Holy Friday Procession, Warsaw

My last post from Easter Week in Poland.

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Why was I determined to bring my family to Poland during Easter? From a previous post, you know we’d considered going to a warmer, closer place for that week. Italy, for instance. Just across the fence from where we live in Switzerland. Or Spain, only an eight hour drive. Southern France, four hours even with a couple of rest stops. There were clearly options.

But I was set on Poland. Colder, farther, reputedly austere, and expecting an unseasonably late squall.

If you’re new to this blog, you might think I wanted to visit Poland because it’s overwhelmingly Catholic, and given my dozens upon dozens of cathedral photos – Oh. You noticed all the cathedrals? – you think I must be Catholic, too.

I’m not.

(Devoted Christian and by nature something my close friends call “spiritual.” But not Catholic.)

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth's surface.

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth’s surface. Largest salt mines on earth lie outside of Krakow.

Neither am I Jewish. Although you’d think from all the posts on my fascination with things Jewish that I must have been bat mitzvahed. I’ve spent much of my adult life studying Jewish history and literature, particularly literature born of the Holocaust, (and yes, I’ve sung at my share of bat mitzvahs), but no, I’m not Jewish. I didn’t go to Poland only because of its once considerable Jewish population.

Warsaw's Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into crowded freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other camps

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other death camps

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

I went to Poland because my spirit feels drawn to the history – both devoutly Christian and devoutly Jewish – and the energetic culture that has arisen from that complex, contrapuntal foundation. Through the week spent traveling, I revisited my archives of Polish and eastern European writings associated with the Holocaust. Late on Holy Friday evening in Warsaw, in fact, I was sitting in my pajamas in bed in our hotel room reading some of these poems. The boys were over there, listening to iTunes; Randall was over there, working on his lap top. And I was in the middle of this especially sparse verse:

Crucifixion
Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
1940-1943

I
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me. . .”

II
Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His dear disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.

**

. . .And right about there from somewhere behind or above or outside, I heard (I thought) an angelic chorus.

In my head?

(Okay.  I’m not that spiritual.)

“Hon?” I spoke lowly. “Are you hearing – ?”

My husband looked up from his work. “Whuh?”

“You hearing. . .? Okay seriously. Are you…? Hearing. . .Is it just me?”

Then I heard a full musical phrase. Randall, however, did not.

So I swung my legs out of bed, and ran to the window. I waved to Randall to come quickly.  Bring his iPhone. We saw this:

Dalton rushed out the door pulling on his coat and slinging a camera around his neck. He arrived at ground level just as this happened:

From the street, he was able to capture these images:

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In the context of all we were ingesting, with the backdrop of all I have shared in the last posts – Final Solutions, genocide, death marches, gas chambers, freight trains and firing walls, toppled statues and draped Swastika banners – against that incomprehensibly murderous epoch, what can we make of this street scene?

What meaning or relative value is there in a procession where hundreds of people, strangers to one another mostly, simply drop to their knees and worship? On the icy asphalt, in some odd splotch of street lamp, a child in the arms or crutches under the arms – what practical, verifiable, enduring, elevating purpose is there in getting down on one’s knees? In bowing one’s head? In submitting oneself to something as “insubstantial”  (again, considering the immeasurable loss and the evil engendered by the Holocaust) something as impractical, one might say, as is faith?

I will not answer that here.

But I’ll leave you with this poem. First, the poet’s notes:

In 1945, during the big resettlements of population at the end of World War II, my family left Lithuania and was assigned quarters near Danzig (Gdansk [in northern Poland]) in a house belonging to a German peasant family. Only one old German woman remained in the house. She fell ill with typhus and there was nobody to take care of her. In spite of admonitions motivated partly by universal hatred for the Germans, my mother nursed her, became ill herself, and died.

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With Her
Czeslaw Milosz
translated from the Polish by Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz

Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom He said: “Talitha cumi!”
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
in a fearful unity with her, with her pain of dying,
In a village near Danzig, in a dark November,
When both the mournful Germans, old men and women,
And the evacuees from Lithuania would fall ill with typhus.
Be with me, I say to her, my time has been short.
Your words are now mine, deep inside me:
“It all seems now to have been a dream.”

Auschwitz: Images and Words

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

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

Our group, entering the camp.

Our group, entering the camp

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

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

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 Prisoners' collected belongings – here, prosthetics.

Prisoners’ collected belongings.  Here, prosthetics

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

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

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

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

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

[The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948]

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

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

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Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

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

The strangeness of walking out of that execution courtyard

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

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

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

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

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Observation hole in door to bunker

Observation hole in door to gassing and burning bunker

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Leaving. . .

Leaving. . .

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

Global Mom: 9/11 in Paris

From Global Mom: A Memoir:
Luc we called the Luminous One. Or Lucky Luc, from a French comic strip. Or, most often, The Luc Factor because this luminous, funny boy was also a force of nature. And this factor didn’t make the several serial moves that followed in quick succession any easier.

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Sooner than we’d planned, the Versailles landlord returned to his home and we were out house-hunting again. We found a place being built in a village called Croissy-sur-Seine. The fact that the day the moving van pulled up to the house and the house was yet unfinished, (that is, if you consider a house with no glass in the spaces intended for windows to be “unfinished”), was the first concern.

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But in Versailles I’d weathered fire ants and bats and no parking for our two cars and four basement floods and the destruction of the Tempête de 1999, which uprooted much of Versailles and her magnificent gardens and landed a 200-year-old tree squat across the front seat of our next door neighbor’s car. Optimist that I am, I figured lack of windows just meant better ventilation. Glass half full. House half finished.

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But then the rains came. By that point, luckily, we did have windows, but we also had a basement and in France, as they say, when it rains . . . it floods your basement. I bailed for hours and hours. That was the first week of September. The next week the entire world changed.

Cidalia, my Portuguese girlfriend, was breathless and crying on the phone, “Faut regarder la télé, Mélissa. Faut regarder maintenant!” I had to turn on the T.V., she said. Had to turn it on right now.

There were images of smoke and imploding tall buildings I recognized instantly. This was New York. It was an earthquake or a detonation. But the French news said it was an attaque terroriste. Within twelve hours, all families associated with the American School of Paris were notified by the U.S. Embassy to go underground, to not visit any typical American haunts (certain restaurants, bars, shops, theaters), to not even step out on the streets if possible, and if that was unavoidable, then at least to not do anything that would advertise oneself as American. The children were brought home where they stayed in quasi house arrest. Our American missionary friends came and hid out at our home. We folded away any clothing that might look American; logos, brands, an embroidered eagle. We waited for word on the next move.

Within an hour, my French friends flooded my phone line asking if Randall was safe, if my whole family was safe, if I had any more information, that they were horrifié, terrifié, bouleversé, that they were praying for us, for the victims, for our country.

That this was un temps pour faire du deuil. A time to grieve.

A chapel full of both French and American church members gathered the next day visibly heavy-hearted and many in tears. There, I stood and sang the American national anthem, which was challenging enough. But when I reached, “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” I was unable to make a sound.

The children did eventually return to school, but when they did, they passed by security guards with submachine guns and black fighter dogs in muzzles. The campus was in profound hyper security and palpable mourning.

Randall canceled his September 12th business trip to Islamabad. His work in the Middle East changed permanently, the events of September 11th leaving hot tremors across Paris and across our remaining lives.

