My Deceased Son’s Answer to What It’s All About

photo (2)Headstone still fresh on his grave, my eldest son showed up in the middle of the night with the key to the meaning of life. In this dream where Parker appeared, I was guiding my three surviving children through a city I knew well. It was evening, I was sad and wrung out and felt pressed to get to my car, to get back home.

Suddenly behind me I heard my youngest, Luc, (seven years old at the time), squealing like a newborn. Call it my Mother Bear, call it my short fuse, I swung around to snap the head off of whomever was bugging my boy.

The instant I spun, lip curled and neck tensed to snarl, instead of a “Hey! Cut it out!”, I snagged on the “ow” of “out” and gasped. There, in shorts and his favorite blue t-shirt with his trademark cropped hair was 18-year-old Parker, as unscathed as the last time I’d seen him alive, the day before he died.

He was playfully dangling his youngest brother over a trash can.

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Luc on Parker’s shoulders.

You know that full body-and-soul whiplash that yanks you from nearly biting through someone’s jugular to buckling to your knees and kissing their feet? Melting, I lunged toward Parker, and he, (with a look that said, “Oh, Mom, you know I was just kidding around,”) handed his little brother to his sister and reached for me.

His shoulders were familiar, as was his smell. Desperate, I pled, “Tell me, honey. Tell me everything you’ve learned.”

He pulled back a bit. That mini freckle on his nose. That scar on his eyebrow. That one steely fleck in his right iris. It was my child’s face, only seasoned. Slower.

I waited for words.

Bending down, he whispered, “This is it,” and he took a small breath. He searched my eyes, then:

“Every relationship is to bring us to God.”  

I strained.

He stared.

“That’s … that’s it?” I gaped, “There’s nothing more? Nothing else?”

His soft eyes remained fixed.

And the dream closed.

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The boys, July 2007

Every Relationship Is to Bring Us to God

Since that dream it’s been my mantra. And like most mantras, it slips out too slickly, sounds cliché, yet has more layers than the Himalayas, more depth than the trenches of the Pacific. It risks oversimplification, and yet it will take my whole life to comprehend. But here’s how I’ve broken it down up to now:

Every relationship.

Every.

This means the obvious: all my bona fide biological ties, my family. Then my family through marriage. Then my besties, my closest friends. Then all ranks of associates and regular contacts like teachers, students, classmates, work colleagues, teammates, neighbors, congregation members, parents of my children’s friends, the lady who delivers my mail on her yellow bike even in the snow and rain, the commuters who share my daily ride on the bus, the blue-haired widow who waves as she walks her Dachshund past my window evenings at eight.

All are people with whom I share different degrees of blood and intimacy, experience and history, all people with whom I share space, time, ideas, efforts. All people with whom I share myself and who share with me something of themselves.

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Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, and Iranian German Students

Family, Friends, Strangers, Followers, Foes

Everyone.

In addition to these ^ relationships, there are interactions with those I meet sporadically or even just once. Like the guy loading my mulch on a cart at the garden store. And the lady who cut me off on the freeway exit ramp this morning. Or the infant who cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the parent who slept with his headphones on while his infant cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the crew on that flight. The passengers on every side. The pilot, whom I never saw and who never heard the infant, but whose voice we all heard and whom I trusted to take me “cruising safely at 37,000 feet.”

I interact, most of the time mindlessly, with all of them.

Then there are those I’ve never actually met, but with whom I’ve had some sort of fleeting or superficial interchange. The rabid politician in the news, the celebrity whose fifth marriage is material for a trash mag I leafed through at the doctor’s office, the musician whose song I wail along with in the car.

And the virtual relationships, the FB acquaintances, Instagram posters, Twitter commenters. Blog followers.

And the people on either end of history; my ancestors, my progeny.

Or people on either side of the globe; my countrymen, my political foes.

Relationships. Every last one.

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Every Relationship Brings Us To …

All this social interaction, all this mortal jumble? It’s more than learning about teamwork, or an effective way to get stuff done. And it’s also more than learning tolerance and compassion and patience with crying infants and drivers on the Autobahn.

“Every relationship is to bring us to God,” maybe, has to do with this:

Author Toni Morrison, in an interview, remembered having been the young mother who, when her kids walked into the room, scanned them up and down looking for faults. She’d be thinking, Tuck in your shirt, or Comb your hair. She felt that her critical stance meant she was caring for them, which I get only too well. It is what I was doing in my dream when I wanted to ream out the thug behind me who was, I thought, evidently hurting my youngest child. I was set for censoring.

