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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Comparing: Grief Olympics

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

The gal frightens me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Succor and Mourn; Console and Comfort

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On this Christmas day, one thought overwhelms all others in my mind:

He came.

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Knowing that God came, that He descended from His heaven to our heaviness – and below it – fills and unburdens my heart.

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The truth that He descends alongside all humankind’s sorrows including my own bears up my grief…

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Lightens it…

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…Shining light into its hidden corners, crowding out absence.

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He came, as He promised He would.

“I will not leave you comfortless,” He promises today. “I will come to you.” (John 14:18)

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So the pattern is clear: If we seek to share in His comfort, if we long to mediate God’s love for others, then we must come to them.

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Today I bow low in thanks to a God Who came…

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And to all those who, as mediators of His holy and healing presence, have come to us.

**

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

**

The original meaning of succor is to run or dash to someone’s aid. How soon we go, how easily we drop everything to help, says something about our esteem for the person in need. Zeal sends one message; hesitation another. The best time and most eloquent way to succor is to do so when need arises. After all, service is seldom convenient.
—Wayne Brickey, Making Sense of Suffering, 104

A physician who lost one of his own children says that before his loss, when he would hear of a child’s death, he would send a card; now he sends himself.
—Joyce and Dennis Ashton, Jesus Wept, 233

To show compassion means to share in the suffering “passion” of another. Compassion understood in this way asks more from us than a mere stirring of pity or a sympathetic word.
To live with compassion means to enter others’ dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer. Compassion holds us back from quick, eager explanations when tragedy meets someone we know or love.
–Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 67

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One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.
—Sophocles, quoted in To My Soul Mate, ed. Gary Morris, 59

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Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear—
And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?
And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.
Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.
Oh, He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
—William Blake, “On Another’s Sorrow,” The Poetical Works of William Blake, 75–76

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I am not thinking clearly. But I am thinking. I am trying to think.
Our friends arrive shortly after 2 a.m., in one car. Susan and Ron, Jeanne and Dan and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Lily whom Ray and I have known since her birth. When they step inside, and embrace me—it’s as if I have stepped into a violent surf.
Though our friends remain with me until 4 a.m. most of what we said to one another has vanished from my memory. Our friends will tell me that I behaved calmly and yet it was clear that I was in a state of shock. I can remember Jeanne on the phone, in the kitchen, making calls to funeral homes. I can remember my astonishment that a funeral home might be open at such an hour of the night. I can remember explaining to my friends how Ray died––why Ray died-––the secondary infection, the fact that his blood pressure plummeted, his heartbeat accelerated––these gruesome words which I have memorized and which, even now, at any hour of the they day, along with my final vision of Ray in the hospital bed, run through my mind like flashes of heat lightning.
My friends are extraordinary, I think. To come to me so quickly in the middle of the night as they’ve done.
For the widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling. The widow inhabits a nightmare-tale and yet it is likely that the widow inhabits a benign fairy tale out of the Brothers Grimm in which friends come forward to help. We loved Ray, and we love you.
Let us help you. Ray would want this.

–Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story, 80, 81

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So many other relatives . . . and even close friends—stepped forward and were there for us when we needed them so desperately. . . . These are the people who went with us to the morgue; they brought back personal belongings from the accident scene; they selected caskets; they phoned people, made food, drove us where we had to go. . . . We will never forget all they did for us.
—Ellen Mitchell, Beyond Tears, 57

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One compassionate gaze or one affectionate handshake can substitute for years of friendship when a person is in agony. Not only does love last forever, it need only a second to be born.
–Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 72

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No man is an island, entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
—John Donne, “Meditation XVII”

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It is natural, in sorrow, to be consoled if a friend shares our grief. . . .
First, sorrow weighs one down; it is a load which, of course, one tries to lighten. When therefore a person sees others joining him in sorrow, it feels as if they are helping him carry the load, trying to lessen its weight on him; so the burden weighs on him less heavily, just as in the case of carrying physical weights.
—St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Eileen Geller, “The St. Thomas Guide to Surviving Grief,” Consoling Grace

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What is the difference between grieving and mourning? Mourning has company.
-Roger Rosenblatt, Kayak Morning, 39

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If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
—Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, 331

The baby was tiny and perfect and purplish. His body showed no clues to what went wrong. We named him Hamish. It is a name we had always liked but was a bit too outlandish even for intrepid baby-namers like us (who wants a child to spend the rest of his life saying “it’s Scottish for James. And it’s a long ‘a’, pronounced HAY-mish”). After the delivery (barely one push) we held our sweet little baby while our wonderful doctor sat in the hospital room with us for almost an hour. Just talking. And listening. He didn’t hurry out and make the nurses deal with it, as doctors are wont to do. It’s hard to say how much that meant to me.
—Jennie Hildegard Westenhaver, “Pictures of the Dead,” Beehive and Birdnest (blog)

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Before you know what kindness really is,
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

—Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”

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Do not assume that she who seeks to comfort you now, lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. Her life may also have much sadness and difficulty, that remains far beyond yours. Were it otherwise, she would never have been able to find these words.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Say Hello, 4