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Praying Like a Good Sport

On a basketball court last week, I made some remarkable discoveries about the human spirit, or better, about humans and the Spirit.
Over one hundred high school basketball players from several international schools from across Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean had just watched the final basketball game of the ISST (International Schools Sports Tournament). It had been a day of fierce, rapid-fire competition ricocheting steadily from one hoop to the other. The Hague had just beaten Vienna. The Bonn, Germany gymnasium (where these finals were being held), was full of cheering and sweating, celebration music and congratulatory back-slapping and hand-shaking. I was playing photojournalist. I’d been doing the same that morning in the Cologne cathedral. If you read my last post, you know I’d been somewhat wrapped up in some thoughts about things spiritual, making my hours there maybe not outright holy, but touched lightly with reverence. Then I slung my camera bag over my shoulder, drove with my family the thirty minutes southwards to Bonn, where I hid myself in the stands overhead to take pictures of all the players. We’d not been told who it would be, but we knew that one player from among the hundred-plus, had been voted by the coaches and athletic directors to receive a special award in the name of a deceased player formerly from the tournament. It was this award that has brought our family to these finals for six years running, because it is the namesake of the award that brought us to any of these tournaments, when he’d played in these games himself. IMG_2096

The Parker Bradford ISST Sportsmanship award for basketball was established shortly after our son lost his life, and by the unanimous consent of the coaches in the ISST. All those coaches knew our son. He’d played two years on the American School of Paris varsity basketball team, and had been co-captain when that team had won the ISST championship.
While we sat in the upper deck watching the final game, Randall and I recalled the previous finals over the years and the other recipients of this award. In March 2008, our family was on hand in Frankfurt to present the first award to a player from the British School of the Netherlands. In 2009, we drove from Munich to The Hague, where a player from Brussels received the award. At that ceremony, the hosting coach spontaneously asked all the players to gather in a circle and put their arms around each other’s shoulders as he read a statement about Parker. In 2010, we drove to Zürich where a boy from that home team was selected for the distinction. Again, all the players stood in a linked circle.

In 2011, when the finals were held in Israel, (and we were living in Singapore), Randall, who was on business in Tel Aviv, arranged to attend the championships in Even Yehuda, a thirty-minute drive northward. Randall stood in the middle of the circle of young players as the statement was read. The recipient that year, a Brit named Logan McKee who was playing for Frankfurt, had noted in the statement about our family, that our daughter was attending Brigham Young University. This detail piqued his interest, and when he and Randall were standing for photos afterwards, Logan whispered to Randall, “Are you Mormon?” to which Randal, still smiling for the cameras, said, “Yes, I am. We are LDS.” “So am I,” said Logan, “And I’m leaving soon to serve a full-time mission.” (A few months later, we learned that Logan McKee had been assigned to serve in the very region where both Randall and I had been missionaries in our twenties, in Bavaria and in Austria. He is is completing his service there now).

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In 2012, Randall and I made a 76-hour turnaround trip from Singapore, and pulled into Vienna just in time for the final ISST game. There, the players ringed around us again, their arms draped on one another’s shoulders, as Nicola Bordignon from Milan was announced as the recipient of the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award.

2012 ISST Div II Boys B-Ball Award Ceremony (Vienna, Austria - March 10, 2012) Nic Bordignon (2012 ISSTs - Vienna)

And now here we are. Nearly six years out. Already 2013. We are sitting in the stands again, eyeing the players, wondering who of all these kids might receive the award that bears the name of Parker Bradford. The Hague wins, the team huddles, and in the flurry, I take three or four shots for no particular reason of one player. I’ve learned over the years of doing this – of watching young men play this game my son lived for – I’ve learned that in order to make it through the moment without sinking into the quicksand of sadness, I need to quickly adjust my focus. I’ve learned to train my sights on the brilliance (and I can only call it that – brilliance) of others’ happiness. This kid, this #7, he seems to be a good model of that brilliance. So I shoot away.

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In the awards assembly that follows, all of the participating team members receive their medals. Team rankings. MVP. The all-tournament team. The Hague, who’s won the tournament, gets a wagonload of medals.Under all the cheering and applause, I watch closely: the testosertoney swaggers, the sagging sports shorts in blue, silver, red or gray nylon, the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the cloddy ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head bands, the shaggy hair, the shaved heads, the coolness of their brotherhood, the looseness of their pop humor. This self-evident, laid-back regard for life as theirs, the future as a given. High school boys high-fiving, bouncing on their tip-toes, heading with squared shoulders or the guttural whoop of triumph or an ironic grin into the Big Life awaiting them. The hosting coach steps to the mic to announce a closing award, “the most prestigious award”, he says, and asks all the players to pay close attention to the film that will be shown.

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I haven’t seen my son on the court for six years to this month. I haven’t even seen him in film on the court for nearly that long because I haven’t been able to stomach it. It’s one thing to see him in still shots: frozen, immobile, caught mid-three-pointer. Or trapped at age eleven, playing in the kitchen or at school with friends or on the beach with his younger siblings. Or framed at sixteen on Christmas morning, face exploding with joy while he helps his baby brother tear open the Buzz Lightyear box. I’ve learned to manage the frozen shots and even the warmth of his movement in other family DVD’s, which we now watch nearly every weekend, at Luc’s insistence. But to watch him running the court. I can’t move. I cradle my camera in my lap, knowing there’s nowhere to hide. No one should see these tears from where I am, seated in a dark corner, high school players to my right, my left, guys sniffling behind me, all of us gone silent as we stare from this darkened gymnasium at grainy images of some kid named Parker, playing ball. <a This is hard. This is beautiful. And this invites something that changes the air around me, around us. I can feel things changing, the dust particles settling and so many hearts slowing and limbs and hands growing motionless, eyes widening, a rustle going across the big room, it seems, in an inaudible “shhhhhhh.”

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After we watch the dead boy play – the boy with the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head band, the one who wore #8 when he played once on this very court in Bonn – after we watch him kiss that big championship trophy, we sit in the half-lit silence. “All players,” the coach says quietly, “will you please come up here and form a line? We want you to be together, and we parents and coaches want to look at all of you.” One long line of life in its splendid prime. Every last player has his head bowed. These kids – joking, raucous, gobbling burgers, guzzling sports drinks, limbs all akimbo just a minute earlier – are standing there is if awaiting their rites for the monastery. If you’d come in the gym right then, you’d think we were having a prayer. The sight has got me smiling behind my camera, and my eyes are watering with some kind of pained happiness. I’m struggling to see through my lens.

