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)

Global Mom: French School, A Scream

From Global Mom: A Memoir

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

Entrance to Parc Monceau

Entrance to Parc Monceau

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

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

Parc Monceau through the eye of Claude Monet

Parc Monceau through the eyes of Claude Monet

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

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

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

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

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fencing 1

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

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Global Mom: Scooting Through Paris

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Sitting In A Franco-American Political Hot Seat”)

**

 

Randall bought a Vespa.

There she is, appropriately posed in front of Notre Dame

There she is, appropriately posed in front of Notre Dame

 

Creamy lacquer paint job, classic lines, toffee colored leather seat deep enough to take a passenger on the back. With it, he could whip out to Versailles to pick up Parker late at night when weekly youth church activities were moved from Paris to our chapel in that ancient suburb. And the two also sliced through the common knots of Parisian traffic to visit and help young families and widows from our church congregation. At every opportunity, Randall was out scooting and scouting the roads, weaving through stalled traffic, sailing past the honking horns and fists flying out windows.

Mild traffic, off hours, heading across Pont de l'Alma

Mild traffic, off hours, heading across Pont de l’Alma

When he didn’t take the Vespa, he could easily walk to work, either over the Pont de l’Alma past the golden torch that stands as an unofficial memorial to the car accident that occurred there and took Princess Diana’s life, and up Avenue George V. . .

Monument known popularly known s Diana's Torch

Monument known popularly known s Diana’s Torch

Or around l’Étoile of the Arc de Triomphe and down Avenue Hoche. . .

Rond Point des Champs Elysées. Light traffic, mild coagulation.

Rond Point des Champs Elysées. Light traffic, mild coagulation. Inching. . .

View up the clogged artery of Les Champs Elysées

Clogged artery of Les Champs Elysées. Why Parisians love scooters

Or over the Pont Alexandre III, across the Champs Élysées, and then winding his way to the office. . .

Pont Alexandre III and Le Grand Palais

Pont Alexandre III and Le Grand Palais

These streets also became our morning jogging routes.

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We’d leave before morning traffic at 6:00 from our place near Pont de l’Alma and run along the Seine passing drunks stumbling out of the Metro but also centuries of architecture, political intrigue, artistic ingenuity, religious devotion and as much variety as one can get in an hour.

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We chugged past ancient citadel prisons and gothic chapels and the hidden apartments of international legends. . .

conciergerie

Past the Louvre at minute eleven. . .

louvre early morning

Past the Hôtel de Ville at minute nineteen. . .

hotel de ville

Over the Pont d’Austerlitz at minute twenty-nine. . .

austerlitz

And so on for another half hour past the Institut du Monde Arab. . .

monde arab

Notre Dame. . .

notre dame

Musee d’Orsay. . .

musee dorsay

Trotting at stop lights where guillotines once stood, where revolutions began and ended, over stones where American soldiers and German tanks and English carriages and Italian horses and white-coated monks and destitute writers and hailed composers and defected ballerinas and ermine-cloaked despots passed.

credit: 7eme aup

credit: 7eme aup

That’s some dense history to cut a 15k through.

flickr

Comparing: Sorrow That The Eye Can’t See

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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I had to sit down. My legs were liquid.

“How long has–?”

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

“And you’ve got proof–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then she fled.

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

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

Or had he said, “Unremarkable”?

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

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

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

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

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

“Recovering” was the subtitle he wrote.

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

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**

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

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

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

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

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

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**

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

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

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

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

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

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Who am I to judge another

When I walk imperfectly?

In the quiet heart is hidden

Sorrow that the eye can’t see.

Who am I to judge another?

Lord, I would follow thee.
__
Susan Evans McCloud

Standing Right On The Hinge

On the river's edge at a place called Monkey Rock.  This is where our son lost his life.

On the banks of a place called Monkey Rock. This is where our son lost his life.

It doesn’t matter how educated, moneyed, or smart you are: when your child’s footprints end at the river’s edge, when the one you love has gone into the woods with a bleak outlook and a loaded gun, when the chaplain is walking toward you with bad news in her mouth. . .Your life will swing suddenly and cruelly in a new direction, and if you are wise . . you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there, standing right on the hinge, holding out its arms. And if you are really wise, you will fall against it and be held.
– Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me

Monkey Rock Falls Sideview

**

Every week for a year after the accident, the assistant headmaster from Parker and Claire’s school in Paris called us in our new home in Munich.

