How Will You Compose Your Life?

Forty-eight hours after a technician turned off our son’s life support, my husband and I found ourselves going through the two suitcases and one backpack that contained virtually all of his earthly belongings. Basketball shoes, a navy parka, a half-empty tube of toothpaste, t-shirts, a folded print-out of his university classes for that summer term, some Polaroid photos of the one week he’d had on campus. On our knees and speechless, we fingered through sacred debris while alternately holding in and letting flow stinging streams of disbelief.

In Global Mom: A Memoir, I describe the moment:

A nice woman had gone to Parker’s dormitory and packed all he’d had in his room. Late one night, we’d sat, Randall and I, on someone’s living room floor in that university town, sifting through those things: his journals and class notes (his handwriting); his wallet; a Post-It with “remember to call Kevin”—simple, chest-crushing tidbits. A bitter, obliterating treasure hunt. His laminated student ID with its unwitting, wide-open smile. I’d clasped it ferociously to my heart.

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In an outside pocket of Parker’s backpack, we found a notebook with “Religion” and “Life” written on the cover.  “I just wonder what…” Randall’s voice receded as he opened to the single page of scant notes from this class Parker had attended during his first (and only) week at university. There, in green felt tip was this heading:

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“What do we take back through the veil?”

Not your usual question, even for a religion class. And certainly not typical for an eighteen-year-old college freshman whose wide eyes were riveted on a future chockfull of promise and invulnerability. He had all those pages to fill, after all, his whole life story to write.

Those pages. How they gawked at me, empty and echoing, void of my child’s voice. I had to grit my teeth to hold in a yowling tornado of agony as I imagined our son, robust and buoyant, jotting down those words so casually. I could envision him chatting in class, (“Parker, you raised your hand. Any thoughts?”), yakking away about death-as-theory. Then he would be slapping the notebook shut, slipping it into a backpack, and slinging its weight over his shoulder. Off to meet death head on.

The ink had hardly dried on the page before death itself answered this question for Parker.

What did that answer look like? What remained of Parker after he was pinned for several minutes in a lethal whirlpool, knocked out under water, then flushed out head first over jagged lava rock waterfalls? Anything? Did oblivion claim him?

If Not Oblivion, What?

Let’s try to imagine the possibilities. Did something endlessly him transcend flesh and bones, homeostasis, neurotransmission? Did this essential self, his spirit, peel from his oxygen-deprived body which was dragged by students to a patch of waterside gravel? Did spirit-Parker watch students encircling his body as they screamed, “Don’t leave us, Parker! Come back, Parker!”

Could his immortal identity, his distinct self, have been totally present and brightly aware of the paramedics panting as they attempted and reattempted CPR, barking, “Compressions! Keep on the compressions!” Did he see the local hospital emergency nurses hold those defibrillators to his chest again and again and again, then give shots of epinephrine? Was he present as the life flight pilots settled their helicopter on the landing pad then rushed his gray-blue body on that gurney into the regional trauma center? As his mother knelt, groaning, at the side of his body in the ICU? As his father bent over his firstborn’s feet and held them, praying? As his sister and soul mate touched his forearm then folded into sobs? As one younger brother stared in shock and the youngest huddled in the arms of a friend in a hallway? As the classmate, the one Parker had risked his life trying to save from drowning, was ushered into the room?

During a day and a half of coma, was whatever constitutes the inextinguishable Parker somehow close at hand? At the moment the doctor pronounced him brain dead did Parker hear those words? And as the ventilator’s whoosh was silenced, did my son communicate to some of us around his gurney, “I am here. I will always be right here”?

My point is not to convince anyone of what for me is self-evident; that Parker (and you and I) are immortal beings.  I don’t need to take on Nietzsche, Camus, Hawking, the long list of nihilists, or the even longer list of neutralists, the ones who shrug and chuckle, saying, “Es ist noch niemand zurückgekommen.” (No one’s come back yet.)

My point, instead, is to explore one thing: To what extent might that green question change our lives?

One True Sentence

What if that question were our life thesis, influencing our desires, choices, behavior? What if, as I wrote my life story, I were to place that question as my thesis statement? Right there on page one and in neon green?

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Hemingway, referring to writing, called this kind of guiding idea the “one true sentence.” It structures creation, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. When applied to writing our life story, that “one true sentence” works as an underlying grammar or fusing phrase for all we do and are. It is our mantra.

I mentioned this in another blog entry:

If my life’s aim were reduced to “one true sentence,” as Mr. Hemingway said breeds the best writing, what would that sentence be? And how does that one truth, that driving thesis, move me through my days and weeks? Does that sentence —spare, compact, sleek— train my concentration, make my life coherent, single-themed, resonant with integrity?

I like “What will you take through the veil?” because it is an instant sifter. It separates the significant from the trivial. It boldfaces what is lastingly essential and fades what is not. So much of what gets my goat (not to mention my time, energy, money, focus) is frivolous; too much of what is truly durable, sadly, gets short shrift. That question, if internalized, winnows away distractions, and slackens the sweaty grip of temporality, materialism, self-absorption, greed, despair –– so many ills. It even undoes the deadening choke of nihilism.

As another bereaved mother and author says:

The pain of losing my child was a cleansing experience. I had to throw overboard all excess baggage and keep only what is essential. Because of Paula, I don’t cling to anything anymore. Now I like to give much more than to receive. I am happier when I love than when I am loved. I adore my husband, my son, my grandchildren, my mother, my dog, and frankly I don’t know if they even like me. But who cares? Loving them is my joy.

Give, give, give — what is the point of having experience, knowledge or talent if I don’t give it away? Of having stories if I don’t tell them to others? Of having wealth if I don’t share it? I don’t intend to be cremated with any of it! It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world and with the divine.

It is in giving that I feel the spirit of my daughter inside me, like a soft presence.

…My daughter Paula taught me a lesson that is now my mantra: You only have what you give.

-Isabel Allende

 

Think about it: How challenging yet how refining to write one’s life story based on the conviction that what remains with us at death is that which we have given. That by sharing our experience, knowledge, talents, stories,  wealth –– even our whole selves –– we don’t just become one with others, the world, and the divine, but we ourselves become people who are bigger, richer, more fundamentally alive. Simply put, there is much more to us when we die.

And that’s what it means for us. What does it mean for Parker?