The Father, Randall, with the Brothers, Dalton and Luc at either side, have taken their place center court. My men will present the plaque. I will hide behind my camera, still smiling and teary, sad and giddy. A statement will be read aloud over the sound system by the coach:

Today the Boys Basketball ISST Division II is proud to present the sixth annual “Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award”. Parker Fairbourne Bradford attended the American School of Paris for 8 years. Shortly after his graduation in June 2007, he began his university studies in the United States. Late one afternoon in mid-July, while attending a swimming activity, he and several classmates were standing in a calm section of an irrigation canal, when a deadly but invisible undertow unexpectedly pulled Parker and a fellow student under water. Twice Parker freed himself from the powerful current, even pulling himself onto dry land, yet both times without hesitation he dove back in to try to save his trapped and drowning classmate. His effort was not in vain, as his friend was freed and with the help of another student survived, but it cost Parker his own life. He passed away on July 21, 2007. In memory of this remarkable young man, the ISST Athletic Directors unanimously agreed to establish a sportsmanship award in Parker’s name. Parker loved and enjoyed sports and music throughout his life. He was a gifted drummer and performed in several jazz bands. He was also a leading member of the American School of Paris’s 2006 ISST Division I championship basketball team and 2007 ISST Division I championship volleyball team. Yet as talented as he was as a player, Parker was an even greater sportsman and person. Following his untimely passing in July 2007, six memorial services were held in his honor (3 in the United States and 3 in Paris, France). A percussion scholarship was established in his name at the university he had begun attending; and two monuments were erected in his memory, one at the accident site in the United States, and the other in Norway, where he lived 5 years early in his life. He was and remains a powerful influence and role model for countless friends, teachers, coaches and relatives. Parker is represented here today by his father, Randall; his mother, Melissa; and his brothers, Dalton and Luc, all of whom currently reside in Geneva, Switzerland. Their daughter and Parker’s sister, Claire, is currently a full-time voluntary representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy. The Bradford Family has asked me to convey to all of you athletes, coaches and teachers their deep and abiding love for Parker and their solemn gratitude to see him both remembered and honored today in Bonn.

And now the recipient will be announced. But before he is, reader, I’m going to hold you captive for a few short paragraphs, if you’ll let me. May I ask you something? Would you consider carefully what I’m now going to tell you? Will you please sit long and silently on the significance of what I am going to write? Will you pass this knowledge on in your interactions with others? Will you even pass on this post, so that those already touched by loss and grief and everyone who eventually will be, will have this to reference?

-The nature of one’s living relationship with the one who has passed away influences the nature of one’s grief.

Our two youngest boys and our daughter adored their big brother. He was a loving, funny, attentive leader. To say he was a “model brother” might be taking it too far, but people told us (both before and after his death) that they saw Parker as just that. Imperfect in totality, as every one of us surely is, he was still sweet and caring and uncomplicated in his human relationships. Sibling rivalry? Bad memories? Fights to regret? Flicking away of the obnoxious younger kid? None of those describes Parker. He was a peacemaker and protectorate. In fact, all my sweet surviving children suffered the lost of the one they all called their favorite sibling. They suffer still.

-The nature of the death itself influences the nature of a survivor’s grief. Was it a sudden or protracted departure? Was it inexplicable and untimely, or a peaceful relief at the end of a long life well lived? Was it accidental? Violent? Self-inflicted? Did the survivors witness it? Did it implicate family members or a larger community? Was it fraught with legal complications? Are details of the death as yet unresolved? All of these factors and countless more color and intensify the grief experience.

Parker was in the full bloom of perfect health. Dalton had laughed with him and hugged him goodbye while standing in a sunny parking lot outside a college apartment on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday night, Parker lay in a deep coma. On Saturday morning, Dalton stood next to the gurney as we turned off life support. Dalton, then eleven-years-old, watched his big brother’s body heave its last breath. His death came from nowhere. There was no preparatory time, no chance to absorb on either a practical or a subconscious level what death would mean, what life would be like, what the earth would feel like, who we would all become without him. When the blow of death comes from nowhere, and when it involves intentional violence or when it is a self-inflicted death, the complications and contours of the grief are markedly different, and research notes that the grief experience is, (these are the experts’ words, not mine), “more intense.” My son’s death is of one sort, and it carries, if I dare say this, a certain bitter beauty of meaning. He sacrificed his life for another. But what about the man I met whose daughter choked to death at a family reunion barbeque? Or the other woman, whose daughter was stabbed to death by an intruder with an already-lengthy police record? Or what about all of my friends – too many of them – whose children have taken their own lives, and sometimes in a violent manner and in their parents’ homes? What about the parents of all the little children lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School? And the nameless and innumerable, lost to acts of genocide?

-The nature of the continuity offered by a community – its ability to mourn and comfort, to offer practical assistance, to listen with compassion and to continue to speak the name of the departed – greatly influences the nature of a survivor’s ability to absorb and transcend and even transform grief into a regenerating power.

What can also make the burden of grief heavier is what I’ve tried hard but fear I’ve failed at conveying in my writings to this point. There needs to be an engaged, open, co-mourning community, whose history involves the deceased and whose continuing narrative includes the deceased. None of my children had this. They walked, dizzy in pain, out of a funeral, onto an airplane, and into a world full of strangers whose dominant language they did not speak. Even if they had spoken the same language, no one knew our children’s tragic story. They had no context in which to understand our children’s behavior. Nearly always, when people did find out about Parker, they chose to remain silent about him. There could be no discussion for the children, no continuing narrative about what was raw and throbbing in their bodies every day; and even now, they remember their brother only privately. There is no everyday community that acknowledges that their big brother ever existed. As Dalton told me recently, “It’s like my brother hangs in a museum. And who my age goes to museums?” They’ve found few – a small handful of exceptional people over these nearly six years – who are able to do something as simple as speak their brother’s name.

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“The Parker Bradford Sportsmanship award,” says the coach into the microphone, while Dalton and Luc cast their tear-filled eyes up and down the line of players, “will go this year to #7, from The Hague.” And there it is: that name hanging in that familiar silence saturated in meaning. I’ve felt it all those times before. It’s not merely my perception, although I thought it was that at first. Maternal overlay. Parental preoccupation. But then so many others have commented to me about it afterwards. There is something happening when a court full of high school jocks goes silent, when they voluntarily bow their heads as if praying, a bit broken or lightly hurt, wiping their eyes over a boy they never knew, about a story that, except for basketball, bears little resemblance to their immediate lives.

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What is it? I want to ask you. What is it that is happening in this moment? While it has something to do with Parker, the moment is only partially about him. It’s about us, I think. It is about who we really are. Our human nature is innately spiritual, and the spiritual within us resonates in ways we can sometimes hardly account for. It swells and warms to things that are true, beautiful, eternal and enlivening. To great music, to fine art, to generosity, to forgiveness, to small acts of kindness, to the Spirit. Part of living well with great loss, I believe, requires a conscious surrender to this truth: that the spiritual continues beyond this material existence and can, in given moments, visit, bless and strengthen us.

I’d even say it can drop in on a basketball court. IMG_2128 With their heads bowed, what are these kids wondering? Some are maybe thinking, “When will this thing be over?” I’m a realist. I know teenagers. I know adults, too, and have seen how plenty of us are physically awkward in moments like these, moments with no distraction, moments of stark sincerity. But who can blame us? It’s a question of exposure, maybe, and our modern world gives us precious little exposure to sanctity, reverence, reflective silence, and the long-quiet-unfiltered stare into sweetness, simple goodness and The Way Things Are. If I could read their thought bubbles, though, what might I find? What does it mean to be part of a team? Why do I compete? What is the meaning of this game? What is winning? What is losing? What is my responsibility to my teammates? To my opponents? To people I’ve known for years? Known for a season? What’s my future? My character? What is my responsibility to my family? To strangers? To folks I’ve known, say, for a week? How much do I value the lives of others?

Do their lives matter?

