The Last Noël — From On Loss and Living Onward

OUR LAST PARISIAN Christmas. And because we would be sending Parker, our eldest, off to college in June, we knew it would also be a “Last Christmas”—our last Christmas with all of us together, at least like this.

So I’d run myself ragged with holiday preparations: writing and direct- ing and performing in the church Christmas program; writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our ninety-five annual Christmas missives; decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and “getting into the holiday spirit.” At least that was the euphemism.

IMG_4639

That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I am not proud to write about. Instead of making merry with my family, I holed myself up in my bedroom for a couple of hours. In the stillness of that dark room, my body heaped unmoving upon the bed, the universe could have whispered into my heart, warning me that this would truly be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son.

Relish this evening, the universe could have stirred in me, as preparation. Memorize its every detail. Plant yourself in the middle of the scene and draw your family very, very close. Your child’s eyes—stare into them right now and learn by heart the patterns of his irises. Do you see their delicate blue-gray, their lively pupils, the way they stretch and contract in darkness and in sun- light? Do you know how much you need those eyes? This boy? His life?

There were no such messages from beyond. Or if there were, I was too distracted and far too tired to hear heavenly whispers or divine warnings or to feel celestial shoulder-tappings.

Something did, however, tap on my shoulder. And something did whisper. And something did warn me that this would be The Last Christmas with Parker. And that something was Parker himself.

IMG_4480

THE LAST NOËL: A TRUE CHRISTMAS STORY

“MOM?”

Her son, whose voice normally had the resonance of a foghorn, was whispering from the doorway.

She was on her side, knees curled up slightly, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum. Her eyes stayed closed. She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night lamp, away from the door, which she’d closed a couple of hours earlier, barricading herself into silence and as far as possible from the everyday holiday noises that emerged from the end of the hall: Kitchen sounds, a swirling, tinkling holiday CD, conversations between teenagers, the low word or two from Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in house slippers. A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there. Noises she simply wanted to escape. For as long as it would take.

She was doing it again, that thing she sometimes did. She was retreating into silence. She did this, usually, when she had overdone things. And she did have this tendency to take on too much, to leave herself no room for reverence, for breathing, for reflection, for rest. How many years had she done this? Why did she never learn? Another year-end marker and look, no change. Same old, same old. Old. Old. She felt old.

She tugged the purple comforter up to her eyes, which were leaking a lone, languid line of tears. Like a fine finger tracing with its tip, the saline trail went from the right eye over the bridge of her nose and into the corner of the left, or from the left eye down the left temple, slipping into the ear canal. Her nose grew wet in the same moment, and so she drew in one quiet sniff.

“Mom?” a voice came from the doorway. “Look . . .” the voice was moving closer behind her, “Listen, Mom.” It was her eldest son, and now he was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed. “Please, don’t do this,” he said. “Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider shifting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired. So bone-deep tired. And sad.

He sighed, her eldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sound that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? His maroon one, she remembered.

Should she just turn around and face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair that’s a bit soggy now, with tears drizzling past her ear and down her jawline? Just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some mirth into her limbs? Just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a toy train track—switch gears, flip some switch, just head back out? Smiling? Humming Bing Crosby?

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

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

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

She had lodged herself too far into the silence to creep out so easily now.

Tired of speaking, giving orders, answering to everyone. Tired and worn out. Another year: gone, wrung out like I feel, squeezed dry to its very last particle. Here we are again. Christmas. I should be keeping everyone’s spirit aloft. But I’m flattened.

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

“Hey,” came a voice from the doorway.

“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his dad’s. And heavier. “Honey, we’d love for you to come out. Just eat a little dinner, ’kay? And then watch the movie with us. Maybe? No big production. Just be with us.”

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

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

She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled completely over, from left to right, opened her eyes, and found she was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans. Then the son knelt. His eyes met hers. He looked right into her. She’d never seen this look, at least not from him. The earnestness and resolve. The deliberateness.

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

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

“And so I want us to celebrate and have the Spirit. So will you please come out and be with us? Now? Mom?”

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

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

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

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

It was the prayer of a full-grown man. His mother—and everyone—felt its substance settle on their shoulders. They knelt for a moment in silence. But not that resistant, withholding kind of silence. This was the silence of soft awe, and like the invisible bending-swelling of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things around.

“Please . . .” the mother said, “I am so sorry,” and she looked around the circle. “It’s just been too much . . . again . . . and I needed to get some . . . distance. It’s not you, it’s— ”

“No, Mom,” the daughter said then cleared her throat, “it’s a lot, and we sometimes don’t know when we’ve made stuff hard for you, and—”

“Or when we’re bad—” said the six-year-old, who, the mom now noticed, had stars and candy canes drawn in neon marker all over his cheeks, chin, forehead, and forearms.

“No, you’re not bad,” the mother countered, as the innocent flamboyance of round red-rimmed glasses and temporary Christmas tattoos urged up into her throat a flash flood of regret and tenderness, “and this is not anyone’s fault . . .”

As the mother spoke, her words disgorged a whole swamp of apologies, into which all the children and the husband now waded with their own apologies.

Then they embraced, got off their knees . . . and embraced again.

The ten-year-old son, eyes darting as if with guilt, put his arms around his mother’s waist and asked, “You want me to scrub the stars and candy canes off him?” She shook her head and squeezed his shoulders, then watched him scuffle off with the youngest child at his side, turn back once, his eyebrows raised to be sure he’d understood—the body painting’s okay, then—and then trot down the hall, acting The Protectorate to his little brother, who skips alongside him, blonde bowl cut bouncing.

Before long, there was laughter, ruckus, and the King’s Singers decking every hall with fa-la-la-la-las.

Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, shoulder-to-shoulder, nestled deep into the soft brown overstuffed sofa. He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. She, while watching that son in her peripherals, scanned the life encircling her.

Dad brought in trays of homemade eggnog. Daughter wore a new light blue fleece bathrobe and flannel pajamas on which miniature pink snowmen and reindeer danced amid snowflakes. The middle son reassembled a Lego figurine while the youngest held a pillow up under his chin, a chin that sported, like a fluorescent target, a neon gold felt tip marker star planted smack dab in the center.

That Christmas Eve, the family clustered in the plush comfort of sofa and solidarity, just like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could re- member. With mouths edged in eggnog, and with eyes groggy or wide, they nuzzled. All six of them. And they followed (or at times mirrored) the black- and-white sweetness of their favorite holiday film, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

That Last Noel, life was just that: wonderful.

IMG_0088

====

The First Christmas Without Him. The Second Christmas Without Him. The Third and The Fourth and The Fifth . . .

Peering into the long tunnel of Christmases that are yet to be without Parker, our family has kept to the ritual of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I have held onto this holiday ritual even when so diminished and devastated by death that all I could do was hold back tears with one arm around my ribcage and the other around my family’s shoulders.

That first Christmas after Parker died, though sliced to the bone by the scythe of sudden loss, I felt nothing like the depressive slump I’d felt the last Christmas when our boy had been alive. Oh, I was distressed, even despair- ing. At times, I was even quietly, privately deranged with pain. And a couple of times, I whispered that I was afraid we wouldn’t make it, meaning that our marriage, our sanity, or our very hearts might fail.

But we sat together and we watched the film. And we’ve watched it every Christmas since. This movie—a classic about the sacredness of each imperfect human life, the triumph of family and community, the intervention of celestial beings—has become a symbol of our decision to live, even thrive, instead of utterly drowning in grief.

For me, living onward with loss has depended to a great extent on the

deliberate and repeated choice to fight back the torpidity of despair. Plung- ing into the depths of despondency was the greatest temptation I have ever resisted in my life. While I had no suicidal thoughts—how could I ever abandon my loved ones, and especially in a time like this?—I simply wanted life to go away. Forever. When the character of George Bailey weeps that frenzied, feral cry on the frozen bridge, I understand and I weep with him.

To resist the cold, icy drag of despair, I learned over time that I needed three things: steadiness, illumination, and as much love as the world and heaven could offer or I could dredge up to give.

