Every Sunday, I write a letter to our 20 year old son, Dalton. He’s serving for two years in England as a full time missionary for our faith. Normally, because he has limited time to access, read, and respond to letters, I compress my messages to bullet points. (Hard when I want to spread my heart across the page with an industrial sized ladle .)
Here is this week’s letter. You’ll forgive that I’d condense what’s most precious to me into a cheesy Top 10 List. And I know you’ll understand that this is only a fraction of a fraction of my reflections on what Easter means to me.
6) That he rose for us means we are called to help others rise. This requires an alertness and compassion few of us have naturally. As our egos swell, they eclipse the face of The Other. And what’s worse, with that swelling sense of self, we might sometimes feel others deserve to stay low, lying flat, suffering nose-in-the-dust for their sins or circumstances. I’m ashamed to say I’ve felt that indignation tighten my jaw more than once. (“She made her bed, she’s got to lie in it. And I’m not fluffing her pillows.”) But Christ asks us to do as he did: rise to help others rise. All others. No exceptions, no lepers.
7)“He is risen” points to a supernal communing act. It means the most concrete, physiological communing (the reunion of body and spirit, cells and fibers, tibia and fibula.) It also means reuniting anything lost and buried with the found and living. We’re given through him, I believe, the capacity to live with our heads and hearts united. Beyond that, HIs example tells us to unite with our marginalized, forgotten, lonely brothers and sisters. We’re charged to stretch our arms as far and wide as we can and pull those out on the rim close to our center, to our heart. We are one. Division is demonic.
8) He rose through priesthood power. I’d not learned that truth until late in life, but the resurrection was a priesthood rite. This tells me something about the ultimate life-giving power God has allotted to mankind through priesthood. We are to use it not to elevate ourselves in any way, but to help others rise to greater life.
9) “He is risen” means that though we have no need to fear existentially, we have no excuse if we are complacent. Christ rose multiple times before he rose definitively, and by that I mean that he rose in response to those crushed by sickness, poverty, sin, evil, and death. He drew everything heavenward in his warm updraft. He knew everything would ultimately be renewed, but those timely losses –– of sight, hearing, health, sanity –– were worth his immediate attention anyway.
10) His resurrection was the vanishing point, the spot in time and timelessness where every agonizing question, loss, doubt, weakness and evil was absorbed and converted by some splendid alchemy into possibility and joy. All will be well, if not instantly, in time. And indeed. All is seen and known in his Eternal Now, all is taken into consideration as part of his creation, which is a continual re-creation.
And you have risen, too, Dalton, as you’ve followed Him. I can tell. I can feel it in your letters. When we follow him, we’re promised that, even if we’re required to traverse dark and alien terrain in the interim –– and we will be asked to trust through unspeakably dark places –– we will rise at last.
In all love, forever!
Your Everluvin’ Mum
[Note: I wanted to share with you my lightly edited transcript of the remarks I gave at our son Parker’s funeral in July of 2007. I’m telling you they’re lightly edited because you have to understand: This was our child’s funeral. We were speaking. We had not eaten, drunk, slept, or walked but in ragged spurts for a week. In addition, the day of the viewing, my mother had been raced to the emergency room with kidney stones, and our two youngest had been convulsing on the bathroom floor, vomiting and panting, hours on end. I had no computer. I had no resource material but my scriptures and a soul gouged raw. So I’ve corrected some inconsistencies and repetitions and tightened a turn of phrase here and there.
Otherwise, this is the manuscript I managed to scratch out from where I hunkered on the laundry room floor listening to my two precious living sons moan with nausea an arm’s length away. I wrote with a broken pen on a yellow legal pad I’d grabbed from my Dad’s desk. I’ve carried that yellow paper, folded, in a front closure of my scriptures ever since.]
Rite on the Oslo Fjord
Ten and a half years ago, eight-year-old Parker was baptized in a chapel in Sandvika, Norway. In preparing for that important rite in our religion, Parker told us that he had a couple of particular wishes, foremost of which was to invite everyone. Inviting everyone meant drawing together people from neither our national culture nor our religion to witness and participate in an intimate ritual.
His baptism was intimate, because there were sermons and musical numbers directed just to Parker, and because Randall, Parker’s father – not the congregation’s priest or pastor – performed the baptism himself. Parker thought it would be the perfect chance to get everyone together. This boy just loved bringing everyone together.
What a sight it was on a cold February day in Norway to see clusters and streams of “everyone” arriving at that little chapel on the banks of the Oslo fjord. His eight-year-old friends and their families, some dressed in Norwegian traditional costumes, gathered as if for a national celebration in our modest Mormon meeting house. The event was pure joy.
Rite in the Rockies
You, too, have been personally invited by Parker to gather from around the globe and in clusters and streams today. And what else would Parker have ever wanted, but that everyone from all over be with him, even if it is a closing rite for Parker.
I know he’s wanted you here, because all this week I’ve heard a specific Beatle tune looping in my head. Now I’m not sure, but if I knew the Beatles any better, I’d guess the text is probably all about drugs or something. Still, the chorus has not left me, not once. Parker has even been singing to me: “Come together right now over me.”
Come together. Right now. Over him.
Because of your love for him, you’ve come here on Parker’s behalf. Our Parker was a true friend to those who were in distress or need. People found comfort and solace in his presence because he was so closely in tune with the Spirit that his path was clearly lit, and he drew others onto that path with him. He wishes today, above all, that people come together, and in coming together, that we will participate in a sacred spot in time.
What is a sacred spot it time? Let’s visit, or revisit, our Bible for a moment. It’s full of sacred spots in time – rare, potent pin points where people come together and share in learning the most important truths. For me, one of the most meaningful examples from the New Testament has been a personal guide to me for many years.
It’s a story about a heightened moment. It’s marked by anguish and hope, death and life, grief and joy that meet at a sharp edge of an hour or so. You might remember the story in John. It is an account of a family – two sisters and a brother, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – all devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.
The scene filled my mind just over a week ago as I was racing alone and in anguish for nearly five hours through the middle of the night from my parents’ home in central Utah where I had just arrived on vacation to a regional medical center in southeastern Idaho where Parker’s comatose body had just arrived via medical helicopter. In my life I’d been in Idaho exactly one time previously, just the day before. I’d visited Parker at his college apartment to spend three hours with him on the afternoon of Wednesday, had then left him with an extra firm hug, and caught a glimpse of big, happy Parker drumming a beat on his thigh as he disappeared in my rear view mirror.
Martha, Mary, Lazarus
As you might recall from the story of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. But when Jesus got word that Lazarus was ill to dying, instead of coming right away, he abode two days still in the same place, and allowed this close friend to die. In fact, Jesus stayed away until the fourth day, which, according to Jewish custom, was the day of official death. The day grievers stopped visiting the grave. The day it was too late.
