Everyone seems to feel that the most difficult aspect of this loss is that I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.
So? I will live with all kinds of things for the rest of my life. I am today an amalgam of everything I know through experience.
A toddler lives with the experience that his first great personal achievement, a sand castle for example, was gone the next day. No trace of it whatsoever where the tide eroded it back to the pile of sand from which it was born. In the life containing only five years of experiences, the surprise of that is impactful.
All our lives we have to take doses of this big mysterious reality lurking behind our trivial day-to-days, doses that are hopefully in proportion to what our bodies and souls can take at that stage of our lives and awareness. I just experienced the loss of Alex at the age of 51. So I assume I can take it. And it will be another part of the mash-up of experiences that hammers me this way and that, sands down this rough edge while probably gouging the edge on the other side.
These gouges mark the places where the barbed wire snagged the bull, leaving a mark on the warm leather coat that will never go away.
But the scar inevitably adds some kind of beauty — the rich patina of worn leather — marred, and made original, by the life around it before death, and through loving use and handling of it after.
Years before my son died, when he was around six years old, I wrote the following to him, his younger brother, Nate, and his baby sister, Laura. Naturally, as you will see, I imagined I would pass away first. Instead, he did.
To Alex, Nate and Laura
The day we brought you home
to your room atop the stair
I watched you while you slept
but you didn’t see me there
The time you first felt pain
it was more than I could bear
I rocked you while you slept
but you didn’t see me there
Your first day at school
you ran and played without a care
I watched you on the playground
but you didn’t see me there
The day you move way from home
I’ll say a little prayer
from the threshold of your bedroom
but you won’t see me there
And one day when I’m gone
and you’re the least aware
I will still be watching you
but you won’t see me there
A few years before we lost Alex, I made a trip alone to see him at school in New Hampshire.
We had both been looking forward to the visit, and once I got there, we left the campus and drove around the surrounding areas, just hanging out.
We decided to spend time at nearby Quechee Gorge. It is a steep, deep gorge with a river at the bottom cutting through the New Hampshire granite. Above the river is a path. Alex and I walked that path and talked for a while.
Years later, not long after his death, I found myself driving to his old school again in New Hampshire. I decided to visit Quechee Gorge again on the way, and walk once more the stony path we spent time on that day.
Once there, with no sound for miles except that of the roaring waters below, I spoke aloud to Alex.
“Alex, I don’t know if you’re here with me, but I do know you would remember that day, and this place, very well. I hope you’re okay, wherever you are. If you can find a way, if it’s easy, let me know you’re all right. That you’re happy. Okay?”
Just a few minutes later, I passed a tree stump. And took this picture.
I sat with Death, face to face
and queried why what is, must be.
“You summon sadness, fear and dread.”
‘Tis what you’ve taught yourself to see.
“You’re the end of all things good,
the final gasp, the end of days.
You laugh at birth and end all life.”
That’s not what I, but what you say.
“Give me then your words, not mine.
To souls like me, remove your bite.
You paint my sunsets dark with grief.”
Light is dark, and dark is light.
“But to what end do you demand
love to whither, hearts to rot?
You make decay of destiny.”
What isn’t is, what is, is not.
I turned my collar high and tight
against his icy, stinging breath.
“Enough of riddles. Tell me straight.”
Death is life, and life is death.
looking at a picture of Alex,
“He was beautiful.
He looked perfect.
Look at how beautiful and perfect
his face is.”
And I considered
He was the precious,
that steamed and bubbled over
more than most.
And finally broke.
Through grief I’ve learned just how different these two cousins — Sadness, and Anger — really are.
When we are sad, we are weak.
When we are angry, we are strong.
When we are sad, we are private and introspective.
When we are angry, we involve those around us.
When we are sad, we are vulnerable.
When we are angry, we are bold and aggressive.
When we are sad, we feel helpless.
When we are angry, we arrogantly charge on.
When we are sad, we cling to others.
When we are angry, we push them away.
When we are sad, we think.
When we are angry, we act.
Alex’s accident was in Savannah, Georgia. When the call came
my wife Jeanne was still asleep in Jacksonville, Florida, where
she was visiting her father. Laura, 15, was asleep in San Francisco,
California, where she was visiting a friend. Nate, 19, was
asleep at a friend’s house here in St. Louis.
Stream of consciousness took over.
I can’t tell Jeanne by phone. I’ll fly there now and tell her
when she wakes up. But I can’t leave Nate here. I have to tell
him, and can’t do that and then leave him. I’ll tell him, and
send him to San Francisco to tell Laura when she wakes up
so she isn’t alone when she hears. No, I can’t do that to Nate.