A simplistic sounding answer to the question of how to help families face tragedy is that, paradoxically, there are no “right things to say,” nor is there even a need to say anything that speaks of the intellect at a time like this. The need is for sincere human love, reaching in its own unique, spontaneous, fumbling way with a “built-in” message: “Though I don’t fully understand how you feel, I care enough to come to you and to try to share your hurt with you as much as I can, and as much as you will allow me to at this time. I’ll leave you alone if I get any vibrations from you that you prefer to be alone, yet I’ll leave with a readiness to come back when you give the signal you want me to come back.”
—Vern Albrecht, quoted in DeAnna Edwards, Grieving: The Pain and the Promise, 130

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The reality of grief is the absence of God—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away” [Lord Byron]. . . .
That’s why immediately after such tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—not many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God . . . Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.
And that’s what [you] understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.
—William Sloane Coffin Jr, quoted in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 58;
Sloane, a reverend, standing before and addressing his congregation after losing his own child.

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The test, then, of our soul’s greatness is rather to be sought in our ability to comfort and console, our ability to help others, rather than in our ability to help ourselves and crowd others down in the struggles of life.
—John A. Widstoe and Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 265

She used to rock me in her arms, consoling my pain, but not only consoling, for she seemed to take my sorrow to her own breast, and I realized that if I had not been able to bear the society of other people, it was because they all played the comedy of trying to cheer me into forgetfulness. Whereas Eleanora said:
“Tell me about Deidre and Patrick,” and made me repeat to her all their little sayings and ways, and show their photos, which she kissed and cried over. She never said, “Cease to grieve,” but she grieved with me, and, for the first time since their death, I felt I was not alone.
—Isadora Duncan, quoted in McCracken and Semel, A Broken Heart Still Beats, 218;
Duncan’s two young children, Deidre and Patrick, drowned in the Seine.

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We need people who most sensitively mediate God’s love for us.
—Wayne Simsic, Cries of the Heart, 12

When our pain is so deep and real that we can’t see or feel anything else, we need the witness of the saints about us; saints who, on the basis of their own experience of life’s pain, can assure us that though our pain is true, it is not the ultimate truth. In all our pain, and beyond all our pain, always is the beauty, truth, and love of God in Jesus Christ, which never dies, and which will never allow us to die.
—Jeffery J. Newlin, “Standing at the Grave,” in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 130

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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before:
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
—Sonnet 30, The Riverside Shakespeare, 1754–55

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Swiss Christmas

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From Christmas in the Serengeti. . .

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. . .To Christmas in the Swiss Alps.

 

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

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

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

At least euphemistically so.

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

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

And that something was Parker himself.

**

The Last Noël

A true Christmas story

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

“Mom?”

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

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

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

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

The holly bears the crown. . .

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

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

The silent stars go by. . .

The silent stars go by. . .

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

How silently, how silently. . .

How silently, how silently. . .

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

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

And sad.

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

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

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

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

Let loving hearts enthrone Him. . .

We traverse afar. . .

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

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

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

For unto us a child is born

Oh come, Oh come, Emmanuel. . .

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

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

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Here we are again. Christmas. And stymied.

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

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

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

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

“Hey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their watch of wondering love. . .

Their watch of wondering love. . .

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

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

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

God and sinner reconciled. . .

God and sinners reconciled. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

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

In the dark streets shineth. . .

In the dark streets shineth. . .

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

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

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

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

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

. . .And embraced again.

And so it continued both day and night. . .

And so it continued both day and night. . .

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

Where meek souls seek him the enters in

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

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

Heaven and nature sing. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

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

Tender and mild. . .

Tender and mild. . .

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

And it truly is.

002

**

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

The Maasai and Rites of Passage

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

Masenga Lukeina, our Maasai guide

Masenga Lukeine, our Maasai guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here are some blankets,” Albert offered us.

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

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jump.

The famous Maasai vertical jump.

The legendary initiation jump.

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

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

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

And everyone cheered.

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

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

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African Pied Beauty

I doubt Gerard Manley Hopkins ever made it to Africa.

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In fact, I’ve checked. He didn’t.

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But his poetry could have been inspired by the rhythms of the continent, by its dramatic landscape, by its preposterously diverse (read: deliriously kooky) wildlife.

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Out in the middle of the Serengeti, bumping along in a camo-colored jeep, I found myself reciting Hopkins as a backdrop to the vast and dappled (a Hopkins word) canvas surrounding me.

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Glory be to God for dappled things –

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For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow: . . .

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I wondered: Who thinks up creatures like the flamingo? Honestly. Hot pink? Double jointed?

That loopy neck thing going on?

Who dared submit that design to the board?

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And the warthog? We’re serious?

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The dung beetle? (Read that one again.)

(Slowly.)

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Did no one want to test it before just putting it on the road?

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All things counter,

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Original,

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Spare,

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Strange;

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Whatever is fickle,

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Freckled (who knows how?)

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With swift, slow;

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Sweet,

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Sour; 

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Adazzle,

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Dim;

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He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

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Praise him.

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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.