When Martha, torn open with anguish, learned that Jesus was finally arriving in Bethany where they lived, she ran out on the road to meet him, pleading, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died, but I know that even now, whatsoever thou will ask of God, God will give it to thee.” Martha saith unto Him, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day;” and finally, “Yea Lord, I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.”
In a rented Dodge Durango SUV on Interstate I-15 in the deep black of the desert, I was Martha. In desperation and steely faith I was rushing to grab the Savior by the shoulders and plead with Him. “I know. I know. I believe that thou art the Christ, and I believe that thou wilt save my son.”
In the Intensive Care Unit in the Portneuf Regional Medical Center in Pocatello, where many also came together over Parker, we experienced a sacred spot in time. Death and life hung in suspended animation. I felt it, many there felt it. It was as if we stood before a tomb, and there, amid many attending to Parker, I continued calling out in my mind to my God, “I know. I know. I believe that thou art the Christ, and I believe that thou wilt save my son.”
This Martha, the one of the Bible, saw the full healing of her beloved Lazarus. And that miracle offered everyone present a sacred spot in time.
This Martha, however, [pointing to myself], did not. Are we not, however, also standing in a sacred spot in time?
Here, we might be asking ourselves some questions: “Isn’t life cruel, random, indiscriminate?” Or, “Does wishful pleading ever make a bit of difference? Are such pleas even heard?” Or, “If pleas are heard, what failed here? God Himself? Did this Martha’s faith fail?”
What is the Greater Miracle?
I feel to answer those questions with yet another question, one whispered into my ear by the wisest woman that I know. She asked me this as we stood side by side in the hospital over the beautiful, strong, but comatose body of my precious boy. “Which,” she asked me, “is the greater miracle; healing or comfort?”
More than her own life, that Martha like this one wanted her beloved’s healing. More than anything, both Marthas knew healing was possible. That Martha got her healing, her brother. Lazarus rose to new life.
I, however, am left with this cold casket. And in more ways than symbolically, l have died. I can feel it in my limbs, my heart, my cells, in my struggle for breath. I am in as great a need for healing as was Lazarus. I will need a miracle, a new life, resuscitation.
So maybe the question is not what is the greater miracle, healing or comfort. Maybe the question is is there a difference between the two? Are they not both gifts of God, sprung from love, against all odds, and toward new life? As one minister wrote: “Resurrection is for both sides of the tomb.” I – we all – will need to be resurrected from this emotional death just as Martha’s Lazarus was brought out of the tomb.
Sacred Spots in Time
And now as I stand here before you I find that I am the other sister. I am Mary, who days after Lazarus’ miraculous rebirth, and only days before she knew that Christ was going to be crucified, invites her Master into her home. They come together. Over Him. She falls at His feet and in this thick, dense compression of life and death, death and life – of Lazarus revived, of Jesus on the cusp of crucifixion, on the brink of rising from death – she recognizes she’s part of something rare. We’re getting the smallest hint of what that feeling is like right here and now among us. And because she knows that feeling is rare and fleeting, Mary blocks out all distractions in order to learn important truths. She pulls that moment to her heart, bows her head at the Savior’s feet, focuses in full concentration, and takes it all in in simple, intimate, symbolic ways.
Do you recognize this is where you are right now? Do you recognize that you are being soaked in something divine; that you have been invited quite personally by Parker to come together over him, to be here and to feel heaven so close? Or do you resist that Spirit and lose the chance to feel the beauty and the light and healing warmth that is only to be found through the Spirit of a living God?
Parker knew and recognized that Spirit, and he wants us to come together right now over him. But he doesn’t want it to be only about him, only about this moment. When we leave this place, this spot in time, how will we retain the gift of having been here? I have a suggestion of which I know Parker approves. It’s simple.
I’ve known Parker longer – in mortal terms, at least – than anyone here. He grew within my body and for nine months as a loud,percussive presence. I remember being in a graduate seminar where I had a book perched on my eight-month pregnant belly. We were studying Eugene Onegin I believe, I don’t know, and in the course of that lecture the book popped off my stomach – was catapulted, let’s say – and scooted across the table. My son always had and still has a forceful beat.
With that beat in mind, consider that in French, Parker’s name is pronounced, “par cœur,” which means “by heart.” The essence of his spirit and the symbol of his name is an invitation for all of us to feel the pulse, to feel our heart, and in the stillest of moments to recognize the intensity and love that was his heart. As we feel our own heart beating, we can be reminded of this boy, who was maybe somewhat impulsive, but whose impulsiveness drove him to do some of the most beautiful things. One of those things – a fatal flaw or a godly gift – was to plunge not once but twice, headlong into troubled waters to try to save a boy he’d known a mere week.
My friends, we will leave this place. We will all go away from this incubation place, this sacred spot with its golden hum and heightened meaning, this holding place where we are sitting now. It is up to us to listen to our hearts and to know that we weren’t changed for just a moment, but that we are changed forever because of the great love of the boy who invited you personally to be here today.
Parker, you know my heart. It is hardly beating, my son; it has been pulverized. But I believe – I know, I know – that every construction requires first a deconstruction, that this falling apart over you invites me to come together over Him. I have great faith in the living Savior of this world, I give my shattered heart to Him. I ask that He take its brokenness – all our brokenness – and work His miracle of healing comfort.
It took years to forgive myself.
I’d been warned. I’d been shown what was coming. I could have intervened. I could have been there. I could have saved my child.
But I hadn’t. I didn’t. If I had just…
In Global Mom: A Memoir, I wrote about a dream I’d had of our son Parker two months after he’d drowned. The dream was especially forceful and allowed me to see and feel the setting he was in after death – a vivid, bright realm beyond mortality – as well as what he was doing there and with whom.
When I’ve had a dream like that, (in my life I’ve only had a few), I immediately write it down and share it with one or two others so it’s fresh and they’re “witnesses” to what I’ve been taught. Because they have a different resonance than my run-of-the-mill bad digestion dreams, I feel a certain stewardship over their content. The Japanese call these real dreams. They are gifts. You treasure them. You don’t thoughtlessly parade or banalize them. That being true, it was a little risky to publish one in a book. But I don’t regret that I did.
Then in On Loss and Living Onward I devoted a chapter to a dream I’d had exactly one month prior to losing Parker. In that dream, I was chasing after a toddler version of Parker (wearing a small version of the blue swim trunks we’d bought together when he was 17), who was being swept away in a small river that passed under a bridge, a passage from whence his little body never emerged. The dream was strangely corporeal. I actually felt the sun beating on my head, the icy spray of the water flecking my forearms, gravel cutting my bare feet and wild grass scraping at my ankles as I ran along the shore. I was sweaty, agitated, shaking and breathless when I awoke.