Morrison then offered another approach. She said, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says ‘I’m glad to see you’. It’s just as small as that.”

There Are No Neutral Interactions

An approving glance. An encouraging smile. A forgiving shrug. A step forward. A brave nod. This is how we move ourselves and others toward the best in humanity and toward deity.

A whispered judgment. A punishing glare. A jealous glower. A turned back. A swift dismissal. A spin around to bite through a jugular. This is how we move ourselves and others away from each other, away from divinity.

What if I were to enter all my social encounters not perched to swoop in with criticism, or stiffened behind all sorts of false boundaries (like a difference in race, religion, political grouping, jealousy, shame, whatever), but poised, instead, radiating one primary thought: “I am glad to see you”?

I believe it would change me, the other person, the encounter, everything.

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I know.  You’re saying, “I’m glad to see you” is easy when you really are glad to see someone. And in my case in the dream I was more than glad. I was unzipped, liquefied with love and longing for my son.  Let me say the obvious: when there’s been no bad blood, and you see your absent beloved again, every minor critique you might have stockpiled during mortality vanishes in the hot flash flood of love.

But what about all the other relationships? What about most of them, the ones that exact superhuman effort from us? The ones where we’d rather say, “I’m glad to see you … go“?

That’s where Parker’s advice really gets traction. While most great mythic traditions and even modern pop spirituality claim God is found above and outside of the messiness of human interaction, maybe while sitting solo and contemplating a snowflake from atop a lone peak, I’m saying that God is found in the trenches. God is down here in the grit. God’s in the mix.

And so, too, say the experts. Harvard professor Michael Puett comments on what ancient Chinese philosophers would think about modernity’s going–it-solo attitude, and why our personal relationships are what mortality is all about:

They [Chinese ancients] saw each of us bumping up against other messy creatures all day long. This is what it means to be on this earth: our lives are composed almost entirely of the relationships we have with those around us.

 For most of us, those relationships aren’t easy. [Can I get an amen?] That’s because, as these philosophers understood well, as we endlessly bump up against each other, loving one another, trying to get along, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior. We react in the same predictable ways. Encounters with people draw out a variety of emotions and reactions from us: One sort of comment will almost invariably draw out feelings of anger, while a certain gesture from someone else might elicit a feeling of calm. Our days are spent being passively pulled in one direction or another depending on who we encounter or what situations we are in. Worse still, these passive reactions have a cascading effect. We react even to the subtlest signals from those around us. A smile or a frown on a passerby can cause a slight change in our mood in an instant. The reactive patterns we get stuck in — sometimes good, but more often, bad — ripple outward and affect others too.

In other words, there are no neutral interactions. All of our actions and reactions send vibrations into a vast webwork that either brings us and others to God (or to wholeness, light, love, healing, The Source of All Meaning, whatever you call The Best Thing You Dare Imagine), or drives us and others from the same. Every thinkable link I have to every last human being plays not just a part in how I grow and experience meaning and joy, but adds in some (major or infinitesimal) way to others’ wellbeing. And that truth is why relationships are what it’s all about, and why they are at once so infuriatingly hard while being so immeasurably valuable.

Every Relationship Brings Us to an Understanding of God

Yes, there are those few relationships that flourish without a lot of effort, and therewith offer a glimpse of what godliness might feel like. But more often relationships are plain old spiritual work. They grate on us. Leave us blistered. There are those, too –– and we’ve all had them––that don’t just pumice us. They skin us alive.

And how do those relationships bring us to God? In my experience, they bring us to an understanding of God’s nature. They let us learn of Him.

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Him. Let me take license and talk specifically for a moment about the God I worship. The Being I strive to comprehend and hope to emulate responded majestically in all relationships, but particularly in the most injurious ones. Herod, Pilate, Judas, Peter, Roman centurions, mocking Sanhedrin, ungrateful lepers, and the centuries’ long saga of modern scoffers and arrogant erudites –– before them all and for them all Jesus Christ stands blameless. No figure in history, no God of any other myth possesses the dignity, selfless love and self-mastery in human relations that Christ embodies. No other being I know of has not only withstood betrayal, exploitation, usury, abandonment, cruelty and hidden agendas but has gone so far as to absorb abuse in all its forms and transform those evils into healing for all, including the abusers.

Like everyone, I’ve known a small portion of those injuries I just listed. When I have, (like recently, when a close friendship took a turn I never expected into an unmarked dead end), I had to fight to muzzle my Mother Bear, retract my claws, and swallow my snarls.

