Continuing: Aaron D.

Longsuffering. What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can only describe their longsuffering as godly.

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

Well? So be it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron with Parker and his children

Aaron with Parker and Aaron’s children

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had silence ever sounded so crowded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And finally, a very recent mail:

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

Love always and from all of us,

Aaron

**

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

Distraction (and Avelut)

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In my last post where I walked through a small segment of the Book of Job, I mentioned shiva. Shiva, as you probably already knew but I’ll explain just in case, describes the first seven days of mourning within the Jewish tradition. The strict rites of shiva make for a formal, communal focus on the experience of grief. Among other guidelines, one of these traditions requires that visitors to the house of the bereaved sit in silence on low mourning benches. They, as we saw in Job’s three friends, do not speak out of awe at the loss and respect for the sorrow. Their responsibility is to wait until the bereaved himself initiates – or does not initiate – conversation, and then quietly follow suit.

And when [Job’s three friends] lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent everyone his mantle. And sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.
—Job 2:12, 13

I like shiva.

But I don’t expect everyone to, including everyone who is bereaved.

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Although we knew little if anything about shiva before we knew about traumatic loss ourselves, we as a couple followed some of the rites by instinct in that week after the zero point. And I have to say that if I were to revisit that holy week, I’d follow more of the rites and politely ask others to follow them with me. That week, and that general stretch early on after the death of your beloved can be a powerfully charged period for learning things of a spiritual nature. The last thing one would want is to miss out on such tutoring by being somehow distracted or having the world crowd in and crowd out the Spirit.

What follows shiva in Jewish tradition is avelut. I knew absolutely nothing of this stage of ancient mourning practices until well into that woeful first year. Quite accidentally, I stumbled upon this Hebrew word while researching different cultures’ responses to death, and was surprised to find that without having known I was doing so, I’d already been holding strict avelut for several months.

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What is avelut? It is, as a Jew would explain it, the year-long period of private and social behavior outlined for the bereaved, especially children who lose parents and parents who lose children. In keeping avelut, the avel (or the bereaved) does not run from his grief through any number of common escape routes which research and history prove are our favorites; alcohol, drugs, obsessive work, excessive sleep, infidelity, angry rampages, gambling, shopping sprees, you-can-fill-in-the-blank.

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Instead, the avel retreats from the world and from worldly things. This is, however, no passive shutting down. No dark mood, no passing funk. Neither is this depression. And it’s certainly not some kind of pathological anti-social behavior.

This is a measured, deliberate choice to neither flee grief nor be passively detroyed by it. Here’s the logic: Ancient wisdom suggests that in this raw, skinless state, an avel is highly receptive – maybe more than any other time in his life – to learning the fine-particulate matter, the things of the spirit. Those spiritual things will give understanding and with that understanding will come strength, comfort. This period of such exceptional receptivity is brief. If one runs from it, one has lost a rare opportunity to be tutored.

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I’d like to share with you what avelut meant to me and my family.

From the introduction to Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward:

“Resurrection is for those on both sides of the tomb,” writes Presbyterian pastor and theologian, Laura Mendenhall, in an Easter sermon given shortly after the death of an infant girl from her congregation. Of that truth, I am living proof. When your most beloved dies, when your profoundly bonded flesh and blood dies, you die too. It seems the inviolable law of nature. My “death” manifested itself physically: the heart palpitations, the anvil crushing my chest for months on end, the weakness, the fatigue, the overwhelming longing for blue-black drifts of oceanic sleep.

Resurrection, at least a metaphorical one, takes both a staggering amount of effort and a continuance of God’s life-giving grace over a very long period of time. That, I might add, means much more work and far more grace and many more years than anyone uninitiated in traumatic loss seems to ever fully realize at the start.

Like a literal resurrection, ours began from what felt like underground, while buried in sorrow, entombed in grief. Our souls instinctively needed solitude and retreat, a wilderness place apart, a certain protection from the glaring and blaring invasion of the world at large. This meant holing up. As a result, that first year was about as close to monastic living as a nice married Mormon couple with children could fashion. In case I make the refuge or us sound a bit too holy, I want to make it perfectly clear that nothing felt holy enough. But Randall was obliged, after only a few days back in Munich, to return immediately to the necessarily worldly atmosphere and incessant demands of his career. Given the teleconferences on marketing strategies, unavoidable business dinners, and a major structural reorganization taking place right then in his company, the holiness he’d felt for days on end, as much as he longed for it every hour, could not be his daily habitat. If he removed himself entirely from his work at just this moment, many of his colleagues’ jobs would be at high risk. He couldn’t abandon them. So in just that sense, the human one, his work held some meaning. But the professional competition now felt meaningless, even hollow, and his soul hungered to stay close to the nourishing reverence we’d experienced those first few days after impact, close to where we always felt the Spirit and Parker, where their strength and light were accessible. We did all we could both together and individually to hold onto that holiness.

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As I withdrew from the outer world, (no music, no shopping, no television, no movies, and very little if any social contact), I entered an intense journey of meditation and prayerful study. This meant that for more than a year, every morning after the children left for school and Randall for the office or for the airport, I turned to my daily pattern of digging amid piles of books spread about me in a circular mountain range. I sat cross-legged on the floor with sometimes twenty books open at once: the Bible; poetry anthologies; the Book of Mormon; a modern French novel; the Doctrine and Covenants; a German lyric; a prophet’s personal journal; a Norwegian memoir; the Pearl of Great Price; a commentary on the Book of Job; a stack of professional journals on parental grief; collected talks from prophets and apostles past and present; discourses from Plutarch and Plato; my Riverside Shakespeare; accounts of the Mormon pioneers; accounts of Holocaust survivors; accounts of 9/11 survivors; accounts of tsunami survivors; and Parker’s own words, captured in his journals, poetry, school essays, letters, and lyrics.

