I’m thinking about the Nebraska mama who lost her two-year-old baby in a freak accident at Disney World. I’m thinking about the mama of one of our recently graduated seniors, who lost her 18-year-old baby in the Temperance River nine days ago. I’m thinking about all the mamas of the Orlando victims who lost their babies to a deranged mass murderer. I don’t presume to know the depths of their grief. I’m not aligning my sadness with their horror. I’m just feeling empty, wallowing in the wake of tragedy and grieving in solidarity as a mama.
And I’m watching my babies watch The Okee Dokee Brothers perform “Saddle Up,” a 45-minute music fest that allows me a tiny window of sanity in which I can drink my morning coffee, change a load of laundry, prep lunch, and peruse my news feed. I’m working in the kitchen while the boys sit snuggled up on the couch, mesmerized by the colorful images on screen, and I find myself fighting back waves of tears. Heavy, heaving, shoulder shrugging waves of grief for all the moms, all the dads, all the siblings and friends and loved ones and unreached dreams and unplanned trips and it makes me crumple into my chair with weakness and bewilderment. Yes, yes, I know life is short and cruel and the realness scrapes deep. Whether the loss is new or old, whether Death shows up at our doorstep dressed as illness or accident, the heartbreak is real and, sometimes, I don’t know how to deal. Confronting it head on, sitting quietly with the loss is draining. Every time another tragedy occurs, I’m reminded of past loss: old friends, former students, my grandmothers, even strangers. Thinking about reality for too long starts to push my worry meter beyond a reasonable level, and my ability to parent becomes incapacitated.
I worry about what freakish accident will occur when I leave the boys unattended, inside, while I run outside to pick up dog poop before we play in the yard. I worry about what disaster might occur when I leave the boys unattended, outside, while I run inside to preheat the oven for our quinoa pizza bites for lunch (which I’m pretty certain they won’t eat, but I’m trying…). But the worst worry of all is that I know I can’t do anything about it. We can’t live in a bubble. I can’t watch them every second of every day. We cannot know what to prepare for and we cannot drive ourselves crazy anticipating every possible disaster. We can only be here now. Be here now.
Be here now. It was the mantra I was repeating to myself during the panel presentation at the Basilica last Sunday when, moments before we were about to present, I got a phone call from a friend at work with devastating news about the loss of one of our recently graduated seniors: he was camping up north with some friends last week when he drowned. Near the very spot where our family camped last summer, where I have pictures of Josh fly-fishing and Dylan wading in the shore, this brilliant young man was swept down in the current and never resurfaced. During the Basilica presentation, I could barely think, could barely focus on the immense human suffering we witnessed at the border because the snuffing out of this one young life was all-consuming. I kept thinking about him and his group of friends who had graduated only two weeks earlier. I remembered them in the classroom, planning for this trip (when they should have been writing news stories for journalism…).
I can’t help but hear The Okee Dokee Brothers singing “The Last Lullaby:”
Move em out, move em in
Every story has to end
But some stay in your heart
They go round and round
They get lost and then found
‘Cause the end is just another place to start
It was hard to see my students in the chapel that Sunday afternoon, hugging them as their hearts were breaking. There simply are no words.
I drink my coffee and remember.
I remember the harrowing scream from my mom in the early morning hours, the moment we got the phone call that Gina was in a car accident. I remember the confusion, the slowness, the drag of sleep refusing to catch up with reality. My focus on concrete items: the treadmill my mom had been walking on continued to run, the curled phone cord in Kelley’s limp hands, the nightgown I was wearing and the blankness of my brain as I tried to compose myself: I should get dressed. We’ll go to Ellen’s. I need to go back to Madison. When is the funeral? How does this work?
Later that day, Kelley and I sat outside of a Tires Plus with Kyle Jenkins, after spending hours curled on couches at Ellen’s. With Kyle, we smoked Marlboro Lights and sat in silence as cars zoomed past on Highway 50. We were only 20 years old, we were still kids, but we smoked like adults and tried to ponder the tragedy that had befallen us: Gina was dead. The words were said, but didn’t mean anything. I was numb and embarrassed at my numbness. I should feel something, I knew I should. This was a childhood friend, a bright light of a person, all smiles and dimples and hairstyles and junior high cheerleader jumps. This was a giggle, a sleepover, a daring high school stunt; a class officer, a journalist, a sweetheart. This was the graduating class of 1997’s friendliest female and everyone’s favorite person. Gina was dead? Gina was dead. The words, the news, even the headlines didn’t sway me for days. Until the funeral. At her funeral, all hell broke loose. The flood gates opened up and I lost my mind. I heard her sister, Ashlee, sing Amazing Grace and I couldn’t catch my breath. I remember it was August. August 7th was the day she died; August 14th was the day she was buried. Every year, on those days, I think of her. I remember the green sweater I was wearing at her funeral – short sleeved, too tight, and itchy – with a long black skirt. I didn’t like the outfit – didn’t think it matched – but it wasn’t about me, and it didn’t matter what I wore while I sobbed in the pew behind my junior high science teachers. I remember questioning God and the meaning of life. I remember feeling fleeting rushes of rage and destruction, wanting to get really drunk or smoke a whole pack of cigarettes, because I thought it didn’t really matter what I did if life was this short and could be taken from you at any time in a moment of absolute chaos. An accident. An accident. One moment you’re alive, the next moment you’re gone. But I can still feel you. Still see you. Still talk to you. How can you be gone?
And then the years passed. Sixteen, to be exact, and I no longer grieve Gina’s loss the way I did when I was young. I still think about her often, and I wonder what she’d be up to these days, but mostly she’s a memory in my heart that flares up each time another life is lost too soon.
In those moments, I worry about my own kids, and the frightening possibilities of loss that lie in wait for them. I think about the mamas and their terrible, unimaginable loss. Oh, mamas. I think about my students, and I weep with a heavy heart for their helplessness and their sorrow. I want to wrap my arms around them and tell them that someday they will have perspective, someday they will be able to recall this loss in a way unfathomable to them now; someday they will be so grateful for the way he touched their lives and for how he changed them and someday, they will connect with him again – in their dreams, in their quiet moments, in their moments of uncontrollable laughter and perfect insight. Their friend will be there. He will know he’s there, and they will know he’s there. Their hearts will tingle and vibrate for a few moments, their ears will ring, and they’ll look around, startled, wondering if someone is watching them, and then they’ll quietly realize that yes, he is here. He is with them. He was all along, and he always will be. Because now, they carry him in their hearts, and he will go on every adventure with them, sharing his wisdom, his cynicism, his hipster advice, and they’ll chuckle to recognize his voice. But they will also cry, for a long time to come. And it’s ok to cry, to weep, to sob. Even now, sometimes the smallest thing brings tears to my eyes.
I watch Oscar scrunch up his nose at me and slap the side of the car and shout, “Car!” and I love him so much I want to burst. And then, for some reason, I find myself thinking about the children Gina would have had, and how lovely and adorable and chunky and edible they would have been, and my heart aches for her loss, and for her family.
But I also move on, because I must. We all must. This is life. The fragile, damning, wild, thrilling, tragic lust of life. This is what it means to be a part of it. There are no shortcuts or saying no thanks. You just dig right in and do your best and try not to choke on quinoa pizza bites.
PS: With all due respect to each and every one of you, please, please, if this post resonates with you, do not apologize to me for my loss. Yes, I am deeply saddened by the loss, but the greatest loss is not mine; I cannot bear the thought of what the families are suffering. I am simply trying to process the loss and grieve in solidarity. Holding you in my heart. xo