And right then, in rushed Parker’s words. They helped me breathe through what felt to me like lovelessness directed at me and my family, but just as important, they showed me how far I am from mastering The Master’s manner in response to hurt and betrayal.

What have I learned, then, from what my son taught me in a dream?

That all relationships –– including the ones we might have to step out of for everyone’s wellbeing –– are gifts that help us approach God.  By reflecting on His exquisite response to even the ugliest human tendencies (others’ and our own), we see how far we mortals are from His standard of loving-kindness and perfect compassion. In the end, then, every relationship brings us not only to God, but also to the God within each of us.

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(Portrait: Courtesy of Jennifer Quinton ©)

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What do you think? Which relationships have taught you the most? Tried you the most? Are those two kinds of relationships one and the same?

What have your best and richest relationships taught you?

Taking the definition of “relationships” a step further, what other interconnections besides those with humans “bring us to God”?

And to the basics: What does “bring us to God” mean to you?

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

 

 

 

Knowing What’s Going To Happen Next: When a Friend Dies

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme,and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.   Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” – Gilda Radner

Left ot right: Maureen, Melissa and Natalie, front row at the Château de Versailles.

Natalie in her light brown curls, signature smile, and beige trench coat, sitting at my left elbow (I’m center, in burgundy). Château de Versailles

I learned this morning that Natalie, whom I’ve known most of my life, and who is only a few years older than I, passed away yesterday at 6:32 p.m.  She had battled the devouring dragon of cancer for a long time. Her death, I have been told, was quiet.

At my desk, blithely culling my decades-deep archives for pictures for yesterday’s post, I was thinking of this woman as her image passed under my eyes. It’s strange and painful but somehow beautiful to think that in the same moment I was posting away, crossing and recrossing my legs, breathing steadily and smiling while studying a friend’s features, that very friend was being released from this life and the diseased body that encased her buoyant spirit.

Someone wrote on Facebook that “her spirit [was now] free as the wind,” and someone else expressed her conviction that Natalie is now surrounded by loving heavenly beings. These are things I believe.

Correction: These are things I know.

I don’t expect anyone else to believe or know them as I do. But given that the header-title up there announces the fact that Melissa Writes of Passage, it makes sense that I stare down the ultimate and common passage, death. I do not know death from the horrifying and perhaps purifying experience of extended suffering that Natalie had, the one that her family and closest friends have ushered her through; I do, however, know some other things from irrefutable, repeated and shared experience that is so intimate, I hesitate to put it in words, written or whispered. Forgive me as I lurch and fumble.

“Life after death” is about two realities: what happens with those of us who survive the death of another, and what happens when we die.  Life in some form follows both events. I’ll talk first about the first, grief, which I know well. I’m still moving toward the second experience, as are we all.

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Natalie, front and center; ninth from the left, tenth from the right

Surviving another’s death; Living with grief

In this slippery passage of life, we can’t be certain about what’s going to happen next. We can, however, be sure that death will be at the end of all the uncertainty, the final leveler. It will be there, waiting, at whatever will mark the end of your mortality and mine, and of the mortality of every last person we know and love. Death can come in any way, at any moment, and to any one. Let that be a warning. Let that be a reward.

With that backdrop, being in this life might sometimes feel like we’re Mr. Magoo bumbling through an obstacle course built on lava-filled and rapidly shifting plate tectonics while being chased down on all sides by Dementors, Orks and Aliens.  I’ve had those not-so-deliciously ambiguous moments, which sprang not from anticipating my own death, but from outliving my own child.

Gildna Radner, the comedienne, was a performer, as was Natalie, the violinist.  Both women died too young of cancer. For some bereaved, I can imagine their friends’ suffering and deaths feel cruel, brutal, heinous, ironic, senseless.   As the survivor of my son’s tragic death at age eighteen, I know something about the way these feelings of grief can throb and rage inside the rib cage, gnaw at the base of the brain, put dangerous tension on relationships, and how they can singe the corners and core of the heart.

There are other responses, however, which might come over time and from making challenging, deliberate choices. They can lead from raging in the rib cage to enlargement, from gnawing in the mind to illumination, from tension in our ties to welding, from singeing in the heart to singing.

What is the most important ‘”challenging and deliberate” choice we who live might make in order to glean something from death?

I suggest we begin by choosing to look at it. “Let death be daily before your eyes, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything,” wrote Epicetus. A modern spiritual leader expanded on the same thought:

All men know that they must die.  And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. . . .  It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other.  We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation.  If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything it is for knowledge on this important subject.