“Hi, Randall, Melissa. Just checking in, guys. How. . . how are things this week? Your health? The new school? Claire and the boys, how are they managing?”

There was a tentativeness in our friend’s voice, the faintest hint of fragility that I never would have anticipated watching him hand out diplomas, joking with and embracing students at the Paris high school graduation just over two months earlier.

Looking Downstream (mid-bridge)

We’d taken this one great shot of him the moment Parker received his diploma: huge smiles, both of them, and Parker’s massive hands grasping this man’s shoulder, ready to reach forward to hug him.

Parker had known Mr. H. well. (I’ll call him “Mr. H.”, although many parents, like us, were on a first name basis with him. I now consider him a brother.)

Monkey Rock Falls (close-up)

“Coolest guy,” Parker had told me after one of his early morning math and chemistry tutoring hours in this man’s school office. “Totally cool and just a great person.”

And totally private. And just your consumate professional.

He not only tutored students in his office nearly every morning before regular class hours, but he ran a big, transient, culturally complex studentbody and faculty. The demands were constant. The pressures from parents, faculty and the board were sometimes exacting, I’d imagined over the years, and the expectations probably constricting. But this man had managed for decades to lead with diplomacy and vision and was respected for his warmth and fairness.

Solid. Imperturable. Not once had he struck me as a man who could crack.

But now, a week into the new school year for him in Paris and for us newly-arrived in Munich, I heard undeniable fissures creeping up the contours of his voice. Was he heartbroken? When he’d finally been able to find words, he said he was.

Heartpulverized.

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“What I means is. . .are you and the kids. . .you going to make it?”

“We’re making it,” Randall offered, holding back emotion. “But we’re not sure. . .we might need to move back to Paris. To your school. We need community. We need our people.”

“And we’re not finding it, them. . .here. . .Not yet.”

I said this into the receiver but was focusing on Randall. I felt sorrow taking the shape of a question mark in my bones: Drooping, head-to-breast, curved to submission, one single tear drop dangling, suspended there in helpless isolation.

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My husband knew full well I was not unpacking – not even touching – the rest of the same moving boxes we’d been working through the week we lost our firstborn son to tragedy at a water accident that occurred during a pre-college camp. Not until we all – parents, children, my husband’s employer, schools – agreed we had no choice but to stay in Munich.

At this point, though, that scenario seemed highly unlikely given the circumstances. We all ached and cried daily to go back to our “home” where people knew us and loved our son. A place where the fresh, ragged-edged hole in the universe could be looked into straight on, where the emptiness might be acknowledged, and we could feel a modicum of comfort.

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It’s then Mr. H. proposed something: “Hey, um, I’ve been working on an idea. But I want to pass it by you before I go any further with it. I’d need board consensus as there’s definite – what should I say? – definite risk involved. There’s no precedent for this, so it could be misunderstood, but in spite of the risks. . .See, this week alone I’ve had student after student in my office. Students, faculty. Every day, all day long, it seems. They’ve all needed to talk about Parker.”

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Here, his voice hit a speed bump, stalled, then heaved itself over the pain. “Other teachers are having the same experience. Kids here are really traumatized. Some are angry at the universe that such a thing could happen. A lot are confused. . .I mean, there’s such sadness. . .if you could imagine. . .”

There was a pause.

“Yeah. I think maybe you guys can imagine.”

The narrow culvert where four young men were sucked into a hidden whirlpool. Three survived.

The narrow culvert where four young men were sucked into a hidden whirlpool. Three survived.

“So, your idea?” Randall spoke. I noticed as if for the first time that his pants were hanging like an old tent on his body. He’d lost over 10 kilos (twenty five pounds) in one month. His face was hollow, his neck gaunt. Over the coming weeks he would lose much more weight and his heartbeat would, for the first time in his life, become irregular.

The irrigation canal that feeds into the culvert, meanders to lava rock falls, were water plunges into a placid lagoon.

The irrigation canal that feeds into a culvert and meanders toward lava rock falls. From there, the water  plunges into a placid lagoon.

“This is the idea. I want to see first how you’d feel about it. I’ve been discussing doing a Parker Fairbourne Bradford Memorial at the school. As soon as possible. End of this month, even. The more I talk with other administrators and faculty about it, the more I see it might be a healthy thing, even a powerful thing. Good for us, for you, for Parker’s memory.”

