What’s Worth Hanging Onto
Yesterday was Mick’s and my wedding anniversary. Twenty-three years together; 25 if you count the time we were together before getting married.
We began our morning the way we usually do by walking our dogs together. There is a house the next block over with a photo of a 12-year-old boy prominently displayed outside the front door. The boy, smiling in that photo, died in a playground accident five years ago. The family has never taken that photo down except for a brief time when they lived somewhere else and rented out the house.
I notice the photograph in passing most days, but have stopped thinking much about it. It has become part of the landscape. In the first year after the boy’s death, there was a candle beside it that was always lit. Grief surrounded that house and washed over it like a never-ending tsunami.
Yesterday, because I was already thinking about the passage of time in the way I do on anniversaries, this reminder of loss reached deeper than usual. I don’t know that family but, like everyone in our neighborhood, I know the story of their boy’s death and how they are not going to let him go. I remember how the ambulance was at the playground when I came home from somewhere else that day, how no one could believe that a rock that the boy and his friends flung into the air on purpose would come back to hit him in the chest and cause enough damage to kill him, how improbable it seemed that boys doing whatever they do at playgrounds on a summer day could become deadly. I remember how empty the playground was for the rest of the summer, except late at night when that boy’s mother would sit there in the dark and wish for him to come back. And I remember how people around here came together to build a new playground feature in his honor, something with water and sand and a place for small kids to play safely, to get dirty and mucky and just have fun.
I wasn’t being morbid nor do I tend toward moroseness. But I do think about loss when I think about the passage of time, remember people who are no longer here even as I celebrate the ones who are. The losses Mick and I have experienced include my parents, his parents, friends, grad students, friends’ kids. It seems like a lot when I write it out here, but these are losses dribbled through all our years together.
Once, many years ago, I taught a journaling class to a bereaved parents group. I was a volunteer for a parent-to-parent group at Children’s Hospital then, a group designed for mentoring parents of kids who were newly-diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Through my connections there, a woman who ran the bereaved parents group asked me to teach this class. I had very little experience in that kind of loss at the time; my losses had to do with reframing how my child’s life was going to be after we learned she was going to have to manage her blood sugar and take insulin for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, I said okay, I would teach this class. These parents were amazing people, all wondering how to cope with a child whose death left a chasm in their lives. And there I was, not having lost a child, but I could share an understanding of the tools journaling offered with them. I showed them how to put their grief and anger and sense of unfairness into a spiral-bound notebook and then burn it, shred it, destroy it somehow as a cathartic act. And then, I told them, they could get another journal, one that was beautiful and special to hold all the beautiful and special memories of their child that they wanted to keep: the photos, the first spoken words, the ordinary days that now took on a luminosity that felt holy. This, I told them, was what they could hold against their chests like a life preserver when the longing for their child washed over them.
And those parents believed me. They took what I offered and used it. And they even said thank you to me, this woman who had not lost a child, who had not fully grasped the awfulness of such a thing.
All of these thoughts exploded in my head as Mick and I walked by the house on the next street over with the child’s photo displayed out front. And I thought to myself, finally, yes, they’ve hung on to the very thing that makes them able to go forward: a smiling, happy face that happened at least once in that child’s life. This was the proof.
Instead of wondering when they are going to move past their grief enough to take that photo down, I am going to think more about what it is we might hang onto. Love, for sure. Smiles. Wedding anniversaries. The times we reached out to someone and did something good. Dog walks with the loves of our lives.