For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I settled in on our friends’ comfy couch, unsure of how well I would handle reliving this long ago trip. I took a shaky breath as the first slide appeared on the screen – Dan, Jimmy, Molly and me standing on Hilltop Lookout Point, halfway between Christchurch and Akaroa in 2004. Our first trip to to New Zealand. Jimmy was twelve-and-a-half, Molly had just turned seven.

Bob and Marcy were heading to New Zealand later this year and wanted to hear stories and advice about where we went and what we did. I hadn’t given much thought to how hard it might be for me yet if I was going to face my fears about seeing these photos, Bob and Marcy were the right people to do it with. One of Dan’s closest friends, Bob had been one of the first people to reach out after Jimmy’s brain cancer diagnosis, having already begun the research on who we could talk to and where we could find more information about what we were facing. The two of them stayed close, not just during Jimmy’s eight years of treatment, but after he died, unafraid to say Jimmy’s name, share their memories and make it clear how often they thought of him, even now ten years after his death.

A few more clicks, and the four of us were on the dock overlooking Akaroa Harbor. The same spot where Molly would scatter a vial of Jimmy’s ashes ten years later, just months after his death from brain cancer.

I couldn’t help chuckling to myself at the kids’ sense of style back then. Jimmy all sports in a Stanford Cardinal t-shirt, black Nike running shoes and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap worn backwards. A newly purchased Maori bone white fishhook necklace around his neck, chosen because it was said to bring prosperity, good luck, health and safe travel over water. A light gray basketball sweatshirt for the boat ride. Molly in a pink t-shirt with a skater on it, the sleeves carefully cuffed to just below her elbow, light tan corduroy pants with pink embroidery near the hems, wind-tousled uncombed hair and a mouthful of baby teeth. She, too, wore a newly purchased necklace – a Paua shell (New Zealand abalone) teardrop surrounded by silver beads.

I held my breath as I watched the next few images scroll by, willing myself to stay present and listen to Dan’s narration. Memories of the places we went flooded in along with the food we ate and the activities we engaged in. What a gift to find I remembered so much. How painful to know that the four of us could never travel together again.

Breathe, I told myself. Stay present and soak in this trip, these joy-filled days, your son. I inhaled, feeling the sharp edge of Jimmy’s absence and exhaled … what exactly? Gratitude? Sure, but the word wasn’t powerful enough to combat my still simmering outrage over the way the universe had betrayed me, had betrayed us, by allowing Jimmy to die. Happiness that we’d had this magical time together? Sure, but that ephemeral emotion was hard to hold onto. Acceptance … could that be what I was exhaling? I shut my eyes, took another deep breath and slowly let it out. Yes. Acceptance that Jimmy was gone, that these days would not come again. His absence would never be okay, but I had finally come to terms with the brutal actuality of his death.

I lost myself in more pictures, drinking in every moment of the trip. Jimmy and Molly sitting on either side of the 12-meter-high salmon balancing on its tail at the entrance to the town of Rakaia. Molly holding a piece of floating glacier on Tasman Lake near Mount Cook, her royal blue sweatshirt sleeves pulled down over her hands to protect them from the cold. Dan bungy jumping off the Kawarau bridge near Queenstown. It had been Jimmy’s idea to go, but after standing on the launching point, 43 meters above the river, he couldn’t get himself to take the plunge.

I remembered watching Jimmy on that platform, hoping and fearing he’d be able to convince himself to dive off. Focusing the camera on him with Molly next to me cheering him on. Dan and our dear friend Howard encouraging him from the water below. The kindness of the staff about his change of heart. The way they refunded our money and encouraged Jimmy to come back when he was ready to try again. An invitation he would have taken had his life turned out differently. A jump Molly took ten years later, terrified but determined to do what her brother hadn’t gotten the chance to do. She scattered some of his ashes that day, too.

For ten years, I’ve mostly avoided looking at our family pictures. When I need one for a piece I’m writing, I go into iPhoto, grab the image and close the application. Even though I know intellectually that our trips are forever consigned to memory, regardless of whether Jimmy had lived or died, I couldn’t bear to see our innocent happiness. Had our friends not asked to see the photos in preparation for their own trip to New Zealand, I would never have known that the joy of those days remained.

To accept the soul-crushing reality of Jimmy’s death deep in my bones has freed me to celebrate that he was also here for twenty-one years. Years when we packed in adventures, laughter and lots of silliness. We lived fully into those moments. Because Jimmy died, I had forgotten the best parts of our lives together.

This acceptance has allowed Jimmy to come back at all ages. He is mine now in ways he has never been. The serrated edge of sadness over the way his story ends is still there, but the pain no longer casts a pall over everything. There’s a calmness coursing beneath it now, born of embracing the entire arc of his life, not just the end of it.

I thought it would break me to remember. To look at our life long before we found the tumor. To relive our inside jokes, his flashes of stubbornness, how much alike we were. But instead of breaking me, revisiting those memories has brought a fresh form of joy.

Maybe the only way back to wholeness is to “take it all apart” as Cheryl Strayed says. To return to the past and examine Jimmy’s entire life, brick by brick, then rebuild it in a new way. To face this terrible thing that happened but refuse to let it define or destroy what came before we knew the tumor was there or the time we had after we found it. To heal the wound by accepting the reality of the loss that created it.

I’ve rewatched the slide show of our trip several times since that night, remembering more each time. I feel lighter now, freer to focus on the fun we had. As I sit staring at the photos, flooded with memories, I feel Jimmy take his place next to me. He’s been here all along, I realize, patiently waiting for me to embrace the truth of his departure, waiting for me to let all of him return home.

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  • Rebecca says:

    Thank you for this beautiful meditation on gaining freedom and connection with Jimmy.

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