He had the gift of stopping time & listening well so that it was easy to hear who we could become and that was the future he held safe for each of us in his great heart. Brian Andreas
Words became weapons after Jimmy died. Conversations with anyone but my most trusted people became something to avoid at all costs. I walked around with my head down avoiding eye contact, too devastated to look up, even at night to locate the star the Children’s Cancer Association had named in Jimmy’s memory.
Outings to the grocery store or Molly’s high school softball games morphed into military maneuvers. Spotting a familiar face in the frozen foods aisle and hiding out behind the produce cart stacked high with bananas until the coast was clear. My husband Dan and me positioning ourselves behind the fence in center field, using the dog as camouflage, a ruse for why we had to sit as far away from the crowd as possible.
Well-meaning parents hunted us down, cornered us in our red canvas lawn chairs. It’s so good to see you out. We heard the news about Jimmy. We’re so sorry. And then, the inevitable … how are you doing?
How am I doing? My son is dead. How do you think I’m doing?!?
I quickly discovered that few people really wanted an answer, which was helpful since I couldn’t begin to form one. My brain felt like the Laffy Taffy the kids used to love when they were little. Sticky and gummy, my words buried under the bright neon-colored strands. So I resorted to making what I hoped were expressive murmuring noises, resisting, even in my grief-induced haze, the urge to wound the other person for asking.
When my firstborn died, my ability to make small talk died, too. I learned how much words matter, how big they are, how important. The way some would soothe or comfort or make me feel less alone. The way others could rip the thin bandage right off my wounded heart.
Barely able to get myself dressed some days, I found myself caretaking other people’s reactions to my boy’s death. Their sadness, their guilt, their fear, their regret. The worst situations were those where the other person didn’t know. Watching helplessly as the conversation marched down the path leading to how many children do you have? or What’s Jimmy up to these days? Shock, chagrin, stunned silence .. it was mine to manage with as much kindness as I could muster, understanding as I did how easy it is to resort to platitudes or cliches when your mind goes blank.
Every so often, people would surprise me by leaning in. Grabbing my hands. Looking me in the eye. Tearing up. Searching for words to convey they wanted the conversation to remain focused on me, on Jimmy, on my loss and not the foxhole they’d just unintentionally stepped into.
For a long time, images of Jimmy dying stood like a wall between me and all but a few of my essential people. Blocking my thoughts, making it hard to listen or stay focused on the conversation, preventing the other person’s words from reaching me. It felt as though all that was left of him were the final weeks of his life. Holy and beautiful and full of pain.
As the years went on and my grief eased, other memories began returning, creating small chinks in the wall. Gifts from those who love and remember Jimmy. Andee’s daughter Fawn at three in a blue print sundress eating snacks. Jimmy standing next to her in a white t-shirt and oversized shorts with sharks on them, holding out a hand for his share. Shelby recounting the way she loved to make Jimmy chocolate milkshakes – no frills and “especially thick” – when he and his best friend Willie emerged from the family room after a heated game of Madden NFL. Sweet moments made all the more meaningful because they were shared. Points of connection that created space for Jimmy’s entire life to return.
As I navigate the seven year anniversary of Jimmy’s death, he’s all around me now, in the words I write, the stories I tell, the thoughts I think. I talk to him, ask his advice, consider what he would have done in a similar situation. At night, I stand outside, looking up at the pitch-black country sky, lit by the twinkling of millions of stars, and search for his. I reread my cousin Marci’s text – “Had a nice chat with Jimmy Star tonight. As usual, we covered many, MANY topics. Jimmy always brightens my spirit, especially after a tough day. And Margo, he adores you so much.” I close my eyes and see my sweet cousin outside in the cold winter air, looking up at the night sky. The two of us hundreds of miles apart, our souls connected by my son’s quiet, gentle spirit. His willingness to listen our shared North Star.