He’ll need me. I won’t worry about Laura right now, she is
three hours behind Jeanne. I need to tell Nate, pick him up, and
get on a flight to Jacksonville, and we’ll tell her in person.
I threw an extra shirt in a bag and sped to Walgreens to get
the prescription I’d called in for Jeanne. While waiting, it hit
me. When I tell Nate, his friend will know, and his father will
know, and word will travel like wildfire, and Jeanne will find
out from somebody else. I have to tell her by phone.
No, wait. My parents are in Jacksonville. I’ll call them and tell
them to go be with Jeanne for when I call. I won’t be there, but
my parents will be, so she has more support than her father
alone. I called my mom and woke her up while getting the pills
from the pharmacist. “Mom, Alex died in an accident tonight. I
need to tell Jeanne. Can you go there so I can call her?”
Wait. I just told Alex’s grandmother that her grandson died as if I was telling
her he got a C in English. My God, tell me what to do. I’m messing this up.
In minutes I was off the phone and speeding to get Nate, having left my
parents to wonder if what they heard was really what they heard. We didn’t
resolve anything on that call.
I called Nate’s cell next, and blurted the same thing out. His
was the first horrible (because it was completely coherent)
nightmarish reaction I was to hear. For his sake, I’m so glad he
was able to express his anguish naturally, authentically, honestly.
I told him we’re getting on a plane in an hour. I’m coming
by to get you. I hung up saying to his cries “I swear I’m coming
as fast as I can. I swear. I love you very much. I’m coming, I’m
The father of Nate’s friend drove us to the airport. On the way,
I mentioned to Nate I’m still trying to figure out the best way
to tell his Mom. He was shocked and angry that she didn’t
know yet. “MOM DOESN’T KNOW?!” He screamed. “YOU CAN’T NOT
TELL HER! CALL HER! NOW!” I wasn’t trying to refrain from telling
her. I just hadn’t had a second to think past that moment. Nate
was right. I called her right then.
For the third time, I blurted it out to cut through the sleepiness
and grogginess of the night. I couldn’t risk her wondering
what I was saying, fearing that I was saying he died, hoping
I didn’t, and asking me again, thereby lengthening the process.
“Alex was killed in an auto accident last night.” She screamed
her tears, her voice, and eyes, both flooded into the phone, on
a dime. As with Nate, there was no pause to let it sink in. It didn’t
need to for some reason. I went on. “I’m coming, right now. I
love you, I love you, very much. Nate and I will be in Jacksonville
in no time. We’re almost there. Love you very much.”
Nate and I arrived in Jacksonville a couple of hours later,
and were met by my father, a pillar of strength, who always
knows how to be a Dad, even when his kids are 50 years old.
In the meantime, I had called the family who Laura was visiting
in San Francisco. Her friend’s mother agreed to fly to Jacksonville with
Laura. There had been no discussion around who would tell her:
Her friend’s mom, or Jeanne by phone, or Jeanne in person after Laura landed.
Like all parents, I hated seeing my child’s feelings hurt, especially during those toddler years when they could be so surprised by disappointment. One night I wrote this to him and his baby brother, Nate. Now, having lost Alex 21 years later, I have to wonder if I was writing it to myself.
To Alex, three,
and Nate, one.
start you life,
leaves turn brown,
kites break free
and fly away.
But every kite
that comes untied
gives up the space
just as light
just as bouncy,
just as bright
As a parent, when bad things happen, you do certain things to make sure they don’t happen again.
If someone breaks into your house and takes away everything you own, you get more and bigger locks. But after this? What do you say so this doesn’t happen again, to Nate or Laura? When your kids get in the car, do you say, “Be careful” 110 times instead of just 100?
Your children leave the house like they always did, no better armed, our assurances no stronger this night than any night before Alex died.
In fact, fewer assurances. We now know we are among those people who terrible things can happen to.
The first person I told was not a family member.
Anticipating having to tell my wife, Jeanne, I called our doctor’s answering service. It was about 3am.
The doctor on call was one I didn’t know. I woke him.
He sleepily said, “This is the doctor…what are your symptoms?”
I told him, “In a minute I have to tell my wife our son was just killed in an accident. I need to have something to give her…so she can handle that.”
He woke up immediately, like only a father would. “Oh my God! My God! What happened?” I told him. And at three in the morning
he stayed on the phone to talk, and then said to me, “I’ll call something in. But if there is anything, anything at all I can do, please call me.”
I had uttered the words, and the reaction was immediately as empathetic as any I have heard since, and that helped me go on.