But that dream was not the only one I had about Parker’s accident before that accident happened. What I’ve never published is the following dream, a second one. I used to call it God’s Final Warning.
The Second Dream
From my email to a confidant:
The second dream I had exactly the week before his accident. By then I’d managed the bulk of the move to Munich (at least our beds were set up in the apartment so we could sleep here) and Randge [Randall] had arrived from Paris to be here for legal document signing before I left on the 14th to Utah to be with the kids whom we’d sent on ahead of us, especially to get Parker into summer college.
In the dream I rush into an ICU alone to find the tall, muscular body of a beautiful young male lying face-down on a gurney, a sheet covering him up to his waist. He’s wearing a neck brace and there are tubes coming out of his nose and mouth and he’s hooked up to monitors. He has multiple head injuries and looks bruised and bludgeoned from what I can see looking at the back of his head.
I’m shocked and chilled. I reach for the body and somehow recognize it well. Reason tells me that, because of the head injuries, this is the victim of an automobile accident, so my dreaming but analytical self tells me this is Aaron, my brother,the only licensed driver I know of that would fit the form and height of the man I’m seeing on the table.
My whole chest feels kicked in and I’m keeping myself from wailing. Many people are passing in and out of the room, but I’m the one standing closest to the body whose shoulders I stroke. I speak to the body and groan. We’re that way for a while. Then the body is turned over and it’s not clear to me whose face it is as the swelling and bruising and discoloration are so severe. Blood cakes the hair. There are some facial wounds.
I conclude it’s Aaron and he’s had a terrible car accident on his commute to Salt Lake City for work. He is unconscious and it seems – I’m being told – he will not live. I am weeping and trying to find a hand to hold under the sheet draped over the body. I pray and try to understand. People are in the room at a distance, not people I know well.
Then Randge is brought into the room. He has come in a hurry from far away. He stands to my left then we lean onto each other, supporting a motionless shock. The line of onlookers is up against a far wall. We are ripped open with grief.
I awoke from this dream and was lightly crying to myself, my heart was thumping and I felt agitated – I felt warned –and sat right up in bed. (I was in our little makeshift room here in the apartment, Randge sleeping deeply to my left.) As soon as I awoke him, I told Randge exactly what I had seen and said I needed to call Aaron right away to warn him to take no risks when driving and to at least go slowly. Then I convinced myself he’d think I’m nuts, some kind of clairvoyant or something, so I left it up to fate and to his good driving skills to avoid anything like what I had seen.
Those dreams meant something important. I’d felt that while dreaming them. You know how that is? When you are dreaming and it’s as if something taps your subconscious on the shoulder, saying, “Pay attention. Pay close attention.”
Well, the “something important” came rushing at me several days later.
In full force it came rushing, but only after Thursday, July 19th when Parker, standing in his blue swim trunks on the gravelly and wild-grass-lined banks of an Idaho irrigation canal, dove back a second time into a whirlpool under a little bridge to try to rescue a drowning college classmate. It came after his death-grayed body floated a distance down the small river past the bridge and plummeted head first over a lava rock waterfall. After I had hurried to Pocatello in the middle of the night and entered alone in an ICU where Parker lay face-down on a gurney (neck brace, tubes, monitors, head injuries, under a white sheet), after he’d been turned over, after Randall had burst into the ICU from his flight from Munich, after the onlookers lined up against the other wall, after we turned off life support. After the funeral. After it was too late.
When my two dreams and their matching reality came together, a deep terror set in. It paralyzed me. All I could conclude was that I’d fatally ignored God’s 3-D cinematic warnings given an entire month and then a week ahead of time. Plenty of lead time to have yanked fate off its tracks. Plenty of time to have saved my own child.
Yet I hadn’t.
Why not? Why had I not? Why? Why?!
The Eternal Now
For so long I wrestled with every psychological angle. Had I been worried what others would think if I told them I, some homemade visionary, had had a couple of disturbing dreams, so please no water activities this summer? And we’re going to be walking everywhere for a while, no cars? Would I make everyone too anxious to live if I said I’d foreseen a male loved one in his last moments in an ICU scene? Or was what kept me from using these dreams to prevent tragedy something worse, something far more sinister, a character flaw, like a chink of sloppiness, selfishness, distraction, irresponsibility?
Whatever the reasons behind not having advertised the dreams, what it came down to in my mind was that I was to blame. And that meant that beyond the gutting of grief, a boulder of guilt weighed on top of me. I shared that boulder with only a very, very few.
This is what a confidant wrote when I shared my boulder of guilt:
Warnings that you didn’t heed? No, no. Please do not torment yourself with such thoughts. These dreams were, rather, preparatory glimpses into what we mortals call “the future.” God, we know, is not bound or limited by our understanding of time and space. For God, all eternity is one Eternal Now. Somehow, through God’s great power and mercy and your own maternal in-tune-ness, you were permitted to see into the Eternal Now for two brief moments. You were a Seer. You are right to see these experiences, these dreams or visions, as evidence of God’s grace and as a testament to the fact that, for whatever terrible and holy reasons, this was taken into account in the cosmic scheme that includes your beautiful Parker.
What you hear from my friend’s message is that after much time packed with much spiritual work, (seeking God’s guidance through meditation, study, questioning and waiting for concrete answers, seeking to live close to Parker’s ongoing spirit, serving others as lovingly as I was able, gathering evidence of God’s loving kindness to our family and to me personally), I grew settled on this matter. I no longer felt I was solely responsible for his death. I accepted (and was not conquered by) death.
Could I have used those dreams as megaphone warnings to my family and circle of friends? Could I have forbidden all water activities for the summer? Forever? Could I have locked away every male I cared for who fit the description of the man I’d seen in my dream ICU? Kept them from cars? Cross walks? Random falling timber?
(You see how quickly love, grief, and longing wax irrational.)
I suppose so, yes. I could have done all of the above. But would having done so assured their survival? And as important, perhaps: Would having done so also have wrung out the very life from life, “killing” everyone another way? Never allowing them to live? Heaping on them fear, anxiety, foreboding?
But let me ask again: If my dreams were given not as forewarning, (knowing that even with such forewarnings I couldn’t have prevented my son’s accident), but were given as comforting communication to be recalled in the world of after, what does all this mean?
For starters, a conventional worldview that rejects any reality outside of the physical realm we inhabit cannot offer sufficient meaning in this riddle. A worldview that denies some kind of spiritual circuitry connecting my dreaming spirit with a much Higher Source of Light and Truth, (whom I call God), doesn’t offer meaning, either. Even quantum mechanics and parallel universes don’t account for these exquisitely personal communications and their broader, this-world (irrigation canal and ICU) context. And most especially, those theories are incapable of addressing the especially precious, abiding, and reciprocal relationship I have felt all along with my guide, my God.
