Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

I know.  I vowed I’d be the dutiful blogger and complete in tidy fashion my series on swimming in the digital ocean. Rest assured, that ocean’s not going anywhere so I’ll get to it.  But that might take a while.  Keep reading, and I’ll explain.

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Photo: © pretoperola/123RF

My change in direction has something to do with  this. (Go ahead a read there after you’ve let me have my little say here, please.) It’s the first of my pieces for Inspirelle, a white-hot new webmag based in Paris, which is a “woman’s guide to life in Paris and beyond.”

(I believe in Paris, in the beyond, in women, in guiding, and in life. So it’s a great fit.)

So … back to oceans, back to life:

Fluctuat nec mergitur

Those words, (meaning “tossed but not sunk”), are glowing right now at the base of the blue-white-red illuminated Eiffel Tower. They shine in bold response to the terrorist attacks in Paris this month.  We can also apply them universally, to all acts of terrorism — Beirut, Russia, Kenya, Nigeria … a catalogue that can, if you’re not steadied, unhinge your sanity.

I also apply those words to the many terrors broad or private that punctuate the human experience. I’ve known some directly, and am observing all sorts in others’ lives, in your lives. Our voyages are different, but the ocean that holds humanity is the same, and none will cross without being thoroughly — and sometimes violently — shaken.

Major recent events in the world at large and in my immediate sphere have struck some deep plates. “Upheaval” doesn’t fairly describe it; “cataclysm” comes closer.  These strikes have accentuated divisions between nations, whose boundaries I can trace with my finger and whose leaders names I’ve memorized, as well as among real friends whose names and faces and stories I know by heart. Peoples — and specific people — have been struck and destabilized.

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Painting: Joseph M.W. Turner; “A Disaster at Sea”

That Sinking Feeling

In all this, there’s a temptation to claim we’re sinking, en masse, and with one inevitable glunk-glunk-glunk. But that mindset can breed hysteria (not good on the deck of any ship), or the slump of torpor. It can even increase violence.

Though fractures crack across the planet and through the core of my community, and though I often feel I’m straddling chunks of Pangea, her landmasses groaning and shifting, plate tectonics making a wild ripple ride of the face of things, I’m choosing (albeit sometimes shakily) to fight to stay afloat.  I know I can’t merely float.

Floating (false bravado, whistling in the dark, pretending immunity, retreating in a bubble, or following popular tides including those of nihilism and cynicism) — they all make us much more vulnerable to the ferocious downward suction of our times.

Reaching Deep, Reaching Up, Reaching Out

Is there a way out of that downward suction? Here’s an idea: Reach deep, reach up, and reach out. Elsewhere on this blog, and subsequently in my second book, On Loss and Living Onward, I’ve described these three reaches with different descriptors (steadiness, illumination and love), and how reaching in all three ways helps when our private world is in turmoil. These times we inhabit are volatile, requiring a far richer, more stable inner life than ever before necessary. I sense I need devotion to something larger than my fickle, earthbound, egocentric self. And I need increased service and compassion to my fellow passengers with whom I share this turbulent voyage.

Where do I start? Here. I start right here with writing. And while at times it’s fitting to write about the landscape of the digital ocean (screen time, filters, stuff we haven’t even thought of yet), other times, like right now, I only want to write about the ocean writ large. When terror roils and the earth moans, when fear rules and humankind grieves and keens, compartmentalized themes feel irrelevant, even irreverent.

So here’s to increased reverence. Thanks for allowing me to reach deeper in the next posts. With luck, we’ll remain buoyant together.

 

 

 

 

 

Auschwitz: Images and Words

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"Macht" is the conjugated German verb, "to make". It is also a noun: "Power".

“Macht” is the conjugated German verb, “to make or render.”  It is also a noun: “Power.”

Our group, entering the camp.

Our group, entering the camp

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Who Says
Julia Hartwig
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering
scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished
songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces
But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown
this
and not the monstrous uproar on the street drenched with blood
the wild screams of the mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soliders
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm
with milk
Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescues
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful
numbness of despair
At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff
and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place
beneath silent stars in which these events
had been recorded centuries ago.

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 Prisoners' collected belongings – here, prosthetics.

Prisoners’ collected belongings.  Here, prosthetics

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Massacre of the Boys
Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski

The children cried, “Mummy!
But we have been good!
It’s dark in here! Dark!”

See them They are going to the bottom
See the small feet
they went to the bottom Do you see
that print
of a small foot here and there

pockets bulging
with string and stones
and little horses made of wire

A great plain closed
like a figure of geometry
and a tree of black smoke
a vertical
dead tree
with no star in its crown.

[The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948]

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Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

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Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

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It was odd and uncomfortable to walk out of that execution courtyard

The strangeness of walking out of that execution courtyard

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Passion of Ravensbrück
Janos Pilinsky
Translated from the Hungarian by Janos Csokits and Ted Hughes

He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like projection.

He is horribly alone.
His pores are visible.
Everything about him is so gigantic,
everything is so tiny.

And this is all.
The rest–––
the rest was simply
that he forgot to cry out
before he collapsed.

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Observation hole in door to bunker

Observation hole in door to gassing and burning bunker

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Leaving. . .

Leaving. . .

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom Meets Grief and Grace

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013. All photos from Milan's Duomo.

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013. All photos from Milan’s Duomo.

How do you celebrate the birthday of your deceased child?

Yesterday, February 20th, would have been Parker’s 24th birthday. Days like these can be hard and lonely. I have to resist the temptation to self-medicate under feathers packed into three hundred count cotton, and have to turn my back from the pit of quicksand. If I don’t, I’m a gonner.

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Until last year, I thought the suction of oblivion, powerful on certain landmarks like yesterday, was maybe just my fault, the curse of my sensitive nature. Until I came across enough statements – dozens – from other parents, who had the same experience.

Actress and bereaved mother, Marianne Leone Cooper, was frank in her memoir Knowing Jesse,about losing her 17-year-old and only son, and wrote that although she can star in a TV series, laugh til she cries, and host a hundred for a holiday party, there are still difficult days like Jesse’s birthday, when she is overcome with tears and longing and craves an entire day in bed. It’s then that she challenges herself to stay engaged with people. Love them. Serve them. Share her son with them.

Solid advice.

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But I couldn’t follow it yesterday because I had work to do, and my work is writing, and writing is a doggoned solitary pursuit.

So I kissed by kids goodbye at 7:15 a.m. sharp at our front door, waved them off to school, then walked straight to this computer. And I worked.

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And worked.

And I worked for hours. Eleven of them. Straight. One ten-minute break every two hours. All generators running at a low, that constant hum, pushing toward a self-imposed deadline: dinner time, February 20th.

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Let me quickly explain what deadline I’m referring to.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve authored two books, both of which are in different stages of getting out the publishing door. One, an anthology entitled Grief and Grace, is presently stalled a bit in the approval process. I’m desperate to get that work into your hands and can promise it will indeed happen, I just can’t tell you exactly when. I’ve been including quotes from Grief and Grace in this blog since this moment , when, saddened by the senseless killings in Newtown, Massachusetts, I decided to devote as long as it takes on this blog to the topic of loss, grief and mourning.