“A Memorial?” I felt heat kindle behind my ribs and through to my spine.

Looking Upstream (mid-bridge)Looking Upstream (leftside)

“People need to make sense of what’s happened, you know? Most found out through email and Facebook and texts over the summer. That went like wildfire. Lots of people have had to process it alone. Some have managed to get together, mourn together. But some were out of the loop and have just found out this week. Seems to me everyone needs a place to express their feelings and their love, to make sense. They really need to see you. They need to come together. . .”

Come together.

The sign that was finally posted a full year after the fatal accident.  The day Randall come to visit, it lay rusted on the ground, rammed, it seemed, by a vehicle.  He tied it up with blue string.

The sign that was finally posted a full year after the fatal accident. The day Randall came to visit, the sign lay rusted on the ground, rammed, it seemed, by a vehicle. He stood it erect and tied it up with blue string.

Come Together. These were the very words I’d heard in my head all week long between the ICU and the funeral, the funeral where this administrator himself and a small entourage of Paris high school students and their parents had been present. They’d flown in from all over the world, flown in to come together in a small chapel in Utah.

Come together. Right now. Over me. I couldn’t shake the Beatles no matter how hard I tried.

The helicopter that transported our son to the Portneuf Regional Medical center.

The helicopter that transported our son from a local hospital to the Portneuf Regional Medical center.

Portneuf Medical Center

**

The evening of the 22nd of September, 2007, our family sat on the front row of a packed school auditorium in a school in Paris while faculty and students paid tribute to our son. Behind us were youth and their parents, work colleagues of Randall’s from all over central, eastern and northern Europe. To each side we saw our many church friends who in most cases had no affiliation with the school, but who knew and loved a certain boy. In front of us was the stage from which specific faculty members and students closest to Parker spoke (tenderly, frankly, humorously, musically, poetically, mailed in from abroad, recited across the silence), and where a large screen hung onto which were projected pictures and live footage of this young man now gone.

Mr. H. and our younger boys on our favorite Paris bridge, le Pont des Arts.

Mr. H. and our younger boys on our favorite Paris bridge, le Pont des Arts.

If you want to know what that moment felt like to the mother, you’ll have to suspend disbelief. I tell you that it was like getting a blood transfusion with fire. My body shook like a furnace overstocked with coal, on the verge of exploding. Great, deep, sweet, healing pain.

This, as I think of Kate Braestrup’s words, might be what love standing right on the hinge is about. It has something to do with the saving fire that can come from those who, only a moment earlier, had been regular body-temperature folks. Just like you and me.

They were no more than professional acquaintances, maybe. No more than who we all try to be: nice, decent people anyone might pass right by in the hallways or chat with casually at the water cooler. They might even have been no more than the friends of the friends of the parents of the students who did no more that sit next to our children in a history class or in a jazz band or on the bench during basketball season.

But they brought fire.

They brought time and talent and effort and artistry, too. But I have to be clear: it was not the special effects and the sound system in and of themselves that ignited fire, although all of that was meaningful and exquisite, and we will never, ever forget them. While humbling to us, all that was not our focus. And these good, caring people of course knew that. What was our focus – and what was the source of our transfusing fire – was the reality of the faces of people who knew and who cared. It was seeing people come, cry, stare in shock, sit and hold each other. When those faces were lined up in a community, they became a living firewall against the encroaching winter of the soul.

Aaron Hubbard with Melissa on Pont des Arts (June 2011)

Aaron Hubbard with M, D & L in 6th Arr (June 2011)

When our sorrow, whatever that sorrow might be, pushes us to that howling outer-ledge where a blue glacial wind threatens to suck us into a crevasse of despair, part of our nature might stare blankly – drained, as it feels, of will – down into that icy bottomlessness.

Maybe for the length of one breath we stare.

The gravesite without its stone.  The ground was frozen. We waited until spring when things thawed.

The gravesite without its stone. The ground was frozen. We had to wait to install it in the spring when things had sufficiently thawed.

Maybe longer.

December. First visit to the grave after the July funeral.

December. First visit to the grave after the July funeral.

But there is another part of us, a wiser part, as Braestrup calls it, and that part will look around for love. It might only glance at first, eyelids low, fearing what it will or will not find. But in time it won’t just glance a bit, nor will it roll its eyes at itself, at its hurting need for love.

No.

