Hi, Bubby, my love.
So much has happened since I last wrote to you. The main thing is that Dad and I went on a retreat for bereaved parents down in Kill Devil Hills, NC. I knew we needed to go, Dad was not so sure about the trip, but he was willing to be there for me. He would walk through fire for me. As it turned out, that level of dedication wasn't needed. The retreat lived up to its name, "Solace by the Sea." We gained new insight into how to walk this terrible road of grief as both individuals and as a couple. Thinking about this time together later, I realized that this was the first time he and I had the space to grieve, together, without anything else going on. In all these months we haven't found space, time or safety to be together in grief. This past weekend we were free of the usual stressors that block us from feeling how we feel and being able to talk about it. This fact alone made the trip worth it. But there was so much more, and it took a lot of courage to be open to what might happen.
Before the retreat I could maintain a somewhat conceptual view of you being dead, it seemed dreamlike or surreal. I could imagine you had gone on a trip to Mars and were hurtling through space in cryo-sleep. I could suppose you had somehow tricked us all and cheated death and were alive and thriving among The Fae. I see you in my mind's eye whole and hale and so full of life that I can refute the evidence that you died. But something happened when I placed your photo, fireman's badge, guitar pick and a few other little items on the altar alongside the photos and treasured mementos shared by the other parents in remembrance of their beloved children. Your handsome face shone forth from a picture frame surrounded by the beautiful pictures of your new tribe; a tribe of child-angels who look over and guide their parents from the other side.
My mind didn't want to grapple with it at first. How is it possible that we were there and that your picture was on that table? How is it possible that Dad and I have to learn to talk to each other about you, our dead son? How is it possible that we became part of a story that is so intensely eviscerating without our consent? We had lived blithely in a bubble of secure protection for so long; sure tragedies happen, but not to us. Right? Well, that bubble blew the fuck up on Dec 31st and left us broken, bloody, naked and ill-equipped to face the storm, the aftermath of your death. And even after all these months of writing to you, crying, floor pacing and hand wringing, I can still imagine it didn't happen. Right up until I saw your photo on that table and began to listen to the stories shared about each of those precious lives cut short. I heard the stories of Theo, Joel, Austin, Michael, Logan, Nicholas, Brooke, Nikki, Jacob, Madalyn, Tyler, Matthew, Julia, Matt, and Charlie. And as Dad and I shared your story right along with them, a new level of knowing clicked into place. We are bereaved parents of our dead son. We share the sacred journey of loss and love with the parents who've had to say goodbye to their sons and daughters too soon.
And that was just the beginning, something profound happened when we did an exercise where we paired up, and each had 30 minutes to tell our partner about our children. The idea was that later we would each share what we heard about our partner's child with the rest of the group. I was eager to talk about you, Thor. I don't often get to do that. I wanted the group to get to know you, how brilliant and awesome you are. So I rambled about various things for 30 minutes while my partner took notes. When the time was up, I felt like I could have talked so much longer, like I had so much more to say. And when we came back together later I listened as my partner related what I had shared with her about you; the snapshot into your life here with us and what kind of amazing person you were in life. She had listened well.
Later when I went to bed, I broke down in tears and sobbed. I hadn't done you justice. I hadn't told the most amazing things about you or even the most iconic. I forgot to say how much you loved to play guitar and loved anything with a motor. I didn't tell her how you captured everyone's heart with a flash of a smile and those lovely blue eyes, including the lady at Giant Eagle when you were just 2 years old. I forgot to say how you used to hate cheese until you discovered pizza. I didn't tell her how you fit so perfectly in my arms when you were a baby and that we took naps together. I didn't share how much you loved machines and trucks and guns and the outdoors. I hadn't remembered the best parts of the story of your life; I had generalized and conceptualized your character illustrated by only a few tales told in a rush of words.
A sickening realization dawned on me; I had no idea how to talk about you. As a matter of fact, I don't think anyone has ever asked me, "Tell me about your son, Thor." I didn't know how to relate the funny, real, interesting, quirky, loveable details of you, Thor. I have to practice sharing the details that made up your life and shaped the man you had grown into being. In the morning I told one of the other mothers how I felt and she said she felt the same way, so I didn't feel quite so alone in my self-beratement. We had come face to face with a new aspect of the journey, learning how to talk about our dead children. Totally intense.
Thankfully, the ocean was our constant touchstone and she offered her vast expanse to absorb the heartache, pain, sorrow, regret, guilt, sadness, loneliness, endless tears and so many emotions or states of being. We threw rocks into the ocean after writing a word on them that encapsulated something we want to leave behind. I wrote Loneliness and Uncertainty both of which stem from this feeling of being utterly broken and somehow irretrievably damaged. I wrote those words on the rock and flung it into the sea. Then we picked up a shell or another stone to write word symbolizing something we wish to take with us. I wrote Love. Self-love, Universal Love, All-encompassing Love. Love of Family. The Love that binds you to me and all of us, Thor. It's the only thing I could think of that is changeless and could remedy the loneliness and uncertainty I feel in my heart.
Dad and I took some walks on the beach, and one time we headed out across the highway and over to the top of the Wright Brothers Memorial. The last time we were there was with all of you boys in 2009. Ghostly echoes of that beautiful May day played in my mind as we ascended the top of the memorial hill. I remembered taking one of my favorite photos up there, the one where you three brothers stood beneath the words "THE BROTHERS" etched in the stone. I opted for a selfie in front of the word FAITH; it just felt right. It's gonna take a lot of faith to keep moving through this process to where we can live a life with joy, again.
On the last night of the retreat, we did a simple remembrance ritual, lighting a candle for our children and saying their name. We stood in a circle under the night sky full of shooting stars and the sound of the surf pounding the shore. Our faces lined by tears and the warm candle glow that represented the lives and love of our children. I realized that we hadn't done any formal ritual for you, Thor, since the funeral. And once again, I was struck by the fact that I have now joined the ranks of "candle lighters," of the vigil holders that I could only peripherally imagine before. And I was so moved, opened and shifted in that simple gathering. The flame that represented you, Thor, shone brightly alongside the others as we arranged the candles in the shape of a heart. Each child's life, legacy, love, and memory were added to the whole like a bead on a wire. Each candle shone brightly as a treasured piece of our collective heart, the new tribe defined by shared loss, utter heartbreak and our ultimate transformation.
I learned a lot, Thor, some of which I won't understand until it unfolds and unpacks itself in its own time. The way continues to reveal itself day by day, moment by moment. As solitary as this journey is, now I don't have to walk it alone all the time. Your dad and I are finding new ways to reconnect through and across the ocean of grief that swells and rages between us. And now we have connected with other beautiful souls who understand the daily struggle to find the courage to take a step, and then another and then one more. We step bravely into the new way of being that incorporates and encompasses all the grief as a beautiful expression of the deepest love. It is a terrible and magnificent road we walk now hand in hand and heart to heart. I am so grateful to have found Colleen, Doug, Cheryl, Tamera, Cindy, Susan, David, Joanna, Karolane, Michelle, Tamara, Karrie, Karla and Jamie.
What a journey, my boy. What a trip. I'm leaning in, staying open and being simultaneously brave and vulnerable. I say Our Family Blessing every day, several times a day and it really helps me connect with you and, well, everything. I feel you most clearly when I am still and open-hearted, and that's the best feeling of all.
I love you,