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Up to that point in the life of this blog, however, I’d been posting regularly on a different manuscript, my other book, Global Mom: A Memoir, slated for bookstores in June. In those entries, I’d taken you along on our family’s journey from New Jersey to Norway to France, had looped back for some extra Norway scenes I thought you would appreciate, and was heading back to France again, (as our family did), only this time to the heart of Paris.

Uh, yeah.  If I’m not mistaken.

(I totally sympathize if you sometimes come here not knowing quite where you are on the world map. It feels that way to live it.)

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What has all this blogging and booking meant? While I’ve been posting every week on Grief and Grace, and while, to my complete surprise also increasing my readership, (thanks in part to this post and the award it received called “Freshly Pressed”, granted by our blog host, WordPress), I’ve been quite busy off-blog, getting Global Mom ready for design lay-out and then publication in a matter of weeks.

Put neatly: my ankles are swollen and other things are flumpy from all this dadgum sitting.

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“Publication in a matter of weeks” means now’s when things get granular: I’m running out of time to condense a tad here, expand a bit there, source-check, send pages to Norwegian, French, German, Austrian, Chinese and Singaporean friends, to make sure that my observations of their cultures stay just on this side of landing me in jail. Pretty soon is when someone, my editor, I guess, yells, “Uncle!”, and confiscates my computer. No more fiddling. And I develop an ulcer over all I wrote but shouldn’t have, all I should have written but didn’t, and why I didn’t think to wash my hair the week those candid shots were taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, one of which, the very last image in this post, will be gracing a book cover. But ah, the rest of my family is so, so heartbreakingly beautiful. . .

Which rambling preamble brings me to yesterday. It brings me – books and blogs and the forces of destiny – to February 20th, what would have been my beautiful boy’s 24th birthday.

As I watched for months the approach of this date, I made a personal commitment a little like Marianne Leone’s: I’d devote that day to being  literally or at least literarily as close as possible with others and my son. I would get this book done-done. For him.

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In the eery soundproofing of Swiss silence, (tell me: can you hear individual snowflakes thawing where you are?), I worked. Head low, eyes swimming, shoulders tensing, ankles spreading, I worked. I read and read and compared versions and tweaked and cleaned and read and read more. My breaks I took only when I’d clicked “send” on the chapter going to my editor. Otherwise, I didn’t budge.

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What was I reading? I was reading the last eight chapters of this 26 chapter book. I have to admit I’d put it off, fearing where it might take me, because it is potent material: the narrative that starts with the last hours of Parker’s life and stretches over the five-and-a-half years of our family’s life without (and with) him in this world.

In other words, I spent 11 hours not only reviewing Global Mom, but reliving Grief and Grace.

I spent my dead son’s birthday with him.  In every line. Filling every margin.

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I revisited the death chamber of the ICU, which spilled over with love and light brought by seen and unseen loved ones.

From Global Mom:

We brought all the waiting family and friends into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed. There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. As Parker’s body had by that time been turned over onto its back, we could freely study and memorize his face during these, our last minutes of private communion with him. As heads bowed, I looked around. I felt that reverence or that illuminating presence, that vibration, only greatly heightened, and realized in an uncanny way for which I cannot account even as I write this, that everything was exactly as it was supposed to be: the shape and placement of the windows; the slant of late morning light on the floor; my own hands so ice cold their nails were bluegray; Randall’s soulful expression like a late Rembrandt self-portrait; Dalton whose bearing and depth was of a forty-five year old; Claire with her open, light-filled stare; my parents, so vulnerable and shaken; the soft faces of friends and family; the sense that others, unseen but real, were there, filling in all the blank spaces. And Parker’s Adonis form under a perfect sheet of white.

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On the next page, I’m standing again in his funeral, where a sea of faces full of compassionate anguish looked at us and sang a closing hymn that practically blew out a Mormon chapel’s walls and roof. Pain erupting in joy.

From Global Mom:

“The funeral,” Randall whispers, “It was. . .just. . .I can’t believe they all came.” I don’t want the children to notice our tears; weeping is almost all they’ve seen and heard and done for two weeks straight.


“They flew across the world, all those people,” I look down at our hands, gripping one another’s. He shakes his head; “How could they. . .? I’m just . . . And the music. . .” We tilt our heads to where our crowns meet. I feel him shaking.


The day of your own child’s funeral is the day you should never live to see. It is, in the imagination of those anticipating it in the abstract or in the minds of those observing it from afar, the hardest possible day of any parent’s life. It is the day when the father should collapse with a heart attack, one thinks, or the morning the mother should do something dangerous in her bathroom. The day you should never ever live to see, you parent. The day you would of course never want to relive.
Yet here we are, The Father and The Mother, bent together in Row 34 of an airplane, aching to relive it frame-by-frame. The day was that brilliant – brilliantly excruciating and brilliantly exquisite – like the sun that seemed to affix itself stubbornly at its peak, a sun that wouldn’t be dismissed from early morning until early evening, perched there on the topmost rung of sky like the high sounds of a bugle’s call, punchy, relentlessly scorching and brassily happy. All those things at once. That was the day.

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In the next chapter, I returned to Munich, the place of our exile, and remembered those who, though stymied in their efforts to connect with us parents, swooped in and carefully cradled our disoriented children. I read of teachers and church goers and work colleagues and utter strangers, I saw friends calling across the globe and emailing at all hours with wise counsel and sorrow in each syllable. I revisited revelation and miracles for which there can be no explanation unless one considers and accepts the reality of a spiritual world. Everywhere, I saw a tall, handsome young man whose highest post-mortal priority was and still is to minister to his family.

From Global Mom:

Somewhere in those half-sleeping, half-waking hours that immediately followed, all the lights went on in my inner dream cinema. Parker was there.

I wrote in my dream journal:

He was standing, smiling and fully in his element, in the center of a crescent shape of five people; two figures to his left, two to his right. He wore a light blue rugby shirt with a collar, white horizontal stripes and short sleeves, faded jeans, and sandals. Both his hands were in his pockets and his head was turned to look intently at the person to his left. That person, carrying some stacked books in her arms and dressed conservatively, was talking quietly to him. The setting was campus-like, with a backdrop of brilliant, glimmering green trees, and there was a neo-classical building like a specific one I knew from my own alma mater’s campus. Behind this crescent of figures, there were just a few other figures, all in their late teens or early twenties, crossing behind Parker and going up and down these steps into the neoclassical building.
Again, Parker was calm, but in no way indifferent, in fact, he was nodding lightly and seemed eagerly engaged. It was clear to me that he was learning something from whatever the young woman to his left was explaining. She was teaching him something, this I somehow intuitively understood, and he was new there in this setting,  being introduced to these people, to their conversation and to their ways.
As well as looking wholesome and healthy, he was radiant, cheerful. There were no multiple and severe head wounds, no swollen eyes, no bruises, no protruding contusion over the left ear, no tubes, no corpselike pastiness. Just Parker among all his friends, as natural as the air. Parker as he’d always been, but visibly serene.
As I marveled at all the beauty and tried to get closer to take a closer look at him and perhaps get his attention and interrupt (why was I not able to run to him, to get closer faster?), he turned his head slightly from the young woman still engaging him in conversation at his left. He looked right at me. It was a knowing, intimate glace, and it lasted perhaps five seconds. He looked at me and said nothing, my heart startled, and I understood these ideas: “This is how it is, Mom. This is where I am. I am learning. I am with my people. You have done with me what you did with the other kids tonight: You’ve handed me into someone else’s care to be schooled further.”