It will scavenge like a beast dying of hunger. It will yowl to the empty clouds and bray across the flat horizon for love. It will howl from the bottom of its lungs rendered stiff and brittle from cold. It will limp and then collapse and then belly-crawl for love.

And there, right there, love will be.

Coach and athletic director, and Parker's retired basketball jerseys they school framed and hung outside the gymnasium.

Coach and athletic director, and Parker’s retired basketball jerseys the school framed and hung outside the gymnasium. The memorial jerseys hang there still.

Armbands with the initials and number of the player who was no longer. A kid named Phil had them made.  Their cheer was "One, Two, Three, Parker!"

A teammate named Phil had these armbands made.  They carry the initials and number of the player who was no longer. The team cheer that year was, “One, Two, Three, Parker!”

Right there, next to us, will be love holding out its everyday arms. Its stranger or next-door-neighbor or school administrator-made-brother arms.

Right there on the hinge we find it so that, instead of falling over the ledge, we fall against them. And we are held.

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Continuing: Aaron D.

Longsuffering. What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can only describe their longsuffering as godly.

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

Well? So be it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron with Parker and his children

Aaron with Parker and Aaron’s children

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had silence ever sounded so crowded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

**

And finally, a very recent mail:

**

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

Love always and from all of us,

Aaron

**

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

Annie Dillard: Frayed & Nibbled

The following text comes from the 13th chapter of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, a singular poetic/scientific meditation on heaven and earth, a Pulitzer Prize-winning walk through the world.  These photographs were taken in the vast and lush English Gardens by our gifted friend Rob Inderrieden the day before we moved from Munich to Singapore.

Is our birthright and heritage to be, like Jacob’s cattle on which the life of a nation was founded, “ring-streaked, speckled, and spotted” not with the spangling marks of grace like beauty rained down from eternity, but with the blotched assaults and quarryings of time?

“We are all of us clocks,” says Eddington, “whose faces tell the passing years.” The young man proudly names his scars for his lover; the old man alone before a mirror erases his scars with his eyes and sees himself whole.

“In nature,” wrote Huston Smith, “the emphasis is in what is rather than what ought to be.” I learn this lesson in a new way everyday. It must be, I think tonight, that in a certain sense only the newborn in this world are whole, that as adults we are expected to be, and necessarily, somewhat nibbled. It’s par for the course. Physical wholeness is not something we have barring accident; it itself is accidental, an accident of infancy, like a baby’s fontanel or the egg-tooth on a hatchling. Are the five-foot silver eels that migrate as adults across meadows by night actually scarred with the bill marks of herons, flayed by the sharp teeth of bass? I think of the beautiful sharks I saw from the shore, hefted and held aloft in a light-shot wave. Were those sharks sliced with scars, were there mites in their hides and worms in their hearts? Did the mockingbird that plunged from the rooftop, folding its wings, bear in its buoyant quills a host of sucking lice?

The summer is old. A gritty, colorless dust cakes the melons and squashes, and worms fatten within on the bright, sweet flesh. The world is festering with suppurating sores. . .Have I walked too much, aged beyond my years?. . .There are the flies that make a wound, the flies that find a wound, and a hungry world that won’t wait till I’m decently dead.

I think of the green insect shaking the web from its wings, and of the whale-scarred crab-eater seals. They demand a certain respect. The only way I can reasonably talk about all this is to address you directly and frankly as a fellow survivor. Here we so incontrovertibly are.

That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it. . .But knowledge does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights. I still now and will tomorrow steer by what happened that day when some undeniably new spirit roared down the air, bowled me over, and turned on the lights.

Can I say then that corruption is one of beauty’s deep-blue speckles, that the frayed and nibbled fringe of the world is a tallith, a prayer shawl, the intricate garment of beauty?

It is very tempting, but I honestly cannot. But I can, however, affirm that corruption is not beauty’s very heart.

And I can I think call the vision of the cedar and the knowledge of these wormy quarryings twin fiords cutting in the granite cliffs of mystery, and say that the new is always present simultaneously with the old, however hidden. The tree with the lights in it does not go out; that light still shines on an old world, now feebly, now bright.




I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating, too. I am not washed and beautiful,in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections, but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.


Simone Weil says simply, “Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love.”

“The fact is, ” said Van Gogh, “the fact is that we are painters in real life,and the important thing is to breathe as hard as ever we can breathe.”

Thank you, Rob and Tasha Inderrieden, for the beautiful photographs, but even more, for the indelible memories

I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.