IMG_1027

Steadiness. In early grief, almost all of my physical energy was devoured by the task of remaining steady and keeping my family steady. With no extra capacity for physical exertion, I slowed down as never before. I walked, talked, and even breathed at a different pace than had been my normal hyper-drive. I lacked the wherewithal for those old patterns of excess. What is more essential, though, I had no need for them. In fact, they repelled me. Grief overwrote my usual frantic scramble from distraction to distraction—however worthy those distractions might have been—and replaced that speed with heavy-duty Zen. Corporeally, I felt greatly weakened—like recovering from major invasive surgery—but that fragility allowed me to become very spiritually focused. Like this, my spiritual antennae were stretched to full extension. And it was in that steadiness that I found the knowledge and meaning I needed in order to live what on the outset seemed an unlivable life, a life bereft of our eldest. Thereafter, I made a deliberate effort to devote myself to single-mindedness. By steadying myself through frequent and focused mediation and prayer, I resisted the gravitational pull of despair and distraction, so common in today’s loud, frenetic, and some- times abusively demanding world.

IMG_1023

Illumination. Retreat alone was not my sole response to grief. At a certain point in my experience—many months after my son’s death and after as long a time of concentrated meditation and searching prayer—I felt a clear spiritual impression. It told me that if I stayed holed up much longer in the nautilus of grief, if I resisted engaging in life, if I folded myself over my heart into a work of emotional origami, if I crammed myself into a foot- locker of loss buried under the boulder-slate-and-ash landslide of anguish, I might never emerge at all. And even if one day I did come out, much else might have died in the meantime. I had a choice: I could remain cut off from others and become grief’s slave, or I could extend myself toward others and remain grief’s student. The former choice would bring atrophy and sorrow, the latter, growth and joy. I took small, significant steps to connect with others, accept their gestures of service, and to serve them.

IMG_1029

Love. This service—some rendered, much received—opened up flood- gates of warmth that counterbalanced the icy river of despair. Like George Bailey, I was rescued by the realization of love rushing in from all sides: for and from God; for and from family; for and from friends and even strangers. The flow of loving-kindness coaxed me out of despair, led me through that tension between resisting and reengaging, between self-protection and service, between fearing and trusting, between loss and living onward with love.

So as simplistic as this might sound, the First Noel, the Last Noel and all the Noels that will follow are tales about learning love. For me, while my love for my son has been grief’s reason, it has been that same force of love that has proved grief’s rescue. As wrote Leo Tolstoy, “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”

If this is what “healing” feels like, then I suppose I am its rehabilitating patient. I can with quiet confidence say today something I could never have imagined on the outset: It has been love, the decision to open up to the possibility of it, and the deliberate choice to receive and to share it—again and again and in spite of certain risk—that has brought me off of that bridge overlooking despair and back to life. Into a fragile, imperfect, (and some- times terrifying) but also a miraculous, sweet, and yes, even a wonderful life.

IMG_0579

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2015. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name. You should also reference the original work, On Loss and Living Onward, (Familius 2014)

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).

20B4BF~1

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.

IMG_2094
IMG_2105

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.

IMG_2107

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.”

IMG_2118

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.

IMG_2123

“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.

IMG_2126

 

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?

IMG_2124

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.

IMG_2130

“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.

Communion at Oktoberfest

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

044

042

043

038

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

Standing Right On The Hinge

On the river's edge at a place called Monkey Rock.  This is where our son lost his life.

On the banks of a place called Monkey Rock. This is where our son lost his life.

It doesn’t matter how educated, moneyed, or smart you are: when your child’s footprints end at the river’s edge, when the one you love has gone into the woods with a bleak outlook and a loaded gun, when the chaplain is walking toward you with bad news in her mouth. . .Your life will swing suddenly and cruelly in a new direction, and if you are wise . . you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there, standing right on the hinge, holding out its arms. And if you are really wise, you will fall against it and be held.
– Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me

Monkey Rock Falls Sideview

**

Every week for a year after the accident, the assistant headmaster from Parker and Claire’s school in Paris called us in our new home in Munich.

“Hi, Randall, Melissa. Just checking in, guys. How. . . how are things this week? Your health? The new school? Claire and the boys, how are they managing?”

There was a tentativeness in our friend’s voice, the faintest hint of fragility that I never would have anticipated watching him hand out diplomas, joking with and embracing students at the Paris high school graduation just over two months earlier.

Looking Downstream (mid-bridge)

We’d taken this one great shot of him the moment Parker received his diploma: huge smiles, both of them, and Parker’s massive hands grasping this man’s shoulder, ready to reach forward to hug him.

Parker had known Mr. H. well. (I’ll call him “Mr. H.”, although many parents, like us, were on a first name basis with him. I now consider him a brother.)

Monkey Rock Falls (close-up)

“Coolest guy,” Parker had told me after one of his early morning math and chemistry tutoring hours in this man’s school office. “Totally cool and just a great person.”

And totally private. And just your consumate professional.

He not only tutored students in his office nearly every morning before regular class hours, but he ran a big, transient, culturally complex studentbody and faculty. The demands were constant. The pressures from parents, faculty and the board were sometimes exacting, I’d imagined over the years, and the expectations probably constricting. But this man had managed for decades to lead with diplomacy and vision and was respected for his warmth and fairness.

Solid. Imperturable. Not once had he struck me as a man who could crack.

But now, a week into the new school year for him in Paris and for us newly-arrived in Munich, I heard undeniable fissures creeping up the contours of his voice. Was he heartbroken? When he’d finally been able to find words, he said he was.

Heartpulverized.

Monkey Rock FallsPicture 518Picture 519

“What I means is. . .are you and the kids. . .you going to make it?”

“We’re making it,” Randall offered, holding back emotion. “But we’re not sure. . .we might need to move back to Paris. To your school. We need community. We need our people.”

“And we’re not finding it, them. . .here. . .Not yet.”

I said this into the receiver but was focusing on Randall. I felt sorrow taking the shape of a question mark in my bones: Drooping, head-to-breast, curved to submission, one single tear drop dangling, suspended there in helpless isolation.

FAM3 2003- GoCH 2Ward PFBd UTadven161

My husband knew full well I was not unpacking – not even touching – the rest of the same moving boxes we’d been working through the week we lost our firstborn son to tragedy at a water accident that occurred during a pre-college camp. Not until we all – parents, children, my husband’s employer, schools – agreed we had no choice but to stay in Munich.

At this point, though, that scenario seemed highly unlikely given the circumstances. We all ached and cried daily to go back to our “home” where people knew us and loved our son. A place where the fresh, ragged-edged hole in the universe could be looked into straight on, where the emptiness might be acknowledged, and we could feel a modicum of comfort.

Picture 523

It’s then Mr. H. proposed something: “Hey, um, I’ve been working on an idea. But I want to pass it by you before I go any further with it. I’d need board consensus as there’s definite – what should I say? – definite risk involved. There’s no precedent for this, so it could be misunderstood, but in spite of the risks. . .See, this week alone I’ve had student after student in my office. Students, faculty. Every day, all day long, it seems. They’ve all needed to talk about Parker.”

Picture 530

Here, his voice hit a speed bump, stalled, then heaved itself over the pain. “Other teachers are having the same experience. Kids here are really traumatized. Some are angry at the universe that such a thing could happen. A lot are confused. . .I mean, there’s such sadness. . .if you could imagine. . .”

There was a pause.

“Yeah. I think maybe you guys can imagine.”

The narrow culvert where four young men were sucked into a hidden whirlpool. Three survived.

The narrow culvert where four young men were sucked into a hidden whirlpool. Three survived.

“So, your idea?” Randall spoke. I noticed as if for the first time that his pants were hanging like an old tent on his body. He’d lost over 10 kilos (twenty five pounds) in one month. His face was hollow, his neck gaunt. Over the coming weeks he would lose much more weight and his heartbeat would, for the first time in his life, become irregular.

The irrigation canal that feeds into the culvert, meanders to lava rock falls, were water plunges into a placid lagoon.