And then he turned his head back to his new friends – ah, sweet Parker; your friends always got more of your time than I did, even in death – and the lights dimmed and the picture washed away.

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I moved on in my reading to Singapore, where there were such warm waves of love, you could have bodysurfed in the foam alone. I was reminded of the countless kindnesses extended to our family, the private remembrances of a son no one there had ever known but were willing to commemorate.

From Global Mom:

There were friends for hiking up and down Singapore’s hilly tropical rain forest, friends for yoga, friends for making music, friends for serving in church and traveling to near-lying Asian destinations. There were, to our surprise, friends to mourn with, friends to remember Parker even though no one here knew us, no one had ever known of Parker. There was the one friend who remembered every single 19th of every month, the day of Parker’s accident. Or another who digitally designed an up-to-date family photo into which she magically added Parker’s 18-year-old face. The woman who, on Mother’s Day, sent a brief but soothing email, “Hey, thinking of you today. How are you doing?” and the friend who spent months painting Parker’s portrait from a photo, one of the last photos ever taken of him while he played a drum solo in his senior class talent show. People were there on every hand, it seemed, enfolding us in more love and compassion that one family can know what to do with.

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I saw in my writing how each of us – Randall, Claire, Dalton, Luc, and myself – had been hugely fortified over time, and how our experience disproved all the  conventional language for grief. We had not “lost” Parker; he was in no way “lost” since we knew where he was, nor had we forfeited him to some random cosmic lottery. And he wasn’t actually “dead”, at least not in the sense we’d habitually used that word. Unwatered house plants, our Internet line, your smartphone connection, they were what we call dead. 

But Parker? He was more alive than you or me or anyone.

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By the time I hit my deadline – I did hit my deadline – I was as bonded to Parker as I’d been in a long time. He was at my elbow, it seemed, nodding, prodding me forward. I had spent the day engaged, if only literarily, in his immortal life and others’ mortal ones. In a small way I was, through my work, serving them by sharing my son’s story with them.

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Stiff but satisfied, I checked email one last time. It was our Claire, with this week’s missionary letter:

Carissimi amici,

I wanted to begin the email by acknowledging Parker’s birthday, which is today. I have been thinking a lot about him, and how often, during my mission service, he has shown me in little ways that he is involved with my work here. This week I saw it in a big way.. . .

Eight enthusiastic paragraphs later, Claire had described in detail her brother’s ongoing presence in her life.

I shut this overworked laptop of mine and let peace move over me.  It was much softer and far more enlivening than any feather comforters and three hundred count cotton sheets. So galvanizing was this day of comfort, in fact, and so complete was my gratitude, I couldn’t even force myself to stay in bed under my fluffy covers last night.

So I waddled back in here, and for some hours and by the light of my screen alone, I wrote this post to thank my God, my Parker, and my friends like you.

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Fashions of the Cross

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

When I told my friend our family was taking a quick day trip to Milan, she clucked, “Ooooo, Milan! Shopping, right?”

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Milan is known throughout the world as one of the major fashion pulse centers. Over the last few decades, this northern Italian city has become a formidable haute couture-opolis, one that makes Parisians quake in their Louboutins, Londoners tip their Vivienne Westwood hats, and New Yorkers bend a Donna Karan knee or two.

But fashion was the last thing on my mind when I traveled there on Friday.

What was?

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You.

Well, you and Emily Dickinson.

Alright. You, Dickinson, and all of humanity.

Okay. You, Dickinson, all of humanity, and the cathedral of Milan.

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Il duomo, as this famous cathedral is known, put Milan on the map long before the Prada brothers Mario and Martino opened a leather goods shop in 1913 in the famous Galleria Vittoria Emanuel II, one of the world’s original shopping malls dating from the 1860’s.

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As a matter of fact, the cathedral’s unparalleled architectural phantasmagoria dates to the 1300’s, when its nearly six centuries of construction began.

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It’s true; while traveling to Milan, I was thinking of you and the recent discussion we’ve been having in this blog about types of grief. Dickinson called these variations on sorrow the “fashions of the cross” in her poem on grief I shared in a recent post.

It was these fashions, and not fashion-fashion that preoccupied my thoughts as Randall, Luc and I boarded our crack-of-dawn train and chugged from Switzerland into neighboring Italy.

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Along the way, and while anticipating visiting il duomo, I quizzed Randall on all we knew personally about various “fashions of the cross”. Specifically, we discussed varieties of suffering we’re acquainted with close-up, from within our two combined families, the Daltons and the Bradfords, and from our most intimate circle of friends.

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Because I’ve been writing about “sorrow that the eye can’t see”, we two were concentrating on those sorrows which, for whatever reasons, are grieved privately, sorrows no casual outside observer could necessarily identify or would even recognize without some guidance, sorrows which are sometimes intentionally shrouded in secrecy.

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By the time we reached Milan’s stazione centrale, we’d had a sobering conversation. We’d also compiled quite the list. What hidden or unspeakable sorrows have marked our two families and our closest circle of friends? What private crosses are being born within a community of responsible citizens, solid families, folks with access to education, running water, vitamin supplements, several pairs of shoes? People who stay out of the tabloids, off of the Most Wanted wall in the post office, well under any FBI radar?

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As I said, the list is sobering. Still, I’m convinced we’re what you’d call a normal bunch. Maybe your normal bunch is a little like ours.

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I mentally scrolled through this long list of sorrows as we made our pilgrimage all the way from the central train station to this, the city’s heart.

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Here, at the piazza del duomo, or the place of the cathedral, we came upon a kind of buzzing epicenter. The cathedral, which dominates and draws everyone to this open place is symbolic of paradise – entering its huge carved doors and crossing over its threshold into its cross-shaped floor plan is supposed to symbolize approaching God’s throne.

Now here it stands like so many cathedrals today, like the celestial city of God right in the core of the urban city of man. Three steps out its front door is a bustling commons where all of humanity seems to be sharing in one big party.

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It’s here where I, list in mind and camera at eye, watched this human pageant. I had one question in mind: who here might be bearing invisible sorrows like those from my list?