Thunder

Was awakened at about 4:30 this morning by the blast-shwoosh-bam of a thunderstorm.  It rattled the shutters, shiiiisssshed and teased in eerie whispers while the sky shook to the blinding flash of Zeus’ wrath.  Those veiny, scraggly arms of lightning, slapping the face of earth. I had covers up around my ears, eyes like ping-pong balls bouncing in that last little trill when you hold them against the table under your paddle. Skittish. A grown woman gone infantile.  All thanks to thunder.

Photo credit: Seekingalpha

The Swiss version of a thunderstorm is meek compared to the rip-roaring variety in Singapore, the kind I miss, the kind that uprooted a 30 foot-tall palm tree right out of our yard and laid it, like your toothbrush falling out of its holder, right across our neighbor’s roof.

Neighbor woman no happy.

So to avoid a lawsuit, which she threatened, that very week we had eight trees (four of which were towering, elegant palms) pulled out of our garden.  Had a team of sweat-shiny men come with their trucks and power saws and clear out nearly all the foliage around our home.  Man, did it look stark afterwards, like those odd altered pictures of celebrities without eyebrows.

But we did keep up neighborly relations.

I missed my palms.  And I still miss Singapore thunderstorms.

Photo credit: 123rf

But I cannot experience one anywhere, and neither can Randall, without thinking immediately of the most heinous and life-splitting thunderstorm in our memory.  Actually, it is in Randall’s memory, not mine, as he’s the one who lived it.  I have only heard him tell the story.

At the moment of that storm he was fast asleep in Munich, Germany and I was in Provo, Utah, probably tucking our two youngest, Dalton and Luc, and their cousin, Wesley, into sleeping bags on my parent’s basement floor.  It was Thursday, July 19th, and I’d arrived in Provo just that Sunday, eager to be with the children, who had gone ahead to camps and family in the American west, while I negotiated the move with Randall from Paris to Bavaria.

Claire was with her best friend, Caroline, at a youth camp called Especially For Youth on the campus of Brigham Young University.  They were sleeping in a dorm room. Caroline’s cell phone, by a stroke of inexplicable fate-luck-blessing-divine intervention, she’d left on all night long next to her dorm bed.  She would get a critical call on it in just an hour or so.

I had spent the day before, Wednesday the 18th, in Rexburg, Idaho, (first time there in my life), where I’d spent the afternoon with Parker just a week into a program at university called Freshman Academy.  It was a scorchingly hot afternoon, but we hugged and laughed and walked around together meeting other students and joking with Dalton, who was trailing his big brother, whom he idolized, showing him his most recent comic sketches.  Parker was the perfect older brother then, all complimentary and aglow.

We went to Wells Fargo Bank to open an account and dump some money in to get him through a week or so. The bank officer there, I can remember this scene in slo-mo, had turned his computer screen around to show us images of a “real cool place.”

“It’s the best place to just cool off. Not too far,” he’d told Parker. “Have to ask locals how to get there, though. Kinda middle of nowhere.  But every one goes there, ‘know? Engagement pictures, Family Home Evening groups, the works.  You been there yet, Parker? To Monkey Rock?”

He had. Once already. Which made me shake my head. Something about the place, those black lava rocks, the white froth of the 15 ft. water fall, the soupy lagoon, the canal. I’m not sure what, but it made my stomach turn.

Can I say it looked foreboding? Will you say this is retrospective sense-making, that I’m projecting my horror for that place on my memories? Will you stop believing me or anything I write altogether?

Still I insist: it did look foreboding.

In fact, Parker asked me while the man behind the desk went to get some forms for us to fill out, why I’d shaken my head at the man and had said, “That place. . .I don’t like it.”

“Mom, it’s their favorite place.  Don’t want to diss it. It’s great for them, you know. Besides, I’ve been there. It is cool.”

Right then, Dad called for Parker on my cell phone. He was calling from Munich, knew we were together in Rexburg, was jealous and eager to chat. Parker stepped away, walked up the small carpeted ramp that feeds to the back entrance of the bank, and stood there in his jeans and royal blue T-shirt.  (The one I still sleep with.)  They talked for a minute or two, I watched Parker laughing and doing the quick run down with his Dad.  I was the one who motioned he should get off.  We had these important forms to sign.

That would be the last time Randall would hear his son’s voice.  At least his human voice.