Joseph Smith

Until the evil of death is acknowledged for the traumatic event it is, we live, I believe, actively devaluing and rejecting two of our most humanizing qualities; vulnerability and compassion. Minimizing the impact of death also numbs the innate spiritual ability in all of us to refigure our relationships, which I believe continue in spite of separation through death. These continuing ties can greatly enhance our living years. They can guide us.  They can, even, give us greater life. Dr. Kaye Redfield Jamison, clinical psychologist and author, says something similar:

‘Blessings may break from stone,’ wrote George McKay Brown. ‘Who knows how.’ Grief is such a stone. It gives much to the living, slows time that one might find a way to a different relationship with the dead. It fractures time to bring into awareness what is being mourned and why. … ‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition,’ wrote Graham Greene.  Grief is at the heart of the human condition.  Much is lost with death, but not everything.  Life is not let loose of lightly, nor is love.  There is grace in death.  There is life.

Kay Redfield JamisonNothing Was The Same,  pp.181,182

Our own death; Living eternally

What I can add to Gilda Radner is that after death, I know something does happen. That is delicious to me. Deliciously unambiguous.

Death as an event is not shrouded in ambiguity. It is straightforward, natural, an advancement, a transformation, a passage. As spiritual entities inhabiting mortal bodies, we are not meant to remain in this decaying state nor on this earth forever.  We are intended for far more magnificent and expansive experiences. As said the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.

Natalie wearing a flowered peasant blouse and her irreplicable smile.

Natalie in a flowered peasant blouse.

But we cling desperately to this life. It’s only human to do so.  Hundreds of devoted friends fought and campaigned and lobbied the medical and heavenly powers that be for Natalie’s life. There were glorious benefits concerts, generous donations, organized caretakers, trips for retreat, quiet mornings spent just sitting with her, I’ve been told, and the countless communal fasts and desperate prayers, I’m sure. Mine were among them.  We’ve all known how the best in the human spirit can be caught into the warm updraft of the divine, and how entire communities, entire lives, can be altered by a crisis like this. How we will tear, tooth and nail, and shred at heaven’s curtain for a brother or sister’s survival!

Last month, however, Natalie visited my parents.  She’s known them, fellow musicians, since the days captured in these photos from the ’70’s. It was a simple, brief visit in their living room.  Natalie was conserving energy, she said, which explained her hushed voice, her stillness, the palpable calm that spread out in the room like the sound and shade of a sunset.

“We’re redoubling our prayers for you, Natalie,” my Mom said.

“And hoping for another breakthrough and some sort of–”

Natalie cut my Dad off, mid-phrase, with a limp wave of the hand.

“No, no. Please. Don’t pray for healing,” she insisted, her eyes steady.  “I’m prepared now. Pray for my release.”

I have to conclude she told others the same. And released she was.

Natalie didn’t know in July of 2007, when she played prelude music on her violin at our son’s funeral, that cancer cells were already conspiring to assault and destroy her body.  That only six years later, she would join our musician boy in the neighboring realm – “the next room”, as a prophet once called heaven, the vast world of spirits.

What happened next? Graceful, ivory-skinned Natalie stepped into a slow explosion of ultra radiance peopled with “loving heavenly beings,” who from their watchful position, have known and mentored her in life, who have in turn awaited her arrival with shimmering joy and outstretched arms, who have since swept her up,  gathering her into glistening, swirling currents of unbelievable, unearthly music. She is playing as never before.

Natalie in lavender  maid of honor at my sister's wedding.

Natalie in lavender sash, as maid of honor at my sister’s wedding.

Global Mom: Monsieur B., Part I

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Doggy Crêpe”) :

. . .We were reminded every day in the papers that life, as the planet itself, is a fragile and tenuous place. But in the immediate cycle of our family’s life, in its rhythms and patterns, things were briskly routinized, colorfully calm. Camelot. . .

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credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

Each new day in our village en ville  broke when Monsieur B. slapped open his metal shutters beneath us in his ground floor apartment. Our friend and neighbor lived the life of a well-mannered metronome. At 8:00 a.m., the ten shutters of his five windows clanked and clapped. At 9:00 p.m. a repeat of the same percussion, closing out the day’s pulsating hum of traffic, stiletto-clips on concrete and staccato street conversations. For almost fifty years he’d lived here on the corner of Jean Nicot and Colonel Combes—enough time, I imagine, to have watched things evolve a lot and to have gotten the shutter habit down to a reflex.