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Chronic unemployment

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Fraud, larceny, imprisonment

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Falsified credentials, falsified identity

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Abuse (sexual, emotional,verbal, physical) either as perpetrator or as victim

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Social humiliation

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Substance abuse or addiction

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Paranoid schizophrenia

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Borderline personality disorder

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Anxiety disorder

Debilitating phobias

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Cutting/scarring

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Eating disorders that flourish in secrecy like anorexia, bulimia

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Bipolar disorder, depression, manic depression

Suicidal tendencies

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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Aspergers Syndrome

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Sexual dysfunction

Uncertainty of sexual orientation

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Chronic and/or terminal illness

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Incontinence, bladder or bowel

A loved one with dementia

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A loved one with advanced Alzheimer’s

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Spiritual decline or apostasy

Unforgiveness, grudges, vengeance

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Estrangement from family or friends

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Abandonment

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Loneliness, hopelessness

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Isolation, prejudice

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Somewhere around my hundredth photo, all this sorrow I was imagining started pressing on me. I felt its cold weight. I stopped shooting and let my camera dangle on its strap around my neck. For a moment I stood still.

Then came a minuscule epiphany – an epiphanette – scratching on my spirit, gerbil-like.

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Or maybe it wasn’t a scratch as much as it was the itch that comes with the thaw of cold.

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Was I smiling? I know I was. I sensed warmth seeping from the cathedral out over the plaza, radiating in an astral pattern like the roads do from the piazza del duomo itself. The warmth moved in all directions over the milling human bodies spinning and toitering like asteroids in some inscrutably ordered chaos. Bumping. Fumbling. Stumbling across the square. The too-brief moment on this crowded mortal square.

It was there, a humming warmth, and it saturated all this jumbled humanness. From its darkest secret sorrows to its brightest hopes for relief, everything was accounted for, comprehended, absorbed.

With noontime clarity, I understood this is the nature of things. Holy presence. Human Plaza. The two indissoluble. Eternally one.

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The late afternoon crowd wasn’t transformed by what I was sensing in the moment. But my experience was. The hundreds remained hunched inward, backs close to but turned away from the cathedral entry. Every last one seated right on the verge. Less than a hair’s breadth from that blazing, light-gushing threshold.

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“Hey,” Luc hopped onto my train of thought, “You ever coming inside to see your cathedral? We’ve already done the whole tour.”

“Coming,” I said, replacing the lens cap and reentering reality. “Whew, sorry! I just got a little carried–”

“While you go check out the stained glass and the statue of that one Saint guy who was skinned alive, we’re going shopping, kay?”

He lifted his eyebrows and half-smiled while reaching over and removing the lens cap I’d just clicked into place. “You’ll want to take lots of pictures in there. Lots. Like for at least an hour, right?”

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Next post, I’ll take you on that tour.

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

Disregard, Disassociation, Distance

More of my photos from Gruyères as a respite for your eyes

More of my photos from Gruyères as a respite for your eyes

This opening story, like the last one I posted, is dangerous but instructive and essential. It is also, I hope, beautiful. Not beautiful in the conventional sense, but beautiful in its discord-leading-to-resolution. Before sharing, I want to explain that I’ve already passed it under the eyes of those implicated, and in their humility and loving-kindness they’re willing to have it shared publicly even if it’s not too terribly flattering at first. They want it told.

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Two months into our new life in Munich, two months after burying our son in another country, and my parents have not contacted us yet.
No phone calls. No emails. And I’m growing despondent.
But do I call them?
No.
Why not?
Because I’m overwhelmed with sadness, for one thing. I’m saturated with our three children’s sadness, with my husband’s sadness, which sad saturation is compounded, of course, by the demands of an international move managed under extreme physical and psychological impairment, and in the vacuum of no familiar support community, a vacuum that’s gaining suction with every week that passes.
Why else am I not calling? As strange as it seems I am afraid.
I am afraid that family and friends are now done. They’ve moved on to brighter things, lighter things.
And then the trailing question to that thought strangles me: is that what they’re expecting me to do, too? Be done? Am I supposed to “get over it”? Get it behind me? Get to work? Get myself together, get a grip, get on with life, get a life?
I’ve never done this before, this incomprehensible and inescapable  pain, so I don’t know the rules. I do know, however, that I’m doing really well just getting up.
I’m afraid of other things, too. I’m afraid of what might happen as soon as I open my mouth, afraid of the inadequacies of language to transmit what I can barely understand myself, afraid of puncturing the thick and sacred walls I’ve built around this island of grief we’ve been shipwrecked on.
Furthermore, I’m afraid that my call will be misperceived as a prompt for pity.
But here’s the main thing: in spite of all of the above and far deeper than every other fear, I am afraid that if no one talks with me about my son he will begin to slip from my grasp. He will disappear into oblivion. I recoil at a quote I find from Russian author Alexander Pushkin, “Oblivion is the natural lot of anyone not present. It’s horrible, but true.”
So this, fear instructs me, is how I will lose my child a second time.
Confused, overwhelmed and afraid, I go even deeper inside. I climb down into a crater I’ve dug with my nails in the middle of my grief island. And I crouch there. I go very, very quiet. And a wee bit crazy. Bereaved parents – even those in the very best of circumstances – often feel crazy. Just ask them. I get a bitter little swig of the crazees.
I crouch. I wait. I watch. I wait. And wait.
I wait more.