The irrigation canal that feeds into a culvert and meanders toward lava rock falls. From there, the water  plunges into a placid lagoon.

“This is the idea. I want to see first how you’d feel about it. I’ve been discussing doing a Parker Fairbourne Bradford Memorial at the school. As soon as possible. End of this month, even. The more I talk with other administrators and faculty about it, the more I see it might be a healthy thing, even a powerful thing. Good for us, for you, for Parker’s memory.”

“A Memorial?” I felt heat kindle behind my ribs and through to my spine.

Looking Upstream (mid-bridge)Looking Upstream (leftside)

“People need to make sense of what’s happened, you know? Most found out through email and Facebook and texts over the summer. That went like wildfire. Lots of people have had to process it alone. Some have managed to get together, mourn together. But some were out of the loop and have just found out this week. Seems to me everyone needs a place to express their feelings and their love, to make sense. They really need to see you. They need to come together. . .”

Come together.

The sign that was finally posted a full year after the fatal accident.  The day Randall come to visit, it lay rusted on the ground, rammed, it seemed, by a vehicle.  He tied it up with blue string.

The sign that was finally posted a full year after the fatal accident. The day Randall came to visit, the sign lay rusted on the ground, rammed, it seemed, by a vehicle. He stood it erect and tied it up with blue string.

Come Together. These were the very words I’d heard in my head all week long between the ICU and the funeral, the funeral where this administrator himself and a small entourage of Paris high school students and their parents had been present. They’d flown in from all over the world, flown in to come together in a small chapel in Utah.

Come together. Right now. Over me. I couldn’t shake the Beatles no matter how hard I tried.

The helicopter that transported our son to the Portneuf Regional Medical center.

The helicopter that transported our son from a local hospital to the Portneuf Regional Medical center.

Portneuf Medical Center

**

The evening of the 22nd of September, 2007, our family sat on the front row of a packed school auditorium in a school in Paris while faculty and students paid tribute to our son. Behind us were youth and their parents, work colleagues of Randall’s from all over central, eastern and northern Europe. To each side we saw our many church friends who in most cases had no affiliation with the school, but who knew and loved a certain boy. In front of us was the stage from which specific faculty members and students closest to Parker spoke (tenderly, frankly, humorously, musically, poetically, mailed in from abroad, recited across the silence), and where a large screen hung onto which were projected pictures and live footage of this young man now gone.

Mr. H. and our younger boys on our favorite Paris bridge, le Pont des Arts.

Mr. H. and our younger boys on our favorite Paris bridge, le Pont des Arts.

If you want to know what that moment felt like to the mother, you’ll have to suspend disbelief. I tell you that it was like getting a blood transfusion with fire. My body shook like a furnace overstocked with coal, on the verge of exploding. Great, deep, sweet, healing pain.

This, as I think of Kate Braestrup’s words, might be what love standing right on the hinge is about. It has something to do with the saving fire that can come from those who, only a moment earlier, had been regular body-temperature folks. Just like you and me.

They were no more than professional acquaintances, maybe. No more than who we all try to be: nice, decent people anyone might pass right by in the hallways or chat with casually at the water cooler. They might even have been no more than the friends of the friends of the parents of the students who did no more that sit next to our children in a history class or in a jazz band or on the bench during basketball season.

But they brought fire.

They brought time and talent and effort and artistry, too. But I have to be clear: it was not the special effects and the sound system in and of themselves that ignited fire, although all of that was meaningful and exquisite, and we will never, ever forget them. While humbling to us, all that was not our focus. And these good, caring people of course knew that. What was our focus – and what was the source of our transfusing fire – was the reality of the faces of people who knew and who cared. It was seeing people come, cry, stare in shock, sit and hold each other. When those faces were lined up in a community, they became a living firewall against the encroaching winter of the soul.

Aaron Hubbard with Melissa on Pont des Arts (June 2011)

Aaron Hubbard with M, D & L in 6th Arr (June 2011)

When our sorrow, whatever that sorrow might be, pushes us to that howling outer-ledge where a blue glacial wind threatens to suck us into a crevasse of despair, part of our nature might stare blankly – drained, as it feels, of will – down into that icy bottomlessness.

Maybe for the length of one breath we stare.

The gravesite without its stone.  The ground was frozen. We waited until spring when things thawed.

The gravesite without its stone. The ground was frozen. We had to wait to install it in the spring when things had sufficiently thawed.

Maybe longer.

December. First visit to the grave after the July funeral.

December. First visit to the grave after the July funeral.

But there is another part of us, a wiser part, as Braestrup calls it, and that part will look around for love. It might only glance at first, eyelids low, fearing what it will or will not find. But in time it won’t just glance a bit, nor will it roll its eyes at itself, at its hurting need for love.

No.

It will scavenge like a beast dying of hunger. It will yowl to the empty clouds and bray across the flat horizon for love. It will howl from the bottom of its lungs rendered stiff and brittle from cold. It will limp and then collapse and then belly-crawl for love.

And there, right there, love will be.

Coach and athletic director, and Parker's retired basketball jerseys they school framed and hung outside the gymnasium.

Coach and athletic director, and Parker’s retired basketball jerseys the school framed and hung outside the gymnasium. The memorial jerseys hang there still.

Armbands with the initials and number of the player who was no longer. A kid named Phil had them made.  Their cheer was "One, Two, Three, Parker!"

A teammate named Phil had these armbands made.  They carry the initials and number of the player who was no longer. The team cheer that year was, “One, Two, Three, Parker!”

Right there, next to us, will be love holding out its everyday arms. Its stranger or next-door-neighbor or school administrator-made-brother arms.

Right there on the hinge we find it so that, instead of falling over the ledge, we fall against them. And we are held.

FAM3 2003- GoCH 2Ward PFBd UTadven156

Continuing: Aaron D.

Longsuffering. What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can only describe their longsuffering as godly.

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

Well? So be it.

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

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

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

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

FAMILY 1971 Aaron's birth 019

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

FAMILY 1971 Aaron's birth 015

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

FAM 1972-73 Aaron007
FAM 1972-73 Aaron030FAM 1975 Scenes home BYU017

He was a gorgeous, blonde Viking type as a kid, a small Odin with a Norse God voice, and precocious gifts for music, language and humor.
FAM 1976 miscell AliBye007

FAM 1983- Mel call Ali wed etc079

Those gifts, clumsy and folksy as they were when he was little, became something well-toned as he matured, and have all congealed to bring our family comfort in our experience of losing our son, his nephew.

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

FAM2 1989-90 Parker Oma85 ADcall Claire025

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

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

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

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

FAM2 1989-90 Parker Oma85 ADcall Claire064

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

FAM2 1989-90 Parker Oma85 ADcall Claire047

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

FAM2 1989-90 Parker Oma85 ADcall Claire042

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

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

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

FAM2 1989-90 Parker Oma85 ADcall Claire177

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

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

027

025034

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

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

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

W xscan0017

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

043

037

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

FAM2 1991-2002 Powell Momd AD&HeeWed085

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

048

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

Aaron with Parker and his children

Aaron with Parker and Aaron’s children

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had silence ever sounded so crowded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

**

And finally, a very recent mail:

**

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

Love always and from all of us,

Aaron

**

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

Disregard, Disassociation, Distance

More of my photos from Gruyères as a respite for your eyes

More of my photos from Gruyères as a respite for your eyes

This opening story, like the last one I posted, is dangerous but instructive and essential. It is also, I hope, beautiful. Not beautiful in the conventional sense, but beautiful in its discord-leading-to-resolution. Before sharing, I want to explain that I’ve already passed it under the eyes of those implicated, and in their humility and loving-kindness they’re willing to have it shared publicly even if it’s not too terribly flattering at first. They want it told.