We, the American family of six, lived directly above him, and so he heard, no doubt, the muffled soundtrack of every detail, mundane or intimate, of the life of la famille Bradford. I begged him to forgive us for the bass pedal thumping of Parker’s electric drum set. I apologized for Luc’s night terrors and shrieking around 4:00 a.m. I’d thought of explaining why the toilet above his bedroom flushed thirty-three times during the night, but stopped short of describing the flavorful details of a whole family whopped by the flu bug. We just hoped he was a deep sleeper. I clasped his hand, pumping his arm in mortification while explaining why there had been a girl’s chorus howling, “You Ain’t Nothing’ But A Hound Dog” with a Cocker Spaniel yelping in syncopation, directly above his dining room table at what must have been aperitif time.

credit: formerdays

credit: formerdays

That was the hour when on Thursdays I always saw Monsieur B. sitting at a small square table next to his window there at street level, Monsiuer B. and three men friends sitting in their suits and ties, one always with a cigar in his lips, another always with a cigarette, all sitting at there respective (and I noted, fixed) corners of that table, lit by two old brass standing lamps pulled up just for the occasion, playing a soundless game of cards. Models for a Cézanne painting.

But Monsieur B. never once complained of the percussion and repercussions of our herd above his head. In fact, he never once hinted at irritation. When we greeted each other he was consistently radiant and gracious. At one of my fits of self-deprecation, he once smiled, saying in unmistakably elegant French, “We live in a community, Madame. We must value each other in such a community,” his sincere blue eyes reflecting the color of his trademark azure shirt.

I’d only seen him once without one of those brilliant blue shirts when, earlier than usual, I was leaving the building. He was at his door receiving a small wicker basket from Madame P., the gardienne who took in a little laundry money from this widower. That morning, he was wearing his camel robe and a bright blue ascot, which, even at 7:00 a.m., made his eyes shine and his thick shock of silky white hair glow like a million watts. My own private Maurice Chevalier.

filmjournal

credit: filmjournal

What I knew of Monsieur B. I learned by close observation and by stitching together scraps he volunteered during our neighborly encounters. Twenty years earlier after forty years of marriage and four children (all raised on this corner in the apartment less than half the size of ours), his wife passed away. The four children went on to have their own children (totaling well over a dozen in number), and on the evening of the highly-charge U.S. presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, his long-awaited first great-grandchild came into the world a week overdue.

This man, like our family, was sleep-deprived after the string of nights awaiting what was momentous news; Monsieur B.’s new generation and what we were convinced was our nation’s new generation.

When I took him congratulatory flowers late one evening, he and I chatted briefly, comparing notes on paternity and politics and what kind of future world would greet his newest offshoot. “Capucine,” Monsieur B. confided, “will be the little cabbage’s Christian name.” (Calling an infant a cabbage and a cabbage a Christian might strike one as odd, but the French logic works well from many angels. Capucine. Very crisp. Very Catholic.)

Proud of his baby’s first snapshot, the Monsieur was all gleam and beam while I was all gloom and doom, disoriented in a stupor from an election process that had appeared to have been slippery, questionable, un-American. Maybe I might have seemed, in the face of his measured manner, too oozing of pessimism, too panicky and reactionary. And maybe he was simply pleased about Capucine, this fresh validation of life, to take my anxiety too seriously. Whatever the case, he didn’t grieve with me. Instead, he heaved a sigh and then, stretching upward his five knobby fingers, twinkled those blue eyes: “I’ve lived through this many wars, an occupation, my bride’s death, changes I could have never imagined would have happened in my lifetime. Capucine will survive, too.” And he smiled that smile.

credit: toutlecine

credit: toutlecine

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Stress, Depression & Teeny Blue Pills

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Cont’d from two posts ago, “1st World Stress, Like Owning Stuff”)

I’ve asked this question once before, but it bears repeating: How does one recover from stress-induced depression?

Trocadéro, View from Eiffel Tower

Trocadéro, View from Eiffel Tower

I’d been like this five years earlier, and knew that this, like last time, was legitimate depression, serious enough to send me to bed not for a week of debilitating back spasms like Versailles, but for a week of spirit spasms, too, down ten pounds again, but this time the self-incrimination didn’t stay locked inside my cranial Hi-Fi system, but leaked in mumbles out of my own mouth: Inept. Not up to this. Exhausted. Ruining everyone’s life. Claire gave up her cozy American existence and her dream of a possible dog for a rubber mattress and dog poop land mines on every sidewalk? Had I been nuts to drag us all into this? And by the way, what kind of worthless whiner is in a fetal heap in bed at 2:45 on a sunny afternoon? In Paris?