For hours to days to weeks to months on end, I hunkered down in profound concentration, spelunking and pick axing through others’ writings. Why, of all things, was this my response to grief? For one thing, I was hunting for community, or better, for communion. I knew no one in Munich and no one knew me. As important, no one knew Parker. I had no community to validate my feelings or give me a control group against which to check my sanity at a time when I feared I might be losing my mind from sheer pain. In the thousands of pages I read, I held out hope that I might find someone who would understand something of the state of acute confusion and alienation we were living in. Perhaps, too, I would find someone to sit quietly and weep with me.
I was also looking for words, literally. From the earliest minutes of arriving at the ICU and throughout the months that followed, I realized that there was no existing vocabulary for either the horror or the holiness we were experiencing. Never had I needed so desperately to be understood, yet never had I felt so misunderstood. Would this tragedy drive me to permanent silence, me, a woman whose whole education, profession and delight had been tethered to words? Maybe, just maybe, I thought, somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of words I was raking through, I would find one passage that would give voice to the devastation I could otherwise find no words for.

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But above all, I was searching for knowledge. I ached for meaning, yearned for truth. I was mining for wisdom, for enlightenment, mining like a tenacious scientist on the trail of The Great Cure of the century, but instead of a cure or a release from the constant pain we were now experiencing, I yearned for knowledge and understanding of it. Though I’d always been a student of the gospel, I now sought more than ever a greater knowledge and understanding of God. It would be God who would offer true communion, I knew that. And it would be God who would understand my several questions for which I had no language. And it would be God who would reveal meaning and truth. It would be God, ultimately, who would provide an answer to the question that now consumed my life: How could I live on with the death of my son?

When in my research someone’s words hit the bedrock of Spirit, I knew it in half a breath. There were revelatory moments when an insight stunned me to immediate tears, or, more often, head-to-toe stillness. At times my heart would leap a hurdle or my eyes would stretch wide open; other times I would hold my breath or exhale audibly in gratitude. Whatever my physical and intellectual response, every time a writer got it, I’d quickly type the words into my growing laptop files.

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That mining for light, as I’ve just described in that substantial quote from the introduction toGrief and Grace, gave me hundreds of pages of quotes that have been edited into something I pray might be of help to others facing the abyss of great loss.

Beyond that, however, and what I consider a far more precious result of that once-in-a-lifetime concentrated retreat, avelut revealed many essential and practical truths about our son’s accident, details unknowable unless someone was guided spiritually to certain sources and people with specialized knowledge. Thanks to the searching we did during that first year of our unwitting avelut, we also learned things of a spiritual nature I choose not to speak about but on rare occasion and in special circumstances, and though I have written it all down, that is material I do not share openly. But they are concrete realities and have offered to me and my family testimony after testimony of the truth that life is eternal and loving, familial bonds endure beyond this sphere.

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

So what if instead of choosing to face and enter my grief, I had chosen, instead, to distract myself from it, to run from it? To dance a fake jollity jig? To amuse myself away from my son’s death?

Or what if I’d been in a community that had insisted, all with the best intentions, of course, on distracting me from my grief? Cheerleading me away from it? Coaxing me into a mall? Or a bar? Or a spa? All the time moving me away from that time of fleeting receptivity and all that could have been learned only there and then?

Would distraction have provided a quicker healing? Strengthening? Fortifying? A faster way through? Or would it have been a feverish detour, maybe, the kind you’ve driven before that brings you right back to that same main road with all the messy construction anyway, back to that same bleak stretch, back to the only way through?

To some, I imagine avelut might sound, I’m not sure, masochistic, draconian or even just an unnecessary drag. But because of my small but potent experience during that time of sacred retreat, I believe that avelut was above all things a rare and precious blessing. It taught me about holding onto holiness, how vital yet how hard it is, and about the importance of creating the necessary climate where personal revelation is as essential as air and where God’s merciful presence is real, real in its fiery power, real in its muscular grace.

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From Grief and Grace:

The world in which we live lies in the power of the Evil One, and the Evil One would prefer to distract us and fill every little space with things to do, people to meet, business to accomplish, products to be made. He does not allow any space for genuine grief and mourning. . . .
The voice of evil also tries to tempt us to put on an invincible front. . . . Someone once said to me, “Never show your weakness, for you will be used; never be vulnerable, for you will get hurt; never depend on others, for you will lose your freedom.” This might sound very wise, but it does not echo the voice of wisdom. It mimics a world that wants us to respect without question the social boundaries and compulsions that our society has defined for us.

–Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 8, 9

In the end denial, bargaining, binges, and anger are mere attempts to deflect what will eventually conquer us all. Pain will have its day because loss is undeniably, devastatingly real.
—G. Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 59

I was a character from an opera who might at any moment let loose with an aria, and generally people tried to cover it up with conversational ragtime. People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably. Some tried extraordinary juggling acts, with flung torches of chitchat and spinning scimitars of small talk.
They didn’t mention it. They did not say, I am so sorry or How are you?
I felt in those first weeks, meeting people I knew, like the most terrifying object on earth.
Who knows what people think? Not me, and especially not then. Still it surprised me, every time I saw someone who didn’t mention it. . . . I am trying to remember what I have thought when I’ve done the same thing, all those times I didn’t mention some great sadness upon seeing someone for the first time. Did I really think that by not saying words of consolation aloud, I was doing people a favor? As though to mention sadness I was “reminding” them of the terrible thing?
As though the grieving have forgotten their grief?

—Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of A Figment of My Imagination, 92–93

When people outside the immediate family are encountered who do not allow. . expression of emotions and thoughts about the deceased children, it creates a resentment that is difficult to control. Subsequently, the time comes when parents begin to separate themselves from insensitive and uncaring people in their environments who insist on keeping channels of communication closed.

Many times a wedge is driven between those suffering the loss and very dear and close friends. We can refer to this as a “wedge of ignorance”—ignorance about the great importance of open . . . communication.
—Ronald Knapp, Beyond Endurance, 31–32

While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates.
—Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 21

Across the years I have met countless men and women who have used drugs, alcohol, sex, food, gambling, work, hobbies, or shopping to drown out the painful scenes [of the death of a loved one] in their minds. My drug of choice was work. My hectic schedule was a convenient distraction, and it was something I used in my attempt to outrun the pain. . . .
Along my grief journey I have met countless men who, like me, have tried to outrun their pain by replacing it with something else. . . . For grievers, the message is clear: if we try to stifle, ignore, outrun our sadness, and not talk about the pain we feel inside, there will be serious consequences down the road.