I think it means that at the age of eighteen years and five months, and on a summer evening in his first week of university, in a canal with an unmarked, deadly whirlpool, he went back in the vortex twice to free a fellow student who was trapped and drowning. And he did not lose life.

He gave it. He gave it and he has it more than ever, even now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Deceased Son’s Answer to What It’s All About

photo (2)Headstone still fresh on his grave, my eldest son showed up in the middle of the night with the key to the meaning of life. In this dream where Parker appeared, I was guiding my three surviving children through a city I knew well. It was evening, I was sad and wrung out and felt pressed to get to my car, to get back home.

Suddenly behind me I heard my youngest, Luc, (seven years old at the time), squealing like a newborn. Call it my Mother Bear, call it my short fuse, I swung around to snap the head off of whomever was bugging my boy.

The instant I spun, lip curled and neck tensed to snarl, instead of a “Hey! Cut it out!”, I snagged on the “ow” of “out” and gasped. There, in shorts and his favorite blue t-shirt with his trademark cropped hair was 18-year-old Parker, as unscathed as the last time I’d seen him alive, the day before he died.

He was playfully dangling his youngest brother over a trash can.

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Luc on Parker’s shoulders.

You know that full body-and-soul whiplash that yanks you from nearly biting through someone’s jugular to buckling to your knees and kissing their feet? Melting, I lunged toward Parker, and he, (with a look that said, “Oh, Mom, you know I was just kidding around,”) handed his little brother to his sister and reached for me.

His shoulders were familiar, as was his smell. Desperate, I pled, “Tell me, honey. Tell me everything you’ve learned.”

He pulled back a bit. That mini freckle on his nose. That scar on his eyebrow. That one steely fleck in his right iris. It was my child’s face, only seasoned. Slower.

I waited for words.

Bending down, he whispered, “This is it,” and he took a small breath. He searched my eyes, then:

“Every relationship is to bring us to God.”  

I strained.

He stared.

“That’s … that’s it?” I gaped, “There’s nothing more? Nothing else?”

His soft eyes remained fixed.

And the dream closed.

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The boys, July 2007

Every Relationship Is to Bring Us to God

Since that dream it’s been my mantra. And like most mantras, it slips out too slickly, sounds cliché, yet has more layers than the Himalayas, more depth than the trenches of the Pacific. It risks oversimplification, and yet it will take my whole life to comprehend. But here’s how I’ve broken it down up to now:

Every relationship.

Every.

This means the obvious: all my bona fide biological ties, my family. Then my family through marriage. Then my besties, my closest friends. Then all ranks of associates and regular contacts like teachers, students, classmates, work colleagues, teammates, neighbors, congregation members, parents of my children’s friends, the lady who delivers my mail on her yellow bike even in the snow and rain, the commuters who share my daily ride on the bus, the blue-haired widow who waves as she walks her Dachshund past my window evenings at eight.

All are people with whom I share different degrees of blood and intimacy, experience and history, all people with whom I share space, time, ideas, efforts. All people with whom I share myself and who share with me something of themselves.

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Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, and Iranian German Students

Family, Friends, Strangers, Followers, Foes

Everyone.

In addition to these ^ relationships, there are interactions with those I meet sporadically or even just once. Like the guy loading my mulch on a cart at the garden store. And the lady who cut me off on the freeway exit ramp this morning. Or the infant who cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the parent who slept with his headphones on while his infant cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the crew on that flight. The passengers on every side. The pilot, whom I never saw and who never heard the infant, but whose voice we all heard and whom I trusted to take me “cruising safely at 37,000 feet.”

I interact, most of the time mindlessly, with all of them.

Then there are those I’ve never actually met, but with whom I’ve had some sort of fleeting or superficial interchange. The rabid politician in the news, the celebrity whose fifth marriage is material for a trash mag I leafed through at the doctor’s office, the musician whose song I wail along with in the car.

And the virtual relationships, the FB acquaintances, Instagram posters, Twitter commenters. Blog followers.

And the people on either end of history; my ancestors, my progeny.

Or people on either side of the globe; my countrymen, my political foes.

Relationships. Every last one.

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Every Relationship Brings Us To …

All this social interaction, all this mortal jumble? It’s more than learning about teamwork, or an effective way to get stuff done. And it’s also more than learning tolerance and compassion and patience with crying infants and drivers on the Autobahn.

“Every relationship is to bring us to God,” maybe, has to do with this:

Author Toni Morrison, in an interview, remembered having been the young mother who, when her kids walked into the room, scanned them up and down looking for faults. She’d be thinking, Tuck in your shirt, or Comb your hair. She felt that her critical stance meant she was caring for them, which I get only too well. It is what I was doing in my dream when I wanted to ream out the thug behind me who was, I thought, evidently hurting my youngest child. I was set for censoring.

Morrison then offered another approach. She said, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says ‘I’m glad to see you’. It’s just as small as that.”

There Are No Neutral Interactions

An approving glance. An encouraging smile. A forgiving shrug. A step forward. A brave nod. This is how we move ourselves and others toward the best in humanity and toward deity.

A whispered judgment. A punishing glare. A jealous glower. A turned back. A swift dismissal. A spin around to bite through a jugular. This is how we move ourselves and others away from each other, away from divinity.

What if I were to enter all my social encounters not perched to swoop in with criticism, or stiffened behind all sorts of false boundaries (like a difference in race, religion, political grouping, jealousy, shame, whatever), but poised, instead, radiating one primary thought: “I am glad to see you”?

I believe it would change me, the other person, the encounter, everything.

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I know.  You’re saying, “I’m glad to see you” is easy when you really are glad to see someone. And in my case in the dream I was more than glad. I was unzipped, liquefied with love and longing for my son.  Let me say the obvious: when there’s been no bad blood, and you see your absent beloved again, every minor critique you might have stockpiled during mortality vanishes in the hot flash flood of love.

But what about all the other relationships? What about most of them, the ones that exact superhuman effort from us? The ones where we’d rather say, “I’m glad to see you … go“?

That’s where Parker’s advice really gets traction. While most great mythic traditions and even modern pop spirituality claim God is found above and outside of the messiness of human interaction, maybe while sitting solo and contemplating a snowflake from atop a lone peak, I’m saying that God is found in the trenches. God is down here in the grit. God’s in the mix.