Because the next night there would be a water activity organized at Money Rock.  And in Provo, Mom would be tucking in two little brothers after a day with their cousin at the public pool.  And sister would be sleeping in a dorm room with her friend’s cell phone serendipitously turned on.  And Dad would be sound asleep in Munich, dreaming, maybe, of his flight scheduled for a day and a half later, the trip that would make for our family’s surprise arrival, several days earlier than Parker expected.  In Idaho.

What happened at this moment no one can explain, but Randall speaks of it in tones that change his color.  He slept soundly in that dark apartment.  The windows were ajar for fresh summer air.  There were no city sounds to disturb. Soothing, slow-breathing sleep.  Then instantly, the skies split with the light and sound of an air raid crashing across Munich. Bombs, firebombs, wall-shaking eruptions literally shocked Randall’s heart, throwing him to full sitting-up attention.

Thunderstorm. Unlike anything he had ever known in his life.  It pounded and howled, going right to his bones.

Alone and shaking, he flew out of bed, running through the rooms closing and checking windows, the huge explosions of light electrifying his movements, perforating the darkness, stabbing the eyes.  His heart raced.  The reverberations grabbed the old building and yanked it, it seemed, by the shoulders, like a furious bully manhandles a thin victim.  The rain flew sideways, debris flying with it, and hit the windows with metal-whip sounds, whipping, whipping.  And shriek-yowling.

It was 4:37 a.m.  The din lasted less than an hour. Then it drained away, leaving dripping sounds and big branches and soggy trash plastered all over Munich. When the sun would rise, the town would look like it had been in one of those little plastic snow domes you shook as a child. Only this dome was full of leaves, newspapers and your random sweatshirt wrapped around a plank of corrugated roofing.  Roughed up.

But Randall would never take notice of the branches or trash at sunrise.  Because after he would fall back asleep — big day ahead at the office, you know, regional meetings, he’d have to pack for the weekend flight, lock up the apartment, change some Euros to dollars, probably — after he would fall back asleep for a couple of hours, he would get a phone call from his wife.

“Honey?  You awake?  Something’s happened.”

Randall’s voice, in spite of sleep lost to the storm, would be crisp and alert.

“What is it?”

“No idea, but it’s serious. . .”

Minutes later, a follow-up call and the serious news became more detailed, much much more serious, and from that second and for many hours on end until he landed in the middle of the night on the Pocatello, Idaho airstrip, Randall would only run and run. Weep and weep.  Pray and pray.  The wife and the husband would meet each other in an ICU at the regional medical center. There, they would become, in the space of time it takes for one shaft of lightning to travel to earth, in the space of time for the clap of one thunderbolt to burst an eardrum, different people forever.  Struck, burnt through, electrocuted.

They learn that at exactly 4:30 a.m. Munich time (which would have been 8:30 p.m., Rexburg time), there was another kind of electrical release, a transfer of energy, we’ll say, taking place in the cross-cut canals feeding over the falls and into the lagoon of a common water hole called Monkey Rock.

Photo credit: naturedesktopnexus

Thunder

4:37 a.m., Munich

8:37 p.m., Monkey Rock

“. . .The sound that follows a flash of lightning and is caused by sudden expansion of the air in the path of the electrical discharge. . .”

—-N. Webster

At that exact hour, galactic detonation.

First, the splatting, cracking, then the sky above,

like the water below,

churning, foisting up,

whirling, dragging particulate matter into a current

surging, slitting with stiff slivers, splewing and spitting out,

Discharging at its will.

He who sleeps, sits up straight.

His heart hammers like the

rains that bludgeon in silvercold diagonal planks.

Rain, like those metal sheets rattled to make theater thunder,

wails and splutters, like a river

splatters as it hits stone.

Where you are.

Where he is

through the core of the earth to the paired side.

In this splitting instant

 creation is alarmed.

God’s dome claps an acoustic ka-boom

congealing in this sky-and-earth-quake

this subatomic shockwave,

sympathetic timpani—

(On earth as it is in heaven)

which fires currents through the sphere, shaking nature,

unhinging it.

Something big is being done.

Something big is being undone.

He who is awakened, sitting up, will lie back down.

He who is standing, grabbing hands, will lie down.

With thunderous voice buried under thunder—

a silent, glorious roar—

he will be sent to sleep.

And all at once, things are distilled.

Evanescence.