Does my life matter?

Does life matter?

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The optimist in me likes to think that one of these questions or others like them went through the mind of one of those kids that Saturday. I have hope that for #7, a Dutch/American student heading off to Brown University in the U.S., he’ll have a full, rich life during which those questions might inform his decisions. And that once or twice, he might think about Parker, whose award he received. From a letter of thanks Randall wrote to the hosting coach:

It is a remarkable moment in that setting, after all the ruckus and cheering and yelling and shouting (all of which is appropriate), to witness how that gymnasium goes absolutely quiet, and the whole ceremony ends on this singular note of remembrance. Somehow I feel our Parker’s spirit both in the cheering and in the silence. Your decision to call forward this year each of the eight nominees was new, and I thought it was wonderful that each of those young men knew that their coaches had nominated them and that they were considered “sportsmen”. Since the award was inaugurated, I have been struck each year by the reaction of the recipient. It is difficult for me to put my finger on it—I can best describe it as something I see in the boys’ eyes—but it’s also something I can feel: their integrity, the sincerity with which they receive the award, and the humility with which they conduct themselves, much of which must also come from their upbringing. I saw that again when we later met privately with Winston Kortenhorst , #7, and his father, Jules. It was touching for me to hear Winston tell us that of the 3 awards he received that day—the championship trophy for his team, his selection to the all-tournament team, and the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award—the one that he was proudest of was Parker’s award. You and the other athletic directors have created a marvelous way of leaving these young men each year with a gift—the gift of knowing that as healthy and wonderful as competition is (our Parker was fiercely competitive, too), it is outweighed by their sportsmanship, reflected in the way they play the game and how they carry themselves.

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“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best.” One of Parker’s favorite quotes, from San Antonio Spurs basketball player, Tim Duncan.

Love Rocks

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It was clear to us early on that beyond excavating the shores of the riverbed and signposting the irrigation canal near where our son Parker lost his life, we wouldn’t be able to change much. Locals explained that there were dozens upon dozens of other canals and rivers in those parts and some, according to Idaho Search and Rescue, were at least as dangerous as Monkey Rock. Still others, they said, were many times more dangerous. Death’s jaws.

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The hydraulics engineer argued that Monkey Rock’s Bernoulli effect (created by the small canal narrowing and dropping precipitously into an even narrower and deeper culvert hidden beneath a single-lane bridge) could only be eradicated by eliminating the steep drop altogether. This would mean blasting out the concrete canal walls and broadening the entrance into the natural river flow, which would necessitate rebuilding the small bridge.

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It’s the plunging drop into the culvert under that bridge that’s treacherous; first, because the water as it falls and narrows gains speed and suction; and second, because its suction is completely invisible after passing under the bridge heading downstream, and creates a hidden counter current, pulling things upstream and pinning them in water twice as deep as the river bed and hidden in the darkness beneath the bridge.

It is a violent, dark barrel of a big washing machine. Once sucked in, you’re trapped. If trapped, no one will see it happen. No one will hear your screams when you try to come up for air. You won’t get out unless you’re pulled out (which is a unlikely). Or unless you’re knocked out and sink, lifelessly, into the lower current. Or unless you’re killed.

One might say you’re then out for good.

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We were given to understand that a major reconstruction was not going to happen at Monkey Rock. The missionary from St. Anthony had already hinted at that; “Well,” he’d told us at the end of our phone conversation, “I sure hope you’re not going to go in there and change our canal.”

If we couldn’t change the physical nature of the place to at least protect future visitors, then what?

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“I’m going in,” our friend Bo said gravely, his tone flat. “Middle of the night. Dynamite.”

Randall and I raised our eyebrows. “I’ll rig it, blast it,” Bo added, animated. “Get rid of this joint forever.”

Too grief-drenched to laugh, we shrugged. In that state, I can’t honestly say I’d have had the energy to forbid Bo.

This was “Bo”, or Glen Bowen, our lifelong friend, our brilliant Huntsman Skin Cancer Center Dr. Bowen, one of the most hilarious, outdoorsy, authentic friends either of us has. Bo would maybe never self-advertise as your poster-perfect most-conservative mainstream Mormon, but for my family and for me personally, he embodies faithful. Bo defines friendship.

So this Bo guy, he came up with another idea. This time, a legal one.

“Rocks. I’m talking huge ones.” Bo said this from behind the wheel of his camper van as he drove Randall and me from one end of Salt Lake Valley to the other, from one stone wholesaler to the next. This was December 2007, the first holiday in our new life, when we’d come from Munich to hibernate with family for Christmas. Everything, even the Christmas lights draped haplessly on the front lawn trees in the yards of homes in my childhood neighborhood, sent piercing darts into my self-protective casing. Hurt was everywhere.

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Bo had asked us months earlier if we’d thought of erecting a monument. The idea planted, we’d begun working over the fall with my brother Aaron on some ideas. “Put one up there that blocks the entrance to Monkey Rock,” Bo and Aaron had suggested, almost in a duet.

“And even if you can’t block I totally,” Bo had said in a later phone conversation between Salt Lake City and Munich,“then at least you can write something that warns people.”

Before we could add anything else, Bo added, “I’m paying.”

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Bo pulls up in the snow-crusted gravel parking lot of the last Utah stone distributor on our list, and shoves his camper into park. Within thirty-seconds, we can see our breath, swimming like light grey phantoms between the three of us. Randall is in the front seat, I’m in the back. I remember Bo has his dark coat collar pushed up to his jaw line as he turns all the way around in the driver seat so he can talk to both of us.

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Right hand, left hand, he pulls off his gloves and flops them across his lap, turning to look at us with those sharp eyes of his. They are brisk and as potent as a swig of Tabasco, those eyes, and expressive – scarily perceptive, intellectually vigorous.  They are windows to a mind usually spinning with an insight so slicing or a joke so hilarious, its owner can make a whole room choke in unison on their quesadillas. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve had to perform the Heimlich, thanks to him. Any moment a bit too sanctimonious or, heaven forbid, sentimental? Bo’s Heimlich-requiring humor does the trick.

This moment, though, his eyes aren’t sharp. They’re intense, but different.

“What I need to explain is. . .I did my research. I had to understand what you guys are going through. So I talked with professionals and got a bunch of my medical colleagues to send me everything they had on parental bereavement. You know, all the top medical studies.”

He smiles, lifting his brows as if asking us for permission to go on. Then he looks down at his lap. When he brings his head up, his eyes are softened.

“And I read it. I read it all,” he continues as we listen in total silence. “And after I did, I had to come to a conclusion: it’s too big. It’s plain too big for me. I’ll never be able to understand it.”

Bo is a thorough doctor, a fantastic Dad and I don’t care who you know, he is hands down the funniest person in the stadium. But right here, he is lost, undone, as solemn as someone slipping slowly off the edge of the horizon. And it is right here that I have to think that our Bo is at his very best: he is entirely in this with us. Cowering and confused in front of the stoney reality of our child’s death.

He looks at Randall, then at me, and he goes on; “I did understand one thing. I realized after reading all this that I’ll never again know the old you guys. Those people are gone. They’re gone.”

My cold, self-protective casing melts off in one sentence.

Just in time for Parker’s one-year memorial, these rocks with their brass plaques were installed in the small, raw parking area above Monkey Rock.