View sweeping eastward from Eiffel Tower. There's our apartment...right there.

View sweeping eastward from Eiffel Tower. There’s our apartment…right there.

Another mother, a new acquaintance from Luc’s school, saw my bagging pants, the olive circles under my eyes and the splotches of rouge scrubbed on to cover the ashenness. She took me aside.

Ça va, Mélissa?” she inquired delicately, putting an accent on the first syllable of my name and her hand between my shoulder blades.

Oui, oui, ça va, ça va,” I answered, smiling too brightly.

view sweeping westward. . .

view sweeping westward. . .

Her handwritten note and little card of teeny blue pills suggested to me that I hadn’t hidden much from her.

view northeast to Montmartre and the basilica of Sacré Cœur

view northeast to Montmartre and the basilica of Sacré Cœur

“These are a sample of my antidepressant,” she wrote. “Ask the psy [French shorthand for psychiatrist] whose name and coordinates are at the bottom of my note, to prescribe the right dosage for you. When I have moved internationally,”(I later learned she’d lived, among other places, in Buenos Aires, Brussels, Mexico City, Abu Dhabi, Toronto, Prague, if I recall these all correctly, and now Paris over her twenty years of expatriate living), “Every single time,” she wrote, “my whole system gets overworked. Then it shuts down. It just crashes and shuts down.”

(To be continued. . .)

Communion at Oktoberfest

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou

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Trumpets squeal and blare through the flat blue autumn sky above Marienplatz. Tubas honk and burp in between the raucous amusement park rides on Maria Theresien Wiese. Accordions wail and wheeze on every corner of Viktualienmarkt where men dressed in lederhosen, hunting hats and woolen knee stockings are hugging two-liter steins in their portly arms.

Credit: Fugu_24 flickr

Credit: Fugu_24 flickr

Beside them are the bearded cross-dressers wearing wigs of yellow yarn braids, lip-sticked circles on their cheeks, their chest hair prickling out of the plunging necklines of their embroidered dirndls. Women dodge around them, their cleavages climbing to clavicles, doughy breasts heaving out of white lacy blouses, frilly anklets spilling out of hiking boots. Aprons tied around corseted waistlines, petticoats pouffing under gathered skirts, and everyone parading with pretzels the size of life rafts, beers the size of birdbaths, and taut pink or gray sausages the size of airline neck pillows. Yodeling, hollering, swaying and puking, broad oom-pah-pahing.

Credit: herby crus flickr

Credit: herby crus flickr

And over there by that bush, a man in a felt green hat with an enormous feather, his knickers bunched awkwardly, is relieving himself in the shrubbery.

Welcome to Brueghel meets Hieronymus Bosch, only earthier than the first and more surreal than the second.

Willkommen zum Oktoberfest.

Linda, my husband’s German work colleague, and a mother of young children, has asked to sit right next to Randall at his table. This evening is a company dinner in one of the big, tented Oktoberfest halls. Randall has done this sort of dinner more times in his career than he can count. But this time, our family’s tragedy is only weeks into our history. Already he’s having to learn to survive these settings – the loudness that feels violent, the crudeness that makes his back hunch in discomfort, shoulders bent over his thoughts so throbbing, his soul feels as if it has third degree burns.

Because of the din swirling all around, Randall’s sure this will be just another one of those evenings he’ll have to survive and then, offering some excuse –  he needs to put more money in the parking meter; a client from Asia is texting with an emergency; he might be having an allergic reaction to the latex seat covers; anything – might have to leave. This time, he sits there as he so often has, shoulder to shoulder with the joking and the jocular, trying to take part although his thoughts are rocketing beyond a galaxy away.

Linda clears her throat. She smiles at Randall. He smiles weakly, gesturing as if to ask, do you need me to scoot over? You need more space? Pretty loud here, huh! You enjoying your drink?

The miming ends as he looks down into the stein filled with mineral water with its slice of lemon bobbing like a planet off-orbit, and Linda, leaning on one elbow, takes a breath audible enough that gets Randall to look up and meet her glance:

“So,” she begins in German, “your children, how are they liking Munich. . .?”

“Thanks for asking,” he says, straining not to yell, although how else will she hear him? “Looks like they’re slowly making friends. . .”

Randall smiles. Linda rearranges her cutlery. She turns her shoulders more directly to him so as to be heard.

“And your children are. . .they are. . . adjusting to. . .their new life?” she asks, her eyebrows raised.

“Oh, I think so, although there are a lot of. . .of challenges,” he answers.

