Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Good Thought

At various times throughout the past year, people have told me that they're praying for me. Depending on who it is, I might say thank you and not think much about it, or I might seethe about the way it's said as if it is a big honor for me and sure to reap great benefits. People mean well, or most of them do, but I have wildly fluctuating levels of tolerance for the smug certainty that prayer in general and their prayers in particular are superior to a plate of brownies or a phone call or a hug or a ride to Crossfit.

I used to pray. To be honest, if I were born five hundred years ago I probably would have joined a contemplative order. I might have striven to be like Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila: I could have communed with God and then written about it. I'm not sure I ever really believed that my prayers were answered, though, or even heard. I always tried make them as unspecific as possible, so as not to put God on the spot: thy will be done kinds of prayers.

Now, whatever vestigial belief I once harbored in the efficacy of prayer has left me. There are too many unanswered calls, too many people who have fallen to their knees to no avail. One mom at Newtown "got a miracle." Another, just as desperate, just as worthy, got her child in a casket. God can't perform a miracle without deliberately withholding one from someone else. Fuck that.


I can't say “I'm praying for you” and mean it anymore, so I have to say something else. During the liminal period, when I had one foot in and one foot out of the church, I worried that to say "I'm thinking about you" was pallid and inadequate, and I felt guilty when I used the phrase. Wouldn't it be better, more powerful, if I could pray for someone? My feelings about "I'm thinking about you" remain mixed. I like that it's human. It doesn't pass the heavy lifting off to a deity I no longer believe in.

On the other hand, is there a more passive verb than “to think?” Thoughts are like clouds, as they say in yoga; they have no weight, they appear and then pass. Do these thoughts, by themselves, do anything?

Yogis say they are sending you love and light. When a childhood friend's mother died in December, I thought about using the love and light locution in the note I wrote to him, but I couldn't. I didn't want to sound pretentious. I'm not feeling like much of a yogi these days, and I was never what you'd call all in. I guess you could say that I stand in a lot of doorways. Instead I said, "sending love to your family." But what does that mean? What did I actually do, besides write the email and press send? 

People who are serious about these kinds of rituals might argue that, properly performed, they do constitute an action. To pray you may bow your head or close your eyes to focus your attention. It requires discipline and you have to practice to be any good at it. In yoga you actually have to go to the mat and send the love and the light.

On December 16 I set an intention at my yoga class and I sent all of my energy to Newtown, CT. I felt small and pathetic when I did it. But what more was there for me to do? They had enough stuffed animals and balloons.

I may still have a contemplative nature, but in the last year I've become a lot more appreciative of the doers in this world. When Balthazar died, not one of the unchurched parents of Glencoe Elementary told me they were praying for me. Yet the food and the cards and the flowers kept coming.


I have a friend who grew up in a tradition in which they said, “I'm holding a good thought for you.” This is my new favorite expression, one I think I can authentically use. It's active: something must be held. Something very simple and completely straightforward: a good thought. The thought is nestled in the palm like a beautiful pebble, with all of the warmth and protection that the verb “to hold” conveys. It is carried and maintained with intent, and for as long as the person needs.


I had to call my mother again this week for another address to write another condolence note: a childhood friend of mine died suddenly on April 19.

My first memory of Thad was the day he ate the bug so we could get out of swim practice. I'm pretty sure it was his idea, though in retrospect it was a pretty stupid thing for our coach, who was probably all of twenty, to allow. He probably didn't believe that Thad would really do it. He did. Our chagrined coach was forced to release us.

We were maybe nine years old.

We were Lakeside teammates for ten years. I took the intensity of what we were doing for granted; it was all I had ever known. I didn't realize until much later how indelible an experience it was. How I'll feel a lifelong bond with those people no matter how much time passes, no matter how far our lives diverge.

He wasn't a close friend. But for those ten years I saw him more than I saw my own family. Every day, often twice a day. Weekend trips with long bus rides and endless meets followed by dinners at family-style restaurants, cheap motels policed by parent chaperones. He was cooler than me, but he was never a bully. He was a good guy. He was my teammate.

Thad was the friend whose mother died in December. I'm very glad that I sent him that message, though I dithered about sending it, though I worried about the words I chose. Now I have to choose other words, to send to his father.

So today I'm holding a good thought for Thad's family. I have it here, and I'll keep it as long as it's needed.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Man in the Cowboy Hat

Sometimes what you meant to write is overtaken by events. How can I not write about the bombing this week, but how can I write about it? It's so narcissistic: Here's how the bombing affected ME. The bombing affected me the way it affected everyone who wasn't touched directly: I felt shock and horror and compassion for the victims and anger at the as-yet-unknown perpetrators and admiration for the medical personnel who saved so many lives. Nothing to see here.