IMG_1356

Two months into our new life in Munich, two months after burying our son in another country, and my parents have not contacted us yet.
No phone calls. No emails. And I’m growing despondent.
But do I call them?
No.
Why not?
Because I’m overwhelmed with sadness, for one thing. I’m saturated with our three children’s sadness, with my husband’s sadness, which sad saturation is compounded, of course, by the demands of an international move managed under extreme physical and psychological impairment, and in the vacuum of no familiar support community, a vacuum that’s gaining suction with every week that passes.
Why else am I not calling? As strange as it seems I am afraid.
I am afraid that family and friends are now done. They’ve moved on to brighter things, lighter things.
And then the trailing question to that thought strangles me: is that what they’re expecting me to do, too? Be done? Am I supposed to “get over it”? Get it behind me? Get to work? Get myself together, get a grip, get on with life, get a life?
I’ve never done this before, this incomprehensible and inescapable  pain, so I don’t know the rules. I do know, however, that I’m doing really well just getting up.
I’m afraid of other things, too. I’m afraid of what might happen as soon as I open my mouth, afraid of the inadequacies of language to transmit what I can barely understand myself, afraid of puncturing the thick and sacred walls I’ve built around this island of grief we’ve been shipwrecked on.
Furthermore, I’m afraid that my call will be misperceived as a prompt for pity.
But here’s the main thing: in spite of all of the above and far deeper than every other fear, I am afraid that if no one talks with me about my son he will begin to slip from my grasp. He will disappear into oblivion. I recoil at a quote I find from Russian author Alexander Pushkin, “Oblivion is the natural lot of anyone not present. It’s horrible, but true.”
So this, fear instructs me, is how I will lose my child a second time.
Confused, overwhelmed and afraid, I go even deeper inside. I climb down into a crater I’ve dug with my nails in the middle of my grief island. And I crouch there. I go very, very quiet. And a wee bit crazy. Bereaved parents – even those in the very best of circumstances – often feel crazy. Just ask them. I get a bitter little swig of the crazees.
I crouch. I wait. I watch. I wait. And wait.
I wait more.

IMG_1337

Last week of October and a gunmetal gray day presses down on the Isar river outside our apartment window. The leaf-shedding trees I’ve been watching daily, hourly, are emaciated, stripped down to bark nakedness. I am in my robe. It is midafternoon. The phone rings. It is my parents. The call goes something like this:
(They’re both addressing me on speakerphone. Their voices are slightly unnatural, and remind me of pastel taffy. Sugary softness wrapped in wax with tight twists at both ends.)
“Our whole California trip was just wonderful, Melissa. Very enjoyable and relaxing.”
Pause.
“. . .Um-huh.”
Pause.
“Yes. Mom and I thought the hotels were comfortable, and the weather, well, what did you think, Donna?”
“Very comfortable. Unseasonably warm. . .even balmy. . .”
Pause.
“. . .Um-huh.
Pause.
“And then there was the hotel swimming pool. Kidney shaped. Too cold, but deep aqua tiles. Pretty to look at.”
Pause.
“. . .Um-huh.”
And so forth.
When we hang up, I drop the phone on the bed. I’m immobile with exhaustion. I can’t lift my head. From one half-opened eye I see on the bedspread that I’ve left a dark blue tear-print as big as a tile-lined kidney-shaped swimming pool.
Alone in this small, dim bedroom I feel all my cells collapsing and my bones turning to syrup and my torso cramping and my neck muscles tensing. Then I hear an animal in me yowling very quietly through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw.
And I fall majorly apart.
IMG_1341
Who knows how long it lasts.
At some point I pull myself together, gather my wits, blow my nose, pray out loud, cry a few words to Parker, and call back my parents. That conversation goes something like this:
(My voice is also slightly unnatural, like I’m just coming out from under anesthesia.)
“Mom?”
“Oh, it’s you again, honey. Good, good! Did we forget something?”
“I. . .I need. . .” I have been lying on my side, but now I sit up to assume my erect, well-planted persona. This way I can breathe and project better. “I am going to say something now. . .”
“Melissa? Did we do something? You sound. . .Wha – did we say the wrong thing?… Sweetheart?”
(“David, come back. Hurry. She’s on the phone.”)
“Mom?. . .I need. . .what I want is. . .” I close my eyes. “Can we just talk. . .talk about. . . about what matters?
By now my dad, who’s turned off the speakerphone, has the receiver close to his lips. His voice vibrates in its lowest register. I know this voice: panic-control mode.
IMG_1340
“Melissa? Now tell us please, honey. What do you need to talk to us about?”
I try to speak, but it’s too physically demanding to push words ahead of the crying that is surging, it seems, upwards from the floor of my gut, so I make some incomprehensibly muffled sounds. My parents wait patiently on their end of the line as I begin filling up that kidney-shaped pool with the tears of a child.
Infantilized. I’m six years old again, needing my mommy and daddy, I think while I keep fighting for breath between gasps and whimpers, scrambling to find my mind, find myself. How can this be happening? I don’t know how to control any of this. This forty-something someone, the one who just a short season ago was resourceful and commanding enough to referee several major international moves, plucky and outspoken enough to lecture before hundreds, a turbo-chargedjoie de vivre Type A type. . .That someone is replaced by a mucus-drooling amoeba, a formless heap of swollen-eyed sweaty-stale bathrobeness that can’t form a single pronounceable shape in her rubber-slobbery mouth.
“Melissa?” My dad’s now whispering.
“Oh, Melissa, dear, what did Dad and I do? Was it the pool, honey? Oh, darling…” my mother’s voice is cracking. “That’s it, David. I knew it. Oh, I. . .Should we, should we not have said the word pool?. . .David, you see? I just knew we’d say something wrong–”
“No! NO, Mom.” I drill a fist into the mattress. “No! I. . .I just – I need to talk. . .But. . .I can not talk about just anything. I have to talk about Parker. About him. I need us to talk about Par—
The dam ruptures. The floodgates smash. Deluge. Tides of tears. From both sides of the Atlantic.
Remorse.
Apologies.
Love.
IMG_1341

Hurriedly, my parents explain that they’ve intentionally not called for so long to “give us room”. They didn’t want to “open any wounds”, they say. They didn’t want to “remind us of our loss.”
“The longer we didn’t take contact,” my mom’s voice is twisted with pain, “the more awkward we felt about calling.”
“You hadn’t been calling us”, my dad interjects softly, “so we reasoned that you must have been doing well. . . enough.”
Which they knew was probably unlikely, they say, but they had at least hoped. . .And in the worst case scenario if in fact we weren’t doing well we probably wanted to be left alone. “Were we wrong?” my dad asks.
“Besides all of that,” my mom cuts in, “we’ve been traveling, you know, and lecturing,” which I know was their way of finding a practical distraction from heavy things. My dad, during those days around the funeral, had been discreetly clenching his chest. I didn’t know how much of the weight of grief his aging heart could bear. He probably needed reprieve. “Death, like the sun,” wrote La Rochefoucauld, “are not to be looked at steadily.”
They explain to me how hard it was to decide to finally call, that before they dared pick up the phone, they’d agreed on a game plan. No mention of anything even remotely associated with Parker. And by all means keep the tone upbeat and frothy – light, feathery talk – to divert attention from, you guessed it, the mammoth Isle of Grief I was sitting on, the one as big as the whole Atlantic ocean between us. The one getting bigger by the moment.
I have no words. I wrap a moist, shredding tissue in and around my fingers, which are stone cold.
“Melissa, sweet daughter,” my mom’s voice is loosening as if massaged with oil. “We love you, honey, and we’re so sad about Parker we can hardly. . .” There is silence. I hear the unfamiliar sound of my mom trying to talk through tears.
“What your mother’s trying to say,” my dad adds, “is that we can hardly breathe.”
Now it is the far more unfamiliar sound of my dad struggling through tears.
“We are sorry, darling.” Mom has the voice of a young girl.
“And,” Dad clears his throat, “we’re deeply, deeply sad. Mournful. You know,” he speaks so softly that if I close my eyes, I could swear he and my mom are sitting on the edge my bed, “this is all so new to us. We don’t know how to do this well. But let’s change this, can we? Can we change this and stay in this horrible thing together? Please?”
IMG_1333

Every blessed day from that moment on and for months on end, at three a.m. Mountain Standard Time, my mom, unable to sleep for her own suffocating sorrow at losing her beloved oldest grandchild, called Munich.

