehow hollow sound compared with the clink-clink of two Maasai bracelets whose owner I left but have never forgotten since I passed in the night over a swollen river.

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