But my friend’s Eternal Now. That’s something I can sink into. As cosmos-bending and challenging to our puny minds as might seem a loving God caring for each of us from the middle of an Eternal Now, it does take it all in : Horror, holiness, time, relativity, space, us, something-far-beyond-us, everything.
In the end, (if there is an end), that notion of everything sits very, very well with me.
Sweet dreams to you all.
(Evening spreads over the irrigation canal leading to Monkey Rock.)
“Protect then push. Protect, protect, protect, protect. Then one day, you’ll need to push.”
The woman advising us knew what she was talking about. Joyce Ashton was a bereaved mother herself as well as a professional grief counselor who’d written and lectured with her husband Dennis about major loss and bereavement. We were sitting in their living room in December, five months after our 18 year old son’s burial.
All our years –– over 15 at that time –– of living outside the US, yet it had never once occurred to us to spend the holidays anywhere but the country in which we lived “abroad.” Until now. We fled our drafty Munich monastery with hastily packed carry-ons and flew a world away from isolation that weighed like a glacier on our spirits. We arrived in the Rocky Mountains of the American west where family waited to take us in.
The children needed levity. I couldn’t even give them a strand of cheap tinsel. Randall was down thirty pounds (12 kilos) since July, ashen, his eyes sunken. I moved like a burn victim released from a year in solitary confinement. My five months of deliberate retreat from human interaction and the terrifying world out there had left me, when I now stepped off the airplane, blinking at lights, recoiling from sounds. Brittle and liquefied, jittery and ready to melt into any caring arms. I was both.
As we sat in the Ashton’s living room speaking short hand known to the grief-stricken, I knew Joyce’s advice to “protect then push” was right. And that Balzac was wrong. “Give to a wounded heart seclusion,” he’d written, “consolation nor reason ever effected anything in such a case.”
At least Balzac was partially wrong. Seclusion had been a gift to my heart. A severe gift. But just that afternoon while meditating a clear inner voice instructed me: “Retreat was a gift to you. But you can’t stay there. If you do, you might never emerge. And if you wait too long to emerge, too much will have died in the meantime. You must go out.”
From the US, I wrote this email to a friend:
You worry about my withdrawal. Don’t. I know that every tale of spiritual rebirth is a tale of withdrawal: to the wilderness, into a whale, into a vessel, into a tomb, into a mountaintop, into a grove. . .This is no surprise, as mortal life itself is a descent from the light and warmth of preexistence into a dark and isolated womb followed by the stressful entrance into a world of blaze and clatter. (No wonder infants howl at birth!) Right now, I’m in gestation, huddling tightly in a womb. I will learn everything this sanctuary can teach me.
I also wrote in my journal about Christ’s model of protecting and pushing:
Been studying Matthew 14. Many careful readings. Christ’s love of his cousin John the Baptist, Christ’s grief at JB’s violent, cold-blooded murder. Some of Christ’s disciples had been John’s disciples, so they were grieving, too. How He longed to go into a desert place apart – isolation – to grieve, (did He commune with the Father there? With the Baptist?) but He couldn’t tarry there long because so many needed Him. And how Christ turns in compassion to the throngs needing His blessing. None of their burdens was as great as his. Lame? Blind? Leprous?Just hungry? He was bearing all of them, and more. He bore it all. Still, he didn’t dismiss them. Was his compassion awakened/enlarged due to His “acquaintance with grief” (Isaiah), his sudden loss, a loss foreshadowing His imminent crucifixion? He actively turns towards others as an extension – completion? – of his grieving process. And what happens? The great miracle of loaves and fishes, itself a type and shadow of the Last Supper.
A week after seeing the Ashtons, getting that inner voice public service announcement, and reading Matthew 14, I sat in another room, this time in Germany. I’d contacted the gentleman who oversaw our church congregation in Munich, telling him I needed to meet with him as soon as we were back in town.
That man (whom we call our bishop) was a truly good soul, a sympathetic, soft-spoken young father and first-time expatriate doing his utmost to lead our scrappy little gaggle of members. And I had the distinct feeling that we terrified him. Or at least really worried him. Or presented him with a peculiar challenge.
From the start we signaled we wanted no visits, no leadership responsibilities, in spite of two decades of back-to-back leadership “callings” in our congregations everywhere we’d lived. In fact, I’d told our bishop to please not even call on me to pray aloud in meetings. Not because I couldn’t or didn’t want to pray (what else was I doing all week long, anyway?), but because every time I bowed my head –– I knew this –– I poured out tears like a jug gushes water.
As a couple and family we were working so hard every day and night all week long to just keep breathing, to keep ourselves together, to access spiritual strength and get the divine guidance we craved, not to mention to deal with the many unanswered questions about Parker’s accident, the fallout in the lives of others involved in that accident, and the potential legal implications. Every day was dire. Every day was a face-to-face encounter with The Big Issues.
And we’d just arrived in a new country. So there was that.
But Sundays. They weren’t like the sanctuary that was my weekday world, not much like our makeshift monastery. What could be, though, but a morgue? At church we tried to swerve around but couldn’t help but hear the normal chit-chat, those hallway conversations about how tough it was to not have 24-hour pharmacy drive-throughs. How irritating to not find diapers sold in bulk. How annoying that there weren’t more cinemas that showed movies in English. And how hard it was to send a son off to university, or on a mission, or to some place without decent WIFI.
And this all made us feel like we were aliens, sensitive to the point of being skinless, flinching and wincing at normal human behavior: glibness, facile answers, chirpiness, glee, dogma-as-bandage, platitudes.
We regularly side-stepped out.
People side-stepped around us.
I’m surprised they tolerated us as much as they did. Mourning, especially with strangers, takes super human patience and a divine dose of sympathy. I know everyone was doing their human best.
What resulted, though, was a vacuum-packed existential isolation, a loneliness-to-the-point-of-desperation I’d never felt before in my lifetime exacerbated by the fact that it was happening exactly where we’d always felt most at home: in our faith community.
So as I was saying … I asked for an interview.
“You wanted to talk, Sister Bradford?” my bishop asked, his eyes open and soft.
“Well, not really. I don’t want to talk. But I know I need to.” I think I was already crying.
“Please. Please, tell me what’s on your mind, on your heart. How can I help you?”
He was tall with a visible goldenness to him, this man. He held his hands folded on his desk. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
How could you help me? Ideally, I thought, ideally … you could weep long and hard with me about our son. Or not even cry. You might ask about him. But I won’t beg you or any of my brothers and sisters here to feign interest, pretend heartache. No, can’t do that. Solicit sorrow?
“I’m …” I interrupted my own freight train of thought, “I think I’m ready to help. I’m ready to reach out and do something here. Do you have something I can do, something you need me to do?”