“And you and your wife. . .are you. . .is it. . .can you tell me. . .” she freezes and looks at the napkin she now notices she’s been holding crumpled in her lap. “And you two are. . .I mean. . .after what has. . .you and your family. . .”

Linda stretches and presses her napkin flat across her knees, then lifts it up, laying it like a wrinkled tarp  over her plate. Wiping one hand over her eyes, exhaling, she then props the weight of her whole upper body on one arm by planting the heel of her hand on her forehead between her brows. A pause, and her next sentence comes awkwardly, in half-whispers, as she leans closer; “Randall. I’m just trying to ask you about your son.” Her tone thickens, “I am so sorry, Randall. Can you. . . please – I hope this is not hurtful – but can you please tell me about your son?”

A simple question, and you’d think an invisible glass dome has descended – swoosh – on this moment in the far corner of this tent teeming with partiers. At the same overcrowded banquet table where bedlam is the first thing on the menu – only feet from the yodeling accordion player, right next to where the jaded waitress grunts under the pewter tray holding eight beer steins she hoists overhead, inches from where two men (already plastered) swat at her ruffled skirt – amid that whirl of chaos that is so much this world, madness recedes. Suspended at least for an hour, the world and its deafening excesses fade for two work colleagues, who sit side by side, elbow to elbow, talking and wiping tears at Oktoberfest.

Credit: Cpt@ flickr

Credit: Cpt@ flickr

Dove Gray Paint. . .or. . . Should I Be Writing This Post? . . .or. . .Should You Be Reading It?

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Paris, early May.

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Over the Quai D’Orsay that runs along the Seine, a chorus line of trees in emerald gowns jeweled with sunlight nod while waving their spring-heavy branches. Morning dog-walkers are suited crisply for the promenade. Traffic hums in a steady stream. Bicyclists ping their bells. Vespas buzz.

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Our boulangerie a block away is pulling fresh loaves from its ovens. I know this because it’s Saturday morning, the hour when I can always taste hot wheat in the air. Today, the flavor comes in one lusty throatfull through our windows thrown wide open.

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They’re open next to where our oldest, Parker, is seated at the family computer desk in the corner, finishing a paper. His high school graduation is in one month. The street sounds – trash collectors, the random visitor trying without success to parallel park, students and tourists and neighbors chatting on the sidewalk beneath us – bubble into our space, which is silent except for my son’s clickety-click on the computer keyboard.

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He sits, his back to me, only ten feet away. I could stand up – if it entered my mind – and walk over any time I want. Close to him like that, I could touch his shoulder and stroke a hand across his hair, maybe smell his skin, hear his voice, meet his eye.

But I don’t. I’m focused on something else.

“Okay everybody? Sorry, but you’re just going to have to live with this for as long as it takes. I’m working. And we all know what that means.” I button up a man’s shirt, roll up the sleeves, and cover the parquet with a ream of old newspapers.

This time, my “work” means face-lifting some pieces of older furniture by changing them from homey pine to the sleek, minimalist look of a wet cloud. “Dove gray” is the paint I’ve chosen, and I’ve sought out a special high gloss version, which the paint store gentleman, head cocked, warns will require more layers and a longer drying period than conventional paint.

So I paint. I let dry. I paint again. I let dry again.

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I paint away while my windows waft sounds and smells of the home I am tortured to leave.

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I paint while Paris breezes all around the son I’m sad yet satisfied to see heading off to a life at college.

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In five weeks, only days after his graduation, the movers are arriving to pack us up for Munich. I’ve been hanging by my fingertips, inching down the many rungs of my To-Do list: I’ve long since packed most of our belongings in several dozen boxes. Then I’ve stacked them literally everywhere along the periphery of our apartment. After packing and stacking, I’ve draped our larger pieces of furniture with old sheets and pushed them up against whatever bits of periphery are left. Now I can paint away in silence.

Parker’s there, peripheral, too, his back to me and mine to his as I taste the strange blend of boulangerie and paint fumes swimming through our apartment. The hushhh-hushhh of my paintbrush covers with slow, silvery licks the top of my writing desk. And I hear Parker, his clickety-clicks insisting from a far corner, no more than a muted background to my task-stacked, project-preoccupied inner soundtrack.
I glance up once in a while and grin casually, noting how my boy is a man now, and I wonder offhandedly about the details of what lies ahead for him in a few short weeks. Roommates, laundromats, his first bank account, when will we squeeze in finally getting him an American driver’s license?