Before the bombing I'd been feeling sorry for myself, and feeling guilty for feeling sorry for myself. Quit yer whining, says the voice in my head. The voice, unsurprisingly, has a distinctly down-home drawl, and gets louder and more disapproving when something as terrible as the Boston Marathon bombing happens.

Of course to write that I was feeling sorry for myself is to level a criticism. A more value-neutral way to put it might be that I was in a dark place. And now?


I was watching the basketball game a few weeks ago when UofL player Kevin Ware broke his leg. I saw the replay, watched his leg move in a sickeningly unnatural way, but I didn't search the internet later for grosser pictures or more explicit angles. I don't mean to be one of those sanctimonious people who says it's wrong to look; I'm just squeamish. I always avert my eyes when I'm giving blood. But then without even realizing what I was looking at until it was too late, on Monday I saw a picture of an ashen-faced young man being wheeled from the scene of the marathon by a man in a cowboy hat. The man in the cowboy hat was holding Jeff Bauman's femoral artery in his hand to keep him from bleeding out. Bauman's legs were both blown off below the knee, jagged edges of bone protruding from bloody wounds.

The guy in the cowboy hat turned out to be Carlos Arredondo, a peace activist who'd lost one son in Iraq and another later to suicide. He and the medical personnel at the marathon and those at one of Boston's acclaimed hospitals saved Bauman's life.

Carlos Arredondo: what an amazing story. A you-can't-make-this-shit-up story. What does it feel like to attempt suicide after the death of your son, remake your life protesting against war, and then find yourself at the scene of a terrorist bombing and in a position to save the life of a young man not far from your son's age? Am I supposed to take from this that there is no way to know what you still have to contribute to the world?

Of course what it looks like on paper and how it feels to him are two entirely different things. On paper it has the tidy, redemptive feel of an O. Henry story, but of course actual lived experience is not that way. It must be an amazing feeling, saving someone's life, and in those circumstances, but his sons are still dead.

I try not to get caught up in the grief Olympics, though I think it's human nature to rank things and it's probably inevitable that if your child dies someone, somewhere, is going to tell you that they know how you feel and launch into a story about their cat, and you are going to be filled with inarticulate rage. Once I had a therapist who told an anecdote about a man who came to group therapy really conflicted about what car to buy. Her point being that we should not be in the business of judging, but only of listening. The car thing was a real problem for him, and I see what she's saying, but if I were the woman in that group whose nine year-old son was killed by a sneaker wave at the coast, I would have beaten that man with a shovel.

But I guess if I tell someone they are not allowed to feel bad about their choice of car because it is not as serious as that woman's grief for her son, eventually someone is going to tell me that I am not allowed to feel bad that my son died because he was not blown up in a bombing or shot in a school. And I am grateful, to the extent that I can be, that he wasn't. But it doesn't matter if someone tells me I shouldn't feel bad and here's why. I still feel. I can't help it.

Horrible things happen in the world, more horrible than what happened to me, and my son is still dead. What happened in Boston does not wipe away my grief or invalidate it. It's not either/or. It's yes/and.

Is the young man who lost his legs happy to be alive? Will he spend a long time grieving for the part of his life that was lost? Can't the answer to both questions be yes? Can there be a yes, but, or a yes, asterisk? He's lucky to be alive. He's also really breathtakingly unlucky. It's both.

One of the women who died was a Chinese grad student at Boston University. She was studying statistics. Her mathematically-minded classmates are having trouble accepting the way in which she was struck down, given the odds.

What happened to me was an ordinary kind of horrible. What happened in Boston was extraordinary horrible. It was public; it was violent. As my mother would say, it will force the grieving families to confront the nature of human evil. Of course I have had to confront the fact that Nature is indifferent and there is no God. I don't know why that's better. In each case, though, I think the only answering argument is the same: Carlos Arredondo.


When I was delivering Balthazar, I developed a fever. Since we still didn't know why he died, it was still possible that I had some kind of massive infection that had killed him. The nurse looked concerned, but decided to remove a few of my many blankets and check my temperature again later.

So that's it, I thought to myself. I'm going to die. I have an infection and it killed my baby and now it's going to kill me. I noted, without emotion, that I didn't feel much about it one way or the other. I felt no adrenaline surge, no desire to live. No wish to die, either. Just apathy. There's probably some protective biological reason that happens, but it doesn't line up very neatly with the idea of me as a fighter.

When the nurse took my temperature again, it was normal. There was nothing wrong with me, no danger to my life. No heroic measures were required of anyone. It was an ordinary delivery of an ordinary boy, with the one caveat.

