Joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes. Frederick Buechner
I’ve never been someone who can easily sit still. I play with my pen, tap my foot, wiggle my toes, twirl my rings. I pop up from the dinner table and struggle to stay on the couch for an entire movie. No matter how hard I concentrate, there’s always another track in my brain running an inventory of what else needs to get done. In the middle of writing a piece for Salt Water, I’ll find myself reaching for a different project or picking up my phone to make a call. My third eye sees the dirty dish, the tossed jacket, the pile of papers, the object out of place, and I can’t fight off the urge to deal with it.
After my son Jimmy died, I split into two states of being – perpetual motion and frozen in place. During the day, I cruised the house like a great white shark … cleaning, tidying, completing mindless tasks … convinced somehow that if I stopped moving, I would die, too. At night, I morphed into a sloth, clinging to the couch like a tree branch. Sitting motionless with my husband Dan, we would numb our grief by watching episode after episode of Sons of Anarchy, the bloody, violent tales of Jax and his motorcycle gang family one of the few distractions strong enough to keep me from dissolving into despair.
In those early days, everything scared me. Dan or my daughter Molly briefly unaccounted for or slow to respond to a text. The words, “I have some news …” The sound of the phone ringing. Did the person calling know Jimmy had died? Had someone else?
My grief terrified me most of all, engulfing and overwhelming me with its intensity. Facing it felt impossible. The only solution was to keep moving. To keep my hands and brain preoccupied with anything else. I spent more than a year thinking I could out busy, out clean, out work my sadness. Believing that movement would heal, and time would fix.
But you can’t outrun grief, and you can only ignore it for so long, or it will eat you from the inside out. I discovered that the only way through the worst of the pain was to sit in the middle of my loss and let the sadness, anger and regret have their way with me. To let the hard days be hard, knowing that they have no more minutes than the softer days, and that both will end. To learn to build a life around Jimmy’s absence.
Jimmy died more than seven years ago, and there were times when I could barely breathe. When the thought of navigating the next hour felt daunting or impossible. I would forget the way he moved, his signature sayings, the sound of his laughter. Neither time nor activity have healed or fixed me but they have created small spaces for the memories to flow back in. I can look at photos of him at all ages now … the happy baby, silly toddler, busy little boy .. and remember how much fun we had together.
Grief has no expiration date. I will always be broken, and I can never be consoled. My son is dead, and I will long for and miss him for the rest of my life. It will never be okay that this happened to him, that this happened to us. But I am grateful for the way the passage of time has created small openings for grace and joy. For remembering the sweetness of our days together. The silly things we did, the magic we made, the sound of our untethered laughter, how fiercely we loved each other, the miracle of being alive together.