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Randall and I were standing here, in fact, one year to the hour from when a local ambulance had finally found its way to this place…

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…When paramedics had slid down an incline to the lagoon’s shore, and when they’d then hoisted our son’s lifeless body onto a stretcher, peeling sobbing and screaming students from his side, and had struggled to carry him, slipping several times up the slope to race off to the closest hospital where, 45-minutes later, a faint heartbeat was finally restored.

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Friends have been kind in stopping by these monuments on occasion. They alerted us when, a year after installation, someone had defaced the brass plaques and had apparently used the stones and even Parker’s face for target practice.

Then it was Bo who gritted his teeth, shook his head, and drove his camper van the five hours north.

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Lovingly – and legally – our faithful friend took correction into his own hands.

Sunset at Monkey Rock

Sunset at Monkey Rock

For another look at our friend Bo, read to the very end of this post, and enjoy the entire African post here.

Fast Friends

Monkey Rock, sunset.

Monkey Rock, sunset.

“Naked, except for my water sandal stuck on my hand. Both my hips were dislocated.  Yeah, I was like . . . like pretty beat up, I guess.  Had some bad cuts all over the place especially this huge gash on the back of my head plus all these massive bruises.   Yuh, they said I was near dead.”

The young man’s voice over the phone was as lifeless as his body must have been when Idaho Search and Rescue had found him, “washed up,” as he told us, “pretty close to five miles downstream.”

“Five miles?” Randall asked into the receiver.  I scooted closer, still taking notes on my laptop. All this was going into our growing file: “What Happened At Monkey Rock?”

“Yeah,” the guy sighed then stalled. Then he caught his breath. “Yeah, five whole miles, if you can believe it. The rescuers told me if I hadn’t floated face up and flat on my back, well, you know. . . I would’ve never made it.”  He stopped again. Randall pinched his brow between his index finger and thumb while I held my hands ready over my keyboard, waiting to taken down the rest.

“Yeah.  I know,” the voice said, “I should’ve  died. I’m. . .uh. . .I’m real sorry about your son.”

Meet Robb.  Here, he's carrying 2-year-old Parker on his shoulders.

Meet Robb. Here, he’s carrying 2-year-old Parker on his shoulders.

How did Randall and I, who now lived in Munich, Germany, end up in this conversation with a kid from a place called St. Anthony, Idaho, someone we’d never met, but who was going to prove to be vital in understanding the accident that took Parker’s life?

To answer that question, I need to veer a little bit into my religious beliefs. But I only do so hoping you won’t, 1) be offended, 2) feel preached to, 3) mistake me for a manic ascetic, or, 4) think I’m running for the papacy.

Meet 2-year- old Luc.  He is being carried on 14-year-old Parker's shoulders.

Meet 2-year- old Luc. He is being carried on 14-year-old Parker’s shoulders.

The way we made this important connection has something to do with fasting. As our immediate response to the news of Parker’s accident, Randall and I and our entire family and many of our close friends fasted. In fact, when I’d gotten The Call close to 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 19th, my immediate instinct was to shut down all eating and drinking. Randall’s inclination was identical. Claire’s, too.  And my parents.  And my siblings.  And my closest sister-friends, who either rushed to my side or kept closely connected in other ways.

Meet 2-year-old Claire and Robb's 2-year-old daughter, Audrey.

Meet 2-year-olds Claire and Audrey.

One of the first things Randall did while he agonized, waiting for his flight from Munich to Idaho, was to call Serge, our dear friend and the regional leader of our church in Paris, and ask him to invite the hundreds of members there to join in a communal fast for Parker, a boy many knew well.  Then Randall called Lutz, the regional leader of what was going to be our church in Munich. Lutz sent out the request, asking those church members to do the same for a family and a boy they did not yet know.  Only later did I learn that others around the world, some of my faith and many not, having heard of Parker’s accident, began their own private fasts and prayer vigil.  I can’t tell you how many people were joined with us in this intense spiritual focus over two days, but it was many.

Meet Robb and his wife, Jacque, and their children hiking Norwegian mountains with us. Norway.

Meet Robb and his wife, Jacque, and their children, including Audrey, hiking Norwegian mountains with us.

The habit of fasting for strength and clarity stuck with us throughout the months that followed Parker’s death. Again, this desire to fast was instinctive, not the adherence to a rote tradition dressed in sackcloth and ashes.  And while it’s true that to some extent I could not eat, there’s no food known to man that was going to give me the kind of spiritual strength I needed to pull my family through the tar-filled abyss I felt trapped us neck-deep.

So once a week, from Saturday to Sunday evening, Randall and I fasted. Fasting meant clearing out, airing out, making room for more spirit, growing more focused, making ourselves receptive for whatever whisperings (or turbo blasts) God might send our way.

Robb, Jacque, and children at the top of Norway's Preacher's Pulpit.

Robb, Jacque, and children at the top of Norway’s Preacher’s Pulpit.

Then on August 19th, the first month marker of the accident, in an email exchange with our lifelong friends Robb and Jacque, another pattern began.  

“It’s for solidarity,” Robb wrote. “Can we just fast with you guys on this day? Because really, what else could we do for you from all the way over here in Massachusetts?” 

Some sixty-seven months later, they’re still at it, these two, joining us in fasting on the 19th of each month.

Parker atop Norway's Preacher's Pulpit.

Parker atop Norway’s Preacher’s Pulpit.

More background: we’d left the States (and the funeral and the cemetery and the accident site) for Munich without a complete picture of what had happened the night of July 19th.  The local news had gotten it wrong.  The local police and university authorities were unsure.  There were rumors and variations of rumors mixed with speculation and hearsay spreading quickly in small town Idaho, and when word of this got back to us, we hurt and were deeply sad.

Randall, Melissa, Parker and Claire heading up to Preacher's Pulpit.

Randall, Melissa, Parker and Claire heading up to Preacher’s Pulpit.

So Randall and I wanted to get to the bottom of things.  We pursued every lead, every name, every telephone number for weeks on end.  What we did know was that this place called Monkey Rock was a favorite gathering place for locals, was private property, but had never been marked as such.  Significantly, the local canal authorities had also told us that they were unaware of “any other accident in this canal like your son’s, Mrs. Bradford.”

Colin, Robb and Jacque's son, on Preacher's Pulpit.

Colin, Robb and Jacque’s son, on Preacher’s Pulpit.

Which was confusing.  The first local television coverage featured an interview with the area’s sheriff, who’d said, pointing to the canal, that everyone in those parts called this place “The Meat Grinder.” Names like that aren’t given without footnotes, so we set out finding out what those footnotes were.  How to do that? From the other side of the world? Having never lived in Idaho? Having never visited there except for the events surrounding our son’s accident? Knowing only the smallest handful of people anywhere in that area? With everyone involved now dispersed, gone their separate ways?

Claire and Audrey, Preacher's Pulpit.

Claire and Audrey, Preacher’s Pulpit.

As we gathered information (taking testimonies over the phone from people who lived in the area, paramedics, students who’d been  at the site of the accident), we saw it would be necessary to meet face-to-face with the county’s canal board. This was a panel of gentlemen who oversaw water and irrigation rights in what was southeast Idaho’s rich farmland. We wanted to explain what had happened to our son in one of their canals, the very canal they had been led to believe was harmless.

