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Crumbs Of Joy

Between grief and nothing, I will take grief. William Faulkner

For Valerie

I am tired of being brave. Worn out by being gracious. Fed up with being strong. Weary of navigating the world without my son.

Tonight, as the wind howls outside my window, warning us about the storm heading inland from the coast, I am tempted to match my voice to the wind’s. A primal scream, raging against Jimmy’s far too short life. A reminder to the world that today is one more day he did not live to see.

Jimmy’s death was an inside job. A single cell going rogue at conception. Dividing at an unknown, unmarked pace for the first thirteen and half years of Jimmy’s life before making its presence known through the pounding headaches and violent vomiting that drove us to the pediatrician’s office desperately demanding answers. After an emergency craniotomy removed all visible signs of the brain tumor, I spent the next two years convincing myself that the radiation and chemotherapy had mopped up whatever remained. The flaw in that lofty goal revealed itself when Jimmy’s cancer returned. “It only takes one cell,” our dear friend and physician Howard said.

As the situation became more dire during the final years of Jimmy’s life, I pictured the cancer like a wildfire spreading rapidly over the brown California hillside, driven by the Santa Ana winds. Blackening everything in its path with nowhere near enough water available to put it out. What I could never wrap my mind around was the idea that those cancerous cells were destroying the very vessel that housed them. That when they’d invaded enough space, done enough damage, that they, too, would die, just like the 21 year old boy who’d hosted them. It made no sense to me. It still doesn’t even now. But there’s no reasoning with a fire intent on decimating everything in his path.

I was numb for a long time after Jimmy died. I struggled to cry and got embarrassed when so many others could and did. For a time, I got addicted to feeling as though Jimmy was away at Stanford, out with a friend or upstairs taking a nap. Denial allowed me to avoid the pain I knew was coming. But eventually, I realized that Faulkner was right – between grief and nothing, I, too, would choose grief.

Descending into the pit was easy. I made lists of all the ways I’d been wronged, treated unfairly by the universe. Argued why it shouldn’t have been our family, this son. Offered up names of those who should have ben taken instead. I created a mental recording of my mistakes, my failures, the ways I had let Jimmy down and played it over and over like an iPod playlist on repeat. No grace proffered, no quarter given. Just a dark, distorted view of our days together with all the light removed.

Jimmy, shirtless, sitting at the kitchen table with his hands flat in a cookie sheet with pudding in it. There's pudding on his hands, arms and face, and he is laughing.Eventually I had to acknowledge that Jimmy’s death could not be undone. I could only find a way to make a life in the ruins of this one. Slowly but surely some of my rage and a bit of my resentment began dissolving like sugar in a glass of warm water. I started hearing Jimmy’s voice, prompting me to be gentle, reminding me to laugh, nudging me to be kind. I stopped “shoulding” myself, and just let myself be. And like glimmers of light, the sweet memories started returning. Jimmy in a onesie covered with ducks, his chubby legs bursting out of the bottom, rising up in the middle of the family room as he taught himself to walk. Jimmy writing letters on a cookie sheet covered with chocolate pudding. the sticky brown sweetness covering more of him than the pan. Jimmy jogging backward in a cold, rainy 10K race, a grin covering his faced as he urged me to “go faster, Mom. Go faster!”

I search for these crumbs now, grateful for the moments of joy they bring me. Jimmy’s death made it easy to focus on what was wrong, what went wrong, what I did wrong. His kindness and fierce desire to live inspired me to embrace the life he didn’t get to live. To acknowledge the imperfections and flaws and search for the beauty that remains. To long for my son and know that he is here with me still, encouraging me to see the pain and loss and reach out for the joy anyway.

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