—D. Apple, Life After the Death of My Son, 32–33

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2012: A Year’s Passage

Christmas Day 2011, Tanzania

December 2011, Tanzania

December 2012, Switzerland

December 2012, Switzerland

Like you, winding up a year makes me look back, unwinding it.  While you’ve been with me for half of 2012 (I launched this blog in May), having strapped yourself in just in time for the second part of the year’s ride, (that big move from Singapore to Switzerland, if you remember), you missed out on the entire front half of the calendar.  That’s kind of a shame, really, because there was stuff going on, friend.  Are you interested in seeing a bit of that passage?

Christmas week, 2011. . .

Christmas week, 2011. . .

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Before I get carried away, though, may I insert a small, smiling caveat?

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As you visit here throughout December, would you please keep something in mind? It’ll help so that I don’t feel too crippled by self-consciousness and you won’t feel sludgy or arrggghy or slumpy. Or slap-toppy.

(That stinging state of mind when you slap shut your lap top, resenting what you just saw inside it.)

Not that you would slap shut on me. But in case.  Since you know, things happen.

Please hear my whispered voice saying that these posts are all given in the spirit of sharing between friends this riotously colorful and complex globe we live on. These posts are about nothing but that: sharing, celebrating, being whooshed away with wonder.

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So consider today’s post a jiffy Table of Contents for what you can expect to read here throughout December, this last month  of 2012.

There was an extended trip to Tanzania, Africa.  I will post several times on that and explain why we were there in the first place, what things I observed, why I want to return.  The photos alone are worth clicking in here once in a while. (I didn’t take them; my men did.)

Then there was Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand.

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 And Indonesia and Hong Kong.

And that morning spent diving with dolphins in Mauritius. 

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When not posting on the past passage of 2012, I’ll keep you abreast of the current passage, what we are experiencing in the here-and-now.

“Here”: Central Europe.

“Now”: right about. . . now. This alone will keep us busy, as we’ve planned a couple of family outings.

vienna market

Come with us to Vienna to hear these talented boys sing…

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Drive with us to Strasbourg for the Christmas market that dates from the 1500’s…

strasbourg market

Take the TGV with us to Paris

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Then get some retrospective Paris with a few excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir where most recently we’ve been looping back to Norway but we’ll now return to France.

Only to leave France briefly.

Only to return to France for a few more years.

All to keep you thoroughly confused and a bit transfixed.

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And finally, come share with us our first Swiss Christmas. They promise to be deeply, whitely, purely holy days.

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Global Mom: Vi er Norske!

Dalton Haakon Bradford. We chose the name for our baby because Dalton, as you’ve gathered, is my maiden name. And Haakon  (pronounced similarly to “hoe cone”, but that’s where similarity ends), is one of those big names of Norwegian royalty, much like Charles or George in England, Louis and Philip in France. It happens, for instance, to also be the name of the current Norwegian crown prince, Haakon Magnus.

Royal lineage, however, has nothing to do with why we wanted that name for our Viking baby.  Personal lineage has.  Haakon is an important name from Randall’s maternal line.  In the year of 1856, Haakon Aamodt, Randall’s great grandfather and the youngest branch of at least a dozen generations of farming family from the county of Østfold, Norway, joined the Mormon church.  Summarily kicked out of the King’s Royal Navy, he did what thousands of European Mormons of that time were doing.  He took himself a wife, Julia Josephine, and emigrated to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Although you might not believe this, we knew nothing of Haakon’s story until we’d lived in Norway over a year.  It’s then we got a letter from Randall’s oldest sister, who had more or less inherited the matriarchal and family history responsibility when their mother, Shirley, had passed away suddenly less than a year before we’d been offered the job in Oslo. Shirley had been a charitable, humble, self-effacing person who shared few of the details of her upbringing, and even fewer of her extended family history.  And so we all understood only that her heritage was vaguely Scandinavian, but the details ended there.

So it came as a surprise when this oldest sister put two and two together and discovered that their mother Shirley was only three generations removed from a small community right in the middle of the endless rolling farmland of the county of Østfold, less than an hour’s drive from our doorstep which was a few minutes west of Oslo.  It seemed that Shirley’s father, Albert Aamodt, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Haakon and Julia.  Haakon’s father was Christian Torkildsen who lived on one of the many Aamodt farms in Østofld and, as was the way then, took the name of the farm, Aamodt.  Our research told us that preceding Christian, there were ten consistently linked generations from that one corner of Østfold.  In other words, the Aamodt line is Østfold.

We figured it was a good place to start looking for family.  So we packed up the kids and took off one day in search of the first church with a graveyard in that county.  Not only did we find that, but a nice older couple out for a stroll that afternoon pointed us right in the direction of the largest Aamodt farm where they promised us the owner would love to chat.  He was quite interested in genealogy himself.

An hour later I was playing with the children on ancient wooden farm equipment surrounded by goats and cows while Randall waved at me through kitchen windows. Inside, he was seated next to the family’s long pine farm table where he and other Aamodts shared glasses of cider pressed from their local apples. This American son talked family matters with these Norwegian sons.

All these generations, and there Randall stood, right on Haakon’s very patch of natal soil. Serendipity, a professional stroke of luck, and we believe Shirley’s quiet celestial lobbying had landed us, an American family of five, less than an hour from the roots of Randall’s family tree.  Using Haakon’s name for our child born in his country, a country Haakon never set eye on again after emigrating for his faith from the verdant fjords to a chalky expanse of an unknown desert, was our small way of gratefully closing the family circle.

Dalton Haakon Bradford.  The string of firm, double-syllabled titles seemed to fit his dense, big-boned build.  A strong, heavily-connected appellation for a strong, heavy boy.

But the Norwegian government would have nothing to do with it.

After submitting the name to the civil registry, we got a note back saying Haakon was great, but Dalton?

Nei, det er ikke lov.

Not allowed.  Our choice was “unacceptable.”

Unacceptable?

Unusual, maybe. I could accept that.  But unacceptable?  Pshaw.

We read on. There were several points detailed in the nice shiny brochure they’d enclosed which outlined which names one must avoid in Norway.  I recall some vague guideline about not giving a child a name that would be “disadvantageous” to him in adulthood.  Here, I suspected they were thinking of Chastity Bono, Moon Unit or Dweezle Zappa, and any number of American mashups meant to evoke father, mother, eye color and astrological sign in one fell swoop.