Claire and Audrey, whale watching, Maine, U.S.A.

Claire and Audrey, whale watching, Maine, U.S.A.

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We set a date, early April, for that trip to Idaho. And we continued fasting and praying as did others on our behalf, like Robb and Jacque, who knew we were searching doggedly for more information that would help us piece together a story that would make a difference at that important April meeting.

Bronx Zoo, New York City

Bronx Zoo, New York City

On March 3, Randall and I received this email.  (As context, at this time Robb was filling a volunteer position as the bishop or pastor of his LDS [Mormon] congregation in Massachusetts.) The mail began:

Jacque and I had a strange experience today that I wanted to tell you about.  I’m still shocked and don’t know exactly what to make of it.  I can’t ascribe it to mere coincidence.

I spoke in our meetings today about finding joy in fasting, and about the happiness that comes from following this gospel law.  I spoke about how our own family has been strengthened through our fasting on your behalf, and how focused fasting and prayers from around the world have hopefully fortified your family with the Spirit and with the pure love of friends and family.  I didn’t go into details of the accident, since Jacque spoke about Parker last week in her address, and I did myself in August in reference to the merciful doctrine of the resurrection.

[Of note: Jacque told me later that, although as the bishop’s family they were used to inviting people over nearly every Sunday for dinner at their home, on this given day Jacque was flat out not up to it. She has a demanding career as a corporate consultant with a Fortune 500 company, travels a great deal, they have four children, it had been one of those weeks. Her plan? To hunker down with her family curled up in jammies  around nothing more than big, cheap bowls of cold cereal. And sleep.]

Robb continued:

During the church meeting, Jacque noticed a missionary; the dark suit, white shirt, tie and name tag hard to miss on his 6′ 5″, near 300 lbs. of solid muscle.  (He played football for the past year and a half at college.)  He is physically imposing, and brand new (today was his first day in our congregation; he’s just arrived here in Massachusetts).  He looked overwhelmed and lost. Something made Jacque walk right up to him and invite him to dinner. 

[And I’m guessing something made Jacque plan on something other than cereal.]

Parker with Audrey and his siblings in Brittany, France.

Parker with Audrey and his siblings in Brittany, France.

Robb went on to describe how, after dinner, over dessert, they cleared the table, kicked up their feet, leaned on their elbows, and started in on a conversation with this quiet, unsure new missionary.

Shoreline, Brittany, France.

Shoreline, Brittany, France.

“So, tell us all where you’re from,” Jacque asked, setting out the makings for an ice cream bar.

“Idaho,” came the answer. “St. Anthony, Idaho. A farming town near Rexburg.”

Robb and Jacque and their children looked quickly at each other.  The fact that their dinner guest came from Idaho wasn’t so remarkable. Countless missionaries come from Idaho. But he came from St. Anthony, the address of Monkey Rock.  

“St. Anthony, Idaho?” Robb said. “Well, okay. You know of a place called Monkey Rock?”

The young man, mid-scoop, went whiter than his vanilla ice cream.

“Monkey Rock?” He put down his spoon. “I almost died there.”

And the football player went on to describe the following, which Robb writes in his email:

Best friends, our Paris apartment

Best friends, our Paris apartment

As a junior in high school, just three years ago, he was doing what he says all the kids in that area do for fun; he went bridge jumping in the rivers and irrigations canals. His favorite place was at a confluence of an irrigation canal and a river, joined near a bridge, just above Monkey Rock.  He explained that he had jumped off that bridge other times, but always when the water level was lower.  He’d never had any problems there.  This time, however, the water was up to within a foot of the underside of the bridge.  He didn’t know it at the time, but that made the undertow much more powerful.  One buddy jumped into the water, was spun around by the undertow and spat out on the other side.  Then he, our missionary dinner guest, followed, and jumped into the exact same place but was dragged down into the circular current.  He was held underwater, cycling around and around.  He struggled for what he said felt like minutes, then with his last strength, struggled to swim out, but hit the back of his head on a rock and was rendered unconscious.

He said that going limp must have allowed his body to slip beneath the powerful eddy and into the moving current underneath.  He said his unconscious body flowed with that current and over the lava rock falls that give Monkey Rock its name.  His high-school friends continued to search for him in vain in the murky water cycling below the bridge.  A group of college students downstream saw his shape move underwater beneath the falls, but did not come to his aid.

Colin and Audrey present when Parker received an ordination in the priesthood.

Colin and Audrey present when Parker received an ordination in the priesthood.

Before we even finished reading the email, we called Robb and Jacque in Massachusetts. How could we talk with this missionary? Robb arranged for that to happen, and this is where I bring you back to a phone conversation between Randall and the young man, the exchange that began this post.

Robb and Colin at that ordination

Robb and Colin at that ordination

“Doctors told me later I’d been unconscious underwater for probably 6 minutes. Being unconscious probably kept my lungs from filling with water and kept me from drowning.  I really should’ve drowned.”

“And your massive but lean body weight, that probably made you slip beneath that powerful undertow into the underlying current,” Randall said, wiping his hand over his forehead and then dragging that palm down the thigh of his jeans.

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“Yeah, and my friends on the shore couldn’t spot my body, so they were panicking, running up and down the rocks and scrub brush, screaming for me, then they called 911 on their cells. And 911 sent Idaho Search and Rescue.  They thought they were coming for a body pick up.”

Many phone calls later – conversations we always recorded, helpful discussions with this young missionary’s parents, with the head of Idaho Search and Rescue, with a local journalist whose own son had nearly lost his life there, too, who’d pushed doing a story on canal dangers but had been told he could not – after nearly a full month of nonstop long distance investigation, we discovered detailed, verifiable, chilling footnotes that explained “The Meat Grinder.” This place, among locals at least, was notorious.

Robb far right, after Parker's ordination.

Robb far right, after Parker’s ordination.

“Kids are getting caught up in there all the time,” Brett Mackert, the head of Search and Rescue told us.  “I’ve had to save a couple of them by dragging them out with my jumper cables.  These canals are nothing but death traps.  But they’re not marked, you know? No danger signs, no ‘No Trespassing’ signs, nothing. And I guess a foreigner like, well yeah, someone from France – what’d you say? He’d been one week there? Right, well, he wouldn’ta had a clue of the trouble in there.”

Parker, Dad & Mom (Melch Psthood Ord - Versailles, March 11, 2007)

With all this information in hand, we traveled days later from Munich, Germany to St. Anthony, Idaho.  There, in a small white municipal building, we met with the county’s canal board.  With us were my parents, the missionary’s parents, Brett Mackert, the journalist I just mentioned, other interested locals, and a hydraulics engineer who described the dangers of this particular canal’s construction, features that created the Bernoulli effect; a fierce confluence of currents that make suction that’s capable of pinning even heavy objects in a perpetual vortex.

Picnic at the Grand Canal of the Château de Versailles

Picnic at the Grand Canal of the Château de Versailles

Robb and Audrey, Versailles picnic

Robb and Audrey, Versailles picnic

Unlike the missionary who dove intentionally into the whirlpool like many others we eventually learned of, Parker and his classmate had been standing in relatively calm and waist-high water downstream from the vortex which is hidden under the bridge, when an invisible undertow sucked them a few feet upstream, pinning them. It felt, the survivors said later, like the spinning barrel of a washing machine lined in rebar and chunks of raw cement.