Bishop: “You want to serve here at church?”
I nodded, still crying into my lap. A box of tissues came from his hand.
I looked up from my lap. He was gracious, silent.
Then he took a long breath. “Well. That is interesting, Sister Bradford.”
He went on: “We’ve been praying and fasting and discussing over the holidays while your family was away how we could serve you, how we could possibly help your grieving family. And we got the impression that as soon as you were ready, Sister Bradford, you would tell us. And when you would tell us, we would have work for you to do.”
Me again: “??”
“How ready are you to serve, Sister Bradford? What can you take on? I want to be very sensitive to––”
I remember in that moment feeling a single rusty engine rev exactly once in my lower thoracic region. I butted in:
“––Whatever … whatever you need me to do. I am ready. I want to share what we’ve learned, what we’re learning.”
He leaned back in his chair. He smiled. Then he leaned forward: “We’d like to ask you to teach the teenagers. Sunday School.”
“And … seminary.” (An extra weekly youth instruction.)
“And would you teach the women’s class?”
“Once or twice a month?”
“Would you be able to teach the adult gospel doctrine class?”
Nod. Smile. Two engines churned. Maybe a third.
Nod. Smile. Joy-heat rising.
“And there is … one special and wonderful sister, a shut-in for years, serious health problems. But she lives 45 minutes away. You have a car. Can you visit her?”
Slow nod. Big eyes. Little sniffles.
Once I got that gig up and running, a couple of months later I also began team-teaching mid-weekly evening classes –– what we Mormons call Institute ––a gospel study course for all young adults in the greater Munich region.
You might say I found “push.”
I also found loss. By that I mean that as I pushed myself in an effort to serve others, I connected with people and there found more loss than I had previously known existed among us. It was everywhere, in all forms. (I could make a list here, but you know as well as I do that that list would use up all my battery and yours.)
Before major loss became my personal story and not someone else’s fiction, I was oblivious to much of its world, its look, its contours, its devils. The hook is this: Once loss was my story it wouldn’t have been enough––in fact it would have been a reverberating secondary loss and a dead end story –– to remain withdrawn in that narrative cul de sac for good. That wise inner voice had instructed me: Don’t let your sanctuary become your sarcophagus. I had to push.
So strengthened from my months in retreat, I now served. As much as could. And at the same time, so many, many people served our family. We wept three years later when we left our community in Munich.
If I lost my monastic retreat, it was never meant to be my permanent residence. Because outside its protection I found life.
And Inspiration. Power. Friendship. Help. Wisdom. Answers. Guidance. Comfort. Love. Tenderness. Meaning. Hope. Compassion. Holiness. Visions. Answers. Strength. Light. Vigor. Humor. Resilience. Relief. Brothers. Sisters. Community.
Loaves. Fishes. Miraculous Nourishment. God.
Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.
In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.
Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.
Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.
Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.
You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.
It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.
What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.
Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.
My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.
- As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”
- I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.
Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.
- I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.
No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.
- And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.
I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.
- And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.
“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”
It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.
After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.
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. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.
I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.
And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.
We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.
Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?
That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.
As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”
Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”
––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68
…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.
But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.
But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.
I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.
O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.
In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.
There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.
So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.
And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.
ON MY WRITING desk stand statuettes made of white plaster. They are nearly identical in size and shape. Each statuette consists of two hands clasping each other. If you knew the rings my husband Randall and I wear, you would know that in each piece one of the two hands belongs either to him or me. In the first statuette, one of the hands—bony, veined, and with long fingers just right for playing the piano—wears my distinctive triple-linked wedding bands. In the second statuette, one of the two hands is thick, with Randall’s substantial fingers, broad oval nails, and custom-made ring with its small stones and the engraving “ASP 2007”.
Each of our hands (Randall’s hand in one statuette, mine in the other) is wrapped snugly around yet another hand. It is a fleshy mitt of a hand, a hand with slightly swollen fingers that do not bend quite like ours appear to be bending. The nails are gnawed a bit at their tips. The knuckles have wrinkles I could recognize in a line-up of a hundred other hands. These are, after all, the hands of our son Parker.
In one statuette, my left hand grasps Parker’s right. In the other statuette, Randall’s right hand, which wears Parker’s American School of Paris class ring, wraps firmly around Parker’s left. A college student who had been at the site of the accident that ultimately took Parker’s life had removed Parker’s class ring when he was dragged, unconscious and blue-lipped, out of the water. His hands were already swelling while students tried frantically to administer CPR and offer prayer blessings to their friend who was not breathing, and this student knew that Parker would want his family to have his ring. Sobbing and yelling, “Don’t leave us, Frenchie! Wake up, Frenchie!” the boy tucked the ring into his swim trunk pocket. He handed it to Randall after we’d turned off the life support and released Parker from two days of coma and from eighteen years and five months of mortality.
Sometimes, that scene of horror is all I can think of when I look at these statuettes. Life cut off too soon, like the two plaster pieces themselves, which stand on their wrists, rising, as it seems, upward from out of this desktop, almost giving the impression that the forearms, elbows, shoulders—the rest of the human forms to which these hands belong, the whole person—might be somewhere below my desk, in an unseen, underground, under-desk world.
Other times, when strangers happen to see them—for instance, the man repairing our Internet line—I let them imagine that these statuettes are nothing more than a lovely, balanced set of clasped hands set in plaster. Like bookends, perhaps. Or artsy paperweights.
But balanced bookends and weights were notions far from our minds in that impossible hour when those hand casts were made. That hour was 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 26, a week to the day from the incident that had cost our Parker his life. It was the first day we had seen his body since we had been ushered away from its still-warm flesh lying so leaden in an ICU. There our son lay before us again, but this time a waxy surrogate, a cheap wax museum replica.
Evacuated, I thought as I entered a utilitarian room crammed next to a corner office in the mortuary. An empty garage, was the impression that came when I approached our son’s form draped with a grayish-green blanket on what must have been an examiner’s table. We’d come that late morning with Kristiina, our dear friend, and her sister.
“You might want something solid and lifelike to remember him by,” Kristiina had offered when she had visited my parents’ home the Sunday night before. She had spoken as she had stood: uncertain, frozen, as if inching out on a tightrope, her half-whisper holding back the panic I knew her spacious heart was trying to clamp down to size.
“Lifelike? Uh . . . uh-huh. Maybe that would . . . be . . . a good idea.” Randall had been steady, respectful. I had held my hands beneath the kitchen table, where they were shaking as if with the beginnings of palsy. My legs, as I had stared down at them, felt as if I had just emerged from hibernating in an ice cave.