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Last week of October and a gunmetal gray day presses down on the Isar river outside our apartment window. The leaf-shedding trees I’ve been watching daily, hourly, are emaciated, stripped down to bark nakedness. I am in my robe. It is midafternoon. The phone rings. It is my parents. The call goes something like this:
(They’re both addressing me on speakerphone. Their voices are slightly unnatural, and remind me of pastel taffy. Sugary softness wrapped in wax with tight twists at both ends.)
“Our whole California trip was just wonderful, Melissa. Very enjoyable and relaxing.”
Pause.
“. . .Um-huh.”
Pause.
“Yes. Mom and I thought the hotels were comfortable, and the weather, well, what did you think, Donna?”
“Very comfortable. Unseasonably warm. . .even balmy. . .”
Pause.
“. . .Um-huh.
Pause.
“And then there was the hotel swimming pool. Kidney shaped. Too cold, but deep aqua tiles. Pretty to look at.”
Pause.
“. . .Um-huh.”
And so forth.
When we hang up, I drop the phone on the bed. I’m immobile with exhaustion. I can’t lift my head. From one half-opened eye I see on the bedspread that I’ve left a dark blue tear-print as big as a tile-lined kidney-shaped swimming pool.
Alone in this small, dim bedroom I feel all my cells collapsing and my bones turning to syrup and my torso cramping and my neck muscles tensing. Then I hear an animal in me yowling very quietly through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw.
And I fall majorly apart.
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Who knows how long it lasts.
At some point I pull myself together, gather my wits, blow my nose, pray out loud, cry a few words to Parker, and call back my parents. That conversation goes something like this:
(My voice is also slightly unnatural, like I’m just coming out from under anesthesia.)
“Mom?”
“Oh, it’s you again, honey. Good, good! Did we forget something?”
“I. . .I need. . .” I have been lying on my side, but now I sit up to assume my erect, well-planted persona. This way I can breathe and project better. “I am going to say something now. . .”
“Melissa? Did we do something? You sound. . .Wha – did we say the wrong thing?… Sweetheart?”
(“David, come back. Hurry. She’s on the phone.”)
“Mom?. . .I need. . .what I want is. . .” I close my eyes. “Can we just talk. . .talk about. . . about what matters?
By now my dad, who’s turned off the speakerphone, has the receiver close to his lips. His voice vibrates in its lowest register. I know this voice: panic-control mode.
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“Melissa? Now tell us please, honey. What do you need to talk to us about?”
I try to speak, but it’s too physically demanding to push words ahead of the crying that is surging, it seems, upwards from the floor of my gut, so I make some incomprehensibly muffled sounds. My parents wait patiently on their end of the line as I begin filling up that kidney-shaped pool with the tears of a child.
Infantilized. I’m six years old again, needing my mommy and daddy, I think while I keep fighting for breath between gasps and whimpers, scrambling to find my mind, find myself. How can this be happening? I don’t know how to control any of this. This forty-something someone, the one who just a short season ago was resourceful and commanding enough to referee several major international moves, plucky and outspoken enough to lecture before hundreds, a turbo-chargedjoie de vivre Type A type. . .That someone is replaced by a mucus-drooling amoeba, a formless heap of swollen-eyed sweaty-stale bathrobeness that can’t form a single pronounceable shape in her rubber-slobbery mouth.
“Melissa?” My dad’s now whispering.
“Oh, Melissa, dear, what did Dad and I do? Was it the pool, honey? Oh, darling…” my mother’s voice is cracking. “That’s it, David. I knew it. Oh, I. . .Should we, should we not have said the word pool?. . .David, you see? I just knew we’d say something wrong–”
“No! NO, Mom.” I drill a fist into the mattress. “No! I. . .I just – I need to talk. . .But. . .I can not talk about just anything. I have to talk about Parker. About him. I need us to talk about Par—
The dam ruptures. The floodgates smash. Deluge. Tides of tears. From both sides of the Atlantic.
Remorse.
Apologies.
Love.
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Hurriedly, my parents explain that they’ve intentionally not called for so long to “give us room”. They didn’t want to “open any wounds”, they say. They didn’t want to “remind us of our loss.”
“The longer we didn’t take contact,” my mom’s voice is twisted with pain, “the more awkward we felt about calling.”
“You hadn’t been calling us”, my dad interjects softly, “so we reasoned that you must have been doing well. . . enough.”
Which they knew was probably unlikely, they say, but they had at least hoped. . .And in the worst case scenario if in fact we weren’t doing well we probably wanted to be left alone. “Were we wrong?” my dad asks.
“Besides all of that,” my mom cuts in, “we’ve been traveling, you know, and lecturing,” which I know was their way of finding a practical distraction from heavy things. My dad, during those days around the funeral, had been discreetly clenching his chest. I didn’t know how much of the weight of grief his aging heart could bear. He probably needed reprieve. “Death, like the sun,” wrote La Rochefoucauld, “are not to be looked at steadily.”
They explain to me how hard it was to decide to finally call, that before they dared pick up the phone, they’d agreed on a game plan. No mention of anything even remotely associated with Parker. And by all means keep the tone upbeat and frothy – light, feathery talk – to divert attention from, you guessed it, the mammoth Isle of Grief I was sitting on, the one as big as the whole Atlantic ocean between us. The one getting bigger by the moment.
I have no words. I wrap a moist, shredding tissue in and around my fingers, which are stone cold.
“Melissa, sweet daughter,” my mom’s voice is loosening as if massaged with oil. “We love you, honey, and we’re so sad about Parker we can hardly. . .” There is silence. I hear the unfamiliar sound of my mom trying to talk through tears.
“What your mother’s trying to say,” my dad adds, “is that we can hardly breathe.”
Now it is the far more unfamiliar sound of my dad struggling through tears.
“We are sorry, darling.” Mom has the voice of a young girl.
“And,” Dad clears his throat, “we’re deeply, deeply sad. Mournful. You know,” he speaks so softly that if I close my eyes, I could swear he and my mom are sitting on the edge my bed, “this is all so new to us. We don’t know how to do this well. But let’s change this, can we? Can we change this and stay in this horrible thing together? Please?”
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Every blessed day from that moment on and for months on end, at three a.m. Mountain Standard Time, my mom, unable to sleep for her own suffocating sorrow at losing her beloved oldest grandchild, called Munich.

**

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The newly bereaved are incapable of thinking of anything else but their loss and their past. Buttoning a collar, folding gym socks, stapling homework, putting a key in the ignition, sitting and staring and feeling their own heart beat–all of it is downright freighted, barnacled, throbbing with loss. If we as co-mourners think it is our job to fill our interactions with our grieving friends with empty chatter in order to not “remind” the bereaved of their loss, or if we feel things will be better if we never say a word, we are mistaken. If we think it’s better we all pretend nothing happened, and that we as friends are safer staying far away, we are also terribly mistaken.

Being thus mistaken, we might find ourselves returning to our broken friends much (too much) later saying the following. (I will protect the identity of the speakers, but want you to know that these are not fiction. They are quotes with good people’s faces behind them):

“I couldn’t speak to you. Your story kind of intimidated me.”
“I just didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. I am so sorry.”
“I was afraid I’d say something that would hurt you more.”
“I didn’t want to get you worked up about the past.”
“I figured you wanted space.”
“I’ve never known loss, so I don’t know how to do this.”
“I didn’t want to impose myself.”
“Your pain frightened me. You looked too sad to approach”
“I felt totally helpless. I kept trying to find something original to say. But I guess I never found that thing.”
“You were so sad for so long, and I was worried. I thought the gospel was supposed to fix these things.”
“We didn’t know how to help you find closure.”
“I’ve been an awful friend. Honestly, I’ve been so distracted with other things in my life.”
“We thought we’d wait a few weeks until you looked like you were over the worst part, until you were healed. Then it seems the weeks passed so quickly and, well. . .”
“I know it’s been a few months since I last checked in. Can you catch me up?”
“A parent’s worst nightmare. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I just didn’t dare get close to it, to you.”

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The newly bereaved can become despondent and/or angry and/or resentful if we as co-mourners choose to avoid them. If fear, discomfort , self-absorption or self-consciousness drive us to silence or to a literal detour away from them (and down another aisle in the grocery store, for instance), the bereaved will probably interpret this as a tacit disregard of their loss. We needn’t ambush them with attention or crush them with affection. But if we disassociate ourselves from them while we wait at a distance for them to “get over it” , we not only lose the great blessing – for them and for us – to help them in their greatest hour of need which will offer us a chance for great spiritual bonding with them and with heaven, but we risk disappearing from that relationship definitively. The process of mourning is by nature constant, constantly changing and communal; it is not something distanced friends can later “catch up” on.