Ellery, Audrey and Abigail with Dalton and Luc shortly after Parker's passing.

Ellery, Audrey and Abigail with Dalton and Luc shortly after Parker’s passing.

Right here I’d love to say that this meeting of ours launched a county-wide initiative to make safe or at least mark dozens of irrigation canals. But I can’t say that.  And that’s not the point of my writing. My writing is to drill my focus and yours on the light that has burned off many of the biting ironies of this tragedy. Part of that light is shared here, as Robb ends his email:

Claire and Audrey, college roommates.  Both young women are serving today as full-time missionaries for our church. Claire, in Italy, Audrey in Sacramento, California, Spanish- speaking.

Claire and Audrey, college roommates. Both young women are serving today as full-time missionaries for our church. Claire, in Italy, Audrey in Sacramento, California, Spanish- speaking.

This thing seems more than a mere happenstance, yet we don’t know what to make of it.  What are the chances that this young man would arrive in our church building today, that we would invite him over, and that we would discover right now when we know you need it most, this story of all his life stories?  What are we to understand or gain from this connection?  The only thing that seems certain is that Jacque and I feel a renewed, acute aching for you both.  We feel renewed love and affection for you and your entire family.  We continuously pray for you all, and pray for God’s mercies for you.  We remember you and we proudly remember Parker.

Jacque and Robb, Easter 2008 in Trento, Italy.

Jacque and Robb, Easter 2008 in Trento, Italy.

The boys in Trento. Colin departs soon on a full-ime mission for our church in South Dakota, U.S.A.

The boys in Trento. Colin departs soon on a full-ime mission for our church in South Dakota, U.S.A.

I can’t guess what this means to you, reader. But for me, there is a delicate but traceable connection between the active love from these friends and the fact that some missionary from St. Anthony, Idaho lands just in time at their Massachusetts kitchen table. And there would be other events, equally remarkable and equally inexplicable, at least in purely rational terms, unless perhaps you believe as I do in a reality larger than this often cramped and occasionally dismal mortal tunnel you and I are belly crawling through.  There are those happenings, our family’s been blessed with many,  that perforate the obscurity, that pierce through it in shafts of air and light and understanding, making this passage a conduit, as I see it;  bright and vibrating with hope and sloped, even if imperceptibly, on that long grade heavenward.

Our kids, Brittany, France.

Our kids, Brittany, France.

Fashions of the Cross

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

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

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

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

What was?

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You.

Well, you and Emily Dickinson.

Alright. You, Dickinson, and all of humanity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chronic unemployment

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Fraud, larceny, imprisonment

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Falsified credentials, falsified identity

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

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Social humiliation

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Substance abuse or addiction

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Paranoid schizophrenia

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Borderline personality disorder

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Anxiety disorder

Debilitating phobias

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Cutting/scarring

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Eating disorders that flourish in secrecy like anorexia, bulimia

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Bipolar disorder, depression, manic depression

Suicidal tendencies

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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Aspergers Syndrome

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Sexual dysfunction

Uncertainty of sexual orientation

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Chronic and/or terminal illness

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Incontinence, bladder or bowel

A loved one with dementia

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A loved one with advanced Alzheimer’s

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Spiritual decline or apostasy

Unforgiveness, grudges, vengeance

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Estrangement from family or friends

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Abandonment

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Loneliness, hopelessness

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Isolation, prejudice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing: Sorrow That The Eye Can’t See

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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I had to sit down. My legs were liquid.

“How long has–?”

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

“And you’ve got proof–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then she fled.

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

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

Or had he said, “Unremarkable”?

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

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

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

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

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

“Recovering” was the subtitle he wrote.

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

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**

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

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

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

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

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

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**

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

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

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

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

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

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Who am I to judge another

When I walk imperfectly?

In the quiet heart is hidden

Sorrow that the eye can’t see.

Who am I to judge another?

Lord, I would follow thee.
__
Susan Evans McCloud

Comparing: Grief Olympics

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

The gal frightens me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing: The Heartchip

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I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes–
I wonder if It weighs like Mine–
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long–
Or did it just begin–
I could not tell the Date of Mine–
It feels so old a pain–

I wonder if it hurts to live–
And if They have to try–
And whether–could They choose between–
It would not be–to die–

I note that Some–gone patient long–
At length, renew their smile–
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil–

I wonder if when Years have piled–
Some Thousands–on the Harm–
That hurt them early–such a lapse
Could give them any Balm–

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve–
Enlightened to a larger Pain–
In Contrast with the Love–

The Grieved–are many–I am told–
There is the various Cause–
Death–is but one–and comes but once–
And only nails the eyes–

There’s Grief of Want–and grief of Cold–
A sort they call “Despair”–
There’s Banishment from native Eyes–
In Sight of Native Air–

And though I may not guess the kind–
Correctly–yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary–

To note the fashions–of the Cross–
And how they’re mostly worn–
Still fascinated to presume
That Some–are like My Own–

-Emily Dickinson

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Let me begin with a story I’ve told in parts elsewhere.

With this story, I want to launch a multi-post discussion about “Comparing”, a sticky issue and one of the most complicated “C’s” with regards to loss, grief and co-mourning.

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Little Parker (aka Petit Parker, or “P. J.” for Parker John ,or also “Peej”) is Renée and John Hall’s son. He and his twin sister, Penelope, were conceived a few short months after our Parker’s funeral, which Renée attended. She’d flown to Utah from her home in Paris, which is where we Halls and Bradfords lived and loved each other, and where our strapping “Big” Parker had been assigned with Randall to be what we in our church call “home teachers.” That assignment means that once a month, son and father hopped on the family scooter to zip across town to check in on the Halls, one of their several stewardships in our congregation.
Back then when Big Parker was alive to visit them, the Halls had three girls under the age of six; Abby, Hannah and Axelle. These princesses always donned their pink net tutus and fairy wands, tiaras and pastel feather boas to greet their home teachers, then showered them with squeals of love and laughter. Big Parker was the monthly celebrity in their home.

Our Parker picking up his brothers Dalton and Luc and the gates of their school with Abby and Hannah Hall. Photo taken by Renée.

Our Parker picking up his brothers Dalton and Luc at the gates of their school with Abby, Hannah and Axelle Hall. Photo by Renée.

When word was official that our Parker did not survive his coma, John Hall was the second person in the world to call us. He phoned Utah standing surrounded by members of our church congregation in the courtyard in front of our meeting place in the heart of Paris.

“But. . .”, I could hear his usually voluminous voice shrivel to a whimper, “But, how can. . .how. . .how can this be true? I’m so. . .just. . .” His voice kept cracking. “We love you guys so much,” he said, every syllable pressed dense with sadness.

If you can imagine Jeremiah Johnson weeping and stammering through a phrase, you’ve got an image of our friend John grieving.

I remember virtually everything about the moment Renée took me aside during one of our visits to Paris that first year. Her blonde shoulder length hair was tucked behind one ear. She was wearing fire engine red. The sun was pouring in the window behind me on the right. Many others were in the room. And she took me over to a chair, whispering with joy dipped in sadness, “Melissa, no one knows yet, but John and I decided to have one more child.” She touched her stomach and shrugged, “And it’s two.