“My sister has helped make these for the parents of stillborn infants a few times,” Kristiina had added, her eyebrows raised in apology, her tone steeped in mourning. “She’s never done someone as . . . large . . . and who had been so alive . . . as . . . ” Her mouth knitted itself into a curved and twitching pucker, her blue eyes flashed in desperation, and we all hung there for a moment on that incredibly taut but delicate line between knowing an alive Parker and comprehending a dead one.
I had stared at them both, Kristiina and her sister, trying to find words. An impulse hinted that I should respond like the old Melissa would have responded. How did she used to talk? How did she form words? How did she speak without sobbing? That person was gone, I knew it. Syllables, like rough wooden blocks, dropped out of my mouth, I think. Clumsy, polite words of habit. But they conveyed nothing of the typhoon that was battering and boiling throughout my mind.
At the mortuary on that Thursday morning, Kristiina and her sister silently mixed buckets of quick-dry plaster, solicitous and servant-like at Parker’s feet. Randall and I stood in a dizzy stupor at our stations on either side of our son-replica, tracing his stiff shoulders with our fingertips. In one movement, father and mother took the hands of their firstborn, wrapping their fingers around his, and buried the blended parts wrist-deep into buckets of a mixture the color and consistency of gelatinous oatmeal. I noted how my boy’s flesh held less life than did the wet plaster itself. I shook off the plaster, shook off the experience, feeling in the moment as if I’d defiled the sacred, hoping that this would one day end up being worth the desecration.
And Kristiina was right. It has been good to have something solid to remember Parker by. But these hand casts are more than mementos. They are far more than objects reminiscent of the physical closeness we once shared with our son. For us, they are sacred tokens pointing to an expansive spiritual reality that bursts the limits of flesh-and-blood closeness.
To explain the spiritual reality that these plaster casts symbolize, I need to share one of several profound occurrences that marked my early months of grief and has remained with me, vivid and comforting, ever since. It has made these clasped hands into monuments of reverberating, clarifying truth. I don’t share this with every visiting Internet repairman, although I sometimes wish I could.
During the weekend of Parker’s passing, hours after we left his body to be transferred to a mortuary, days before we would make—or even think of making—plaster hand casts, I was lying on my side in bed, knees tucked up toward my chest, arms wrapped around my middle. My pillow was soaked with tears, and my body was throbbing in acute physical pain, crushed, it seemed, as if by a landslide and torn wide open through the torso. The corporeal sensation of such abrupt and violent loss was like having invasive surgery with no anesthesia, or better, like having a bomb go off in the center of my being. We couldn’t escape the feeling of this immense, black, gaping vacancy in that central space—right here, in the fork between our ribs—that our son had just occupied.
Through my silent weeping, I begged God to keep us all—my husband, myself, our three surviving children—from being sucked into the apparent bottomlessness left by this implosion. Although our family was strong and loving, although we were emotionally stable people, although we had profound faith in life being eternal and were certain Parker was in a safe and loving place, we could not imagine, could not physically absorb the impact of life going on without his intertwined with ours. I could not see how we would be able to survive. There had to be help—hoist-you-up-from-under- the-arms-and-keep-you-breathing help—and I knew that kind of help was beyond anything this world could offer.
For several hours, maybe, and probably all night, I whisper-begged continually in prayer, seeking God and Parker, asking that they be close to me and somehow make themselves known to me in a way I could recognize. As nighttime shifted to dawn through the window, another shift began to take place in my mind. Like curtains being quietly drawn open in my spinning and murky mental chamber, I slowly started to see something. I could just make it out—it was initially no more than a foggy, subtle image.
At first I thought it was some sort of textured rope or—no, it was a chain. As I focused on it I saw this chain wasn’t static, but was gently rhythmic, pulsing. Then I could see that the movement came from the links attaching, separating, and reattaching to each other.
These links, I saw as my inner light grew brighter, were hands. Human hands of many sorts, shades, and shapes, glowing against an opalescent background, gently stretching then clasping firmly, pulling one another. All at once, I understood that these were hands from the past and the present, hands of mortals and immortals, reaching and pulling each other along, binding time and timelessness together.
At the same time as this image grew clearer, a feeling overtook me; it went through my whole body, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, expanding in my chest, and that feeling was joy—jubilant, singing, surging, soaring joy. Part exhilaration, part anticipation, that joy spread through my traumatized body, warming and loosening it, and lifting my spirits with an unmistakable tug.
Something was pulling. Someone was pulling me. Mighty but tender hands were reaching for my hand. And my task was to reach. Touch. Clasp. Hold on. And then, once linked, to reach to others.
Maybe what I was experiencing in that flash of insight was a glimpse into the way things are, a brief vision of God’s cosmic machinery, which is one continuous work going on between us mortals, but also between mortals and spiritual beings, between this realm and the neighboring, immortal one. In only those few seconds, I understood that the living and the dead are joined in a loving, interdependent, interactive chain. There was no difference in that chain between the living and what we call the “dead.” They were equally capable beings. Which helped me see that neither I nor my deceased son was alone, forgotten, disconnected, or left without one another.
For the first time, I comprehended in a visceral, palpable way this truth about the interconnectedness of all humans in every stage of existence. As my mind took in this visible chain, my hands felt the unmistakable palms— calloused from basketballs and drums—of my own child’s hands. I understood that not only was Parker “in good hands,” the platitude some had tried to use to comfort me, but that I was in good hands, too. Parker himself was among those good hands. For me. And I am among the good hands. For him. For anyone. For everyone. There is no one—alive or dead—who does not need the reach and pull of another’s hand.
As one person of extraordinary spiritual depth has said:
We move and have our being in the presence of heavenly messengers and of heavenly beings. We are not separate from them. . . . We are closely related to our kindred, to our ancestors . . . who have preceded us into the spirit world. We can not forget them; we do not cease to love them; we always hold them in our hearts, in memory, and thus we are associated and united to them by ties that we can not break. . . . If this is the case with us in our finite condition, surrounded by our mortal weaknesses, . . . how much more certain it is . . . to believe that those who have been faith- ful, who have gone beyond . . . can see us better than we can see them; that they know us better than we know them. . . . We live in their presence, they see us, they are solicitous for our welfare, they love us now more than ever. . . . [T]heir love for us and their desire for our well being must be greater than that which we feel for ourselves.
Eventually I learned that whenever one of my hands reaches to pull along the hand of another—when I serve in whatever way I can, be that by listening, speaking, laughing, weeping, writing, singing, being silent, acting receptively to the subtle impressions I attribute to Divinity—I can feel my own son’s hand clasped in mine, pulling me along. Then I do not feel I am only pressing forward with hope, but that I am being pulled toward that hope, and being pulled toward joy as part of a larger, caring community.
In those moments of clasping onto others, whether by giving strength or receiving it, I sense the luminous bigger picture. We are all, the living and the dead, part of an intertwined effort to bring every last one of us to joy.