And so, too, say the experts. Harvard professor Michael Puett comments on what ancient Chinese philosophers would think about modernity’s going–it-solo attitude, and why our personal relationships are what mortality is all about:

They [Chinese ancients] saw each of us bumping up against other messy creatures all day long. This is what it means to be on this earth: our lives are composed almost entirely of the relationships we have with those around us.

 For most of us, those relationships aren’t easy. [Can I get an amen?] That’s because, as these philosophers understood well, as we endlessly bump up against each other, loving one another, trying to get along, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior. We react in the same predictable ways. Encounters with people draw out a variety of emotions and reactions from us: One sort of comment will almost invariably draw out feelings of anger, while a certain gesture from someone else might elicit a feeling of calm. Our days are spent being passively pulled in one direction or another depending on who we encounter or what situations we are in. Worse still, these passive reactions have a cascading effect. We react even to the subtlest signals from those around us. A smile or a frown on a passerby can cause a slight change in our mood in an instant. The reactive patterns we get stuck in — sometimes good, but more often, bad — ripple outward and affect others too.

In other words, there are no neutral interactions. All of our actions and reactions send vibrations into a vast webwork that either brings us and others to God (or to wholeness, light, love, healing, The Source of All Meaning, whatever you call The Best Thing You Dare Imagine), or drives us and others from the same. Every thinkable link I have to every last human being plays not just a part in how I grow and experience meaning and joy, but adds in some (major or infinitesimal) way to others’ wellbeing. And that truth is why relationships are what it’s all about, and why they are at once so infuriatingly hard while being so immeasurably valuable.

Every Relationship Brings Us to an Understanding of God

Yes, there are those few relationships that flourish without a lot of effort, and therewith offer a glimpse of what godliness might feel like. But more often relationships are plain old spiritual work. They grate on us. Leave us blistered. There are those, too –– and we’ve all had them––that don’t just pumice us. They skin us alive.

And how do those relationships bring us to God? In my experience, they bring us to an understanding of God’s nature. They let us learn of Him.

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Him. Let me take license and talk specifically for a moment about the God I worship. The Being I strive to comprehend and hope to emulate responded majestically in all relationships, but particularly in the most injurious ones. Herod, Pilate, Judas, Peter, Roman centurions, mocking Sanhedrin, ungrateful lepers, and the centuries’ long saga of modern scoffers and arrogant erudites –– before them all and for them all Jesus Christ stands blameless. No figure in history, no God of any other myth possesses the dignity, selfless love and self-mastery in human relations that Christ embodies. No other being I know of has not only withstood betrayal, exploitation, usury, abandonment, cruelty and hidden agendas but has gone so far as to absorb abuse in all its forms and transform those evils into healing for all, including the abusers.

Like everyone, I’ve known a small portion of those injuries I just listed. When I have, (like recently, when a close friendship took a turn I never expected into an unmarked dead end), I had to fight to muzzle my Mother Bear, retract my claws, and swallow my snarls.

And right then, in rushed Parker’s words. They helped me breathe through what felt to me like lovelessness directed at me and my family, but just as important, they showed me how far I am from mastering The Master’s manner in response to hurt and betrayal.

What have I learned, then, from what my son taught me in a dream?

That all relationships –– including the ones we might have to step out of for everyone’s wellbeing –– are gifts that help us approach God.  By reflecting on His exquisite response to even the ugliest human tendencies (others’ and our own), we see how far we mortals are from His standard of loving-kindness and perfect compassion. In the end, then, every relationship brings us not only to God, but also to the God within each of us.

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(Portrait: Courtesy of Jennifer Quinton ©)

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What do you think? Which relationships have taught you the most? Tried you the most? Are those two kinds of relationships one and the same?

What have your best and richest relationships taught you?

Taking the definition of “relationships” a step further, what other interconnections besides those with humans “bring us to God”?

And to the basics: What does “bring us to God” mean to you?

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

 

 

 

8 Principles for a Strong Marriage: What I Learned on the Death Strip

Sometime in my late twenties, in the first years of our now 30-year marriage, and somewhere on a lethal length of highway locals call the Levan Death Strip, I learned everything I need to know about marriage. The learning came in a dream. In it I’ve identified eight principles everyone can use for a better union.

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The Dream

My husband Randall and I are driving through central Utah’s high mountain desert along an endless, arid highway known as the Levan Death Strip. “Death”,  partly because there’s nothing on the landscape but tumbleweed and dust devils, but mostly because it’s one of the deadliest stretches of road in the state. Semi-trailers and careening motorcycles,  rusted out 1973 Chevy Impalas, and cattle trucks meet head on at high speeds here, exploding the desert silence with the hellish sound of detonating metal and glass.

As I was saying, Randall is driving. I’m sitting shotgun, my eyes on the map. Straight ahead is this hypnotizing strip stretched taut as if it were a towing rope attached to the hood ornament on our car and at the other end to the setting sun, which shimmers on a ridge patiently drumming its fingered rays across the horizon.

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Suddenly, the sky goes dark. In the space of one breath, daylight is swallowed up in a black tide that thickens, obscuring everything round us, three-hundred-sixty-degrees of palpable heavy.

Barely ahead I make out the blinking orange of some tail lights. There had been cars far, far ahead of us a few minutes ago and now they appear closer, having slowed to a crawl. Everything inches, struggles, lurches. Then stops.

We stop too, on the left side of the road. No discussion, no way to move ahead, not only because we can’t see, but because this heavy has body. Some sort of gelatinous, clinging, viscous weight that is cold and lifeless touches my skin when I step out of the car and creep, hand-over-hand along the car’s right side, palming the hood, then patting my way to the driver’s door out of which Randall emerges.

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We say nothing even though I open my mouth and try to push noise up from my throat. The sound waves don’t travel through this new quality of air, so no use calling out. No use, even, trying to whisper to Randall, at whose left side I now stand, right arm linked with his left, pushed up against him, drawing warmth and reassurance.

By the cars parked up the road there’s a faint outline of people. They’re shuffling in this serious, deadly quiet.  Now the Heavy coagulates and I can make out neither people nor the tail lights that had just been visible in front of us. Randall and I stand in silence, fused that way, totally, existentially alone.

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With no way to judge distance but by the length of our stride, no way to converse, and no way to get our bearings, we simply hold on to each other. I can feel the swelling and contracting of his breathing. We fall in sync.