Marvellabluvirgo. For instance.

Furthermore, the pamphlet instructed us, the parents were not to use as a given name the mother’s maiden name (our first infraction), nor any last name for that matter, to avoid doubling up on names when one marries. Messing up the genealogy charts and stuff.  An Olson Olson. A Carlson Carlson. Marvellabluvirgo Marvellabluvirgo.

Oh, the effrontery.

But wait! You’re thinking, (as we were), that Dalton was, 1) a boy, so he would not, given the tradition, take on the married name of his Norwegian bride with the family name of Dalton and become a freakish and stuttering Dalton Dalton, and, 2) the name Dalton is not Norwegian in the first place, so the chances were less than zero that there would be someone in this vast country named –

Randall whipped up the phone and brandished his finest, most professional Norwegian which was by now and in this moment of frustration, polished and gushing at full force like a 300 meter Norwegian waterfall after thaw.

“This is the Norwegian Civil Registry. I’m Snorre at the office of Name Laws. May I help you?

“Yes. Good day, Snorre. I’d like to name my baby.  What I want.”

“Let’s see. . .are you Norwegian citizens?”

“Nope. Neither is the baby. We’re temporary residents in your lovely country. So of course we can’t be subject to your Name Laws.”

“Let’s see. . .let me transfer you to my colleague.”

“Hello, this is Odd.”

“Hello, Odd.  I am Randall.  Neither my newborn baby nor my wife nor I are Norwegian citizens and we want to name this baby what we want.  We’ve decided on Dalton Haakon. Is his going to present any problems for your office, your country, King Harald and Queen Sonja? And if it does, what if I name him anyway? You going to confiscate him?”

(Goodwill snicker.)

No snicker back.

“Actually, Randall, in order to receive a Norwegian birth certificate, you have to comply with our Name Laws. If you do not comply, no certificate.  No certificate? No passport.  And your son is then officially illegitimate.”

“Alrightee, Odd. May I speak with your supervisor?”

“Hello, this is Hrothgar, office of Name Laws.  You might want to consider putting your son’s second name, Haakon, first, and just putting Dalton second.  This is a good compromise, don’t you think? According to this footnote, you can, in fact, use a family name as a second name. But not as a first.”

“No, Hrothgar,” Randall said, “I think not. My baby.  My name. No compromise.”

“Then I’m afraid I can’t help you. We at Norway’s Name Law office want to protect your child.  If one day your son marries someone Norwegian with the last name Dalton—”

“Time out, time out, Hrothgar!  First, help me understand, would you please, how many people with the last name of Dalton are currently living in Norway?”

Pause. Computer click-click-click sounds.

“There are. . .hmmm. . . six.  I see there is. . .um.. . one Dalton on an island off the southwestern coast.  And one Dalton. . .let’s see. . .yes. . . northeast of Hammerfest near the Arctic Circle and–”

“Right.  Okay, so what’s the probability of this little baby Dalton Bradford one day marrying one of these Daltons and then crashing Norway’s entire genealogical data system by taking her name and becoming Dalton Dalton?”

Silence.

“Well. . . Randall. . . there is still the other issue.”

“The other issue?”

“We just can’t be sure that Dalton is an acceptable first name.  I’ve checked, and it’s nowhere on our Acceptable Names list.  It is normally a last name, your wife’s last name, am I not right?”

“Hrothgar, may I speak with your supervisor?”

“Hello, this is Beowulf.  You are calling about the Name Laws, aren’t you?”

“Right, yes. Okay listen. Dalton is a fully acceptable first and last name. And to make everyone happy, I’ll personally see to it that our son not marry a Someone Dalton from the Polar ice cap. In fact, I won’t even let him date anyone from there.  Can we just name our baby what we want?”

“For this exception, Randall, you will need to provide a letter of intercession from your native government. Then, you will have to be able to show proof that this name Dalton is acceptable.  Solid, tangible proof.”

So did you know that you can, if you really have to, receive via Fed Ex Express vintage bubble gum cards of the New Orleans Saints football player, Dalton Hilliard? A CD cover featuring Dalton Baldwin as accompanist? And title pages of every last one of Dalton Trumbo’s screenplays?

A fortune for all that plus a paltry bribe of one packet of El Paso Taco seasoning for an Embassy affiliate, and we got the obsequious letter begging for the right to name our baby as we, and as his great-great intervening Norwegian grandfather who must have been smiling somewhere, wished.

 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Barnepark

Another excerpt from the forthcoming book, Global Mom, A Memoir.

Here, I have been advised by my new Norwegian friend, Johanne, to enroll our two barna (children) at our local branch of barnepark, Norway’s ubiquitous outdoor preschool. This is early January, an American’s season for hibernation, hunkering down.  But this is Norway, where weather is only the poorest excuse for escaping.

Besides, after a full week in this new country, I’m already  feeling compelled to go native.

I’ll let my children go first.

Norway, view from our window, 1994

**

Global Mom, A Memoir.

Norwegian Wood, January, 1994

Before petitioning the barnepark, as Johanna had suggested, I first set up a stealth surveillance post. Atop a hill and from behind a pine tree close to Blakstad barnepark, I  hunched behind my steering wheel, warm in my down sleeping bag and earmuffs.  Parker and Claire wore their hats and coats and were wrapped in a massive feather comforter while they read books to each other in the backseat.  I dissected the social experiment playing itself out before me.

Photo credit: Flickr

From this outpost, I spied a trio of red-suited adults (only later did I discover that they were women) standing sentinel amid fifteen to twenty or so small bodies that played in hip-high snow and chased snowflakes with their tongues. The women in red stood there, removed from the activity in the snow.   Unless there was real trouble like the random child stuck head first in a snow bank, limbs flailing wildly for help, the women stood far away, stamping their boots every so often, clouds of breath rising from their faces.  Occasionally, they would sip from thermoses or slap their mittened hands on their thighs. This same silent movie repeated itself all morning long, the sun never really rising very far into the sky, dusk a constant backdrop on those limpid midwinter days.

Photo credit: Flickr

At midday, and with the ring of a hand-held bell, all the children would gather into a small wooden barrack for an hour. After the hour, they emerged again. Repeat of silent movie. All afternoon. I would later learn that this was the pattern, day in and day out, sleet, hail, snow, hell or high water, all year long, for three years of these children’s lives.