I’m elbow deep in gray – paint and thought – dipping and stroking the gloss, taken (if only fleetingly) by my child’s self-evident future.

I rock back from my knees to my haunches, wipe my hair from my face, admiring my slick gray project.

My son’s T-shirted shoulders are over to the left, barely in my range of vision.

Clickety-clickety-click.

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**

Here I am again, almost six years from that May morning – all those May mornings, that long string of precious but wasted mornings.

Wasted?

If you were to come to my home, you wouldn’t find a single piece of hand-painted dove gray furniture. Anywhere. It all arrived in Munich, that much is true. I watched coldly while the movers hauled each piece up the stairs, through our double doors and into the middle of our apartment.

But the pieces just stood there in all their haunting grayness. Maybe you understand how I couldn’t walk close to them, let alone touch or use them. Their sheen stared dully at me, filling me with a landslide of sorrow. Is a nightstand really capable of mocking? Because I felt it mocking me.

Within that first week we’d contacted Markus, a man from church, who’d shown up with a big moving trailer hooked to the back of his family car.

“Do anything you want with all of it,” Randall told Markus, who stood outside our big black apartment doors. “We can’t have it here. It’s too. . .Melissa can’t keep these pieces.”

And so Markus and Randall carried everything, including my massive writing desk, down the dark stairs and out the front door of our building. From where I stood behind bathroom curtains, I watched out the window as the two men carried each piece onto the street, watched the shiny pieces go into a trailer, watched while grinding my jaw on the sharp contours of insoluble regret.

I watched, and while I did I couldn’t help but replay how I’d knelt day after day after day, painting thoughtfully, tenderly, how I’d painted as if I really loved all that dead wood, painted while my son – life trilling from his fingertips, breath coming from his lungs – sat right there within my reach. Every minute spent with paint, I could have spent with Parker.

I walked from the window back into our entryway, relieved in a small way to see the proof of my folly disappear in a trailer down Widenmayerstrasse. And there, from atop a bookshelf outside the bathroom were Parker’s eyes looking at me from the photo on the front of his framed funeral program.

**

I see life with a scrupulous eye, the saddened but sharpened eye of someone who knows.

I know things.

I know certain things in a way that people who have not lost abruptly cannot know. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t say that with pride. I say that with a sigh of resignation. I know and am constantly aware that my time with those I cherish is limited to the pinpoint moment in which I stand. I know that it is these relationships that deserve my complete mindfulness. I know what lasts (love) and what, ultimately, doesn’t (stuff), and what therefore needs my whole soul and what doesn’t warrant a major investment of either energy or time.

But I also know I should write.

And this, friends, is where the conflict arises. This is the juncture to which I’ve been bringing you. Because more and more, I find myself here. . .

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. . .and I find my children here. . .

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This year alone I’ve discovered the seduction with which the virtual world churns; and let me tell you, that’s some alarming, breathtaking, and time-devouring force.

Or maybe you’ve already noticed?

When I am writing, particularly these posts, I always focus on who’s reading – you, for example – and imagine that off-screen you probably have real relationships, too, like those I have, relationships that deserve your full presence. Which realization makes my fingers stiffen at my keyboard, and my back shiver in my chair. Why? Because it’s a serious thing in my book, to invite you here for virtual connection – my layer after layer of dove gray gloss – when there might be a live person on the other side of your room, within your reach, even, someone clicking at thier own keyboard, maybe, a human being you love who deserves you.

Who deserves your time and attention – crazy as this is going to sound! – more than I do.

What a thought.

Have my words ever pulled you away from the person in the room? Or have I invested rightly, and my words have helped you understand that person in the room, propelled you to lean a bit in that direction and love with more intensity and devotion?

Don’t answer that.

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But do consider this:

If I post drivel, if reading me (or anything else online, for that matter, but I won’t get into critiquing other online material) is not worth the priceless minutes invested, minutes you could spend on your flesh and blood connections, will you please, please call me on it?

One last important thing: I know that my son has forgiven me for spending those last weeks next to him but not really with him. Not, at least, as I, in hindsight, wish I would have spent that time with him. He’s long since smiled that laps into the past.

He also knows that I must write. He knows, as do I, that there can be life-changing electricity generated through shared words. In fact, he is the one who continues to prompt me to have courage to write all I possibly can.

I hear his warning, though, and it is wise. I’ll share it with you:

Write, Mom. Yes, write.

But not to the exclusion of the most vital narrative, the one with blood and pulse and breath, the living narrative that outlasts – yes, it does outlast – anything you or anyone will ever write.

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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.

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