At the driver’s side of the car, on the left edge of the highway, we begin moving, inching. Walking is a must; something tells us standing still will mean death. So we cling to one another––I on Randall’s left, toeing the edge of the road so we don’t slide off into the shoulder; Randall to my right, initiating every step forward into the darkness.

It’s here, engulfed in heavy murk, that we lean onto each other, pressing. There is a symbiotic, synergistic friction that generates heat and not only keeps us on track and moving forward, but holds us up.

Many dream-time minutes into creeping forward and I turn, straining to see my husband’s face just inches from mine. But I can only make out that he’s wearing a suit. And there are sparks scattered on that suit. Little fine embers seem to be falling onto (or is it emerging from? I can’t tell which), the fabric. Afraid they’ll make his suit combust, I start swatting and then slapping these sparks.

Strangely, the sparks give just enough light to help us push ahead, which I sense we do long after my actual dream ends.

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1. Road

The journey you’ve envisioned on the outset of your marriage as a tidy, well-lit straight line to infinity? Not. Life is neither tidy nor straight, nor is it necessarily well-lit. See up there, a couple of hundred meters ahead where the mirage makes the road look swimmy? That’s where the beeline disappears, giving way –– again and again –– to the reality of the changeable and unexpected.

Know now that this will happen and you won’t self destruct when life doesn’t go to plan.

2. Vehicle

Start together. Stay in together. Sure, we can also chose to have our individual cars where we’re free to listen to our own playlists, eat our stinky beef jerky, and go at our speed. We can select our solo routes and stop at our preferred points of interest at will. How convenient is that? Saves us from compromising our plans and preferences with another person’s, right?

But the whole point is to travel as a team, which means compromise over convenience, sitting elbow-to-elbow, someone driving , someone reading the map, beef jerky that side, dried sea kelp my side. It’s of little consequence, by the way, who’s driving, who’s navigating; both functions are equally necessary and of course interchangeable, because in my dream, we are both licensed, alert, and invested in the trip, our individual contributions therefore essential for the voyage.

Know now that your marriage is the vehicle that does not just get you to a destination, but will test your capacity to place compromise and commitment over convenience, sharing responsibilities and whatever arises on the route.

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3. Map

You’ve noticed: maps help. (And GPS is better.) But only when you can see a road. What when you can’t? That’s where the strength of your partnership kicks in and you must gingerly feel your way together, into the future.

As a newlywed couple we found marriage mentors––living guidebooks, maps––folks ahead of us in life who modeled how it could all be done well. But roads change, and so travel plans. We, for instance, started out determined to be tandem university professors. Some years into marriage, however, both of us decided not to do our PhDs. Instead, we took a different route, or better, several end-to-end alternate routes.

Know now that maps must be pliable plots, not strict strategies.

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4. Darkness

Midway along our route tragedy hit and the bright desert daylight was instantly choked with the ultimate heavy. In one stroke of fate, and in the middle of major international move when our stability was already compromised, we lost our eldest child, then 18, to a gruesome water accident.

It’s then we learned that darkness had texture, heft. At any moment the Heavy can hit and swallow up our sunny route. Loss of all sorts, not just the dramatic blow we have known, can change virtually everything in an instant. Struggles with illness both physical and mental, addictions, a partner’s or child’s illicit behavior, unemployment, and larger societal events (war, economic downturn, natural disaster, etc.) or a combination of any of the above, might be our dark tide.

Know now that darkness not only might happen, but it will. When it hits, your marriage can remain intact and even grow stronger, becoming the very thing that helps you individually and as a family to survive.

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5. Soft Shoulders

You know those signs that warn motorists of soft shoulders off the sides of the road? In Tanzania I once witnessed what happens when they are ignored. A public bus over-crammed with passengers, their goats and chickens and baskets of market goods dangling out the windows, tried to overtake a stalled vehicle by driving onto the soft shoulder. The moment the bus’s two left wheels were off the asphalt and on the soil, the bus began sinking, then teetered, then toppled over on its side. Screaming, crushed adults and children, yowling and fluttering livestock were the soundtrack I can never erase from my memory.

Know now that soft shoulders are everywhere and anyone can slip more easily than you might imagine. And when darkness sweeps in and disorients you threatening to drive you off your route or from each other, it is especially important to toe that edge, reminding yourself to push inward toward your partner and away from the soft shoulder.

6. Synergistic Support

Although my strong inclination toward rule keeping meant I sensed limits well with my left foot, I was afraid to move forward into the darkness. I kept pulling backward. Behind felt safer than ahead, and I recoiled from whatever was out there in that pitch black mass. In real life, too, part of me wants to retreat from the unknown because I lack confidence in my ability to conquer difficult and intimidating situations. Randall, on the other hand, doesn’t obsess over worst case scenarios and forges forward.

Know now that progression in marriage requires both staying out of dangerous soft shoulders and pressing forward into the unknown. When you and your partner are pressing inward, toward each other, the isometric pressure not only propels you forward but actually gives you energy and helps you to stay standing.

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7. Sparks

When I first interpreted this dream, I saw those sparks on Randall’s suit as trouble coming from the outside. My job was to beat that trouble down. Part of a strong partnership is being alert and sensitive to our mate’s vulnerabilities and doing what we can to keep our partner safe. Of course my message is not to feel excessively guilty when a beloved plays with fire, so to speak, because of course we’re all responsible for our own decisions and behaviors. But I’ve observed the strongest couples try vigilantly to protect one another from trouble.

Loving each other means attending to each other, helping keep one another safe and well. We can do so by staying extremely close and watching for signs that something is smoldering. Does your wife struggle with anxiety? Does your husband have addictive tendencies? Does she fly easily into a rage? Does he slump regularly into a depression? Is she on the professional road a lot where she could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Does he work a lot on the Internet where he could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Then you do everything you can to strengthen them for those situations where they might fall into trouble.

Know now that everyone has weaknesses and everyone is susceptible to temptations or attacks on their virtue and morals. Know now that central to loving our spouse is not only having their specific sparks at heart, but to help beat them back before they take flame.

8. Or … Sparks

And here is the most important portion of the dream. Because at 20+ years into marriage I found that my former interpretation of it, which you just read, and therefore my paradigm for marriage, had changed. Where I’d previously seen myself as the safe-keeper, the border patrol, the ever ready spark-slapper,  now I saw those sparks differently.