And everyone in Norway did this?  Everyone?

Just watching the ice slides made me choke on my swig of peppermint tea from my big green Land’s End thermos. Some of those kids were whizzing so fast down slides packed so hard with gray ice, they looked like upholstered torpedoes shooting out of polished marble barrels.

Claire Bradford, Blakstad barnepark, January 1994

One tiny figure in particular (to whom we still refer today as Hannah the Human Bullet) seized my attention.  She might have been three, but a small three.  Her snowsuit was red as was her little knitted cap that looked just like a strawberry, green twig stem and all.  From where I huddled in my unmarked car, I could just make out her mounds of cheeks; two buffed pinkish apples in a grocer’s crate.  She was either intrepid or on Phen-Phen.  Circuit after circuit, she hiked the slick path to the top of a handmade precipice where she flopped herself prostrate, planted her mittens to get some traction, and like a teensy pebble out of a sling shot, exploded down the steep incline.  Sometimes she landed on her belly.  Sometimes on her back.  Always, she caught some air. No one, least of all Hannah, seemed to flinch at the peril, the astronomical potential for lawsuits, the sure threat of injury.  I, on the other hand, was left winded and jittery just keeping up with her above my dashboard.

Photo credit: Flickr

Kids were roaming about, gluey noses scarlet with cold, all those clouds of breath hanging over their heads like empty thought bubbles in a comic strip. The tall red suited adults only piped up every half hour or son, maybe, while all the children kept doing normal kid-in-snow things like pelting each other with snowballs, grabbing the littler guy’s shovel, constructing elaborate fort and tunnel systems.

When they were whonked over the noggin or got stuck in the frozen tire swing, no one came rushing with theatrical rescues and apologies for the misery of it all.  No one came most of the time, in fact.  Generally, a tall person’s hooded head raised itself a bit, I would hear the faint holler, probably reciting a rule, and the child maneuvered itself to safety or self-consolation.  Once or twice a big person split up a knotted wrangle of clawing cubs, barking in about four syllables something that shut down the scuffle like a lid over fire.

This?  No-sir-ee-sir, my two would never survive.

Photo credit: Flickr

I had raised Parker and Claire — my treasures, my snoogly-wooglies — to be softies. Like me.  Accomodating, even obliging, sensitive.  Freaked by speed.  This Nordic system, as I watched it agape and gasping, would make them hardy, that’s for sure.  But in the process it would give me a heart attack. Putting them here would be like tossing them into a doggoned menagerie, I shuddered, more of a farm, even, than any well-organized playpen.  I second-guessed myself.  I second-guessed the Norwegians.  I was back to second-guessing Norway as a whole.

Parker, Norway, 1994

After a couple of days of playing driver’s seat anthropologist from an unmarked Saab, I slipped into my best jeans which I tucked into my fancy red cowboy boots, a big hit when I’d worn them in New York City, and they made me immediately identifiable as The Girl From Utah.  I pulled on a padded but flattering and therefore actually not so padded and therefore totally useless down parka, and checked my foreign newcomer smile in the mirror while drilling my Norwegian lines. I’d written them out phonetically while Johanna had coached me over the phone. With a prayer in my heart and one bundled child on each hand, I waddled gingerly all the way down the slope to the Blakstad barnepark barrack.

Mother on a snow stroll with children in tow
Note the attempt at a flattering pose. . .

It might have occurred to you that the soles of cowboy boots are meant to slip easily in and out of stirrups, an advantage while roping calves in rodeos.  The relative slickness of the soles helps cowgirls slide in and out of stirrups with ease, even elegance, so they can win big trophies and custom-made chaps.  But this engineering factoid never crossed my mind before I stepped out onto my first Norwegian iceberg.  Lesson learned? Aerodynamically designed boot toes and high-gloss soles are no help on a 70˚ angle of black ice.

Parker, Norway, 1994

Slush-splattered, a massive bruise forming on my left hip and limping lightly, we arrived.  I’d timed our entrance for noon, knowing this was the children’s lunchtime, a prime opportunity to beg for dagbarn plasser.  A few whacks on the wooden door and a very tall, attractive brunette woman wearing several layers of woolen sweaters under a lumpy red snowsuit unzipped to and gathered at her waist, opened to me.  Her pronounced, flushed cheekbones pointed right to her broad, sympathetic smile.  Behind her shoulder I caught sight of a spartan but cozy interior filled with a whole picnic table of ruddy-cheeked children, most of them toe-headed, leaning over small bundles of what must have been sack lunches.

In silence they examined their strange, shivering visitors.

Blakstad barnepark, Norway, January 1994

Two other blonde women, also in half-zipped red jump suits, appeared to be manning the lunch break.  The interior looked so soothing after the piercing cold outside. Claire, shy and clingy in new situations, was gripping my brittle fingers so desperately I thought they’d break. And both children really needed a toilet.  I was afraid.  Afraid for them.  Afraid for me.  My feet were searing with pain. My rump was soggy and sore. I searched inwardly for my first line.  This is where my years as an actress kicked in, shoving me through stage fright.

The woman waited, smiling.

I was frozen on all levels.

I licked my lips to defrost them, but they remained immobile.

Out of a mouth that felt like two stacked Goodyear radials I forced a smile and the following in halting Norwegian:

“Good day.  Sorry that I disturb.  We are Americans.  We inhabit house not far.  We freeze.  Have you dagbarn?”

Tall, gentle tante Britt, as I later learned was her name, responded in Norwegian-For-The-Learning-And-Hearing-Impaired, and drew me at once into the barrack and into a wobbly but warm conversation.  All this was done while the two blondes, (whom I was later to know as tante Eva and tante Anna) invited Parker and Claire over to sit on a bench and sing nursery songs with the others while I beat my hands back to life.  They smiled, my two, a bit stiff with fear of separation and all-eyes-on-us self-conciousness.  But that lasted less than five minutes.