**

IMG_1306

The newly bereaved are incapable of thinking of anything else but their loss and their past. Buttoning a collar, folding gym socks, stapling homework, putting a key in the ignition, sitting and staring and feeling their own heart beat–all of it is downright freighted, barnacled, throbbing with loss. If we as co-mourners think it is our job to fill our interactions with our grieving friends with empty chatter in order to not “remind” the bereaved of their loss, or if we feel things will be better if we never say a word, we are mistaken. If we think it’s better we all pretend nothing happened, and that we as friends are safer staying far away, we are also terribly mistaken.

Being thus mistaken, we might find ourselves returning to our broken friends much (too much) later saying the following. (I will protect the identity of the speakers, but want you to know that these are not fiction. They are quotes with good people’s faces behind them):

“I couldn’t speak to you. Your story kind of intimidated me.”
“I just didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. I am so sorry.”
“I was afraid I’d say something that would hurt you more.”
“I didn’t want to get you worked up about the past.”
“I figured you wanted space.”
“I’ve never known loss, so I don’t know how to do this.”
“I didn’t want to impose myself.”
“Your pain frightened me. You looked too sad to approach”
“I felt totally helpless. I kept trying to find something original to say. But I guess I never found that thing.”
“You were so sad for so long, and I was worried. I thought the gospel was supposed to fix these things.”
“We didn’t know how to help you find closure.”
“I’ve been an awful friend. Honestly, I’ve been so distracted with other things in my life.”
“We thought we’d wait a few weeks until you looked like you were over the worst part, until you were healed. Then it seems the weeks passed so quickly and, well. . .”
“I know it’s been a few months since I last checked in. Can you catch me up?”
“A parent’s worst nightmare. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I just didn’t dare get close to it, to you.”

IMG_1291

The newly bereaved can become despondent and/or angry and/or resentful if we as co-mourners choose to avoid them. If fear, discomfort , self-absorption or self-consciousness drive us to silence or to a literal detour away from them (and down another aisle in the grocery store, for instance), the bereaved will probably interpret this as a tacit disregard of their loss. We needn’t ambush them with attention or crush them with affection. But if we disassociate ourselves from them while we wait at a distance for them to “get over it” , we not only lose the great blessing – for them and for us – to help them in their greatest hour of need which will offer us a chance for great spiritual bonding with them and with heaven, but we risk disappearing from that relationship definitively. The process of mourning is by nature constant, constantly changing and communal; it is not something distanced friends can later “catch up” on.

IMG_1261

So we have a challenging dynamic here. We grief-stricken have to ask ourselves: is this harmful conspiracy of silence partially our own fault? I have a hard time admitting it myself, but I’ve concluded that yes, it’s partially been my fault. This conspiracy of silence was partially my fault because, as is typical and understandable of those battling with the huge physiological and psychological demands of acute grief, I simply did not have it in me to coach others on how to reach me.

And, as the story of the phone call illustrates, the very idea of coaching others – even the most intimate and lifelong confidantes – on how to grieve with me was loaded with traps and cul de sacs and second-guesses and frustration.
I have reason to believe that in this respect, my story is not at all unique.
From all that I have gathered in five years of studying this, most bereaved generally don’t want to force on anyone a conversation about their deceased loved one although a continued conversation is exactly what they want and need.

IMG_1283

Why are we bereaved so tentative, then, about initiating such conversations? There are as many reasons as there are grievers. But here are just a few possibilities. What if people stare back dully (as some will), or look at their watches (as some will), or grow jittery and awkward, stuttering with no response except maybe, “So. . . is it therapeutic for you to talk about your [son, sister, wife, father] like this?” (as some will.)
What if they quickly change the subject?
As many (most) undoubtedly will.

IMG_1295

Challenging dynamics, indeed.
And of course they are challenging. They are challenging because there is little in life that is as intimate as the loss of it, little that is as delicate and multidimensional as the living’s personal response to it. And someone else’s loss puts my own mortality in boldface. And certain cultures are squeamish about touching on painful and unphotogenic issues. And, and, and. But all these And’s don’t absolve us from the charge to counter the old modes of response with something that is authentic and broken in ourselves. Because true religion (what happens between us human beings in extremis) is supposed to be challenging. How else are we to be brought to Christ but through challenging dynamics? Challenging relationships?

IMG_1248

**

What will happen to us when we find ourselves not in a supporting role in a drama of in extremis, but when we are the lead figure? When the tragic loss is our own, not our neighbor’s? And then our parents don’t call and we feel the first heart-hardenings of despondency. And then church members appear incapable of engaging in our life so colored with mourning, and we feel the slightest simmer of resentment. When a sibling here or a sister-friend there disappears, it seems, from off the face of the earth, and we smell a small saucepan of outrage boiling on our frontal lobe.

IMG_1237

When our heart begins feeling a bit dried out, then brittle, then crusty from anger, curling up around the edges under a low grade fuming, toasting under the grill of judgment, blistering beneath the scorch of our own expectations?

What then?

We might call to mind Job, who lost livelihood and life, family and friends, all his possible supporting actors: “He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintances are verily estranged from me./ My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me.” (Job 20:13,14)

IMG_1266

And in the final chapter of his book, this man who has literally nothing left to lose, offers up a precious intangible. He offers forgiveness.

Upon seeing God clearly for the first time, (“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye seeth thee”), Job feels compelled to repent “in dust and ashes.” When he does, God announces that Job will be acceptable when Job “prays for his friends.”

Job’s trial is not complete, his refinement not perfected until he forgives and prays for and on behalf of those who have added to his misery.

He has seen God. Now he is being asked to be as God. Stripped of all former glory, ground into the dust, mocked, misjudged, condemned, abandoned.

And still worthy to become the High Priest only on condition of mercy and forgiveness:

“And the Lord turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends.”

What might that prayer have been, the one Job spoke on behalf of his friends? I suspect it would have prefigured another prayer uttered by the only true and great High Priest:

“Father, forgive us all for we know not what we do.”

IMG_1231

**

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

If you and I want to be free of the bitterness that estranges us from others and eats away at our own struggle to find joy again, we are going to have to forgive and pray for the friends who have let us down. They might not deserve it. In fact, they probably don’t. But then, we don’t forgive people because they deserve it; we forgive them because we’ve been forgiven so much by God and because we want to keep in close relationship with God.
–Nancy Guthrie, Holding on to Hope, 68

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings—never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.
—N. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 35

There’s only one thing worse than speaking ill of the dead—and that is not speaking of the dead at all.
—Anonymus

It seems impossible to me to understand the cruelty of friends and family who desert parents at such a time. But in my research I found countless couples who had horror stories to relate, such as a brother, once close, who stopped calling his sister shortly after her child died, or friends who were never heard from again after the funeral.
–H. Schiff, The Bereaved Parent, 102

Good friends are like angels. Our friends brought us God’s presence and love. They did not solve our problems, as if grief were a problem to be solved. They did not dispense pious phrases. Our closest friends allowed us to be in as much pain as we were in and did not trivialize it by trying to move us beyond it. The angel in the garden did not say to Jesus, ”There, there.” In fact, we do not know what the angel said, or if the angel said anything at all. We are quite comfortable with not having anything to say.
–G. Floyd, My Grief Unveiled

Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.
–Thomas Merton

Disallowing, Diminishing, Dismissing

IMG_1289

(These photos I took last weekend on a family outing to the medieval village of Gruyères in the foothills of the Alps, less than an hour’s drive from our home. I only realize now after writing this post, that in these shots Randall is wearing the leather bomber jacket I mention below. I also note that these days he wears a smile far more than he wears tears. But he’s never wanted to remove the stains.)

IMG_1269IMG_1270

“Mel,” my husband said as he inched toward me, an open letter in his hand, “I think I need to talk through this one with you.”

