Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Solace of Memories

We made it through a year, the first one without our son. The actual death anniversary wasn’t much more upsetting than many other days leading up to it. That may change in future years when we are less focused on grief and the date seizes us without warning or becomes a time to retreat from daily obligations.

As with other special dates, it helped to have a plan. We planned to go to Noah’s favorite local surf spot and taco stand and walk along the strand. It was a glorious spring day, sun glinting on the waves and the slick wetsuits of the surfers. They surfaced at a distance like a pack of seals. I could almost picture him among them, paddling out expectantly. I used to sometimes be able to pick him out of the crowd from the tall, thin, concave silhouette of his torso leaning out over the board. 

It brought back a raft of memories to be in that parking lot again where I brought him so many times before he could drive. His constant check of the online surf reports. The rip in the shoulder of his wetsuit. His loading up on donuts early in the morning. His eagerness to get to the water. His cool nods to the more experienced surfers, covertly watching their moves. His turning back, thankfully, in a fog so dense I lost sight of him within seconds of his going in. Old hippies on the sand in Santa hats at Christmastime. I used to wonder if he would become one of those grizzled old guys who never stop surfing.

I hadn’t thought about any of that during this bitter year. It took being at the beach to recover those memories. I rushed to write them down, for fear I would lose them. Unlike other family memories, they can never be recalled together with him in some relaxed, reminiscing moment. 

There were a number of gifts during the week of the anniversary. The realization that I didn’t need to carry my child’s pain in order to love and cherish him. The readiness to make plans for some traveling. The widowed friend who said there are no rules about grief other than the need to be gentle with yourself. The many kind cards and e-mails.

But the most precious gift was recovering those memories half-buried beneath the sorrow—and receiving a few new ones in an e-mail from one of Noah’s college friends. The friend told the story of how on a visit to NYC, Noah was the only friend willing to go with him to an obscure dive of a dim sum place that the friend knew from childhood and eat a dish of tripe and pancreas without a gripe or a grimace; he only reached quickly for his teacup. That made me smile on a sad day. Adding to that storehouse of memory is such a comfort, a thrill even. As if our loved one is still alive and telling the story himself.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Leave-taking: After the One-Year Memorial

It’s over: another milestone on the mourner’s path. Maybe you’ve been there, too. After so much anticipation of what new pain might be triggered, you wake up and it’s time to get ready, to drive to the place, to sit quietly while people gather, then to hold hands with your family and weep while you take in the memorial you have planned, the words you have asked friends to read for you. You remember your beloved person in the company of others, one year after the suicide.
            Our memorial for Noah is an intimate, homemade ceremony for the unveiling of his gravestone, ten days before the actual anniversary. This return to the grave with 30 invited friends and relatives is a re-immersion in grief without the raw shock and devastation of the funeral. Unlike last year, we are fully present to plan and experience the service, to hold Noah in the light, and share hugs from others. We don’t need so much of our Jewish tradition and community to shield and support us as we did a year ago. With this ritual, we create a container for our grief. On this day, as a friend suggests, we truly bury our son.
With my eyes mostly closed, I sense muffled cries and sniffles around me, the tears of my living son beside me. I focus on the personal touches that make the day meaningful. Starting with music of Avishai Cohen that Noah first heard with his French host family, ending with haunting Native American flute played by his cousin. The candle lit by his grandfather. Covering the gravestone, the frog-design quilt his aunt made for him as a child in a pattern called “life cycle.” The ever-evocative lines of Psalm 23. Our speech, inspired by the text on his gravestone. The words people call out when our friend leading the service asks how they will remember Noah: adventurous, inspiring, goofy, loving, wonder. The delicate, full-blown red camellias from his grandmother’s garden at the head of the grave. The small stones and shells that everyone places along the edges of the marker, snugly embracing it. Some are from his favorite places, like a surf spot; others from places he would have surely visited had he lived, like a best friend’s ancestral home in Italy.
Thus infused with love on a brilliant sunny day, Noah’s marker is beautiful to behold. This grave site will never again be so abundant.
            My cup runneth over.
            The sobbing begins at the end for my husband and me. The service is over. Our son’s life is over. This collective leave-taking is over. We do not want to leave; for us, it will never be over. We linger.
            Back at home, a welcome re-entry to the world of the living: friends, family, food, flowers. The buoying warmth of it.
            How will I try to remember Noah? Alive -- to life’s possibilities. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

This May Be the Last Time: Approaching the One-Year Memorial

In about two weeks, it will be a year since Noah’s suicide. Next week, we will have a graveside memorial for the “unveiling” of the stone. A month after that is the official yahrzeit, or one-year anniversary, according to the Jewish calendar. 

 For the past month with the countdown to the unveiling, time has sped up, like a meteor falling earthward. I have felt frantic and overwhelmed, as if I should be preparing for some impending disaster. I thought I should be getting a lot of work done so I wouldn’t have to think about it in March. At the same time, I wanted to stop everything and attend completely to griefwork. My sleep, digestion, and health were disrupted, just as they were after Noah's death. A therapist suggested that I felt out of control.

 I realized that although I had not been re-experiencing every stage of the last few months of Noah’s life as I expected to, I had been reliving the powerlessness that we felt as we witnessed our son’s decline and ongoing refusal to get help. A year ago, we thought Noah was at the beginning of a chance to heal and redirect his life; we assumed that time lay ahead to support him in that process. We had no idea that he was so wound up that he felt his own clock ticking down—that what we saw as a new start, he saw as an inevitable end. We had no clue that in one rash instant, we would be robbed of time and son.  

 Last March, we were still too frozen in shock and anguish to be fully present to mark Noah’s death. We made hasty choices for his burial and funeral, guided by others with steadier heads. We couldn’t formulate words for a speech. We sequestered ourselves out of sight during the service and rushed away moments after the coffin was lowered, not wanting to be there or to be approached. We couldn’t believe our child was dead, and by his own hand. We couldn’t believe we were leaving him in a box in the ground in an alien place full of old people. Nothing felt real.

Since then, the mourner’s path has often led my husband to the cemetery, me less so. We have huddled by Noah’s grave under the privacy of a large umbrella, crying and calling out to him, or quietly telling him the news he is missing. We have chosen his marker and fingered the little love objects others have left there. That little patch of earth with his name has begun to feel familiar. It’s still hard to grasp that he is not away on a long, exciting trip, bound to come home full of presents and stories.

When I was Noah’s age, I used to sing a doleful gospel tune in harmony with friends, “This May Be the Last Time”:
This may be the last time we pray together
Oh, it may be the last time, I don’t know.
This may be the last time, this may be the last time, children,
This may be the last time, oh, it may be the last time, I don’t know.
As a young person, there was bittersweet forboding in the lines that made the present moment more precious and poignant. Now when I think of that song, it weighs me down. There was a last time that Noah and I ate together, talked together, walked or cooked or played together—and I didn’t know.

The unveiling will be the last time a large group gathers at his grave. Most likely, it will be the last gathering of any kind that is focused on our son's life. We will publicly take our leave of Noah and say good by in a way we couldn’t do at the funeral. My husband and I have been focused on planning exactly what we would like said and done at the memorial, sifting through grief poems, writing a speech, arranging food. We are in charge this time; we are not helpless. We are still wounded. But we are not the same family who hobbled away from the grave a year ago, missing limbs.

This may be the last time. I hope to be present in the moment with an open heart.