What if those sparks I’d been slapping at weren’t signs of danger? What if they were something else? What if those sparks –- what I’d thought were temptations, fiery darts –– weren’t flying at my partner but those sparks are actually emerging from him? What if they weren’t bad fire but good, even flecks of hot gold? Not trouble but promise? Not hints of weakness but signs of power? I thought, “What if those sparks are searing heat and power literally bursting out of Randall, and I, in my hyper-attentiveness and self-righteousness am beating them down, beating him down, extinguishing a light, extinguishing him?”

What then?

There are so many ways we can extinguish the light in others. We think we are being care givers and life coaches, but in over-critiquing, in hyper-patroling, we can become nit-pickers,  fault-finders, nay-sayers. We can also hold each other back in our jealousy and insecurity when we permit our own fears, self doubts, and insecurities (we all have them) to breed that nervous reflex that lashes out –– slap! –– disallowing others to simply be who they are, to shine, even brilliantly.

We assuage things by saying we’re just being honest, when we actually end up beating that person back, or beating her up. We slap out another’s light by refusing to forgive, holding a grudge, keeping score, playing tit-for-tat. We can engage in power plays, we can belittle, we can even discredit our own beloveds in slanderous gossip. We might play politics, demanding equality at every turn, not interdependency as an overarching guide, saying, in essence, “Well, if I can’t have those sparks, then neither can you!”

When this new marriage paradigm came to me, I have to tell you: I wept. How many years had I focused on potential faults in my husband and not on the promising strengths? How many opportunities had I missed to praise him, to celebrate in his light, to see his radiance increase?

Know now that even in purely selfish terms, you are the prime beneficiary when your partner glows. Indeed, we all benefit when anyone glows!  You’ll remember: those sparks on Randall’s suit gave us both just enough illumination to light our way through a world of complete darkness.

When we make it through this heavy passage together––and I trust we all will–– then it will certainly be by virtue of all this unsmothered, heat-generating, God-given mutual incandescence.

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Global Mom (and Dad) Hit Harvard

Pardon this interruption for a quick public service announcement.

What: Melissa (Global Mom, author, public speaker) and Randall (Global Dad, international global executive, best all around guy) address the topic:

GLOBALLY MOBILE CAREERS AND FAMILIES: HOW TO THRIVE

randge mel red rock

Where: Harvard Business School, (Aldrich 107), Boston, MA.

When:  Wednesday, April 27th, beginning at 8 pm … and lasting until they drag us away

What else? Question and Answer session

What kinds of questions?

  1. Does going on an international assignment help advance or progress your career faster? Or is “out of sight, out of mind” the rule at corporate headquarters?
  2. How did your four children respond to moving not only frequently, but far and always into foreign languages/cultures?
  3. Melissa, what did it feel like to be solo parenting four children in foreign cultures while your husband traveled internationally or even lived/worked in another country for many months on end?
  4. Randall,what was the hardest part about being separated from your wife and children, and what did you do wen you returned to help both the family and yourself rediscover balance?
  5. What specific things did you do as a family to hold together after the tragic death of  your eldest son in the middle of an international move and while living a foreign  country?
  6. What lessons have you learned from other cultures about balancing careers, marriage, and parenting?
  7. What warnings (or enticements) would you offer young professionals considering globally mobile careers?

And whatever else YOU want to ask. We’ve never met a question we didn’t like.

 

Admission is free. We hope to see you and your friends there!

 

 

 

More Digital Safety: When Your Flood is a Leak

Not all damage to our house originated at an external source, and not all of it came from what could be called a “flood.” We found an internal leak.

Somewhere in the middle of ripping out the bathroom, the workers found within the walls of the house itself fissures in pipes. Slow, steady, trickling at a rate that could cover the floor in under a minute’s time, water was entering the house behind its own walls. Experts who assessed the problem told me those leaks alone could have filled up a basement in a matter of hours, maybe a day. Which is why, in spite of having stanched the outdoor leak, having run industrial fans for weeks on end, and having essentially stripped the basement to the bone, things remained soggy.

Sometimes, know what? Grrrrrrrr.

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So back to our metaphor pointing to digital safety: As a parent, you’re lucky if you can identify the immediate source of digital danger. Your child tells you she has been cyber-bullied. You search the computer history and find a link to a porn site. You trace what seems at first blush like an innocent conversation between your twelve-year-old and an online pen pal, only to find the trail leads to a lewd chat room and a sexual predator, a stalker. Lucky you: at least you’ve pinpointed the source of your flood.

But the truth is that the digital world makes for more leaks than for sudden, discernible floods. Digital information is running throughout our walls all the time — through ceilings and floors, through our fingers, across our laps. This is why it is absolutely critical that parents, teachers, and other adult role models are alert, savvy, and totally engaged in directing kids toward wise digital citizenship.

hartschools.net

hartschools.net

In other words, parents have to be there. By that I don’t necessarily mean literally sitting elbow-to-elbow every time little Hannah switches on her gadget, or little Milton flips open the family laptop. Although, hmm, in the earliest years, why not? I’d suggest you be physically close-at- hand discussing, directing, and modeling responsible cyber presence. You do that just like you do when Hannah memorizes her multiplication tables and Milton practices his arpeggios on the cello. You are near, encouraging, talking it through, sharing the experience.

As children grow older, being there means being interested in, communicative about, and up-to-date on what is happening in the world your child is navigating. I mean being actively alert, not passive and resigned to whatever floats across the screen. Like you, maybe,I’ve heard one too many times from parents that they have no right to check their child’s history because that child “needs her privacy”, and from certain school administrators (aware of rampant sexting among their students) I’ve heard that, well, hmmm, “this is simply today’s world” and “we’ve got to leave these kids their right to choose.”

Sometimes, know what? Grrrrrrrr again.

With that kind of rousing support, you might feel that you’re on your own. Don’t be defeated. Don’t shrug or resign.  Be there watching out for potential leaks within what is admittedly a whole world of wildly cool stuff.

dailymail.co.uk

dailymail.co.uk

Maybe you’re relatively new to parenting yet old to the digital world. Or you’re old to parenting, but relatively new to the digital world. Whatever the case, it is vital to rid yourself of any denial (“Never my child!”) and shake yourself into reality by being on the lookout for some of the many leaks that are inherent to our digital world. Here is a sampling of some of those leaks I’ve learned of in my years of parenting, volunteering with youth, talking with the best parents and mentors, and researching digital trends:

(Check the underlined words for links giving you much helpful — thought sometimes disturbing — additional information)

Harassment and Extortion

Bullying and Threatening

Sexting and the exchange of provocative/pornographic texts or images

Spamming, stalking, scamming

Pirating and plagiarism

Gang recruitment

And the encouragement of eating disorders, suicide, drug abuse, self-harm, and other forms of violence toward both self and others.

