Judging a Book By Its Cover: A Bit of the Backstory

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How does a book cover like this happen?

First, you live the story.  You move with your partner’s professional positions to several different countries, raising a family all along that bump-‘n’-swerve road, picking up languages and friends and a strange mashup of social codes on the fly, keeping a flimsy grip on your sanity some of the time, discovering depths of experience and breadth of  understanding most of the time, acquiring the kind of training that stretches and reshapes you and galvanizes your scraggly gaggle of a family, welding you to each other, to humanity, to this planet.

This life fits you. You fit it. So much so, you can’t imagine anything else, and you fling yourself again and again into the swirl, even forgetting to wash your hair the week of that sunny Sunday morning when your friend, Parson School of Design student Erin, calls up, singing, “The light’s good today, guys! Want to get some candid fam shots by Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower on our way to church?”

You’re busy writing all these years, of course, because that is what you do. (Far more than you wash your hair, if you really have to know my grooming habits). You’re writing about this life and how it yanks and pumices and oils your soul.  And then you discern, as you approach a decade of this nomadic life, a distinct inner voice that says you need to get this written into a book.  So you begin capturing the first phase of your nomadic family spiel, the move from Broadway to Norway. “Now is the time to write this story,” the voice persists. “You won’t have another chance like this.  Capture your early family right now, in this unfiltered light.”

So you obey the nudge, and you sit and write that book.  On a big Norwegian table placed squat in the middle of your Paris apartment, you sit.  You write so much you feel frustrated because, zut!, Paris is out there! Why crouch with your back to it, writing? (Because doesn’t everyone in Paris do just this? Crouch somewhere writing while the tourists stride around town?)

A band of motley literati friends critiques your pages.  You change things, change them again, change again and again and realize your own written voice sometimes gets on your nerves. You need a major break from yourself. You need to pack that voice into industrial-sized envelopes and get it into someone else’s ears. You send these fat envelope babies to a bunch of fine publishers with offices in big American cities.  Seventeen of them.  Even before you lick the stamps, you’re feeling like a fool, not to mention a misfit in the face of those distant, hard-edged cities and their mysterious publishing fortresses.  They loom and intimidate, those fortresses, leaving you sleepless and self-flagellating, needing as treatment the equivalent of fity hour-long heated eucalyptus oil full body rubs of reassurance.

Not a one of the seventeen publishing fortresses opens their drawbridge.

All the rejection letters are variations on one polite theme: “We wish you only the very best in your future writing endeavors.”

Well, see? What did I tell everyone?  

So, you tuck that manuscript away, way in the bottom of one of the 400+ boxes you’ve packed to leave your several years in Paris for a new life chapter in Munich.

And the next week, three days into a vacation in the States, and one day after visiting your eldest at his first college dorm, you get a phone call.

That call sends your story – all stories  you’ve ever known or written or told – into a screeching spiral which in its blackwash vortex sucks the air out of the universe. Your story – the old one pinned on paper and crammed in the bottom of a cardboard box, or the new story that your body writes as it crawls through coldening tar – feels massively irrelevant.  There is no more story.  There are no more stories.  There is no use in telling. There is nothing. Everything you now know is unwritable. What remains?  All there is, is loss.

**

Four years later, you’re quietly aware that even though you now live in Singapore where the air is as humid as living in the drying cycle of your dishwasher, there is somehow air to breathe. The cosmos has stopped screeching, reeling and jerking, and in soundless streamlets it has begun to fill back up with meaning. Not the meaning it had before. But meaning far more dense, immutable, textured like a freight rope lassoed around the underside of reality.  Though at times inexplicable, there is a story happening, a weighty narrative materializing as if it were writing itself, drawing you onward.  You write it out, riding it out, the story, and as you do, you move with it.

Your husband, the one you feared at times wouldn’t survive the vortex or its ghostly post-ravage landscape, is regaining traction.  He can laugh and joke and walk upstairs without getting winded.  Then one day, from out of the blue, a noted scholar contacts him, asking him to be one of several subjects for her book on lives like yours; nomadic but anchored lives that circle and recircle the globe.