Now that a year has passed, am I grateful for my life? Sure. The only thing worse than living through the death of your child would be not living through it.


A corollary to quit yer whining is aren't you over this yet? I have this feeling that I should wrap this up. I shouldn't bother anyone anymore; a year is long enough to impose all of this on other people. Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations or something? I'm pretty sure all of this makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and they'd feel a lot better if I let them believe that I was OK now.

The first night I went to the grief support group there was a man there who was marking the tenth anniversary of his son's death. He'd driven over from Beaverton and he said that he had noted that the trees next to the highway looked the same as they had the day his son died; they were the delicate green of early spring. I was appalled by the idea that I might still be at that grief group on my tenth anniversary, when at that moment I couldn't see how I was going to make it until May. And I see now that I probably won't be at the grief group on April 3, 2022. But as I drive, assuming I'm still around, I'll notice the budding trees.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Balthazar's Song

A lot of parents on loss blogs talk about songs that remind them of their children. One that Will Oldham wrote for his father gets mentioned a lot. Because Preschool Fall Book One Unit One is not going to proof itself, in lieu of an essay here's Balthazar's song:

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

April 3

On Wednesday, April 3, 1974, a tornado touched down in my hometown, Louisville, KY. It was just one of many tornadoes that devastated the region that day. At the time it was the largest (it was surpassed in that category in April of 2011) and is still the most violent outbreak of tornadoes in United States history. Thirty-one people died in Brandenburg, KY. Two people died in Louisville. Two hundred twenty-eight people in the city were hospitalized.

I had just turned three years old the day before. Too young for T.S. Eliot, I did not yet know that April is the cruelest month. April was my favorite month, because it contained both my birthday and Easter. My birthday meant chocolate cake from Plehn's with chocolate frosting and pink frosting roses. Everyone else in the family got a white cake with yellow flowers, but an exception was made for me. Easter meant a pretty dress, and dyeing eggs and giant waxy chocolate bunnies. And everywhere there were daffodils, and violets, and sweet-smelling pale purple lilacs.

What I remember of that day is standing at the kitchen window watching the sky through the budding maple branches. It was a color I'd never seen before, the yellowish-green of a bruise as it begins to heal. I remember my mother standing next to me, on the phone with my father. My grandmother had told me that you were not supposed to be on the phone during a thunderstorm; you could be electrocuted. She was full of admonitions that struck fear into the heart of a child: if you forget to take the toothpick with the colorful cellophane top out of your club sandwich, it will tear open your intestines and kill you; if you pet a stray cat you will have to get thirty-seven shots in your stomach. All of these things had actually happened, she said, to people she knew.

My mother was breaking the rules, which meant that something was very wrong. I heard her asking my father what she should do. It's hard to remember that she was only twenty-seven. I don't know if the siren went off before or after she led me down the basement stairs. I remember that the lights went out and our basement was very dark. It won't be that bad, my mother might've thought. A tornado won't touch down here.

Tornadoes are nature's roulette. Even if you live your whole life in Tornado Alley you can always tell yourself it won't hit your house, and probably be right.

We didn't have a radio or a flashlight and we had forgotten about my grandparents' mean-tempered poodle, which we were dog-sitting. I wanted to go back up and get him but of course my mother wouldn't let me. We felt our way to the washing machine and then a little bit past it until we were nestled underneath the staircase. We heard a scrabbling by the dryer and my mother crawled over and grabbed the dog, which found its way downstairs after all. I squeezed the dog so tightly that it bit my face.

When it was all over, we climbed out of the basement to find ourselves and our house unscathed. The tornado passed half a mile north of us, near our church. It took cast iron finials from the railing around the reservoir. It took the roofs of old Victorians and whole wooden foursquares and part of the Water Tower. Daniel Boone's bronze likeness presided, unbent, over thousands upon thousands of felled trees in Cherokee Park. The National Guard blocked off streets to prevent looting. My parents donated blood at the Red Cross for the injured. It was for a generation what the '37 flood was for my grandparents: the natural disaster that will always live within you.

I don't remember a time when I didn't dream about tornadoes. I've lived on the west coast for thirteen years but I still have them. Earthquakes and tsunami occupy a part of my waking mind. When we are at the coast I check the escape routes. But neither has managed to penetrate my unconscious, where over and over again I spy the funnel cloud in the distance and have minutes, or seconds, to find shelter. I'm usually way out in a field, or in a car on some isolated road. All I can do is watch. 


“How far along are you?” the nurse asked, running the Doppler over my belly.

“Thirty seven weeks and five days,” I said, seeing the twister approaching, hoping that it would miss me. Its strange silence. Aren't they supposed to sound like freight trains?

This is April 3, day of tornadoes.