When Only Memories Remain

Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Zora Neale Thurston

I search for Jimmy, for signs he is close by, for the bright twinkle of his star late at night. I talk to him, plead for his help, ask for his advice, conjure his kindness. He inspires me to be my best self .. less judgmental, more patient, less dismissive, more tolerant. When I find myself writing a calm reply to an incendiary email, I know Jimmy’s gentle spirit is guiding my hand.

It’s taken me an eternity to get to this place. To learn to live with the constant presence of a loss that shattered my life and destroyed my confidence in the safety and rightness of the world. To establish an uneasy truce with the cold, harsh truth that my son would not be the one to survive his invasive brain cancer. To acknowledge that the control, the advantage, the bit of luck I thought we had as a family was as ephemeral as quicksilver.

I spent a long time caught up in the swirl of injustice and unfairness, the angry, mean part of me silently raging about being on the wrong side of the odds. Wanting answers, apologies, reparations and revenge. Furious about not being finished parenting Jimmy, I made silent but deadly lists of all that was lost, all that had been taken from me, all the reasons why it should have been someone else .. another family .. not ours and not him.

But as the years marched on and my pain eased, the desire to stay connected to the best, most precious part of my son opened a small window to the relationship I thought death had destroyed. A way to carry Jimmy with me. To stop reliving his death, the final harrowing days, the cancer ravaging his mind and body and remember instead the beauty of our days together.

After Jimmy’s brain tumor diagnosis, we tried to capture lightening in a bottle. The momentous events. The grand adventures. The biggest yeses. We thought those memories would be the ones to stick only to find that what endures are the everyday moments .. the joy of an inside joke, the kinship of shared secrets, the connection of companionable silence .. ordinary ways of being together that neither time nor Jimmy’s death can destroy.

These images are mine now. What separated us was not Jimmy’s absence but what I invited to come between us. Resentments, regrets, anger, the focus on family and friends that forsook me. Although there are no new memories, the ones that remain are rich and nurturing. Full of laughter and silliness and my son’s ready smile. No longer bottled up or ignored, they pour out like a fine pinot noir .. cardinal red, silky and complex, spicy and full of texture.

By regaining access to those sweet moments, I discovered healing isn’t about forgetting but about remembering well, just as Dr. Dennis Klass says. Concentrating on the blessings instead of the curses. Coming to terms with what is instead of seething about what should have been. I could easily spend the rest of my life pining for another path, a better outcome, a different life, but there’s no denying all that would have been lost if I wasn’t given this one.

Jimmy is made of memories now, living in the stories we tell, the history we shared. My remembering is fierce and intentional. I carry his wisdom and kindness, reminding me to be better. Prompting me to reach out to others in pain, knowing that there is always time and room for one more. Teaching me to salvage joy from all that has been lost. Helping me to hold fast to what remains. Stumbling and falling and picking myself back up. Reaching out for my son and knowing at the same time that he is all around me.

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