He agrees. He does the interview. The scholar publishes her book, Cultural Agility, and it quickly becomes a seminal work in the field.

Wise and brilliant friends are constantly encouraging you to keep going, keep writing your stuff, keep knocking on fortress doors. When one such friend suggests you might tap-tap on the door of a publishing house that is just that – a house or a cottage literally, and not a fortress – you end up sitting in the CEO’s kitchen. The man is accessible, responsive and committed to producing your work.  He doesn’t just want to publish it (although he’s eager to do that); he wants to discuss it.  He even wants (get this) to take part in editing it himself.  You Skype at all hours from your opposing sides of the planet, discussing both the literary endeavor as well as the business aspects of such a book project.

“You’ll need to do some things,” Mr. CEO publisher says in one of countless Skype sessions, “which might not be comfortable at first.  Like, you’ll need to begin a blog.

Panic sits on your shoulders like a silverback gorilla in full heat, and you say something to the effect of, “Other options, sir? Like, let’s see. . . swimming around the whole of Australia? Through shark infested waters? In a Lady Gaga suit make of raw sirloin?” You’ve fought long and hard to reenter the world. But enter the virtual world?  That kind of exposure? Can you do that and not disintegrate? You begin chanting an Homeric epic saga about all the reasons blogs (and perhaps publishing altogether) are not for you.

“Start a blog right now,” kindly CEO sir says. “No later than next week.  Right when you begin your move from Singapore. And,” he adds, “I’m sending a contract right now.  Get me your finished manuscript in six months.”

Soon you have all these blog-followers, and you are carefully thriving in that connectivity, and these follower-friends begin chiming in on the progress of the book. (They’re even bossy about designing the cover. They simply take over.)

The scholar who quoted your husband in her book? She’s now quoted on the cover of yours.  Her blurbs are enough to make you run for cover, (neither you nor your own children would ever call you a “role model for all parents”), but you’re hoping everyone will overlook the endorsements’ effusiveness and focus on that darling little ISBN tattoo.

And this time around your twelve-year-old takes your photo for the back cover. For which event, thank goodness, you decide to wash your hair.

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Blogueuse Relooking

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Which means, roughly, that I’m a female blogger (French: blogueuse), and I’m going to spruce things up (French: re-looking).

I thought it only fair to warn you.  Don’t freak out.  You’ll still recognize me.

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Next time you visit here, you won’t find the lugubrious blue-gray background, the flashy hot yellow-to-vermillion-to-hot yellow strip along the top, the calendar and Goodreads list and other cluttery widgets. Maybe you won’t even find my come-hither grin on the left hand side of the screen, I’m still deliberating.  (Although please, I do sincerely want you to come hither. Or, uh, come here.)

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What I hope you’ll find is a brighter, fresher page – so subtly tucked, so gently stretched, with a lift and a plump and still all the warmth and candor and depth and spirit I hope you have come to expect when you click for a visit.

Why all of a sudden this relooking? Age, quite frankly.  This blog is coming up on One Year Old.  In blog years, I think that’s over the hill.

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But more salient than the age thing, I’m making a shift.  We have spent two solid months of posting exclusively on my book entitled Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward.  As you know, but as I should probably explain to newcomers, that volume is a manuscript born out of our family’s ongoing experience with catastrophic loss. I’ve written at length here at the blog and elsewhere about the realities of traumatic loss, acute grief and the droning underscore of absence that have been our family’s journey since July 2007.  That was when our eldest, Parker, then 18 years and 5 months old, lost his life while attempting at saving another’s.

While I think a lot and deeply about the experience of loss, (my own and others), and while I’ve researched and written extensively about what major and permanent loss means in our lives, (both intimate and communal), it was the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school that flipped a major switch in me.  I simply had to post on only this topic for a while. I’m certainly not done with it – neither with my own grief and burden of absence, nor with writing about it – but I find it necessary to shift this blog’s focus to other topics for a season.