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So we have a challenging dynamic here. We grief-stricken have to ask ourselves: is this harmful conspiracy of silence partially our own fault? I have a hard time admitting it myself, but I’ve concluded that yes, it’s partially been my fault. This conspiracy of silence was partially my fault because, as is typical and understandable of those battling with the huge physiological and psychological demands of acute grief, I simply did not have it in me to coach others on how to reach me.

And, as the story of the phone call illustrates, the very idea of coaching others – even the most intimate and lifelong confidantes – on how to grieve with me was loaded with traps and cul de sacs and second-guesses and frustration.
I have reason to believe that in this respect, my story is not at all unique.
From all that I have gathered in five years of studying this, most bereaved generally don’t want to force on anyone a conversation about their deceased loved one although a continued conversation is exactly what they want and need.

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Why are we bereaved so tentative, then, about initiating such conversations? There are as many reasons as there are grievers. But here are just a few possibilities. What if people stare back dully (as some will), or look at their watches (as some will), or grow jittery and awkward, stuttering with no response except maybe, “So. . . is it therapeutic for you to talk about your [son, sister, wife, father] like this?” (as some will.)
What if they quickly change the subject?
As many (most) undoubtedly will.

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Challenging dynamics, indeed.
And of course they are challenging. They are challenging because there is little in life that is as intimate as the loss of it, little that is as delicate and multidimensional as the living’s personal response to it. And someone else’s loss puts my own mortality in boldface. And certain cultures are squeamish about touching on painful and unphotogenic issues. And, and, and. But all these And’s don’t absolve us from the charge to counter the old modes of response with something that is authentic and broken in ourselves. Because true religion (what happens between us human beings in extremis) is supposed to be challenging. How else are we to be brought to Christ but through challenging dynamics? Challenging relationships?

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**

What will happen to us when we find ourselves not in a supporting role in a drama of in extremis, but when we are the lead figure? When the tragic loss is our own, not our neighbor’s? And then our parents don’t call and we feel the first heart-hardenings of despondency. And then church members appear incapable of engaging in our life so colored with mourning, and we feel the slightest simmer of resentment. When a sibling here or a sister-friend there disappears, it seems, from off the face of the earth, and we smell a small saucepan of outrage boiling on our frontal lobe.

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When our heart begins feeling a bit dried out, then brittle, then crusty from anger, curling up around the edges under a low grade fuming, toasting under the grill of judgment, blistering beneath the scorch of our own expectations?

What then?

We might call to mind Job, who lost livelihood and life, family and friends, all his possible supporting actors: “He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintances are verily estranged from me./ My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me.” (Job 20:13,14)

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And in the final chapter of his book, this man who has literally nothing left to lose, offers up a precious intangible. He offers forgiveness.

Upon seeing God clearly for the first time, (“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye seeth thee”), Job feels compelled to repent “in dust and ashes.” When he does, God announces that Job will be acceptable when Job “prays for his friends.”

Job’s trial is not complete, his refinement not perfected until he forgives and prays for and on behalf of those who have added to his misery.

He has seen God. Now he is being asked to be as God. Stripped of all former glory, ground into the dust, mocked, misjudged, condemned, abandoned.

And still worthy to become the High Priest only on condition of mercy and forgiveness:

“And the Lord turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends.”

What might that prayer have been, the one Job spoke on behalf of his friends? I suspect it would have prefigured another prayer uttered by the only true and great High Priest:

“Father, forgive us all for we know not what we do.”

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**

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

If you and I want to be free of the bitterness that estranges us from others and eats away at our own struggle to find joy again, we are going to have to forgive and pray for the friends who have let us down. They might not deserve it. In fact, they probably don’t. But then, we don’t forgive people because they deserve it; we forgive them because we’ve been forgiven so much by God and because we want to keep in close relationship with God.
–Nancy Guthrie, Holding on to Hope, 68

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings—never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.
—N. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 35

There’s only one thing worse than speaking ill of the dead—and that is not speaking of the dead at all.
—Anonymus

It seems impossible to me to understand the cruelty of friends and family who desert parents at such a time. But in my research I found countless couples who had horror stories to relate, such as a brother, once close, who stopped calling his sister shortly after her child died, or friends who were never heard from again after the funeral.
–H. Schiff, The Bereaved Parent, 102

Good friends are like angels. Our friends brought us God’s presence and love. They did not solve our problems, as if grief were a problem to be solved. They did not dispense pious phrases. Our closest friends allowed us to be in as much pain as we were in and did not trivialize it by trying to move us beyond it. The angel in the garden did not say to Jesus, ”There, there.” In fact, we do not know what the angel said, or if the angel said anything at all. We are quite comfortable with not having anything to say.
–G. Floyd, My Grief Unveiled

Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.
–Thomas Merton

Swiss Christmas

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From Christmas in the Serengeti. . .

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. . .To Christmas in the Swiss Alps.

 

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

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

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

At least euphemistically so.

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

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

And that something was Parker himself.

**

The Last Noël

A true Christmas story

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

“Mom?”

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

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

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

She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night table lamp, away from the door, which she’d closed a couple of hours earlier, barricading herself into silence and as far as possible from the everyday, holiday noises that emerged from the end of the hall.

The holly bears the crown. . .

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

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

The silent stars go by. . .

The silent stars go by. . .

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

How silently, how silently. . .

How silently, how silently. . .

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

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

And sad.

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

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

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

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

Let loving hearts enthrone Him. . .

We traverse afar. . .

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

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

This is when he tapped her right shoulder.  And then he left his hand there.  The heat traveled all the way through her, into the mattress, as she envisioned its course, and to the floor.  How she wanted to respond. But her jaws were clenched and held in all the loving feelings her heart held in its pulse.

For unto us a child is born

Oh come, Oh come, Emmanuel. . .

“Why don’t you say something, Mom?  What have I done? Okay, so I should have cleaned up the dishes first.  But c’mon, they’re done now. Just. . .just come out there. Come see.”

She had lodged herself too deeply in the silence to creep out so easily now. Tired of speaking, giving orders, answering to everyone. Tired and worn out.  Another year: Gone, wrung out like I feel, squeezed dry to its very last particle.  

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Here we are again. Christmas. And stymied.

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

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

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

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

“Hey.”

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

“Honey. We’d love you to come out, just eat a little dinner, kay?  And then watch the movie with us. Maybe? No big production. Just be with us.”

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

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

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

The oldest son made a sudden move.  His voice came from above her, now. “Alright. I’m just. . . I’m going to change things here.” There was ballast in that voice now, a clip on each consonant. “Mom. Mom. Get. Up. And. Turn. Around.”

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

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

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

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

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

“Kay, I’m not going to add to the drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all.  This is it.” He pounded a fist into the carpet and shook his head.

Was he trembling? What was the stiffness in his lower lip? In his chin?

Their watch of wondering love. . .

Their watch of wondering love. . .

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

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

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

God and sinner reconciled. . .

God and sinners reconciled. . .

He took her hand, which gesture was a bit odd, but not too odd right then, and she let him take it. She felt each of his callouses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.