Randall was wearing a brown leather bomber jacket, the one he’d bought Parker for his senior year in high school. Throughout the five months since Parker’s death, my husband had been wearing that jacket every day; on his long drive to the office, during his lonely lunch hour walks, during 15 minute breaks hiding in his car in the underground parking lot, on that lonely, howling drive back home. By now, the leather was so speckled and discolored from tearstains, it looked like armadillo hide. A pockmarked hand-me-down from his dead son. A mourning uniform. An extra heavy skin for his skinlessness.

IMG_1231

As he stood there, I could see fresh stains on the chest of the jacket. They looked like cartoon exclamations – “Pow!” or “Bam!” – dark bullet holes all spiky round the ridges. Randall’s eyes were red, and he tugged the jacket around himself when he sat on the sofa, then held the letter in both hands, unable to read it to me.

I took the paper and saw it was from a valued friend, a person we respect and love, a good and devoted church associate from many years earlier, a person with whom Randall had been able to remain in contact despite all our geographic moves.

As Randall stared at the floor, I read the letter to myself. By the fourth sentence I knew why it had triggered tears and the feelings Randall would “have to talk through.”

IMG_1263

Our friend was writing with concerns. Some mutual associates had reported having seen Randall, and noted that Randall was “still quite sad.”

And so our friend felt to check in. And felt compelled to offer some advice.

I hear you’re still very sad, Randall, the letter began. So I feel a responsibility to ask: Are you praying? Reading your scriptures? Attending your church meetings? Have you tried fasting? When was the last time you attended the temple? Have you pondered on our Father’s plan of happiness?

IMG_1299

At this point in telling you this story, I’m already so uncomfortable, and realize I’m cornered. No matter how I continue here, I know I’ll sound petty or pouty or jerky or prickly or a dark shade of snarky.

So I’ll quick-edit to the sweet ending, three months later, when Randall and I just happened to run into this very friend at a large international conference. We’d long since folded up that letter and tucked it in a safe padded place in our hearts, but when I first sighted this friend from across the expansive hall teeming with people, there was the faintest smell of a burning memory, darn it, with its distant sizzle and tiny paisley swirls of smoke.

IMG_1255

I was recalling how Randall and I had coached each other through the compounded sorrow, reasoning that this friend must have written that letter with love and concern, maybe even desperation. This friend had probably seen others who, in the wake of tragedy, had lost their grasp on (or had pitched altogether) their faith. So our friend was intervening.

But this kind of intervention hurt. It hurt because the unsolicited counsel felt almost like a reprimand, particularly since we had been praying, reading, attending, fasting – doing all those things listed. What’s more, we’d being doing them not because anyone had prescribed them, but because our souls utterly craved them. We craved them with a wild feral hunger I find difficult if not impossible to describe.

IMG_1262

It was not the points themselves that were bad, of course. In fact, living in a way that draws you close to the Spirit is vital to strengthening the soul under the burden of grief. Vital as in a question of life and death, I’d say. No, it wasn’t the points. It was the dispensing of the points in that context that was not helpful. Because the implication was that our grief was incompatible with faith. How could we be sad – still sad – and still be faithful?

Or the reverse: How could anyone be faithful yet still be sad?

IMG_1297

What would have been a more helpful letter? Maybe something like this:

I hear you’re still very sad, Randall.
And of course you are. I’m still sad, too. Very, very sad.
Love, your broken-hearted friend.

IMG_1276

Randall thought many times of writing back to this friend, and was in fact in the process of doing so when we miraculously landed in the same building on a warm April afternoon.

In that big hall we met eyes, this friend and I, and I recognized right off that the look in that face across the room was one shadowed with something that looked like remorse. I, though, was smiling. Broadly. In a matter of seconds, my heart felt full and tender towards him. Who can explain it?

So where was my husband? I craned my neck to find Randall. He’d want to see this friend, I knew it.

“Honey!” (I blurted it too loudly for the setting,) “Randge, hon-ey!” (My heart was hopscotching and blowing shiny soap bubbles everywhere) “Look who’s here!”

IMG_1235

I corralled our friend through the crowd and right up behind Randall, who was talking with someone else, and when I whispered the friend’s name, Randall whipped right around. In an instant, their two faces simply melted.

“Please, Randall,” this friend said, head shaking, eyes cast downward, “I’m so sorry for that letter, so sorry for. . .I don’t blame you if you’re angry with me, I was so – “

“Angry? No, no. I love you.”

And I could see: My husband really meant it.

In the middle of the packed hall, the two embraced. Lots of folks were greeting and hugging in that hall, I couldn’t help but notice, but this hug right here was the most moving of all possible hugs.

IMG_1325

It was a genuinely golden moment.

IMG_1323

Yes, I know I’ve unfairly bungee-jumped the narrative from the hurt point A to the hug point Z. This is because between B and Y there’s a whole dense volume of soul-shifting and an expansion of understanding that would rip the seams out of a snug little blog.

IMG_1250

(I might refer you to Dostoyevsky, who can really get under the fingernails of forgiveness.)

IMG_1233

I can add this brief aside, though: Grief requires forgiveness. From the first minutes. And from all sides. And for many reasons. There’s no way around that truth.

**

IMG_1280

Some of us on the outside of a tragedy looking in on it might be afraid of the sheer magnitude of what we see. We think perhaps things will be better if we reduce the grief – diminish it – as we might with a three-year-old child overreacting to a stubbed toe. “There, there. You don’t need to cry. Now be a big boy, pull yourself together and go out and play again.”

Or we advise, and in advising we try to manage another’s grief, disallowing it for what it is.

Or we simply dismiss another’s agony, as in any of the following statements:

You know, it could’ve been worse
These things happen to everyone
I sent my daughter to college and it was so hard I almost died. I guess death is even worse?
I sent my son on a mission and it nearly killed me. Death must feel worse?
Well, at least he died as a baby. It would have been worse to get to know him
Remember you have to be strong
Don’t let your kids see you crying
At least you’ve got other children
Your grieving can distract your deceased from her mission
Don’t wallow; Don’t dwell on it
Buck up; Suck up
But separation is just for this life. . .
You’ll just have to. . .
I’m sure you’ll be okay. Just give it some time

(The word “just” sends the message of simplicity, smallness. Traumatic loss is neither simple nor small.)

IMG_1309

The above comments, I’ve concluded, are almost always rooted in misunderstanding.

So here is a brief note to stimulate understanding: If grief lasts more than X months or if it is neither tidy nor capable of putting on a happy face, is this a sign of moral or spiritual weakness? Is grief a sin? Is grief a sickness to be cured? Is it necessarily pathological?

IMG_1313

As a possible answer to those queries, I suggest that faith is not only entirely compatible with grief, but it can be that there in the depths of grief, there where you feel your bones ground into the roughest bedrock of grief’s valley, that faith can acquire greater density and a far brighter and more durable luminosity than you have ever before known.

IMG_1345

**

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

Mostly I have tried to avoid [grief] by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life had not fallen apart. But your life has fallen apart, the illusion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then you keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.
—A. Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 72, 73

One must grieve, and one must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief. One must refuse the easy escapes offered by habit and human tradition. The first and most common offerings of family and friends are always distractions (“Take her out”—“Get her away”— “change the scene”— “Bring in people to cheer her up”— “Don’t let her sit and mourn”) [when it is mourning one needs]).
—A. M. Lindbergh, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, 215

After great pain a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions—was it He, that bore?
And Yesterday—or Centuries before?
The Feet mechanical, go round—
Of ground or Air, or Ought,
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

—E. Dickinson, “The Hour of Lead,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 272

IMG_1348


When I try to take myself back to that time, to recall the terrible numbness that I lived in, I recoil in fear. I never want to go through anything like that again. Originally, these songs were never meant for publication or public consumption; they were just what I did to stop from going mad. . . .
When [“Tears in Heaven”] came out, it was the biggest-selling album of my entire career. . . . But if you want to know what it actually cost me, go to Ripley, and visit the grave of my son.