That image of communal movement redefines much for me. Among other things, it sets a question mark behind the notions of “alive” and “dead.” There are many of us breathing types who are less alive than those we’ve buried. And I’ve experienced enough to say with total confidence that many of the “dead” are infinitely more alive than the most “alive” person we have ever known. My son is one of those, the most living among what convention insists we call “the dead.”
And what about me? Will I, then, while living, remain forever the living dead because my son is temporarily separated from me in the flesh? What better mentor than this fully living son who is “dead” to reach back, take my hand, and guide me to live fully, while alive . . . while living?
In my yearning agony after Parker’s death, real comfort and strength have not come solely from the assurance that life continues after we die, but from the knowledge that my child is powerfully present in our family here and now. Our relationship with Parker continues. Personal experience has been the sturdiest evidence for me that I don’t have to wait until the here-after to be a co-worker with my son. It can happen here and now. His hand is clasped in mine, and mine in his. In spite of death, a relationship keeps developing. A bond continues to deepen.
Yes, the normal ways of feeling him close are gone—I cannot call him to my room, cannot get a shouted answer from down the hallway or a phone call or a text message or a note under my pillow on my birthday, cannot anticipate his future, cannot delight in sharing him with others, or any of the millions of other things we living people do to knit our hearts to each other. I will never lose my lingering longing for the flesh-and-blood physical presence of my boy. But there are other ways of feeling his presence.
Being able to feel his presence, like feeling any spiritual impressions, requires a mindfulness, imagination, and faithful effort I never needed before. I am on quiet guard against the noisy voices and clattering distractions of our modern world. I have to shelter my spirit at times, the way I would shelter a small seedling from harsh wind and the torch of the sun.
When I focus on those white plaster hand casts as I am doing now, I see them as bookends to a story that has no end, as weights reminding me of the substance of grace my family and I have known. And I have to admit to a little bit of a miracle: When I look at them and let their reality sink in, I am no longer always taken back to that Thursday morning at the mortuary and the son with stone-cold hands. I am, instead, more and more often taken to that internal image I saw and felt of the joyous continuity of God’s plan for the whole woven rope of humanity. Hands, like these casts that seem to rise from the hidden realm beneath my desk, are always emerging from an unseen, but nonetheless real, world. And they are always reaching toward us. Parker’s hands, the ones whose nails and knuckles I could pick out of a crowd, the same hands that I will in some coming day hold in my own as I stare into his eyes and take in his full-grown spirit self, are firmly cemented—sealed—to mine.
OUR HANDSOME BOY had not grown cold in Room #2 of an Idaho ICU by the time news of his passing had reached every end of our community in Paris. Michel, Randall’s work colleague and tennis partner, was the first to call. Michel’s low, slow words came from Paris through Randall’s cell phone. “It’s not true, Randall!” Michel repeated over and over again, “Oh, my dear Randall!”
Unable to sleep more than five minutes at a stretch, Randall and I had been out walking all night through our childhood neighborhoods. It was now after 3:00 a.m. The previous afternoon, we’d left Parker’s body at Portneuf Regional Medical Center in Idaho and had driven the nearly five hours southward to be with family where we both grew up, in a small town in Utah.
Michel and his family loved us very much, Michel cried. “We hold you all close.”
With the green glow of his cell screen casting death onto his face, my husband listened silently as Michel, an understated Frenchman, choked on sobs as he said goodbye. The confluence of sorrow and sympathy worked its way down to Randall’s knees, and they gave way. His legs folded under his body right on the spot. There he sat in his pajamas, barefoot and curled like a beggar beneath a street light on the sidewalk. He cradled his head in his hands. Peak heat season in the desert west, but all day long his body had quaked as if it were midwinter.
Now Per was calling from Norway, and Randall put the cell on speaker. There under the aloof moon, Randall’s lifelong career mentor reassured us with solemn but straightforward affection: he and his wife loved us.
The next call was from Munich. It was Stefan, Randall’s boss—a big guy, a big presence, but I could hear that he felt reduced by his own total defenselessness. His small, broken cries teetered toward me where I now crouched next to Randall in the darkness.
Then came the whispers, “I’m in the Vatican, lighting a candle for Parker.”
That was Stefano, a work colleague from Rome.
A week later, on the sweltering afternoon of the funeral, there stood other work colleagues who had flown in from all over: Zaki representing all Randall’s associates from Scandinavia; Franck from France; Lothar and Stefan from Germany; Stefano from Italy; Russ from Japan.
And a week after the funeral, jet-lagged and grief-loaded, Randall was required to be sitting in his office. It was the day after we had landed in Munich. Work colleagues met him as he came through the sliding glass doors. Everyone there knew. Phone calls and emails, which had flown back and forth between the US, France, and Germany during the days surrounding and following the accident, had kept Randall’s company aware of our family’s situation.
One German—towering, burly, a legendary connoisseur of lager and cigars—took Randall in his arms and then muffled his own quaking moans by burying his head in his American colleague’s shoulder. On Randall’s desk, two small handwritten notes already lay, penned in German: “Your pain is our pain,” and “We can only pray to God for your healing.” Day upon day, there were flowers, soft eyes, the touch on the shoulder, and respectful requests to “do anything to lessen your work burden, Randall.”
For the first time in his two-decade career, work was a burden, a considerable one. Although some find work a welcome distraction from pain and loneliness, this was not the case for my husband. The idea of “business as usual” was repulsive to him on every level, and discussions of head-count reductions and a new operating model rang with sickening hollowness in the gutted-out space between his head and his feet.
“I want to be a postal worker. Or a cowboy on the range,” he pled with me many times through his own tears that awakened him every morning. “It’s not the scrutiny, or some fear of people seeing me weak, watching me be so broken. That’s not it. It’s the superficiality. I don’t have the heart for it. None of this company stuff matters compared to what I now know . . .”
And I couldn’t blame him. Together, we had undergone a seismic shift. Randall had seen, felt, heard, and in turn learned things of a spiritual nature that altered understanding of the world. Much of what had been of relative value a month earlier—the temporal, the material, the commercial, the superficial—didn’t matter at all anymore. All of that paled in comparison to what he now knew regarding love and loss, life and death, and that fragile silken strand from which all existence hangs.
Moreover, grief had drained his energy. Standing up in the morning was work enough.
During those first weeks back in the office, the predictable routine did steady Randall somewhat, but only enough to fool him into thinking he was “on the mend.” Because of course he was not.
In the middle of an intense discussion about the implementation of the new commercial model, his secretary Patricia passed him an express delivery piece of mail: the bills from the air ambulance that had life-flighted Parker to the trauma center. With one glance, whatever was “sturdiness” folded in on itself like an old dime-store pocket umbrella. “Patricia,” Randall whispered as he took her with him out into the hallway, holding the mail in a hand dropped heavily to his side, “Can you . . . will you please take care of this one for me?” She opened the papers with her boss standing there numbly, his eyes ice-blue pits of despair. And she dropped her head and broke down.