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

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

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

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

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

The gesture, a tug, unlocked something in her bones and she moved, almost effortlessly, letting the purple wrap crumple to the floor as she trailed her son and her husband down the hall, into the light, the noise, the company of her family.  The other three children looked at her, stopped tinkering, quibbling, and went quiet.  A suppressed grin and, “Hi. . . Mom!” came from the youngest, who wriggled his nose under the round little red frames of his glasses.

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

“Okay. Everyone?” The son holding his mother’s hand announced in the middle of the room, “We need to have a prayer.  We’re going to turn things around here.  So. . . we need the Spirit. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”

In the dark streets shineth. . .

In the dark streets shineth. . .

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

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

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

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

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

. . .And embraced again.

And so it continued both day and night. . .

And so it continued both day and night. . .

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

Where meek souls seek him the enters in

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

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

Heaven and nature sing. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

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

Tender and mild. . .

Tender and mild. . .

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

And it truly is.

002

**

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

Teacha Claira

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

Moshi lies an hour north of Arusha, Tanzania, literally in the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

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This is where our daughter Claire spent nearly five months volunteering in a juvenile detention center which, at the time, housed over twenty boys. Officially, these detainees were supposed to be between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But age is a flexible reality in Tanzania.  Some of them might have been almost as young as they looked, closer to ten or eight, it’s hard to judge.

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Officially, Claire’s work was to teach reading, writing and arithmetic; she was their one-room schoolhouse teacher.

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But she also instructed them in psychosocial skills.

And cooking.  Hygiene. Hope. Self respect. Whatever these boys needed.

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A year earlier, the boys used to share the same, cramped facility with girls lodged in an adjacent room.  Twenty-plus simple metal-framed bunk beds to a chamber.  This season, however, there were no female delinquents, it seemed. The system, otherwise full of loopholes and inadequacies, had at least succeeded in separating the sexes.  One can only imagine (and research and statistics verify) the rampant abuse, both sexual and physical, that takes place in conditions where youths are detained for prolonged periods in one facility with children or adults of both genders.  Such mixing is illegal of course, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.

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Why were these boys incarcerated in the first place?

From the boys with whom she grew closest and from a local assistant, Claire got a description:

This one had played hooky from his school, and so his parents sent him away.

The other one over there who looked ten years old but was probably eighteen had disrespected an elder. In other words, he’d fought back to protect a woman his uncle (and caregiver) was physically abusing.

The boy by the window was guilty of being abandoned. Next to him was a child whose mother had turned to prostitution to feed her children.  It is apparently illegal to be the child of a prostitute, not to be a prostitute oneself.

Another was the product of two AIDS-stricken parents who could no longer care for him.  There was nowhere else to put him but in detention.

This one had used “offensive language.”  One had been accused of homosexual activity. A few had been found wandering the streets begging, which in spite of Tanzania’s ubiquitous poverty, is a criminal offense.  Another had been selling plastic bottles on a corner, the gain from which his mother required to buy food for his siblings since there was no wage-earning father in the house.

Among them all there were but two serious allegations, one of rape and the other of murder. But the legitimacy of both allegations was dubious, and the accused perpetrators looked as world-weary, wide-eyed and vulnerable as starved hunting dogs.

What did they do day in and day out in juvi? Who was in charge?

The boys were overseen by two women they called The Mammas. These women –imposing, surly, dispensers of brusque corporal punishment – kept the boys in line from where they sat in a shaded alcove, directing the boys’ day’s work which included hauling the logs to build morning fires over which the boys cooked their own meals in this kitchen.
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“You must beat them,” one Mamma advised Claire in broken English the first day Claire came to work. “Beat,” the Mamma clapped her meaty hands in a firm whack into the air and then kicked her sandaled foot into the dirt, “Big beat.

Claire was not allowed to touch let alone beat the boys, of course, not that they ever needed beating or that she would ever have been inclined to beat them. She found them totally deferent and frankly too weak and fearful to do anything but follow orders.

The boys spent their mornings and afternoons in the classroom, where they were taught by Claire and an assistant.  Anything she ever knew about world geography, nursery rhymes, Robocop and Jackie Chan movies came in handy.  She taught it all. At the end of each session, she rewarded them by letting them congregate around her iPhone. They were quick to master technology.

At noon, the boys would kick around a ball in a small courtyard. Otherwise, they were to stay in their communal bunk room.

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There, they played a lot of cards. Some tried to read. Their life, you could say, was one protracted wait. They were never updated on their particular case, where it lay in the mounting pile of cases involving children in the Tanzania legal system.  They would wait for months at least. Some, for years.

And it would require a dissertation – or several dissertations, which no doubt exist – not a mere blogpost, to begin to pick apart the societal and governmental complexities that sustain such a corrupt program as the Tanzanian juvenile justice system. I wish I could devote more time and research to what I glimpsed in a matter of hours and gleaned from my conversations with Claire.  What I can write, though, is that these boys’ incarceration, living standards, and hope for a fair trial and for any decent future were grim beyond belief.

Most if not all of these children would be sitting in the bleakness of detention for months on end before their case would ever reach a given desk so they could appear before a judge.  On that day, they would not be allowed to defend themselves, would probably not see their parents, (who because of poverty, shame, despair or disinterest would not appear to defend their child at court), and most children could not speak the language of the court to begin with.

What was also striking was that for being “delinquents”, if every last one of these youths truly was delinquent, they were extraordinarily well-behaved.  They kept their eyes low, their voices soft, their hands folded tightly in their laps, bare feet flat on the cement floor. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think juvi was a clearing house for the Gifted and Talented.

“Good morning, Teacha Claira,” they chant in quiet unison. They hold their boney arms straight to their sides.  Their hands look overused and overlarge. Some of their backs probably had scars whose history I would hate to know.

These are real-life lost boys, and as I watch them all rise on their impossibly thin legs, my mind goes to the only other Lost Boys I know of; Peter Pan’s lively cohorts.  Troublemakers and goof-offs, those boys, hooligans and, since they eventually turn into donkeys, I guess I’m okay writing here that they were smart-asses.  They aren’t like these boys who stand in front of me, barefoot and obedient, toeing this unforgiving cracked cement.  Those fairytale donkey boys are not like these forgotten and disposed-of ones who eat thin gruel and bear their daily blows from The Mammas.  These lost boys in front of me stand waiting helplessly for their orders, be they from their advocate-teacher who will teach them English synonyms for “happy” today, or from a one-day judge who will, the world can only hope, hear them in their voicelessness.

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Many Waters and Fear

Fate is a fine-tuned poet.

Irreantum, (ear-ee-an’-tum: 1 Nephi 17:5. And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters.) is the literary journal for the AML, or the Association for Mormon Letters.  It happens to also be where an essay on fear and joy that I wrote has found a home. (And a nice award.  Thank you so much, AML.)

That this essay ends up in Many Waters is poetic, I think. Because if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, or if you’ve known something of our family’s story, you also know something about my 5-year-new fear of water.

Especially water in the plural.  The unpredictable, petrifying  plural.

