About a month ago on our son Noah’s would-have/should-have-been 28th birthday, my husband and I were on vacation in Grand Teton National Park. Trying to focus on Noah's life rather than his death, I found myself inventing would-have/should-have memories.
We could picture Noah in the Tetons, playing around in a kayak on Jackson Lake, goofing off or racing with friends. He’d first gotten interested in kayaks as an exchange student in France, living with a host family on a houseboat next to a kayak center. He tooled around on the river with his host brothers, one of whom was a member of the French national team. We were surprised when Noah joined the kayak racing team at his lycée. I can remember visiting the houseboat and looking down to see Noah sitting tall in a single kayak, paddling away as if born to the sport.
We could imagine Noah leading a kayak or raft trip like the one we’d just been on with a local outfitter. A job keeping a group of tourists happy would have called on his many talents: athlete, outdoorsman, cook, conversationalist, jokester. Maybe some kid on the trip would have looked up to him, like he as a kid admired the adventurous leaders of wilderness trips. Like them, he yearned to live free and would have been fine with a low-paid seasonal job, living out of his car for the summer. We could have gone on one of his trips; he could have encouraged me to push myself on the water or the trail.
Or maybe he would have come to the Tetons for a photo expedition with a backpack full of equipment. He could have positioned himself at dawn at Oxbow Bend for a glimpse of moose or bald eagle. Would he have sought out those classic nature shots or small, quirky moments beyond the mountainous majesty—his own angle on floating algae or his dad poring over a topo map?
I like to think that Noah and our living son Ben could have taken a break from their busy lives—maybe Noah working for a film production company?—to meet us in the park for a family vacation. We could have hiked and kayaked, camped and eaten bad food together. Noah would have loved the natural hot spring we found off an unmarked trail. We had the meadow all to ourselves, still in view of snowy peaks. Warm, crooked streams led through clumps of monkey flowers to a little scalding pool with a ring of rocks for sitting. Noah would have gone there every day to soak and nap. He was a glutton for relaxation.
There will be no more vacations for a family of four.
Still, my husband and I often talk of what Noah would have done, would have loved. I dream up memories from the past six years of the life he would have/should have had. I invent a future for him to accompany the rest of my life. There’s a whiff of pleasure in this as I linger in his presence in my mind.