—Eric Clapton, Clapton: The Autobiography, 250, 254; Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor died when he fell from a fifty-third-story window in New York City.

Grief is not a hurdle that we jump over at will or a barrier that we can avoid if we are careful. After his wife’s death from cancer, C. S. Lewis recognized the all-encompassing reality of grief: “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” (A Grief Observed, 11).
—W. Simsic, Cries of the Heart, 10

My father told me, “Mother is sick, she went to the hospital and she died. That’s it—there is nothing more to say.” I was 13. He did not take me to the funeral, and I was not included as a mourner in any of the family’s rituals. As a teenager and as a young woman, I always experienced a sense of malaise for which I have no name, as I got older, I learned I was grieving for my mother. I found words for all the things I was feeling. When I finally asked my father about his behavior—he said that was the advice he was given, to simply carry on and not dwell on the loss.
—Thirty-five-year-old woman interviewed in Silverman, Never Too Young to Know, 9

Most bereaved children like to remember and talk about the deceased with friends and relatives. Unfortunately, there is a phenomenon called “the conspiracy of silence” that makes it difficult for others to talk about the dead person because they are afraid of hurting the bereaved’s feelings. The bereaved person, on the other hand, has hurt feelings when people won’t talk about the deceased with them.
—Erin Linn, 150 Facts About Grieving Children, 10

My brother came in and he said, “Ma died” and he just started crying. Then I started punching walls and stuff. I was punching all over the place. I broke one of the pictures in my room. I smashed it all over the place. I was mad. I just went around the house punching everything. Getting mad and freaking out, punching everything and just crying and stuff. I cried the whole night. I didn’t even sleep. I guess my father would have liked me not to be mad and stuff and punch things, but I couldn’t stop.
—A nine-year-old recalling his mother’s sudden death, interviewed in Phyllis R. Silverman, Never Too Young To Know, 85

IMG_1351


How do you survive as a couple? How did we work out our differences? We talked, we love each other, and we held each other and we began to appreciate that we were different. . . . Each of us was grieving on different levels. I was very sad at the beginning, and he was very rational. . . . When we went to bed, I would talk about my feelings so I could go to sleep—and then he would have it all and he couldn’t sleep. He got to the point where he said, “Don’t talk,” and then that would breed resentment in me. It was a while after Ellen died, but we got to a place where we could hear each other.

—Interviewed in Phyllis Silverman and Madelyn Kelly, A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children, 133

IMG_1352

Many people tried to make [our surviving daughter] feel responsible for Steve and me, counseled her to “take care of us” because our son had died and it was “so much worse” for us. I encouraged her to ignore this advice. . .
Yet I’ll never forget one thing she told me after many years had gone by. “I didn’t lose my brother but my parents; you were never the same after that. You got old.” That is absolutely the naked truth. Our home was broken in a way that could never be fixed or returned to the normal it was when Adam was alive. Gray hairs popped out where they hadn’t been any before. No matter how hard we all tried to be present with each other, the grief irrevocably created emotional chasms. Moments of closeness faded into the wall of pain we each had around us. Adam’s absence was huge.

—Merryl Webber, interviewed in Redfern and Gilbert, The Grieving Garden, 139

But why celebrate stoic tearlessness? Why insist on never outwarding the inward, when that inward is bleeding? Does enduring while crying not require as much strength as never crying? Must we always mask our suffering? May we not sometimes allow people to see and enter it? I mean, may men not do this?
And why is it so important to act strong? I have been graced with the strength to endure. But I have been assaulted, and in the assault wounded, grievously wounded. Am I to pretend otherwise? Wounds are ugly, I know. They repel. But must they always be swathed?
I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see
.
—N. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 26

IMG_1355

The tears came freely, and I did not attempt to refrain them when I was alone. Indeed, for over a year, there was no day I did not weep, and I did not find that tears cut me off from her. It was the tearless void that severed us at times.
––Sheldon Van Auken, A Severe Mercy, 182

Giving myself to grief proved to be hard as well as necessary. It happened in both spontaneous and intentional ways. I could not always determine the proper time and setting for tears, which occasionally came at unexpected and inconvenient moments, such as in the middle of a college class I was teaching or during a conversation. I was surprised to see how inoffensive that was to others. If anything, my display of grief invited them to mourn their own losses, and it made the expression of sorrow a normal and natural occurrence in daily life.
—G. Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 42

During one particular time of prayer, I was lying prostrate with my face on the floor. I had just said to the Lord, “Something new needs to happen here.” I meant it in terms of my relationship with God and with John-Paul [his son who died]. “I am tired of the grief, the heaviness, the loneliness, the longing, the ache in my heart.” Just then someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was my friend Ed Greey. He bent down and said, “Can I talk to you?”
I got up and followed him into the kitchen. Ed is a big, strong, man’s man kind of guy—camping, fly-fishing, a genius with his hands. He was crying. No, he was weeping intensely. He put his hands on my shoulders and said through his tears, “I don’t know what’s happening here. All I know is that God has given me a burden for you—I feel the weight of the grief and sorrow you’ve been carrying these months. And I think God wants me to tell you that he wants to lift it—the grief and the sorrow—and give you joy. And, Gregory, he wants you to know how much he loves you.”
That was it. There were the two of us, standing in the kitchen embracing one another and weeping. As I think of it I am reminded of an amazing line of poetry I heard years ago while driving in the car:
There must be men among us whom we can cry [with]
And still be counted as warriors.

—Gregory Floyd, A Grief Unveiled, 157–59

Lake Geneva as we descend to our home

Lake Geneva as we descend to our home

Grief and Grace

In this Monday's newspaper kiosk on the central Christmas market square in Strasbourg, France

Monday, December 17th. Newspaper kiosk on the central Christmas Market square in Strasbourg, France

In light of the dark events of this past week, I can’t bring myself to write or post for you what I’d promised, a colorful whirlwind travel trek through the first half of our family’s 2012 and then the shimmering coziness of our first Swiss Christmas. All that unscathed comfort and plush intactness would be grossly misplaced here.

I’ve tried for a few days, I truly have, to direct my thoughts to those tidy little post outlines I had all lined up for you, to all my lovely accompanying photographs.

IMG_0568

But I cannot. I will not. Those posts, the very thought of them, sicken me. Writing these sentences, in fact, also sickens me, and has made my hands go icy and my stomach reel, my head’s been pounding since first hearing the news, and I haven’t been sleeping. I imagine the effect has been similar for you.

IMG_0543

So why, then, not escape the horror, you and I, escape even virtually into some exotic locale, some breezy narrative I could so easily offer with its pleasant, bloodless images? Isn’t right now the perfect time to relieve ourselves from pain, not relive it?

IMG_0561

Why willingly submit ourselves to more sorrow by venturing deeper into it? Why dwell there? Why dwell here? Why dwell, as I plan to do, for many posts – for as many as I can write, which, by the way will never be enough – why dwell in the dreary and draining landscape of loss and sorrow, and why now during this, our long-awaited Season of Light?

IMG_0475

Why in our lightness dwell in the reality of another’s – a stranger’s – darkness? Why dwell in the darkness of grief and loss and agony and in a sort of loneliness that defies description when with just the turn of an inch or two, the click of a key, we can escape into merriment and togetherness and safety, where we can refresh our heavy hearts?

IMG_0473

The answers to those questions should be obvious.

But I don’t know. Maybe they’re not.

Wisdom and life experience tell me that what I’m getting at is perhaps not all that obvious.

IMG_0544

And so, without apologizing for this shift in the direction of my blog, I do want to explain my rationale for doing so.

I’m going to dwell on death, the ultimate passage. And I’m going to dwell on it for as long as it takes.

IMG_0565

This will lead to posts and, I hope, discussions with you on many related topics, including the nature of grief, the singular complications of parental grief, the necessity and problematic of communal mourning, the duration and contours and reasons beneath “complicated” grief, the outdated and perpetuated though erroneous theories versus current studies on traumatic loss and adjustment.