Less than a month from tragedy, and in the throes of an international conference call, an email notice popped up on Randall’s laptop screen: the insurance company needed a scanned copy of Parker Fairbourne Bradford’s death certificate. Mule kick to the gut. Macroshock. Fibrilation. The deadening plunge of the universe into the cranium. And racing to a window for air.
All the bracing against these waves of pain, all the acting as if unscathed (which is, after all, what competent people are expected to do, play The Impervious One), all that harnessing of anguish was physically exhausting for my husband. The lie of stoicism was almost physically impossible for him to keep up, at least for very long stretches.
“I need to retreat and be alone, to digest this, to go into the depths,” he told me. He knew he couldn’t be alone for long with a leadership role at work. So he went underground—literally.
There was something in the building’s underground parking lot—the isolation, the darkness, the hermetic seal of the car doors as he shut himself into the driver’s seat—that liberated and soothed him. There, in his car, he could weep as loudly as he needed to for his lunch break and again for a few minutes in the late afternoon. A lightless car. A lightless subterranean garage. A lightless grave.
But these retreats were brief, ending every time with the ping! of a timer he had set.
A major restructuring initiative was taking place within his company, and Randall knew that if he were not present—and energetically so—many of his colleagues’ jobs (and livelihoods and families’ futures) would be jeopardized. He couldn’t care less about that all-important corporate bottom line; he could, however, care about the human story above that bottom line.
Two weeks back at work (near the one-month marker of our son’s death, and on what happened to be Randall’s birthday) a large group of his colleagues from around Europe who had not seen him since learning of Parker’s passing were convening for an important meeting in the Munich offices.
“How am I supposed to keep up some steely façade for hours of back- to-back meetings and a board presentation?” Randall had asked me that morning, eyes already red from weeping since predawn. “How am I supposed to lead? And with energy? I can hardly dredge up sincerity.”
He’d aged, it seemed, a good twenty years in a month. And by this time I was beginning to wonder if this man in front of me who suddenly looked like a hospice patient would in fact be able to manage the major, visible, and relentless demands of his position. Was this the same man who, just over a month ago, had managed the demands like he’d managed our early morning 12ks: sprinting and racing and laughing all the way through the last 3k, high-fiving me and throwing his sweaty head to the skies: “Don’t get much better ’an dat, does it, babe?!” And I’d slap him on his derrière.
Now I pitied him, pitied what he had to do. All I could do to help was promise I’d be on my knees for him that day. All. Day. Long.
“You call me, hon. Call me any time. Any time. Just make it through this one day, okay? You must. You can.”
I kissed his eyelids as he pulled on Parker’s leather bomber jacket. “Parker will be there with you,” I said. “He knows it’s your birthday.”
Beneath the crushing chest press of sorrow and absence, Randall found his way through the soundless corridors of his company’s building to an empty conference room in an untrafficked corner. Alone there, he knelt to pray. With one foot wedged against a door so no one would enter, he wrestled with fear and longing and confusion so suffocating, he had to raise his head so he wouldn’t pass out. Through the floor and down from the ceiling, he then felt warmth surround and seep into him. It spread its light through his body and he felt, as if from nowhere, a physical reinforcement. “Like love,” he told me later.
What happened next was a personal and a professional triumph. Not a triumph for my husband’s profession, but a triumph for the nature of professionalism across the board and across the world. On that day in some steel-and-stone antiseptically sterile regional office outside of Munich, Germany, something quiet but spectacularly human happened.
Randall rose from his knees and returned to his office where he and his colleague Craig were at a computer screen preparing documents for Randall’s presentation on the company’s major restructuring initiative. Craig knew about Parker. In fact, Craig had received the first phone call after Randall had gotten The Call from me at 7:00 a.m. Munich time: “Honey, come now. To Idaho. Come to Idaho right now.” It was Craig who’d scrambled anxiously, plotting Randall’s emergency flight from southern Germany to southeast Idaho so he could have those last sacred hours with his comatose child. It was this same Craig who’d been Randall’s right-hand man ever since.
Now the two tried to focus on their computer screen while person after person tapped gently on the door, entered, and silently looked straight into Randall’s eyes as he rose to greet them. Then they took him into their arms.
Kari from Finland. José Luis from Spain. Hans from northern Germany. Chris from the U.K. Lars from Norway. Antonio from Italy. Michel from France. Colleague after colleague from two decades of work. It was as if in bodily form the whole panorama of Randall’s career was streaming through his door. From embrace to embrace, Randall wiped his tears, turned back to Craig (who was from Wisconsin, by the way, and was also wiping tears), and the two then cleared their throats and tried to focus on that computer screen again.
Computer screen. Tap-tap. Eyes. Embrace. Tears.
Computer screen. Tap-tap. Eyes. Embrace. Tears.
The sequence went on for hours.
When Randall did have to stand at the end of that day to present in front of all these colleagues, was his heart still constricted with anguish? Was he unable to face their scrutiny? Intimidated? Destabilized? Helpless?
No. No, because he had already looked into their eyes, and there he’d seen injury, vulnerability. He’d seen humanness, intimations of which he’d observed throughout years of interaction, but which had been mostly hidden behind what is called professionalism. Hidden behind titles and door plaques on corner offices, distorted by a razor thin but magnetic bottom line.
Now he felt their humanness resonating from their faces, which mirrored their generous, human presence. Breaking down or falling silent for a second or two didn’t faze him, and it didn’t faze them either. So he simply did what he needed to do, all the time watching closely the eyes of those before him.
Their eyes (maybe this will make no sense) allowed Randall to present with tremendous emotion—hands trembling and heart skittering—about that blessed corporate bottom line. For that day, at least, everyone in that room knew it was not the bottom line at all.
At the end of that memorable birthday, Randall received one last knock on his door. It was Craig. From Wisconsin. He stood there a moment, his GQ square jaw and outdoorsy good looks uncharacteristically stiff, locked mid-breath. Craig gripped the doorknob, holding the door a bit ajar, neither completely entering nor leaving the room.
First, he searched with his eyes out the window. Then he looked at the floor. Then he looked right at Randall.
“I . . . I, ah . . . Randall, I just want . . .” His throat was tight, his voice seemed to go a pitch or so higher than usual.
“I just want to say . . . I don’t know . . . I just don’t know, Randall, how you made it through this day.”
Shaking his head once, Craig caught himself. But not in time. Randall’s colleague broke into one open sob. Then he excused himself and walked out the door.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2015. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name. You should also reference the original work, On Loss and Living Onward, (Familius 2014)