Picnic time, Blakstad barnepark, Norway, January 1994

My hands began thawing. The palms started itching like crazy.  I watched my two wriggle into a place between other children on the bench. Claire’s cheeks a flaming shade of fuchsia, Parker’s bangs matted and angular after he tugged off his thin American beanie.  A spot in my lower torso felt ignited, heat-filled, by the sight of my two crammed in between a girl, maybe four, and another, not much older. The first sat next to Claire and secretly put her hand on Claire’s thigh, smiling, whispering something Claire of course could not understand, but to which Claire nodded a bit sideways.  This is where that torso hot spot took quiet flame.  I honestly felt warmer. My eyes must have been defrosting, I knew this, because they were leaking down both cheeks.

But my fingers remained concrete.  I never did get blood to them, in fact, but I nevertheless managed to sign, in runic alphabet, the sheet of paper that admitted our two as dagbarn the next morning.

Parker Bradford at barnepark

**
© 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.

Global Mom: Snow Angels

As promised, a short teaser for Global Mom.

This comes from early in the book, soon after we have moved from the Bright Lights of Broadway to the Northern Lights of Norway.  Randall has been invited with his new team at work to attend a week of the Olympic Games in Lillehammer.  I am with four-year-old Parker and two-year-old Claire, holed up in a snug wooden home in the mountains west of Oslo.  There, I’m learning two basics for becoming Norwegian:

Snow and Speech.

***

This, from my journal:

I spent over two hours shoveling snow in the middle of a major snowstorm this morning.  While Parker and Claire stared on from the safe warmth of the house, their rosy faces pushed against the window next to the front door, I snorted and huffed away like a rabid mastodon packed into neck-to-ankle lycra.  The craziest thing about this is that everyone else on the street was doing the same thing, although perhaps not in lycra. Not a one of us exchanged as much as a greeting, and in silent, sober duty we jammed our shovels, heaved the weight, and moved mountains.  Half sissy, half Sisyphus, I clenched my jaw, doing my part to build neighborly solidarity. 

As another meter of snow fell (and we all knew another two more were forecast for that night), we scooped and piled, scooped and piled for a couple of hours at least.  Our monuments grew much taller than the tallest man I could spy at the bottom of our hill, digging and lobbing in the unbroken rhythm of jab-heave-heave-hurl, jab-heave-heave-hurl.

I’m not sure exactly what it is yet that I am learning in this new lifestyle, but I think it has something to do with discovering the inherent significance buried in the mundane. I’ll keep digging.

Photo credit: UK Telegraph

Sometime after that storm blew over, the sun shone brightly for an exceptional six days straight. This was just long enough to cause a crisis when the ice started to thaw. One morning, I found that the entryway ceiling was streaming in several synchronized tributaries onto the floor.  Seems I’d been distracted by snow removal from the shoulder down, and hadn’t noted the glacier accumulating on the roof.

I should have known to climb on the roof and shovel off the weight, my tall neighbor from the bottom of the road announced flatly as he took to the roof in two long strides (the snow was so high it met the bottom edge of the rafters) and, in a dozen or so brusque gestures, attacked the slushy beast with a pick and spade.  A couple of muscular kicks with the toe of his hunting boots and my roof was dripless.

“Always clear the roof”, he offered in an accent I now recognized as coming from northern Norway, and he stabbed the shovel into a snow mound before leaning his bony elbow on the pick.  “Next time the whole roof could fall right on your children and—” he made a fierce sound like a polar bear winning at Go Fish.

You can bet that after every storm that followed I was the first from my neighborhood to shimmy up the drain pipe: The Shoveler on the Roof.

This was at about the same time Randall was on something euphemistically called a regional business retreat at the Olympic Games.  He called often from Lillehammer, feeding me with color commentary and cultural play-by-plays, always spilling over with details about this high-pitched initiation into the Norwegian spirit. At noon, he’d be yelling to me over the explosions of cheering spectators right and left; at midnight, he’d whisper like a spy, reporting dispassionately below the rowdy drinking choruses gurgling in the background on whoever was at that moment spread out cold under the table.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I took copious notes.  I envisioned the scenes.  Breathlessly, I’d pummel him with questions and prod him for more.  And I hung a bit, I’m embarrassed but not too proud to admit, on those calls. There was a big world out there.

Not that I wasn’t keeping very busy in my small world at home.  I used that week to invite over a steady string of little friends—Jesper, Eirik, Knut, Karolina, Per-Ole, Louisa—to the Bradford house.  Bringing Norwegian under our roof in galloping, knee-high form was, as I’d hoped it would be, better then Berlitz. I was the half-mute kneeling hostess, crawling everywhere the conversation went, hungrily watching the kids’ lips, mouthing sounds with my brows furrowed, questioning kiddies on every expression, every turn of phrase.  I tell you, I never want to know what those children told their own parents about that new mother who mostly crawled and wrote down every word they said. Because most of the time they’d  look at me with their noses crunched in a bundle, and say, “So. . .you’re not Norwegian, are you? Because you do speak a little weird, you know that?”

That tots who couldn’t even pull on their own mittens could spew flawless phrases like that in Norwegian kept me on my knees.  I was their humble boot-licker.

Photo credit: Kim Rormark

During a few of those uncharacteristically sunny hours in early February, I hosted our own preschool Olympics.  With ten guests I staged an activity that left my whole backside plastered with snow that fell off in slabs when I lurched into the house to grab Randall’s telephone call. I’d been in the yard with a dozen children making snow angels. I was pooped. The sun was fading (it was almost two o’clock, dusk in a Norwegian winter), which meant we’d soon be coming inside.  The very thought of undressing the whole fleet of mushy astronauts made my spine go floppy but my jaw go rigid.

“You wouldn’t believe it, sweetheart” Randall laughed, “but there are trolls everywhere here. Huge troll statues, little troll dolls, troll sweatshirts, troll oven-mits, troll bumper stickers. It’s a total troll-o-rama.  Wish you could see the poor guy we saw in head-to-toe troll gear grilling meatballs. Incredible!”

I tried to conjure the picture.  Jesper needed to go to the toilet and had to be totally undressed.  Hard, with a phone pinched between ear and shoulder.

Randall kept feeding me images:

“And we just passed the biggest ice sculpture I’ve ever seen.  Solid ice.  Gorgeous. Mammoth. A Viking ship.  Or a polar bear or something, I think.”