IMG_0537

The gamut. Or as close as I can get to “gamut” on our computer screens. Now is the time, a friend told me this weekend, to share the contents of my other book, Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward. I’m grateful for that nudge, and am glad to do be able to do so here, but hope my motivation for doing so won’t be misunderstood, that turning in my blog to that book (which is sitting in the approval stage with another publishing house), is not about promoting that book. That is certainly not my rationale for turning our conversation here toward the realms of death and other major losses.

IMG_0542

My rationale is simple: It would be morally irresponsible – even reprehensible – and untrue to my personal experience and most profound convictions to do anything but share all I know and feel about these realities.

I am a mother who has buried the child of her heart, a gorgeous son lost to sudden and tragic death.

IMG_0534

And contrary to the glib and exasperating psycho-babble sound bytes perpetuated today, I am without question defined by that loss.

IMG_0524

I am defined – all my human and spiritual interactions, my values and aspirations, how I talk and write and sing and walk and drive my kids to go sledding in the mountains and how I greet the postman and how I buy my groceries and chat with the cashier – all I am and will ever be is defined by this major, still-unfathomable loss.

IMG_0527

Whether this agrees with whatever you have absorbed from the pop psychology running through western media or not is immaterial to the fact that you, too, are – we all are – defined by what and whom we have lost.

IMG_0532

Or what we will lose.
IMG_0536

Because of this great loss in my small life, the losses of 26 families in a distant town in Connecticut has throttled my core in a way I can scarcely share in words. It’s as if everything I see and hear and touch and taste takes me to them, these families who are complete strangers to me. I see them today in their homes where they’ve stumbled upon gifts bought last week for the now-dead-but-not-yet-buried, gifts they’d hidden under the rafters.

IMG_0515

What happens when they find those gifts? Can we even imagine? How does one howl and gasp for breath when huddled under rafters? And without letting the rest of the county hear?

IMG_0518

These are the same homes from which just last Thursday they sent out annual family holiday cards, the ones with pictures of smiling children with their smiling parents, cards arriving today in other happy homes of friends and family around the world, some of whom have flown in to be close. Some of whom have remained paralyzed in their corner of the universe, unable to find a way to reach out in word or in deed. This, because they cannot themselves reach around the vastness of what has happened. Who can? Or because they want to wait until the worst is over, which, they mistakenly think – we all mistakenly think – is the funeral, after which moment they’ll try to take contact.

IMG_0579

But how? What should they say? Do? And so, some of them, they’ll do nothing. Others, thank heavens, will rush in and do anonymous, beautiful and saintly much. And still, according to studies, most onlookers will take a guess that some months down the road (always months and months too early in the process) things are back to normal.

IMG_0583

Which they never will be.

There is no more “normal”.

And that’s the clencher.

IMG_0124

These are homes where gifts sit unopened under a tree whose glinting lights seem to mock the lightlessness this mother or that father feels from head to toe. It is a corporeal eclipse whose obscurity is experienced in measures of weight, in ounces, pounds or tons: It weighs on every emerging thought like an anchor pulling to frozen tautness the buoyancy of a floundering boat. These strings of lights only add to the indecent flashes of the paparazzi lurking everywhere in the streets of a town that is now more foreign to them than the moon.

IMG_0143

The mother yanked out the string of lights that second night after sitting for hours looking into the blurry, numbing depths for three hours straight. Maybe an hour too long, her husband dared to suggest.

IMG_0127

“Please, don’t plug them back in,” she cried at her visiting mother-in-law, who only wanted to just add “the teensiest bit of festive cheer,” she said, her voice stiff and useless like an old picket fence on the beach, hedging back a tidal wave of tears.

IMG_0130

“Please,” the mother whispers, gaunt and listless from no food or drink for five days. She’s growing weak, suppressing an unfamiliar, frightening rage. “I can’t take it. I can not take the light.”

IMG_0142

Under the tree small, fancily wrapped boxes sit, a mockery, too, with a six-year old’s name which, when uttered, sends blood engorging the throat, rushing to the cheeks, draining from every limb. The taste and smell of blood. The taste and sight that awakens the mother every time she tries to lie down. She is resting on her six-year-old’s bed. But there is no rest. Not there. Not anywhere.

IMG_0114
IMG_0101
IMG_0103
IMG_0104

And there are those other boxes. She’d wrapped them with her daughter herself, the child the media has now appropriated as their own and has renamed an “angel”.
IMG_0492
IMG_0490IMG_0493IMG_0491IMG_0488IMG_0469

But she has a name.

Somebody say her name!

And everyone, please do not ever stop saying her name. She was real. She is real. We named her to pin her into this world. Her name binds her to us, to the living. She’ll always remain here.

IMG_0089

These are homes where, if I dare write this without also “appropriating” things myself, every human capacity is strained beyond anything anyone can fully imagine. What has happened – The Event – is already moving into the historical realm for those who produce and consume what’s “news.” But the truest story, the one of soul-stretching grief and vertiginous absence, is only scarcely taking seed. The families themselves, if uninitiated to tragic loss, don’t even know this. They cannot begin to envision what lies ahead…

After the funeral…
IMG_0577IMG_0548IMG_0575IMG_0520
After the holidays…
IMG_0539IMG_0477
IMG_0141IMG_0569IMG_0564IMG_0572IMG_0573

After the soothing circle of co-mourners uncoils and life must continue as it, in its cruel benevolence must. . .

The real story will last beyond the next news story. And the next. And far beyond the next. It will, in fact, outlive all of our collective attention spans placed end to end for years to come. It will last for the rest of all of the survivors’ living days and into generations.

IMG_0504

Let me pause here and be clear: In case I give the impression that I know something about this specific terror, I do not. I want to acknowledge quickly and definitively that I know only a fraction of the smallest part of what these families of the slaughtered in Newtown now know and will yet learn. The circumstances of my loss are so utterly unlike those of these losses, they should not be uttered in the same hour, let alone in the same breath. It’s dangerous to print them in the same post. This terror stands alone and brings me to my knees.

I do, however, know something about life after death, meaning the life of survivors after the sudden, violent and tragic death of a beloved, and after five years of living and researching in the depths, I feel confident I can speak with a particle of authority on the topic, if only generally. If you’ll let me.

So back to my original point. Such dizzying, catastrophic loss as we feel enshrouds us is not the sort from which we turn and easily flee. We cannot, if we’re serious about our covenant to mourn with those who mourn, walk out of this tragedy the way we walk out of a cinema after a violent movie. After entertaining ourselves with cinematographic bloodshed, the movie ends and we stride into the light, into reality. Hearts maybe still pounding, maybe blinking a bit, we shake our heads and fumble for our keys. We scan the sunny parking lot for our car. We climb in, buckle up for safety, and drive away, humming. We drive neatly away from the nightmare.

We mustn’t, if we’re serious about apprenticing as Saviors to others in this case and in any to come, drive away. What we must do is dwell longer than we think is needed and might be comfortable or convenient, right there, in the victims’ darkness. And while it’s a warm sentiment and a good start to compassion, we must not become mere beneficiaries of another’s catastrophe – “I’ll hug my children so much tighter tonight, thanks to your devastation,” – not, at least, without responding, also, in some visceral and practical way to their suffering.

And we must not, at all costs, encourage a gospel of fake fluorescent strobe lights forced into the eyes of those already blinded by horror. This is not a time to tighten our grins, clench our grips, and insist that the decimated rejoice in all things, rejoice and be merry. ‘Tis the season!

IMG_0507

That tendency, above nearly all things, is antipathy itself – anti pathos –not compassion, which feels with, and is the essence of Christianity itself because it is the nature of God Himself. It is the power of active imagination that enacts the power of the atonement. To this, to the passionate core of this painful life, is where we follow God, where He calls us to fix our hearts.

**

The images that accompany this and my coming posts are, like the pictures from my last post, taken from my life, my immediate surroundings, by me. Through my lens I invite you to see what I, a bereaved mother, see. Wherever I might be in the coming weeks, you can be sure that’s also where my camera lens will be.

But my mind will be in Newtown.

IMG_0511