But first, here is where I want to thank you, my readers.  Some of you have come here loyally without posting comments publicly. Instead, you have written to my private email address.  I need you to know that you have taught me life-altering things in your tender and stark messages.  You’ve confided sacred things in me.  You’ve sent, a few of you, pages of  straight-from-the-gut writing, and I have read them with respect. It is hard to know how to thank you enough.

Others of you have posted comments for all of us, mostly strangers to one another, to sift through. Not easy, especially when the topic singes nerve-endings and cuts right down to the marrow.  I honor your experiences and appreciate your trust in sharing such personal treasure in a public forum.

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As I re-look the blog to something slightly cheerier and hopefully easier on your eyes, I hope the content will follow suit. You know already that my book, Global Mom:A Memoir goes to press. . .GOES TO PRESS?. . .(goes to, gulp, press). . .tomorrow. . .and will be in your neighborhood bookstore (and on Amazon) as of June 1.  Between now and then, I want to return to posting from that manuscript. I will be picking up from where we left off ages ago (does it feel like ages ago to you, too?), in Versailles on our way to Croissy-sur-Seine, a village outside of Paris, where we lived for a while.

Then on to five other addresses/languages/cultures/homes.

Here’s what you can anticipate over the next few months:

-More frequent but shorter posts, mostly excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir. (I’ll try to post 3x a week)

-Lots of photos from my archives (which, of course, will not be included in the printed book. So you get the exclusive illustrated version!)

-Behind the scene peeks into the process of writing and editing this book; what it’s been like working with an exceptional publishing/design/editing team in a cutting-edge boutique publishing house; you’ll meet some of my online writing/cheerleader friends (so you might meet yourself); and you’ll get an inkling of how my family has been (stupendous!) through this all.

-Glimpses into what’s happening now in the real Global Mom’s world, namely: what does spring in Switzerland really look, smell, sound and taste like?

-And with all that, some extra fun travel in and around central Europe.  I envision a little Poland rather soon, some more Italy, probably some Austria, undoubtedly a whole lot of France. I’ll take plenty of pictures and even video footage.

-Speaking of video footage, I’ll be adding much more of it, and will link to You Tube.  I want you and others that you tell about this blog and the book, to get to know Global Mom on the road.

-And then, of course, anything else that happens to pop up on the journey.

This should be so much of fun! Thanks to each of you for being here and for making my world an abundant place worth living in.  With you, I want to dig into it with both hands,  my head on straight, and my heart wide open.

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Praying Like a Good Sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do their lives matter?

Does my life matter?

Does life matter?

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

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

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

Love Rocks

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

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

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

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

One might say you’re then out for good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset at Monkey Rock

Sunset at Monkey Rock

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

Succor and Mourn; Console and Comfort

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On this Christmas day, one thought overwhelms all others in my mind:

He came.

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Knowing that God came, that He descended from His heaven to our heaviness – and below it – fills and unburdens my heart.

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The truth that He descends alongside all humankind’s sorrows including my own bears up my grief…

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Lightens it…

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…Shining light into its hidden corners, crowding out absence.

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He came, as He promised He would.

“I will not leave you comfortless,” He promises today. “I will come to you.” (John 14:18)

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So the pattern is clear: If we seek to share in His comfort, if we long to mediate God’s love for others, then we must come to them.

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Today I bow low in thanks to a God Who came…

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And to all those who, as mediators of His holy and healing presence, have come to us.

**

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

**

The original meaning of succor is to run or dash to someone’s aid. How soon we go, how easily we drop everything to help, says something about our esteem for the person in need. Zeal sends one message; hesitation another. The best time and most eloquent way to succor is to do so when need arises. After all, service is seldom convenient.
—Wayne Brickey, Making Sense of Suffering, 104

A physician who lost one of his own children says that before his loss, when he would hear of a child’s death, he would send a card; now he sends himself.
—Joyce and Dennis Ashton, Jesus Wept, 233

