Monday, October 28, 2013

New Arrivals

Two mysterious bird shadows strutted behind the gate in the dark when I drove home from work a few weeks ago. They didn’t look like our chickens, who would have been safe in their backyard coop at that hour. Lost quail, maybe? When I flipped on the light, they were roosting on the back steps and skittered away with unmistakably yellow chicken legs--two beautiful black and white Wynedotte pullets, peeping in confusion, still too young to cluck. They had apparently been abandoned in our front yard, and the neighbor put them in back, thinking they were ours.

What serendipity, new life left on our doorstep! We made feeble efforts to find the owners, knowing we would keep the birds. They made us laugh with their lopsided sprints across the grass, the first to arrive when any snacks appeared. They did everything as a pair, chortling to each other like an old married couple—Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Dum and Dee for short. 

We delighted in their innocence. They reminded us of when our hens were young a year ago, when our boy was still alive and we were innocent of grief. New life that knew nothing of Noah’s death.

I felt the same when I was handed a five-month-old baby to hold the other day. Our eyes locked, I started to sing and bounce him, and he melted into a smile. You are new and pure, I thought; you weren’t yet born when my baby died seven months ago. I breathed in the sweetness of a fresh lease on life. 

What Noah broke; what we, left behind, will need.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Avoiding Halloween

Please note: This post has disturbing images from the scene of my son’s death that you may wish to avoid.

Ten years ago, I scouted out weird Halloween displays in front yards to show my kids. Our own strobe-lit porch had giant spiders, skeletons, Day of the Dead ornaments, unearthly didjeridu music, and hundreds of trick-or-treaters. 

This October, when I walk in my neighborhood, I am assaulted with ghoulish images that are someone else’s idea of fun. I am surrounded with effigies hanging from trees, a daily reminder of images I am trying hard to forget. 

When I found my son hanging in the garage, the scene was so macabre that I thought it was an effigy of him someone had strung up for a prank. I couldn’t believe he had done this violence to himself. For weeks, I was haunted by details of the scene, especially the sight of his bare feet dangling helplessly above the ground—a place no human feet should be. I wonder if anyone who has seen a loved one hanging can ever look dispassionately on a hanging scene at Halloween, much less in a movie or a historical photograph. I still can barely stand to look at rope, or even the word ‘rope.’ These things are my enemies, doorway to nightmares. 

I didn’t count Halloween on the list of tough holidays I anticipated this year. But the profusion of hanging figures, open coffins and RIP gravestones disturb my peace. There is no RIP for people who kill themselves and the ones they leave behind. Every day is a day of the dead for survivors. Every triggering effigy, another sign that I am walking the mourner’s path, as if at a great distance from the everyday.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Let Us Talk of Epitaphs

I was struck breathless recently, hearing this soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard II for the first time in a magnificent PBS production. The king has just been informed of the execution of his friends, and his poignant response begins with this lament, compelled to confront death without reassurance or pretense:

My husband and I have an appointment at the mortuary this week. It’s time for us to talk of epitaphs. For months, I couldn’t even face writing Noah’s dates, much less imagine words for his gravestone. Coming up with the right message feels like the hardest exam I’ve ever taken, with an answer I can never get right. These words will be written in stone, outlasting all of us. Nothing could be more permanent. The epitaph that “writes sorrow on the bosom of the earth” and the placement of the stone over his grave will seal the permanence of our son’s horrific and untimely death. 

At the moment we are leaning toward the simple. We can never capture who he was and how he lived in a few lines. So we gravitate toward the heartfelt:
            Much loved
            Much missed
            Forever in our hearts

I am not sure this is enough. Will it feel right in ten months, much less ten or twenty years? I want some summation of his spirit and talents to be memorialized, along with our love. But where to begin? A list of interests and hobbies seems trivial, more for a resume or a Facebook site than an epitaph. Maybe we can choose a line that hints at this, along with our love, like one of the following:
            Tender soul    
            He made things happen
            Bunsen burner of joy
            Full of life
            So many gifts
But these feel like lines from a book or movie ad.

I am leaning toward the last line. So many gifts that Noah possessed, so many that he shared with family and friends over the years. The notion of gifts is not wholly comfortable now, with us still so wounded by his suicide and blind to any spiritual gifts it might eventually yield. Still, the gifts Noah had and shared in life are how I would like to remember him and have others remember him. 

So many gifts, so much promise.

At a loss for words.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Poetry of Compassion

A friend sent me the following poem, “Kindness,” and suggested it could be read as a meditation on compassion.  See if this resonates for you. I'm struck by the poet’s notion that through the deepest sorrow, we find the deepest compassion. I have had inklings of that in a new sense of compassion I feel for others since Noah’s death, especially for young people who are struggling or parents who are desperately trying to help their kids or others in mourning. Suddenly, my radar is flashing; these people are larger than life, all around me, and I want to be present for them. Still many miles, though, from feeling compassion for Noah or for myself . . .

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

~by Naomi Shihab Nye in Words From Under the Words: Selected Poems

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Blessing a Child's Journey

This week’s Torah portion from Genesis 12:1 begins with God’s call to Abraham to “go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” Ever since I heard the Debbie Friedman/Savina Teubal song version  at a friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah, I have treasured this free interpretation of the passage for its sense of possibility:

L'chi lach [Go forth], to a land that I will show you
Leich l'cha [Go forth], to a place you do not know
L'chi lach, on your journey I will bless you
And (you shall be a blessing)3x l'chi lach
L'chi lach, and I shall make your name great
Leich l'cha, and all shall praise your name
L'chi lach, to the place that I will show you
(L'sim-chat cha-yim [to the joy of lives])3x l'chi lach

Noah embarked on a lot of adventurous journeys in his life, from wilderness trips at age 13 to a year in France at age 17 to a challenging college far from home, and we cheered him on from the sidelines. He knew he had our blessing for finding his own way in his own time, though he blamed himself for not being focused on one definite direction like the high-powered high achievers he assumed were all around him. Maybe I was so intent on encouraging his exploration that I didn’t do enough to reassure him that he was a blessing for us and that he would always have safe harbor at home. How I wish he could have felt blessed on his journey instead of cursed. How I wish he could have lived long enough to connect with a sense of spirituality that I always felt he had inside him. 

How I wish that we were not on this grim journey of our own into unknown places after he put an end to his journey. Because it’s hard now to see his life as a blessing.

On your journey, Noah, we would have continued to bless you and delighted in all the new lands you surely would have found.