**

I can recommend this resource for parents, teachers, counsellors, and youth regarding digital safety. In spite of its Americanness, which limits somewhat its application on a broader scale, (it refers to “school districts” and presupposes the user’s familiarity with US legal norms),  it offers many high quality, ready-to-use tools like video coaching and external links.

**

What “leaks” have you noted in the lives of youth you care for or work with?

What resources have you turned to as a parent or other adult role model to train youth in healthy digital citizenship?

Floods Hit Quickly: Digital Safety in a High Speed World

Mach Speed Changes

The scholar and technology expert leading the parenting discussion group slapped her hands together and shook her hair back from her face. We parents, gathered in the conference room of a high school to hear her speak, didn’t seem to get it, and were now wrangling through the Q&A. Why the heat? We resisted her premise.

Resisted? I flatly disbelieved her. At least I wanted to.

theguardain.com

                                                                                     theguardain.com

“What all this data means,” said this author of multiple articles and a seminal book on kids and technology, “is that the tactics you used 5 years ago to raise your kids won’t cut it today.” She cleared her throat and said that again, slowly, her eyes level. Then she added, “In 5 years, what you were doing today won’t cut it. And in 6 years, what you were doing a year earlier than that won’t cut it. Times are changing. And they’re changing at mach speed.”

That warning came well over 5 years ago. And I, despite my incredulity at first, and like any parent paying attention to the trends, have seen her prediction come true. We’ve seen mach speed up close, and, gums flapping, are now white knuckling it against the coming whiplash of inevitable warp speed.

What our lecturer hadn’t mentioned was something that she might not have been able to foresee. “Speed” in this digital age refers to more than how rapidly technology and the world it’s driving are changing. “Speed” is obviously about how rapidly all these influences are changing our kids’ choices, brains, behavior.

How do you keep up with warp speed without getting warped yourself?

Floods Happen All at Once

At the risk of overstraining the metaphor, I need to go back to our house flood to essay an answer.

When we walked into our home on January 1st 2015 after a week away, we were shocked to find the entire ground floor flooded. My first thought: Hadn’t we been paying attention to a leak in the previous months? If we’d had even a clue, we’d have been responsible renters and stopped said leak. Had we overlooked any previous plumbing problems in the house? (No.) Had we forgotten to winterize outdoor water lines? (No.) We’d double-checked that every faucet and valve had all been off in the bathrooms and laundry area before leaving, hadn’t we? (Yes.). Our house had been, by all indications, downright watertight.

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So what happened?

Something had gone seriously wrong. An external water source sprung, and since the entryway from the garden to the house wasn’t secure, (its structure and weather-stripping weren’t sound), most of the water entered right under a single door frame. What we discovered later (after jackhammers took out the whole screed, or concrete sub-flooring) was that the foundation of the house wasn’t secure, either. The rest of the flood water had seeped in under outer walls right to the foundation.

Hundreds of liters of water made their way in. In no time at all, safe and dry became swampified.

So it is in our increasingly digital environment. Our virtual connectivity, coursing more and more through handheld gadgets which more and more of us, including more and more young kids, manipulate, works like a system of hyper-speed aqueducts that transport an arbitrary mix of the necessary, the fabulous, the exciting, the inane, but also the corrosive into our lives. The flow is unavoidable. It is constant. And it’s potent, pushing against our entryways and under our foundation with more force, ubiquity, and instantaneity than ever before. Certainly more than even our lecturing expert and her colleagues might have imagined only half a decade ago.

Sealing Against the Gush

Kids lack the emotional maturity and discipline – the sound weather-stripping, if you will — that most adults have developed to navigate the depths of the online world. From fabulous to toxic, data and stimuli flood or seep into and soak their minds the way water enters an open door and soaks your sofa.

What happens, then, when a flood of corrosive data (Bullying? Violence? Sexually explicit images or messages?) gushes into a young mind?  As a school psychologist, who treats kids with tech-related issues, told a group of concerned parents like myself, “In recent years, I’ve seen a whole lot more real decent kids slide into trouble. In no time flat.”

From dry to drenched at warp speed. If any of this sounds at all familiar to you, then welcome. Many parents are standing in figurative floods, ankle (or neck) deep in water, wondering, “Hadn’t we been paying attention to a leak somewhere? If we’d had even a clue, we’d have been responsible parents and stopped the flow. Had we overlooked any previous weak points in our child, in our family, that make him or her or all of us vulnerable to digital dangers?  Had we forgotten to filter, set limits, model healthy digital citizenship? Did we double-check every device and gadget, and direct our family to real (as opposed to virtual) activities?”

huffingtonpost.com

                          huffingtonpost.com

Some Tips

The school psychologist then taught us to watch for signs that, in spite of all our precautions, there might be a “flood” in our family. While parents have probably noted any one or two of the following red flags in their child, it’s a combination of three or more that would be cause to check your doors, foundation, and, yes, even your Windows 10.

  • A change in sleeping and eating habits
  • Anger at being interrupted while on the computer/device
  • A slump in interest in normally enjoyable activities
  • Visible restlessness when not on a computer/device
  • Withdrawing from social activities/family to be alone on computer/device
  • Losing track of time when in front of computer/device
  • Hiding online activity from parents
  • Strained vision/dry eyes
  • Secretiveness, unwillingness to share feelings
  • Agitation, aggression, depression

You might be interested in these resources about teens and social media, or about technology, teens and college students. Or how technology has changed our perception of time, or the general relationship between technology and speed.

Share Your Opinion

From your experience, was the first technology expert right?

If so, how has “warp speed” affected your parenting, your family relationships, your children’s behavior?

If not, how are you doing whatever it is you’re doing?

From your experience, was the second expert (the school psychologist) right?

If he wasn’t, what, in your opinion, keeps a kid from “sliding”?