A sudden expansion of thunderbolt voltage bursts the threshold and

shoots into that pellucid vastness—

sends soaring above this banal torrent—

a flash of reversed lightning.

Startling.

Enlivening.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

In Amber

After eight years in Paris, our family was moving to Munich.  A big move, a bit of a sad move, but not an impossible move, given that we were sending Parker off to college at exactly the same time, and this seemed like a practical juncture for turning in a fresh direction on our family’s ongoing international track. Besides, we couldn’t just keep on enjoying Paris without the one family member who loved Paris as much as or more than any of the rest of us.

You know by now what happened during that move.

It was a logistical tight rope for about two weeks as all six of us straddled continents: our goods had just landed from Paris in Munich where I had been setting up house; the three youngest  we’d sent two weeks earlier to the States to be with relatives; Parker we’d sent ahead to something called Freshman Academy at college only a five-hour drive from my parents’.  And Randall, who was setting up Internet and cell phones and getting traction in his new job, I had just left behind in Munich when I flew ahead to the western U.S. to rejoin our children and visit Parker on his campus. We all kept in touch every day with wildly flying texts, emails, and phone calls.

Randall and I were on the phone several times a day, in fact, plotting what was going to be his earlier-than-expected arrival that Saturday, July the 21st.  We would show up at the door of this oldest son’s first college apartment, Randall and I snickered on the phone, all five of us, swim suits in hand, since there were all these “fun swimming holes” in the area, Parker had told us, places all the local kids had taken the newly-arrived students to.

A big family surprise on Saturday morning.  That had been our plan.

We were all together that Saturday morning.  That much was true to plan.

But under such circumstances as to make my fingers shake even today, five years later, when I try to type them.

So I won’t try to type them.

Only days after Parker’s funeral we found our family of five stepping off a Delta flight in Munich’s airport. New home.  New world.  Alien world.  Cold world.  Death-drenched world. The apartment we had chosen before major tragedy blew the floor and ceiling out of our universe, had been strategically situated for our planned needs. It was in the center of Munich.  A short bike ride to Munich’s Univeristät.  A block from the adjoining English Garden.  Our plan had been that I enroll in a Ph.D. program and in December Parker would return to us for Christmas.  He would wait the few weeks or months for his assignment as a missionary for our church. He would share a part of the apartment with Claire, his best friend and sister, who would be slaving away at the International Baccalaureate at high school.  He could help her.  He could also be close to student life at the nearby Universität.  He could cross country ski with his little brothers across the vast English Garden.  We could soak up being all together again before his two long years of missionary service. Those were our plans.

And by now you’re beginning to understand the relative uselessness of plans.

Plans.  They can blow up in shrapnel and smoke, and underneath those plumes of dust and debris, you finger through ruins, making up something new.

But “fingering through” is misleading as a figure of speech, since what really happens is more of a bloody-knuckled scraping and bare-handed shoveling, which demands full body-and-spirit engagement. It saps you.  And because it does, you spend a great deal of time lying down.  And sitting.

Randall and I walked, when we could, throughout the English Gardens.  And more often we sat.  There were many dedicated benches throughout the garden — “Für Mutti, zum 70en Geburtstag”, “Helmuth und Brunhilde, Immer Liebe.”  We sat on these tributes to the living, most of the time exhausted by sorrow and by the work of just breathing.  The work of just sitting.

Along a tributary of the Isar River in Munich’s English Garden

One day, I envisioned a bench in this park. For our Parker.

Randall and I found our way to a small yellowish converted home in the  middle of the park, the office of the one and only gentleman whose job it is to oversee the installation of dedicated benches. Herr Barthlemes was lanky in his worn beige corduroy trousers and heavy rubberized walking shoes, his bony shoulders poking like the angles of a metal clothes hanger under an olive-green sweater with five dark leather buttons.  As we walked the garden, this man, my husband and I, talking quietly about where to place a bench for our eldest son, Herr Barthlemes wrapped and tucked a plaid woolen shawl in orange and mustard around his neck, a neck as lean as the trunks of the trees that looked underfed and desolate as they shed their fall colors.

Fall.  The dead season. To my grieving eyes, absolutely everything spoke death.

“Normally,” Herr Barthelmes explained as we walked slowly along the pathway that encircles a big open field smack dab in the garden’s heart, “we only put the dedication plaques on the backs of these green painted benches.” He pointed to six benches placed along the path we were walking.

