Not to make loss beautiful but to make loss the place where beauty starts. Gregory Orr
I had a phone conversation last week with a mom whose twenty-seven-year-old son was killed two years ago by an impaired driver in a BMW being chased by the police. He ran two red lights, doing 100 MPH in a 25 MPH zone, then careened into her son in the crosswalk when he ran the third one, leaving him more dead than alive. Her boy hung on until she could get to him to say goodbye. He was a talented musician with a smile that lit up a room.
When she finished her story, she paused to regain her composure. I waited in silence, wanting her to have space to say what needed to be said.
“What did you do to survive?” she asked. “How did you go on?”
How did I go on? I thought, trying to remember. Jimmy has been dead for more than nine years. It is a lifetime in some ways, the blink of an eye in others.
In the pause of our conversation, I listened to the sounds of her moving through the world on her daily walk, a practice she says helps her survive her son’s death and realized it had started there for me, too …
I walked. Every day in the crisp sunny winter afternoons along Folsom Lake, seeing nothing but the dirt trail and my feet moving back and forth on it. I moved until my mind went numb, so I could stop thinking about Jimmy and the way he died or anything else. Until my brain went silent and the rest of the world did, too. I walked until my feet hurt, my muscles went wobbly, and my body got tired enough to rest, even if I couldn’t sleep.
I avoided. Almost everything and everyone, but especially other people’s pain. I could barely carry my own.
I wrote. Telling stories about Jimmy, memories I was afraid I’d forget now that he wasn’t here to remind me. Catching him eating toothpaste out of the tube at age three, only to have him say indignantly, “Don’t see me suck the toothpaste!” Picking him up from white water rafting camp in 5th grade to discover he (and most of the other boys) had worn the same underwear for a week until the counselor made them all shower and change pairs before their parents arrived to pick them up. I wrote to bring Jimmy back to life, to remind myself of who he was, how he made me laugh and why I loved him fiercely in order to get through the days when all I could remember was the way the cancer took over and how it killed him. I poured all of my rage, resentment and despair out on the page and tried to craft an after life I couldn’t yet see.
I read. Books about dead people … children, partners, parents, siblings. Once More We Saw Stars, The Light of the World, Bettyville. People lost in every way imaginable. Gone before their time, felled by drugs and disease, by violence and their own hands when the pain became too much to bear. I wanted reassurance that I wasn’t the only one – the luckless one, the cursed one, the only mother who couldn’t keep her son alive.
I talked. To other parents whose children had died to understand how this had happened to them, to me. To hear about their children. To say Jimmy’s name and learn how to conjure him back to life for anyone who had never had the chance to know him.
I trusted. The people who love me and the grieving parents I connected with. I let them reassure me that the going on was possible, even when I thought they were wrong. Even when I was sure they were. I watched those brave, broken souls carry the weight of their grief, heavy and ever present, and still find ways to laugh. The beauty they saw, even after living through the worst a parent can imagine. They taught me how to navigate this both/and world, reminding me gently that Jimmy would want me to go on living the life he didn’t get to lead. That reaching for joy is both a pursuit and a practice and that the light is always there if only I am willing to look for it.