Watertight? Swimming in Today’s Digital Ocean

Our Little Citadel

There was a time when my husband and I thought if we made our home a fortress and stood sentinel at its drawbridge, a major part of our job as parents was done. Queen and King of our little citadel, we’d keep our hawk eyes on every coming and going. Good stuff in; bad stuff out. We managed making a stronghold for our family.

(But then, there was also a day when our house didn’t spontaneously spring a leak and leave us waterlogged for the better part of a year…)

Back in that Once-Upon-a-Time time, physical fortification worked. For example, because we weren’t excited about most public television, we decided to raise our kids sans. (We got the TV for those parent-approved DVDs, but otherwise never hooked the thing up for local channels, forget cable.) They read lots of books and integrated deeply during our years in Norway and France. And since we weren’t thrilled about video and computer games, we just never got them. One child did play them occasionally at a friend’s house, but he never did it enough to get hooked.

And so on.

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Thus we managed. From our turret. Overlooking our moat. Admiring the pet crocodiles we’d tossed in for effect.

Then all at once, the whole world flooded.

The Digital Flood

At least it seemed like the flood was all at once. Somewhere in the early half of the 21st century — Monday, September 3rd of 2007, to be precise — I realized our fortress was under serious threat, tides were climbing swiftly, and soon we’d be neck deep in something I would never be able to control.

That was the day our eleven-year-old started a new school. In it, the One-to-One program was being piloted, meaning that personal laptops were required for every student and for all classroom work. That same year, same school, our youngest, then seven, also began doing much more schoolwork through digital means. I volunteered every week in class, and noted that many of his grade school aged classmates had smart phones. Some slightly older kids, still preteens, had social media accounts. At the same time, I discovered our sixteen-year-old was downloading movies, sitcoms, and something I learned was called Youtube clips on her laptop. (And I’d thought she’d been doing extra homework.)

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Over the course of that single year, I watched rising, churning currents, the foisting tide of stimuli climbing our bastion walls. Whirls of Twitter, eddies of Pinterest, later surges of Instagram. Then came the stream of WhatsApp, WeChat. Snapchat . Torrents of Skype, LinkedIn, Tumblr. In no time – in the following few swift years — the tide spilled clean over the upper edge of my fortification. Today, I’m dog-paddling wildly, maybe like some of you friends, just to keep afloat. Talk about a sea change.

No wonder the latest digital tool is called Periscope.

The Flood and The Ocean

I need to add quickly that, as with nearly every flood, the current is mostly plain water. Common, innocuous — even life-sustaining, potential-filled, phenomenal — water. We need free exchange of information, and we need connectivity.

Furthermore, I’m certainly no techno-Grinch.  I haven’t taken to living off-the-grid, eschewing texts for smoke signals, homesteading and homeschooling in the Yukon, hauling wood chips for grilling road-kill possums on a spit, and weaving my own cloth from hemp and acorn floss.

No. I’m here with you on this screen, btw, passionately part of the modern world, and, um, on Instagram, Twitter, my three pages on Facebook …

But I am increasingly alarmed by three qualities of the digital ocean: the swiftness (we can’t possibly keep apace); the surreptitiousness (we can’t possibly plug every point of entry); and the mix (we can’t possibly filter all the possible toxins.) So please, elbows on the table, brows furrowed, I want a toe-to-toe, rigorous conversation with you about this.

If the digital ocean has radically and permanently revolutionized everything, what does that mean for parenting? From my teeny sample group of our own four children (raised pre and post flood), and from my larger sample group of countless youth and young adults with whom I’ve worked closely as a teacher, leader, counselor and lecturer in many different countries around the world, I’ve learned that our digital ocean has profoundly altered – heightened the need for vigilance and spiritual wisdom in — parenting. No home, including my own, is watertight. No physical fortress holds against this kind of pressure. We need something else, our kids need something else, and that something else has to be so much better than bricks, mortar and denial.

Check Out These Resources

To illustrate, consider if you are fully aware of what is happening in your child’s digital world.

Are you sure you have a clear sense of your child’s online activity?

Have you discussed in your family whether your child is being bullied, or is herself an online bully?  

Do you know of others involved in cyberbullying?

In disgust, fatigue or exasperation, have you gone off grid? Or have you considered instead, as I have, immersing yourself mindfully in the ocean?

Do you have stories you can share about how the digital ocean has altered your child’s behavior, including sleeping and communication patterns? Or what have you observed regarding the digital ocean’s effect on family cohesion – for better or worse? For depth, you might read this, or  this,  and/or this, and then share your comments.

Do you monitor your child’s online activity? 

What do you know about your child receiving (or sending) sexts?

Finally, and most pervasive and pernicious of all, how informed are you about young children, teens, and porn, deemed in this piece to be “the biggest health concern”?

If you’ve had success in responding to these needs, what is it you’ve done?

Finally, if you are interested in scholarly research on the topic, I really appreciated this piece.

A Sea Change, the Internet, and Swimming in the Infinite

As you can sense, our nasty house flood stirred up in me more than concerns for our physical watertightness. Above all, that flood was an ugly wake-up call to how vulnerable we are to the figurative floods that encroach, soak, infiltrate, and inundate. No home — whether a moated fortress or a firm German rental, like ours — is, in the face of today’s digital ocean, ultimately unassailable. No one is watertight. The age of fortress parenting with its high walls and sentinels is as outdated as the medieval fortress itself.

The Internet doesn’t hold us buoyant in a digital ocean.  It lowers us into complete immersion. So is our modern world. Today’s toddler who swipes her Daddy’s iPhone screen as naturally as my first toddler plugged his pacifier back into his own mouth, is growing up totally saturated in the vast digital ocean.  And with that ocean comes wonder, beauty, possibility as well as undertows, predators, and devastation. Given that truth, how will we – and as importantly, how will our children — learn to swim, and not drown in, the digital ocean’s infinite possibilities?

Casting Hands—From On Loss and Living Onward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one person of extraordinary spiritual depth has said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Randall & Co. — From On Loss and Living Onward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was Stefano, a work colleague from Rome.

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

Dad, boys, funeral Image: A. Crandall ©

Dad, boys, funeral
Image: Angelique Crandall ©

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Déjà Vu: Why Melissa Writes –– or Doesn’t–– of Passage

I could swear you’ve been here with me before. And before that.