To show compassion means to share in the suffering “passion” of another. Compassion understood in this way asks more from us than a mere stirring of pity or a sympathetic word.
To live with compassion means to enter others’ dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer. Compassion holds us back from quick, eager explanations when tragedy meets someone we know or love.
–Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 67

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One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.
—Sophocles, quoted in To My Soul Mate, ed. Gary Morris, 59

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Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear—
And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?
And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.
Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.
Oh, He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
—William Blake, “On Another’s Sorrow,” The Poetical Works of William Blake, 75–76

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I am not thinking clearly. But I am thinking. I am trying to think.
Our friends arrive shortly after 2 a.m., in one car. Susan and Ron, Jeanne and Dan and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Lily whom Ray and I have known since her birth. When they step inside, and embrace me—it’s as if I have stepped into a violent surf.
Though our friends remain with me until 4 a.m. most of what we said to one another has vanished from my memory. Our friends will tell me that I behaved calmly and yet it was clear that I was in a state of shock. I can remember Jeanne on the phone, in the kitchen, making calls to funeral homes. I can remember my astonishment that a funeral home might be open at such an hour of the night. I can remember explaining to my friends how Ray died––why Ray died-––the secondary infection, the fact that his blood pressure plummeted, his heartbeat accelerated––these gruesome words which I have memorized and which, even now, at any hour of the they day, along with my final vision of Ray in the hospital bed, run through my mind like flashes of heat lightning.
My friends are extraordinary, I think. To come to me so quickly in the middle of the night as they’ve done.
For the widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling. The widow inhabits a nightmare-tale and yet it is likely that the widow inhabits a benign fairy tale out of the Brothers Grimm in which friends come forward to help. We loved Ray, and we love you.
Let us help you. Ray would want this.

–Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story, 80, 81

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So many other relatives . . . and even close friends—stepped forward and were there for us when we needed them so desperately. . . . These are the people who went with us to the morgue; they brought back personal belongings from the accident scene; they selected caskets; they phoned people, made food, drove us where we had to go. . . . We will never forget all they did for us.
—Ellen Mitchell, Beyond Tears, 57

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One compassionate gaze or one affectionate handshake can substitute for years of friendship when a person is in agony. Not only does love last forever, it need only a second to be born.
–Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 72

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No man is an island, entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
—John Donne, “Meditation XVII”

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It is natural, in sorrow, to be consoled if a friend shares our grief. . . .
First, sorrow weighs one down; it is a load which, of course, one tries to lighten. When therefore a person sees others joining him in sorrow, it feels as if they are helping him carry the load, trying to lessen its weight on him; so the burden weighs on him less heavily, just as in the case of carrying physical weights.
—St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Eileen Geller, “The St. Thomas Guide to Surviving Grief,” Consoling Grace

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What is the difference between grieving and mourning? Mourning has company.
-Roger Rosenblatt, Kayak Morning, 39

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If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
—Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, 331

The baby was tiny and perfect and purplish. His body showed no clues to what went wrong. We named him Hamish. It is a name we had always liked but was a bit too outlandish even for intrepid baby-namers like us (who wants a child to spend the rest of his life saying “it’s Scottish for James. And it’s a long ‘a’, pronounced HAY-mish”). After the delivery (barely one push) we held our sweet little baby while our wonderful doctor sat in the hospital room with us for almost an hour. Just talking. And listening. He didn’t hurry out and make the nurses deal with it, as doctors are wont to do. It’s hard to say how much that meant to me.
—Jennie Hildegard Westenhaver, “Pictures of the Dead,” Beehive and Birdnest (blog)

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Before you know what kindness really is,
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

—Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”

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Do not assume that she who seeks to comfort you now, lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. Her life may also have much sadness and difficulty, that remains far beyond yours. Were it otherwise, she would never have been able to find these words.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Say Hello, 4