“Not a troll?” I asked, unzipping Jesper who now lies flat on his back on my kitchen floor, and I don’t have the Norwegian words for, “Me your slave?”, and I’m tugging at his rock solid Cherox snow boots so I can then pull off a couple of layers so he can now waddle, dripping a trail of snow, to the toilet.

“No, a moose, maybe.  Anyway, I’m thinking winter’s not so bad here after all if you can do it like this every time:  the press, the cameras, the celebrities, the perfect blue skies.  I guess—“

I couldn’t’ make out the rest of his words for all the noise on his end.

“Where are you?  What’s all the yelling?” I wondered as I adjusted the phone in hand, mopping up Jesper’s mush tracks with a rag under my foot, all the while keeping an eye on the happy scene of several very sweet angels indeed, including my two, flapping and chortling outside on a mantle of diamonds.

Randall was on someone’s cell at the ice hockey rink where he was sitting only rows—“only rows, honey!”— behind Hilary Clinton, who’d swung through Norway to support the U.S. hockey team.

Up to that point I was smiling, though sweating, on my end of the conversation.  But in an instant something stung and deeply.  The collision in my mind of those two scenes–the Olympic, versus the Neighborhood Games—pinched a nerve in me.  Just then, the hockey team made a goal and pandemonium from that end of the line covered the silence on my end.

Jesper was now standing forlorn in the kitchen doorway.  His below-the-waist bareness and wide open stare said he needed toilet paper.

“Mel?  Hon? You still there?  Hey, I got you a great sweater. Please tell the kids I’ll bring them back real troll hair.”  (Laughter.  A roar for a missed goal.) “Honey?. . . Mel?”

Some moments say more than one can grasp in the instant they strike. This was one of those moments.  There I was in bigger-than-life Norway, the momentary focal point of the globe. Important people were discussing important things; and even if they weren’t, at least they were discussing something.  It was then that I feared what loomed on the horizon: that our two geographies, Randall’s and Melissa’s, would from thenceforth be cloven down the middle, distinctly and necessarily disjointed. Just like the bucket seats of our very first, poor student car, a V.W. bug: Driver (gear shift, and) Passenger. Instead of sharing that joint adventure with Randall, I was afraid I’d only get the adventure second hand, across a gear shift or through the irritating filter of a cell phone exchange. Instead of being there, I was here.

“Thanks, sweetheart, for the sweater,” I said. And I meant it.

But he hadn’t heard my words over the hockey rink bedlam.  The Finns had just made a goal.  And I was busy handing a roll of toilet paper to Jesper.

“Well, can’t hear you so well,” Randall yelled,  “So if you can hear me, Thanks, hon.  I miss you here!

Click.

On the raw pine floor, a puddle of snowmelt spread in a dark pool round my boots.  Lillehammer was only two hours’ drive away.  But impossibly far from my world where tottering, snow-encased trolls were now lined up outside along the floor-to-ceiling kitchen window smashing their pug noses and smearing slime on a frosty pane that barely muffled the new music of Norwegian banter.

Photo credit: norskogarchiv notam02

I watched a row of children, soft faces pressed to transparency, mouths and nostrils expelling little gusts of spirit that clung to glass like ragged circles of moist gauze.  Their shrieks and pantomime jarred my stupor, and I waved back as they turned into the sunlight, plopping into their custom angel prints.  It was only then I noticed this amazing thing: Parker and Claire,  heads bobbing naturally while their mouths spoke simple Norwegian phrases, mixing in with these others from whom they are virtually indistinguishable, those small bodies weaving in and out of light and shadows.

Like all births, the births of my two were at once common and astounding events, universal and unique. Now I knew I needed to turn my focus to the everyday protracted labor of rebirthing them—these two,  these extremely important people — into a new world.

Actually, no.

What I first needed was to turn my focus to boiling a dozen hot dogs.

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

In Amber

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

You know by now what happened during that move.

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

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

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

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

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

So I won’t try to type them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View to the Grosser Wasserfall, English Garden, Munich

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that’s something totally different, he said.

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

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

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

Photo: Rob Inderrieden

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

What Does Grief Look Like?

Rocks remember

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

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

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

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

Part of grief shows up like that.  Yessir.

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

At least grief as I’ve known it.

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

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

Let alone walking upright.

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

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

Hmm. Well.

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

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

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

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

You’re looking at it.

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

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

Who wants to rein in this kind of explosive joy?

This primal, golden exuberance for sunshine, for flight?

For each other?

For water?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louder screams.

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take the heavy camera off my neck.

Tuck away the lenses.

Call to my beloveds:

I’m here!

And plunge.

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

House For Rent

The title of today’s post might be a bit misleading if you are one of those who is following this blog and has just come from reading “Finding Home”.

Today’s post, in spite of its title, is not about rental properties.  At least not literally.

Nor is it a continuation of my list of What I Will Really Miss About Singapore.  (I will return to that list, have no fear.)

It doesn’t even have a logical link to my forthcoming book about the in’s and out’s of international living and raising our children to be global citizens.

It does, however, have to do with raising.

Or razing.

Today’s post is a poem, a poem about the razing of a house, a poem with which I wish to introduce to you  Melissa The Poet.

(And does that ever sound heady.)

I have kept that Melissa over there in the corner all the while I’ve been spreading rather personal prose across your screen. I have kept that Melissa private, sitting in the shadow on her satin pouf, quill and parchment in hand. Sipping mint juleps.  Wearing whatever you imagine a poet wears. All white, maybe? Or an ochre-colored velvet waist coat? Pantaloons? A Tibetan robe?

Or maybe a purple and orange tie-dyed muslin tunic with Mao trousers made of hemp and a large, macramé peace sign hanging around the neck?

I am, in fact, a poet who writes in all sorts of apparel, very often in my bathrobe, or in comfies on airplanes (which should be no surprise, knowing me as you now do), on the backs of napkins in cafés, at 3:47 a.m. on Post-Its kept in my bedside nightstand, in the several neat little notebooks I get as gifts from my husband and other friends. I write literally everywhere there is a flat surface and a source of ink or graphite.

Or lipstick. (Once, yes.)

I need silence to write poetry, since the delicacy of poetic language does not mix well with ambient noise. Even my own breathing gets in the way sometimes, and I realize I’ve been holding my breath for too long as I work through a phrase. (It occurs to me only now that the breath-holding might be behind the hallucinatory effects of my writing.)