“And if we understood correctly,” Randall said, “we have to choose a green bench that’s already standing in the garden, is that right?”

“Right,” the gentleman nodded. I thought then that if he spoke English he might make a good Jimmy Stewart from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“But. . .what if we’re thinking of a place other than where these green benches already stand?” I asked. I had thought of something maybe close to water, even next to the small canal-like river. A place by a waterfall? Was there a lagoon? Anything that looked like Idaho?

View to the Grosser Wasserfall, English Garden, Munich

“It depends on when you want this finished, Frau Bradford.  You mentioned February 20th? Is this your son’s birthday? You want to surprise him?” Barthlemes smiled softly and winked.

Randall and I looked at each other. We all kept strolling.

“Herr Barthlemes, you’re right.  That’s our son’s birthday,” Randall said. “But it won’t really. . .it won’t be a surprise for him.”

The trees were dropping leaves –- ochre, burnt red, even some bright green ones — as I listened to my husband explain to this tall German stranger the story of our boy. I’d never noticed until that moment that green leaves fall, too.

As Randall finished, Herr Barthlemes stopped in his tracks.  I looked at him. His face was different from the face of two minutes earlier. Melted. And his eyes seemed larger.

“Herr Bradford, das ist ja doch etwas ganz anderes.”

Now that’s something totally different, he said.

Very close to February 20th, Herr Jimmy Stewart Barthlemes, whom I never saw again and whom I have never thanked in person, hand made a handsome one-of-a-kind brown bench —an etwas anderes, or something different. He had told us he wanted to do this for our son. We ordered an inscribed bronze plaque, delivered it to his little office, and he had it affixed, the whole thing weatherproofed, then installed in an ideal spot as a gift for what would have been our child’s 19th Birthday.

The bench stands right next to the tributary of Munich’s Isar, a place where two canals converge, pass over falls, and get swallowed up under a bridge.

I wrote this poem in increments sitting, at times, on that very bench.  It is there right now awaiting others who are maybe crazy in love (I’ve seen them kissing there), weary from life (I’ve gathered the discarded cigarette butts myself), or exhausted by sorrow, a natural counterpart to love, a natural part of life.

Photo: Rob Inderrieden

In Amber
Ezekiel 1: 4-7
Im Englischen Garten
München, November 2009, All Souls” Day
Für Christa B.

Go straight toward Himmelsreich,
turn right into Paradies
cross into the tunnel upholstered in
the gingered patina of brocaded taffeta.
Tread the suede elegance of fallen flames,
bind to your soles these hieroglyphs of silence
which draw you deep into muted fluorescence.
You are rapt.
You are in amber
Or Bernstein, burned stone born of
interior clefts in injured trees.
You are in resin,
that umber ooze of congealed spirit
spilling out of hurting hollows.
You are lured,
captured
You are saved
as were nature’s relics 320 million years ago. . .

Two years ago
(same month, same trees, same branches and tunnel)
this was not the same. I saw only desolation.
Haggard branches scratching for air, cadaverous,
grisly. Gasping their last breath of death.
I walked this sodden altar piled with sacrificial scabs
in elegiac tones
(bruise, gash, decay, corpse)
as the dank air clung to my neck
like ashes and dust.
Since then, no whirlwind nor great cloud nor fire infolding itself.
Just this load of despair like moldering foliage
which has soaked my soil, seeped through sediment,
spread to root, been incorporated
a mineral swell compost
so that today
this All Souls’ Day
I have grown new ears for flamboyant hymn-singing trees
and eyes for upthrust birded limbs, celebrant and winking
throngs of happy timber
and out of the midst thereof
in the midst of voluptuous shade-fire
I could swear we are captured
every last living thing is enclosed
in this furtive moltenness the color of burnished brass
so that all things are present,
preserved in amber.

***

For a related post I wrote on this topic, please refer to:

segullah.org/daily special/all-saints’-day-all-souls’-day/

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

What Does Grief Look Like?

Rocks remember

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

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

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

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

Part of grief shows up like that.  Yessir.

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

At least grief as I’ve known it.

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

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

Let alone walking upright.

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

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

Hmm. Well.

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

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

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

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

You’re looking at it.

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

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

Who wants to rein in this kind of explosive joy?

This primal, golden exuberance for sunshine, for flight?

For each other?

For water?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louder screams.

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take the heavy camera off my neck.

Tuck away the lenses.

Call to my beloveds:

I’m here!

And plunge.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.