A simplistic sounding answer to the question of how to help families face tragedy is that, paradoxically, there are no “right things to say,” nor is there even a need to say anything that speaks of the intellect at a time like this. The need is for sincere human love, reaching in its own unique, spontaneous, fumbling way with a “built-in” message: “Though I don’t fully understand how you feel, I care enough to come to you and to try to share your hurt with you as much as I can, and as much as you will allow me to at this time. I’ll leave you alone if I get any vibrations from you that you prefer to be alone, yet I’ll leave with a readiness to come back when you give the signal you want me to come back.”
—Vern Albrecht, quoted in DeAnna Edwards, Grieving: The Pain and the Promise, 130

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The reality of grief is the absence of God—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away” [Lord Byron]. . . .
That’s why immediately after such tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—not many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God . . . Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.
And that’s what [you] understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.
—William Sloane Coffin Jr, quoted in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 58;
Sloane, a reverend, standing before and addressing his congregation after losing his own child.

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The test, then, of our soul’s greatness is rather to be sought in our ability to comfort and console, our ability to help others, rather than in our ability to help ourselves and crowd others down in the struggles of life.
—John A. Widstoe and Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 265

She used to rock me in her arms, consoling my pain, but not only consoling, for she seemed to take my sorrow to her own breast, and I realized that if I had not been able to bear the society of other people, it was because they all played the comedy of trying to cheer me into forgetfulness. Whereas Eleanora said:
“Tell me about Deidre and Patrick,” and made me repeat to her all their little sayings and ways, and show their photos, which she kissed and cried over. She never said, “Cease to grieve,” but she grieved with me, and, for the first time since their death, I felt I was not alone.
—Isadora Duncan, quoted in McCracken and Semel, A Broken Heart Still Beats, 218;
Duncan’s two young children, Deidre and Patrick, drowned in the Seine.

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We need people who most sensitively mediate God’s love for us.
—Wayne Simsic, Cries of the Heart, 12

When our pain is so deep and real that we can’t see or feel anything else, we need the witness of the saints about us; saints who, on the basis of their own experience of life’s pain, can assure us that though our pain is true, it is not the ultimate truth. In all our pain, and beyond all our pain, always is the beauty, truth, and love of God in Jesus Christ, which never dies, and which will never allow us to die.
—Jeffery J. Newlin, “Standing at the Grave,” in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 130

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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before:
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
—Sonnet 30, The Riverside Shakespeare, 1754–55

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Or what we will lose.
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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Which they never will be.

There is no more “normal”.

And that’s the clencher.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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”.
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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.

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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…
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After the holidays…
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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.

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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!

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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.

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La Tempête de 1999

I have just propped my feet up on my desk and am leaning back in my comfy leather chair before I begin tick-tick-ticking away at my laptop. The moon is still high at 5:30 a.m., the boys are still safe and soundly asleep, the house stone silent, and I know I can get in a good 45 minutes’ uninterrupted work  before they stir and the morning routine begins.  It’s a pregnant moon, I watch for her hidden pulse beneath the mottled ivory skin so ripe, taut, engorged with fecundity, and through my open window I hear the peep-peep from the garden of the first morning birds.  A copper-colored squirrel flits up a tree past leaves that hang gracefully, their changing colors a muted swath of fabric that barely flutters as the night stirs into morning with one stroke of a breeze. No, hardly a breeze, really, more like a breath. I like the window open at this hour just for a brisk shot of chill, and I like that I can close it off, too, and that it’s not yet legitimately cold, and with those dozy thoughts I burrow into old photos to add to the post I am composing about a blissful birth in a cozy château setting almost as silent as the one I am sitting in as I write.  Yes, I recall, circling my neck once to loosen shoulders, that birth was also under a full moon.  Magical.  I take a sip of warm peppermint tea, watch the steam rise from cup, let it soak my face a bit like a momentary sauna.  Dry air today, I think to myself, might need to set up the humidifier and, uh-oh, apply extra hand cream.

On the paired side of the earth:

“Fast, faster, c’mon, faster! Get them up here, faster!!”

The nurse wearing green scrubs and an orange headlamp is yelling, motioning down the lightless corridor on the eighth floor of New York City’s Langone Medical Center, waving frantically to get the team of EMT personnel and a trailing firefighter into the delivery room where Julia Alemany is in the pitch of labor. “Right here, guys!” the nurse yanks them through the door, “Hurry, faster. Who’s got lights?”