When I write poetry, it is often because I have experienced what I call a poetic moment.  Something big or miniscule or multilayered is going on, symbols align, there is a sudden simple clarity, and, well. . . I know it when I am in it.  It stings me then spreads out like the swell of sweet venom, and with that swell, images or clusters of words come all at once. When they come like that, I find I have to grab something quickly to pin them down in this world. Like planting them on the page. Then they start to bloom almost on their own.

(Almost, I said. This is not magic or Chia Pets we are talking about.)

Other times, I write because I am overcome with an emotion, or undone with the beauty of things, or unhinged with outrage.  Or I have a question grating at the underside of my cerebellum, and I hope weaving together a poem will help me see the pattern inside of which an answer might glisten. Like the one white silk thread in a tan linen cloth.

I write in black or blue pen, then I always return hours or days or months later with a red pen and make changes, condense, strike thorugh completely, or encircle the word or turn of phrase that I feel is true and necessary. And start again.  Poetry —to make it vibrate — generally requires a great deal of work.

Often — alright, always — the finished poem surprises me.  It comes up with its own references and connections that I could never have thought of myself. They somehow found me.

And then I send a copy of what I have come up with to a friend or two who know and appreciate poetry, and ask them, “Is it just me, or does this make any sense to you?”

Or, “Too wordy again, right? :-)”

Or, “This I wrote for your sweet mother. It might not be so good, but I mean it from the heart.”

Or, “Does this ring to you?”

Or, “Should I try tossing this into a contest? A poetry journal? The trash can?”

Years ago, when I realized my husband was the man for whom gift-giving was tough, I decided to write him an album of poetry for Christmas.  Then on Christmas Eve, I rolled up each poem which I’d printed on white paper, tied the scroll with a red satin bow, and placed each one between the branches of the tree. I had additional copies made and printed them on thick, sensuous, handmade paper, which I then had bound in a book. I boxed the book and placed it under the tree.  He seems to have loved this personal gift with all my irreplaceable love poems to him. And what’s more, he could not return any of them for another size or color.

The first Christmas after we buried our Parker, that brittle gunmetal winter of 2007, I was burning with poetry —poetry of outrage, of evisceration, of longing, of amazement, of revelation, of gratitude, poetry of The Void — but had no energy to print it out.  Or roll it up. Or put it in a tree.

I had no energy, in fact, to have a tree at all that year. No energy for a single, thumb-sized decoration. I had no energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos my oldest son had helped me open only twelve months earlier.  I could not for the life of me — or for the death of my son — generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.  As I considered the birth of the Savior, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the Son with glory round about 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!!

But I had no energy for wailing.

I did have energy, though, to write the following poem. It has already been published in the literary journal, Irreantum, and has been anthologized in Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, where its peculiar — and necessary — line spacing can be found.

(The exact format cannot be duplicated in a blog, unfortunately. But you can see it if you get your hands on that anthology.)

Since you have made the trek all the way here, I offer you a private reading.

HOUSE FOR RENT

To George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis

(Response to MacDonald’s “living house” allegory, as quoted by Lewis in his Mere Christianity)

 

Imagine, they suggest.

Imagine yourself as a living house

and God comes in (here comes the allegory),

God comes in to rebuild that house

and to rebuild, He destroys you.

Splits you wide open.

Knocks you down to shape you up.  Blows you away to bring you forth

as mansion, His dwelling.

 

Imagine?

Imagine: a structure well beyond any

apt literary construct;

Imagine the literal natal invasion,

factual inhabitation, indwelling, the magnifying internment;

this alive thing with its lush, essential interior,

nautilus of distended tension,

gourd-like terrarium, loamy abode,

an incubation for cumulus nimbus,

spirit under my ribs

or cosmos

in the veiled universe of my belly.

What, kindest sirs, might you imagine about a living house

but what woman need never imagine?

Tell: can you conceive of it?

I am the aquarium,

have known (four times) the thrumming oceanic drag,

fulsome tidepool slosh in pelvis;

sweetest ferocious confined Leviathan

stomping inner tympani,

boom-boom-blooming to omega.

Four times nine moons—

(a moon myself, pneumatic,)

holding that glowing orb

or the finest delicacy:  shrimp-on-wafer hors d’oeuvre in salty brine

burrowing in our shared cell.

Most intimate inmate.

I am the accommodation, the occupied real estate

(most real of all states),

a fleshly floorplan, walls torn down for the guest wing thrown up,

placental planting , deluxe plumbing, organic annexing for the increase.

I am that natural habitat for humanity,

an address for razing and raising,

strung taut with that sturdy umbilical pull until (and after)

birth.

Now, that’s some moving day:

Nude little lord, prodigious squatter, long since incorporated, moves out

trailing furnishings, clutching soul (whose? my own?)

in bloody wash,

the old self eviscerated, inverted, and that

humanangel image (past imagining)

multiplying  upon itself forever

ever

ever

ever. . .

To be such a sanctuary of conception,

to be asylum for small gods and sovereigns, who swell, crown,

Rise to rule and risk life!

At such risk.  At such risk as one can never. . .

 

Can one imagine those same living quarters drawn and quartered

when son-brother-cell mate—

(the one who moved within,

then out of you,

your heart still raw in his hold)—

when that oblation grown lustrous, thunderous, launch-ready,

Is ripped        (with               that                 riiiiipping                   sound)

away?

Hard, benevolent wounding, whose frayed fibers hang,

sodden shreds post-rupture ,

and you, true house, are rent

the cloven enclave,

rent in two, or into

two billion splinters:

tattered scraps of love’s sabotage.

Imagine yourself as this living house, haunted in its

boney scaffolds where memory whistles its blue wind

and you are apart-ment

living house split leveled:                                                                                         he there,

you here,

fetal-curled in your own basin;

or a bunker: hunkered in poetry;

or a ranch: speck on the shadowless prairie, barren and boundless;

or a lean-to:  whole halved to make a whole, now wholly halved.

And now. . .

God moves in

though there is no palace for Him here;

only rubble round the crater,

wreckage ringing the hollow.

But He, soft-handed, (the hands, gored)

comes inside (the side, gashed)

to silently,

sacramentally

recreate from laceration Lazarus

and is at home.

 

**

 

© 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.