I reached and took her forearm, smiling with my brows furrowed.

“And if one’s a boy,” Renée said, her bright grin starting to tremble in its edges, “We’ll name him Parker. Is that okay with you guys?”

The first time we met Little Parker.  Major Parisian rainstorm outside, but we felt familiar refuge at the Halls'.

The first time we met Little Parker. Major Parisian rainstorm outside, but we felt familiar refuge at the Halls’. This ia a picture of a perfectly healthy baby.

When Parker and Penelope came into the world, they made the perfect sparkly disco spotlight over an equally snazzified family complete with ultra-octane parents and those three twirling princesses. At the Hall home things were kept at a rollicking clip with high-froth-quotient parties, spontaneous dance-a-thons, theme picnics in the local parks, and frequent excursions to Euro Disney.
And Euro Disney is, in fact, exactly where the Halls were on February 20, 2009. That date would have been Big Parker’s twentieth birthday. That was the day Parker Hall (just eight months old) contracted pneumococcal meningitis.

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When I got the phone call in Munich that Little Parker was in a medically induced coma and probably wouldn’t make it another day, I caught the next plane to Paris. Folding and refolding the waxy white airplane napkin, I couldn’t block out possible scenes of an ashen-faced Renée folding up baby boy clothes to be boxed or given away. I tried to suppress the impossible notion of my boy’s name being a curse. I foresaw the fragility that would invade and potentially reduce these mighty parents, this magnificent family. I narrated to myself the story of loss Renée would yearn to tell. And I feared all the ears that wouldn’t want to hear it, that would never ask to hear it, that sacred but scary story of the dead child. The story that so few can acknowledge straight on. The phantom child that makes the parent a specter, a bitter jinx in life’s otherwise carbonated cocktail mix.

At l’Hôpital Necker Enfants Malades and cloaked in paper gowns, masks, and gloves, Renée and I entered the isolation booth where her Parker lay motionless, his swollen head and listless body wrapped in gauze and sterile cotton, the hospital staff avoiding eye contact while attempting light conversation.

It was a still life (nature morte) of unspeakable but crashing familiarity. The volume of my pleading inner dialogue with God and with Big Parker—“Make him live! Strong brain! Strong lungs, strong, strong!!”—was so loud, I was sure the staff would ask me—s’il vous plait!—to keep my thoughts down.
From that weeklong coma Little Parker did miraculously return to life. But it was not a strong life.

Cerebral meningitis had ravaged his system leaving him deaf, hydrocephalic, convulsive, shunted, and cut and sewn so many times his head looked like a Spirograph drawing. He was gravely compromised neurologically, his gravitational vector was shot, he was droopy and unresponsive, and he had to be fit with cochlear implants in order to retrieve – 10%? 5% of his hearing? – if any hearing at all.

halls normandy
John and Renée and their four girls began teaching themselves sign language—both in English and in French. They also began a family journey of fortitude and despair, faith and disappointment, a journey whose description I dare not even touch. I’d do it injustice, get the essentials all wrong, flatten it to a cheap little subtitle. Who am I to tread on such hallowed ground? So, for firsthand descriptions of their ongoing challenges, you’ll want to go here.

Renée, like Melissa, writes full-bodied e-mails. Over these past years, we’ve tracked one another’s experience with loss, amassing volumes that describe heaven’s severe but benevolent teaching methods, the wonder of small joys, the isolation and irony that come with the most defining trials in life, the sharp and bruising contours of grief’s landscape, the deepening spiritual experiences hardly transferable by written word, and our love and hope and yearning and passion for our two Parkers.

twins picture

With Renée I am confident I can unload my private pain liberally, and she’ll scoop it up and hold it right there, against her gut. As a matter of fact, I think she holds it within her gut, because her own burden has carved out room for feeling something of its weight. She’ll weigh my burden there, absorbing it within her own. This is how I envision it.

strollers

There, in her gut, when she carries all she can of my burden, does she feel its entire weight? She’d be the first to say, no.

And, no, I cannot feel or understand the entirety of the weight of her burden, either.

scale

We’re both sensitive and sympathetic people. And we share a common, eternal bond. But we sister-friends cannot fully feel the weight of one another’s hardship.

Or “heartchip”, as my Luc once called it.

kilos

And there’s something more, some thing vitally wise about how Renée weighs my heartchip. She doesn’t deposit my heartchip on one side of a scale and deposit her heartchip on the other side, waiting with Dickinson’s “narrow, probing eyes”, sizing up whose – Renée’s? Or Mélissa’s? – is the heavier of the two.

Whose scale sinks lower.

Who of the two of us deserves more sympathy.

Who wins at Sufferier Than Thou.

halls temple

While every bit as analytical as mine, Renée’s eyes don’t seem focused on tit for tat, ledger-keeping competition, on who wins in this ponderous loss lottery. She only wants to understand, I know this fabulous thing about her, and in that focus outward, she accepts that both our burdens of loss are simply unique and therefore the losses weigh differently.

hall girls beach

Heavily.

Constantly.

But differently.

santa and halls kids

She also knows that what we two sister-friends have lost imposes a tonnage that changes life forever. Knowing that seems to be more than enough for her to bear.

4 year old Parker in chair

By choosing to hold my heartchip next to her own heartchip instead of pitting them against each other, she frees herself from a few things.

First, she frees herself from the corrosive effects of self-pity. If you were to meet Renée on the street, you’d call her the joie de vivre lady, as the policeman in her Parisian neighborhood does. Blondely buoyant with a vibrant red-lipped smile, neon lime green rubber boots, all her kids piled willy-nilly on a doggoned circus act of a double stroller, her life percolates with merriment as if painted, carpeted, wall-papered and wardrobed all in Merimekko.

parker H on stairsRenée also frees her heart from the weight of harsh judgement. Sure, she gets impatient (as do I) when folks call petty things tragique! and when mere inconvenience – a basic blip – makes some people rage, stamp and whine.

(Confession time, everybody? I get more than impatient. I get rabid. But I realize, too, that that was once me.)

But Renée’s heart remains supple, juicy. Hers is the kind of heart the Arapahoe Indians call the moist heart, which, in their tradition, is the sign of a fully developed heart. Pardon the cuteness, but her own heartchip has not made her heart into a chip.

parker homeschool

And she frees herself from carrying resentment towards others. (You are right if you sense more cuteness coming.) There might be substantial, ongoing, cumulative heartchip, but look here: Do you see a chip on this lovely shoulder?

**

renee and parker

The very attempt we often make in quantifying losses only exacerbates the loss by driving us to two unhealthy extremes. On the one hand, those coming out on the losing end of the comparison are deprived of the validation they need to identify and experience the loss for the bad thing it is. He sometimes feels like the little boy who just scratched his finger but cried too hard to receive much sympathy. Their loss is dismissed as unworthy of attention or recognition. On the other hand, those coming out on the winning end convince themselves that no one has suffered as much as they have, that no one will ever understand them, and that no one can offer lasting help. They are the ultimate victims. So they indulge themselves with their pain and gain a strange kind of pleasure in their misery.”—Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 32-33

Big Parker, age 10, at a Parisian amusement park with his Mom.

Big Parker, age 10, on a Parisian amusement park ride with his Mom.