Doron, Julia’s husband, is crouching next to his wife, who has had her hands curled over her eyes and against her forehead for two hours now, while Hurricane Sandy pounds demonically on the walls of this building, shaking it, slashing at it with wild whipping vacuum-like winds, hurling branches and metal scraps against the windows, yowling like nature herself is giving birth to the devil. Julia writhes on her side, panting, crying out, “I can’t do his anymore, someone help me, heeelp me. Where’s my doctor? Dor, what’s gonna – ?” and she lets out a low, guttural moan, clenching her belly with both bare arms.

The nurse jumps as something crashes into the closest window, rattling it in its frame, cracking the glass in a splintering thunderbolt pattern she can see when the real lightning outside explodes in one brief smack.  The rain and wind flog and lash, and Doron, normally a calm guy, is thinking how this feels like being trapped in the bottom of a huge electric mixer, nightmarish, impossible. He tells himself he will not lose his cool, he will not lose his cool. “’Kay, babe, we’re going to make it, Jules, we’ll make it hon, just stay with me, we’ll be alright, they say the pain guy’s on his way.”

Doron looks at the nurse, who shakes her head once. No sign of an anesthesiologist anywhere, although she’d called for him on the P.A. system when the power was still up almost an hour ago. “You’re doing great, Julia,” the nurse says, stepping closer, putting her hand on the nape of Julia’s neck and stroking the woman’s sweaty dark hair from where it’s gluey in her collar, “We’re here with you. We’ll figure this one out. Hey, what happened to the firefighter who was supposed to get me some li – “

The firefighter runs in, his red and silver industrial-sized flashlight now cuts a white tunnel through the shadows, and just behind him comes another man wheeling a portable I.V. He’s carrying a small suitcase of equipment, too, and Doron leans closer to Julia, his voice suddenly a register higher, “Okay, Jules, we’re cookin’, doll, he’s here. Pain guy’s in the house, folks, pain guy’s in the house.”

Six glowing cell phones, a red and silver flashlight and four minutes later, the needle is in Julia’s lower back. Doron puts his hand on her forehead. “Epidural will kick in, they say, in about five, six more contractions. They want to know if you can handle being moved? Can you move?”

On a medical sled, the EMT and medical teams carry Julia down eight flights of unlit stairs with Doron, now in his own headlamp and holding three phones aloft, leading the way, looking back up the stairwell with every step, barking at the men to “be careful with my baby men, just be careful.” The firefighter’s shining his flashlight right on the exit where an ambulance is waiting to take them to Mount Sinai. The moment they open the door, sheer force of wind suction yanks at everyone’s shoulders like a riptide yanks at your legs, and the team has to steady itself ­– “Hold on, guys, hold it, slowly,” – as they inch against the gale while someone swings wide the two back doors of the idling vehicle. “Watch the curb!” someone yells, “Keep her flat!” another snaps,  “Jules, are you with me? Can you feel it working now?” Doron’s face is wet with hot perspiration and rain that is not falling, but slicing sideways.

Julia nods, but says nothing.  Her eyes are firmly closed to the pandemonium and the icy gales that rage all around her. She’s saving energy by concentrating on nothing but the thudding of her heart as it ricochets all over inside her ribcage. Doron tucks a blanket up to her chin just as she is hoisted into the ambulance, and climbs in right after her, reaching for her hand as the sirens start whirring.

In spite of the half tree that falls across the hood as the ambulance approaches Mount Sinai, in spite of Hurricane Sandy, in spite of the devil of nature being born in New York City and up and down the eastern seaboard that night, at 12:48 a.m., Micha Alemany-Markus is born to grateful though exhausted parents, Julia and Doron.

And about that same hour, in a distant time zone, I sip on my third cup of peppermint tea while listening to birdsong and stretching my arms to the ceiling before pasting in my last sunny photo of the painless April birth of a little prince in a castle in Versailles, France.