And so to thank Irreantum (particularly Jack Harrell and Angela Hallstrom), as well as to encourage you to find the latest issue of the journal, and to give you a flavor of what that piece is about, I’m posting here a couple of excerpts of that essay, “Bridge to Elysium.”

(It’s an essay that pivots around a bridge we used to cross regularly the years we lived in Paris, the Pont de l’Alma.  Pont du Gard. Pont de l’Alma. This post as a bridge between the two. You see I have a thing for bridges. They keep you out of water’s why.)

When you finish with these excerpts and get around to procuring your own issue of Irreantum, you might note that a series of my poems, “Why I Carry Your I.D.” was also recently awarded there, too.  Those pieces will be published sometime in 2013.

Yuh, I know. I don’t blame you for thinking I’m paying off Jack and Angela on the side.  Honest, all I did was send an itsy bitsy 20 kilo crate of Swiss chocolate.

 And you call that a bribe?

**

Excerpts from “Bridge to Elysium”,  (in Irreantum)

We paused in the shadows between the glow of street lamps lining the bridge. There we stood, speechless on the Pont de l’Alma, the river flowing beneath us, its inky course pulsing with a glinting pelt of silver. Its flow teased that beauty from our grip, and we felt it slipping. This, too—the thought came unbidden—will end. How many more times, we asked each other, would we be able to stand just like this; together, safe, watching the river glide noiselessly under our feet, the sublime still pearling on our spirits the way sweat beads on the upper lip?

We tiptoed across the darkened threshold of our apartment. All was well: food in fridge, water in pipes, heat in radiators. Beethoven still rang in our ears, peace hung in the air, and no detergent was in the dishwasher, which, incidentally, had never been turned on. But who’s checking?

The three younger children were long since in bed. The one in charge, eighteen-year-old Parker, was still working, facing the bluish light of the computer screen, hunched over a psychology class research project.

“Freud,” he grunted, acknowledging our parental checking-in.

I gave half a chuckle. ”Know what his names means?”

Right palm spread against his brow, Parker propped up his exhausted head.

“Uh, let’s see. Boring?”

Joy. Joy boy Sigmund Freud!  ‘Freude’ means joy. You drop the “eh” at the end.”

“Okay. And oxymoron is what that means.” (At this late hour he was visibly unimpressed with Freud.) “You drop the ‘oxy’ at the start.

Snickering, I kissed the back of my big son’s head, and whistled Beethoven as I kicked off my heels. Randall loosened his tie. We hung our coats, tossed the tickets, and went to sleep in a world that felt part Elysian Field perfection, part garden variety quotidian, but both parts a completion; a whole, overflowing with abundance. And what abundance: all six of us under one roof. All of us together. All of us. Together. In the moment, that reality felt self-evident, more the standard mental checklist than the miraculous. But as I pulled the blanket over my shoulder, that knowledge returned: This, too, will end.

**

Our last year in Paris. Sounds like a chick flick, no way befitting of the stark reality that lay in store for our family. We would never again know our family as intact, life as whole. We would never again experience the world as continual, the next hour as a given. And we would never again refer to that year as “our last year in Paris.” In one split second, it would become The Last Year.

We would bury Parker.

**

Several of Parker’s friends had traveled from their different countries of origin to the site of his [funeral] services. At one point during the viewing, I noticed that these friends were clustered in a corner. There was the Jewish French-Portuguese musician, the red-headed New England atheist, the non-denominational Iranian, the staunch Philadelphian Catholic, the Italian Buddhist, the German-American brother-sister duo from New York City whose mother had come too. They were draped on each other, holding each other up, weeping, shoulders shaking.

I broke from the reception line and, in one spontaneous gesture, took them into a circle where, with our arms around one another’s shoulders, we bowed our heads. Then I prayed. I prayed out loud that our Father in Heaven and their friend Parker would calm and guide each of them, and that God’s presence would surround them and hold them up. Just like our circle. I cannot recall in detail all that poured out of me along with my tears, but when I ended—and this I do recall in every detail—I looked them each in the eye and said, “No fear. No fear.”

A strange thing to say. Better on a skateboarder’s T-shirt than on the lips of a grief-stricken mother. But the point is this. In that moment, I clearly saw the risk of them choking with fear, of them panicking at the prospect of living in a frightening world where random things like Parker’s death happen. I saw how any one of them could easily curl up in bitterness or despair and end up like Freud himself, who grumbled, “What good to us is a long life, if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?”[i] Did I want them to end up like that? Did I, for that matter,want to end up like that?So I repeated to them (and to myself) the same message Parker’s spirit and certainly other encircling spirits had been repeating to me from the first minutes of terror: “No fear. No fear.”

**

I could not sing the word joy. It seemed a mockery to me. Joy to this world? This world whose crust is, as writes Eleanor Stump, “soaked with the tears of the suffering”? (qtd. in Morris 236). Where there are trap doors and booby traps, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­out-of-the-clear-blue-sky terminal diagnoses, crushing train wheels, hidden whirlpools? This perilous, unpredictably violent minefield of a world where, with one step (like the fatal step of my friend’s son; like the fatal step of my own son), that which we rely on—the solid, foreseeable—vanishes right out from under our feet? No wonder C.S. Lewis wrote that grief feels so much like fear. There is a decidedlyvertiginous sensation that overtakes you when grief is most acute. It is like standing in an elevator on the 58th floor when, without warning, all the cables snap. That free falling, falling, falling.

**

“Fear not” is, as I have gradually begun to understand it, a divine injunction straight from God. The angels are directed, before anything else, to drive out fear in this trembling, suffering—and by all mortal measurements justifiably frightened—world. God Himself, whose sufferings outstrip all the accumulated sufferings of the infinitude of creation, greets us with the same words. “Fear not,” he says to Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, Daniel, Joseph, Zacharias, Simon, and scores of others (Genesis 15:1; Genesis 26:24; Genesis 46:3; Joshua 8:1; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13; Luke 5:10). “Fear not,” whole house of Israel. “Fear not,” all humankind. More than a pep talk, more than a pat on the head, “fear not” is a warning directed at fear—an exorcism, even, as writer Kathleen Norris suggests (144). “Fear not” is God’s steely, conquering command: “Fear, be not!  Fear, be gone!”

To exorcise fear, God flushes the darkness of this world with His blazing presence. And wherever His presence is, not only can fear not remain, but confidence, peace, contentment, wholeness, strength, and light—all cousins of joy—can flourish. Does the pain of loss necessarily disappear? No. Does my yearning for my son cease? No. Not in the least. But what does happen is that alongside—or better, from within—the pain and yearning comes a sense of being lovingly upheld by God. The terrifying free fall of fear lands, just in time, in His hands. It is then, eyes squeezed tightly shut in preparation for impact, when we realize with a gasp that those hands have been only a few inches ahead of our whole, dizzying descent. Indeed, those hands have descended below all things. They bear the marks to prove it. And so, still splayed flat and panting, we slowly open our view to this pellucid truth: Yes, we really can trust God with our lives.

http://irreantum.mormonletters.org/

**

© 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.