June 30, 2011, Singapore

You remember? I was sitting on this same chair, tapping on this same laptop, pushed up to this same desk. Around me worked a team of moving men, preparing to ship our life (and file upon file of a yet-to-be-written but contracted book, Global Mom: A Memoir) off to a new life in Switzerland.

At the same time and as part of that pre-publication ramp-up, I was advised to launch this blog right away because the whole conceit of Global Mom was based on moving, moving internationally, moving internationally often and at times unexpectedly, and doing all that while raising a family of global citizens. On this blog, I was to take you with me, real-time. Show you some of the guts of global momming. Strap you to my forehead the way sky divers strap on Go-Pros and shu-weeeeeeee! Take you for a swift transglobal spin. Prepare you for that thud-and-roll landing.

What you didn’t see, I’m afraid, was the scary stuff, all the gum-flapping and limb-flopping that was going on behind the camera. As you who’ve done any of the following know, 1) raising a family takes one’s absolutely full concentration, 2) moving that family to a new country demands even more of one’s absolutely full concentration 3) helping your family adjust and integrate once in a new country requires that much more concentration, and 4) writing and promoting a book in the midst of all that…Well, just cue non-stop gum-flap, limb-flop.

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That lasted a year. I released Global Mom a year after leaving Singapore, and just when I felt maybe things were getting steady enough for my children here on the idyllic Swiss front, I signed a contract to write and publish my second book, On Loss and Living Onward.

Just as that book went to press last spring, we announced we’d be moving again. Unlike the previous move triggered by a restructuring of international headquarters, this relocation was wholly our initiative, one we’d been deliberating for some time.  We knew we needed to remove our youngest from a school environment that was unhealthy for him and causing our family much heartache (to frame it in the very gentlest terms.) Gum-flapping and limb-flopping don’t come anywhere close.

June 30, 2014, Switzerland

There’s a moving team milling through my house as I type. Same chair, same laptop, same desk. This week alone, I’ve seen my piano, refrigerator and Norwegian farm table go out the carmine red door of my soft yellow Swiss village home with is green shutters, its plump tufts of lavender, and tumbling velvet geraniums. Such a pretty, idyllic picture. Yet there’s sorrow and fatigue creasing the corners of my eyes. Two deep breaths, and I fill my lungs with optimism and gratitude. I work alongside men –– one French, one Swiss, one Kosovoan––packing our lives in cardboard, padding my concerns in bubble wrap, and heading things in a big metal box with wheels northward. To Frankfurt.

View out my office window

View out of my office window

My husband has long since preceded us to Germany, where he’s been living weeks-over in a sterile hotel room as he starts up a new job. One moment, I’m talking with a Jean-Michel about shutting down our Swiss/French phone lines; the next, I’m talking with a Johann or a Manfred about opening a German bank account.  Our Claire is at my side, mothering her brothers and helping me negotiate the 17th move of my married life. Luc is choosing classes online for what will be a German international school. Dalton, now 18,  is practicing his cockney accent and reworking his Singaporean Mandarin for when he heads in August to South London for a two-year mission for our church.

You remember? You’re right. We’ve been here before.

Dalton

Dalton

June 30, 2007, Paris

A moving team is arguing about how to get our massive Norwegian table out of our Paris apartment. I’m refereeing. Randall’s been living in Germany for several months already, starting his new job while we finish the school year and an eight-year French epoch. Dalton and Luc, 11 and 7, are finishing their French elementary school and once in a while I drop a German phrase or two into our talks, just to prep them for the next phase in our lives. Claire, almost 16, is inseparable from our 18-year-old Parker, who’s just graduated from ASP (the American School of Paris) and is heading tomorrow for a summer of leadership courses at college in the States. He’ll use the next months to complete the applications to serve a two-year mission for our church. Come winter.

Parker

Parker

Sorrow, fatigue. Deep breaths. Optimism, gratitude.  Days are spent shutting down French phone lines and opening up German bank accounts.  My daily discipline of writing so-and-so many pages? I set it aside, knowing I only have a few weeks left with all of us together.  How we are. The all of us. Like this. Sure, I’ll see Parker over the summer. We’ve made those plans. And he’ll come to us in Germany over Christmas to stay for a few weeks before launching out as a missionary. But still. I only want to be with him. The sails of life are stretched taut with stress, but also with gusts of hope, and we’re cruising on momentum, headlong into the cresting, broad, blue seas.

June 21, 2014, Paris

“We’re pleased to welcome the family of Parker Bradford to today’s ceremony. We’ve invited their son Dalton to the stage.”

A dark blonde, blue-eyed kid wearing a white shirt, navy suit and his big brother’s tie strides up to the school administrator at the mic. It’s the same gentleman, a Mr. H., who’d handed Parker his diploma seven years earlier. Now, he hands Dalton a heavy plaque with his brother’s name engraved in brass and in ornate letters.

The kid blushes. His face is neither smiling nor frowning, but hangs between emotions. Or above them. He shifts from foot to foot. The sibling resemblance is eerie.

“Dalton, like all of you here,” says Mr. H., “has just graduated from high school, only in Geneva. He’ll be presenting the Parker Bradford Spirit Award to this year’s graduating senior who best embodies the qualities of tolerance, enthusiasm and buoyancy that typified Parker, Dalton’s older brother. Parker was a student here at ASP for eight years.  One month after graduating in June of 2007––just like you’re graduating today––Parker lost his life while trying to save a college classmate from drowning.”

The blonde brother stares out over an audience of quiet faculty and families. I’m in the back-most row in a corner, yet can hear––can nearly feel––his heart beating. I tuck my chin to my chest.

I’m struck in that moment by the flaccidity of words, how they fool only those who trust words to convey the true proportion of certain truths, realities simply too vast for language. I’m sobered by how vulnerable that whole auditorium full of families is, but how they do not know it. How luminous the boy Justin is to whom the Parker Bradford Spirit Award is given. How magnanimous the school has been to our family, how empathetic. How utterly vital a healthy school community is for families, especially those in transition. How we could have used that these last two years.

Above all, I’m struck by how quickly it’s over––the presentation of the award itself, the graduation, the passage, this life.

How I have been here before. How everything is different.

How, because everything is different, I vow to do things differently this time.

How, for this passage, I’ll truly be there for my family.  

Which means that for a little while at least –– for however long it takes –– I won’t be here.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris, before the bridge became weighted with the love locks that distinguish it today.