A mother I know lost her son this week, her oldest child. He was sixteen. First he was missing. Then he was found by a search team alongside the road where he had apparently been hit by a car in the early morning darkness. The details are still unclear. But do they really matter? He is gone. Somehow I imagine that knowing must be better than missing because missing means uncertainty. And in the face of uncertainty, we imagine the worst. And hope for the best. But in knowing, we reach the truth, the depth of death and loss that we all experience differently. And although we may sink into that pain like fresh mud, at least we are not floating away. And when we are ready, there is the pulling grace of goodbye, the loveliness of memories. The detail of the lips moving, the voice like honey, thick and soothing, buzzing still.
My husband’s cousin, a painter, did a series of works in which he illustrates that we each carry with us all the disappointments, cruelties and losses of our lives as bricks. The proverbial baggage. Some of these bricks fall away as we get older–the self-doubts, the useless criticisms, the rejections that no longer serve us. But I believe certain losses never leave us. We don’t “get over” them, we simply learn to lift ourselves up with them, walk with them, adapt to their weight and presence, perhaps occasionally forget they are there. Shift them about. Maybe even soar with them in a moment of laughter. But never, never put them down. I have always hated the saying “time heals all wounds,” which implies that we are responsible to open our eyes on some undetermined bright morning and find the wound scarred over, run our fingers over a place that was once raw and bottomless to find a bumpy ridge of dullness. The forgetting. I have not lost a child. But I have lost my father and a dear friend and I prefer to think of them as always with me, not as a burden of grief, but an extra layer.
This woman who lost her son is a friend of a friend. Someone you love by extension, because your friend does. I met and spent three days with her several years ago. We walked 49.5 miles together with several other friends to raise money for breast cancer. We crossed Chicago together. I guess when you walk that many miles with someone, the “getting to know you” process is accelerated. Sweat and blisters cut through the veil of appearances and you have no choice but to be yourself. I have a vivid image of Deborah, long legs and girlish braids, a glamorous Pippy Longstocking who I had trouble keeping up with. And although I haven’t kept in touch with her regularly or ever met her family, I know about them. Which is enough. It’s enough to know.
During our walk, we women shared the details of our lives, some mundane–what sports our kids played and how our husbands made us crazy, which recipes we’d tried lately, the music we liked, what we were like in college. And some more poignant–a birth story, relationship worries, a battle with cancer. The miles and the time passed until we reached the next rest point where we could stop and eat, drink water, stretch, rest. Getting up again was always the hardest part, exhaustion anchoring us to the ground, the grass, the dirt, the ants. Deborah was always the first to say, “Ok, time’s up, let’s get going.” And up she got, the rest of us struggling to our feet to catch up. Keep going.
The following year, another good friend who walked with us died unexpectedly of coronary thrombosis. I flew from Africa to her funeral in Michigan with the numbness of grief and no warm clothes. It was early January, deep drifts of snow covered the ground. Deborah sent me a sweater in the suitcase of our mutual friend — a long, soft, gray blanket of a sweater. A new sweater, an expensive sweater, which she pulled off the shelf of her clothing store–because she thought of me–which is an extraordinary gesture for many reasons and one I’ll never forget. I wore that sweater during the funeral, I slept in that sweater, wrapped it around my shoulders, my waist. It became both a shield and an embrace. I slipped it over my head on the airplane going back to Africa, not because I was cold, but because I needed to feel the familiar drape. It had become a different sort of extra layer, threads of comfort woven into the fibers. The comfort that comes from being with good friends who loved the person you miss, the talk, the smells, the touches and tears. Even the laugh that escapes unexpectedly and uncontrollably–that first inevitable laugh that feels like a betrayal, but is really the soul of your friend, or father, or son, or mother telling you it’s ok to live on.
When I woke up this morning, it was cool, maybe not worthy of a sweater, but I put it on anyway. The sleeves are now stretched past my fingertips and the hem is dotted with pilled knobs of worn wool. I sat on my bed and pulled the sweater over my knees and tried to send my thoughts across the ocean to someone who once showed me kindness. But the tragedy felt too large and far away, like I could travel and travel and never reach an understanding. A child gone. I thought that maybe I should send the sweater to Deborah, that somehow it would help. But what if it didn’t feel the same to her, if it didn’t fit, couldn’t comfort? In all the certain gestures of family, friends, neighbors and even strangers, I hope she’ll find her own extra layer. And when she does, it will make a small difference. It will.