**

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”—Albert Einstein

**

Only once in my life have I experienced anything that could be put in the same genus as Hurricane Sandy.  That storm was called Lothar or La Tempête de 1999, and was equivalent to a category one hurricane, mowing with 80 kilometer winds a path of devastation across northern Europe, plowing right through Versailles, right down our street.   A dramatic event, an historic event, a sorrowful event as fifty-three lives were lost, homes were demolished, historic treasures were ripped out by the root (10,000 rare trees in the Gardens of Versailles) or ripped to shreds (wings of the castle, windows, artifacts), and the equivalent of six billion dollars’ damage.

Still, its effects were miniscule compared with Sandy’s awesome ruin. In fact, I hesitate even printing “Lothar” and “Sandy” on the same screen, they are so far from each other in terms of magnitude of human and economic loss.

Lothar sent us flying from our beds that Christmas Day night, running frantically through our house, gathering our young children into a central and protected place, racing to the windows and battening down shutters to be sure that the old thin glass was not going to rattle itself into shards. There was debris and there were whole chunks of things – trash cans, shingles off roofs, shutters, a child’s bicycle – sailing through the air. I remember an image: the enormous tree in our neighbor’s yard was wrenching and jerking so violently, that its branches, normally a dozen meters from our home, scratched within centimeters of where I stood on the other side of glass.  Death’s claws, I thought. How close they came.

But Lothar lasted a mere two hours.  We actually returned to our beds and fell back asleep.  The next morning, Randall and I kept the shutters locked and let the children, who’d been up those two hours, sleep longer in the still and the darkness, then we awoke them and went about getting ready to go to church.  When we opened our front door, this is what we saw.

That day, we walked to church, as did most of our congregation. If their cars had not been damaged in the maelstrom, they couldn’t drive them for all the downed power lines and tree graveyards that just the evening before had been lovely manicured roads.

But here’s my point. Because I lost nothing in that storm – no loved ones, no property, no livelihood, not even more than two hours of sleep – to me Lothar was a single event, a story to tell one day in the future with a couple of impressive pictures, almost a titillating narrative, but not a life-changing landmark by any means. I have few vivid memories of that spot in time, in fact, beyond what I have shared here.

Others, though, people very much like me, people I have thought of since, will always consider December 25th 1999 the day their life split, the moment everything stopped. They lost the most precious things – a husband, wife, father, mother, sibling, child – to two unpredicted hours of a freak climate tantrum, and then, in the ruin, had to dig themselves out.

To take that reality one step further, as I sit and type this, not only are people climbing out of Sandy’s wreckage, but others are bracing themselves for it.

And to take that reality one step further, as I finish this paragraph, this one you are reading, someone else, and it could be anyone, and it could be myself, is going to be visited not by a category one hurricane, but by a metaphorical Sandy.  Or a Lothar.  They will get the test results back from their doctor. They’ll answer a phone call at an odd hour. They’ll see a strange, unapproachable look in their spouse’s eyes.  They might be driving or sitting or running or singing in the shower and with no warning, a storm will descend that will rip out all the precious plantings they have cared for so tenderly, counted on so faithfully. That is the forever moment, the instant that divides their life into Before and After.

What does one do with all this? What do we do with one another’s losses? How does another’s desolation impact my life? Who owns a tragedy? Whose loss is it anyway? What will assuming some small part in another’s tragedy bring to me, anyway? Will it weigh me down, drive me to unfiltered paranoia, eat up my private pile of joy?  How do I reconcile the fact that I walked that Aftermath Sunday morning in December 1999 to church in heels – right past, by the way, the neighborhood château where our Luc would be born five months later – that I minced in a skirt around toppled trunks, that I climbed side saddle over enormous root balls, that I escaped the scathe and the scythe while someone else, a victim because of a few chance centimeters, did not? And how does my living evidence this knowledge, that it is often scant centimeters – not worthiness nor predestination nor entitlement nor good fortune nor anyone’s inalienable right – that separates those flattened by tragedy from those who walk over or around or beside it?

**

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” –Andrew Boyd

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