Here’s why I’m here, an am glad you are, too. I lost my son Valentine’s Day, 2010. And since that moment I have sent daily emails to myself so I will remember every moment and every reaction I’ve had. As a result, my world has expanded. Please join me, from here, or the first post at the very bottom, or anywhere in-between; read the emails, talk to me, and tell me, regardless of your particular circumstances — do you see what I see?
When we lose someone very close to us, we can’t understand why the rest of the world doesn’t stop, and fall down, with us. This comes up all the time in the days following hard loss. How can normalcy continue? Doesn’t the universe notice?
We interpret the fact that time doesn’t stop as evidence that the universe doesn’t care. That the life that was lost was meaningless to all other existence. Otherwise, how could the lawn still be green? How could the weather be good? Why is the sky blue, under which commuters are still on the highway, stores are open and busy, and people continue to care so much about the line at the bank, the price of gas at the pump, the fact that the dry cleaner still doesn’t have your shirts ready?
If you’re a parent, you probably remember how you respond to your child when he fell and skinned his knee. To the horror of that child, this was the end of the world. From his perspective, this is about as bad as life can be – the shock, the pain, the disorientation. But as parents, we know better. And the way we assure our child that things will be fine is by doing exactly what the universe does when we lose a loved one: we do not freak out, we don’t over-react, we pick him up and ensure normalcy immediately.
Just as we are the parents to our children, in the greater context of things, it is we who are the children. So we look upward, as a child does to the face of her parents, for clues that all will be okay in the end.
If, upon the loss of a child, the natural world fell into complete disarray, we might at first feel that the severity of this loss was immediately understood, and that the doomsday upon us is justified. And with that would come the fear that yes, the world is coming to end, there is nothing else out there to catch our fall, and the terrifying words of the most cynical and defeatist prognosticator we know would suddenly be validated.
Today, my son Alex would have been 27 years old. This afternoon, I visited the tree we planted next to his bench in Oak Knoll Park. That’s where I wrote the following. Maybe it will help you or someone you know see loss from a different perspective.
At Alex’s Bench, Five Years After
Where you are,
I cannot know.
I’m sure that you
are out there though.
For were death
The bitter end,
Of all you are,
Have ever been,
In any shape or
Your loss would scorn.
And livid earth,
Both of whom
Once praised your birth,
Would sure unleash
Spurn the gods,
And all things good,
If you were done,
Your name made moot,
Trees would bear
Small bitter fruit,
Stone of soil,
be made to boil,
And all good work
be turned to toil.
But suns still rose,
moons still hung,
The trees remained,
the birds still sung,
Stars still shone,
the fruit was sweet,
the roses grew.
We still have
the dew at dawn,
the live oak’s shade,
the baby’s yawn.
And all things good
Since the dawn of time, there have been parents who have lost children and struggled with how to proceed in that painful new reality. And after centuries of introspection by our greatest minds, all we have today is the cliché you’ve all heard by now — “Everyone deals with loss their own way.” In other words, there is still no answer.
Below are my own personal findings on the subject. Integrate, Emulate, Communicate, Educate, and Appreciate.These simple practices might give you some direction forward. They did me.
Best wishes for all of you, and the road ahead.
Instead of rejecting the pain of loss, and thereby pushing away thoughts about your child (which only separates them more), integrate him or her into your newfound understanding of life. If you manifest them in a lifelong endeavor — for example, a project that attracts others to join you in celebrating them through some welfare in the community — you keep them close, and they remain a part of your daily life, in a positive way. The more time this endeavor consumes, the more time you are spending with the one you love and keeping them close. Don’t attempt to keep him or her at some “safe” distance emotionally. As harsh as it sounds, try to embrace the loss — and in so doing, embrace him, more effectively.
Your child had certain interests, passions, and traits that were unique to them and the family. Continue to believe in and openly support those things he or she did. The characteristic you choose to celebrate might give you the idea for how you integrate this loss into the rest of your life. If your daughter was into alternative music, start supporting young musicians. If your son liked to play baseball, support a local team of other kids like him and enable his influence to make a difference still today. If you do this, and do it regularly, you will find that there are many people out there who will come to know your child, think of her fondly, and celebrate her life regularly with you through involvement with your initiative.
Your child’s life is infinitely relevant. The impact he or she had, no matter how short the life, is evident in the depth of the loss you share with so many others. To live as if your child’s influence stopped when his or her physical presence did is unfair to you, your child, and others who loved your child. If your son moved to another country, out of sight and sound, you wouldn’t drop all references to him in ordinary conversation. Because his influence continues. The more you keep him close in conversation with family and friends, the easier it is for them to express their love and respect for his life, and the more he will continue to have influence in the family and the world.
Learn about loss and the true extent of it — in the world, in your town, and in your neighborhood. As tempting as it is to think so, you weren’t singled out and robbed while the rest of the world merrily continues on without suffering loss. We think of the loss of a child as uncommon because nobody hears about it. Nobody hears, because nobody talks. And nobody talks because the subject itself scares everyone. But the fact is that since the beginning of time, parents have lost children prematurely. You are in the company of Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even those who went on to make the world laugh, such as Charlie Chaplin. Not to mention the thousands of parents who kept America going when their children were dying in two World Wars, and mothers and fathers who still get that dreaded message from the military today. Once you become aware of how common the loss of a child really is, you have a corrected perspective, and you feel less like a lone victim picked on by God. Families on TV rarely lose a child. But families in your community do.
I would never suggest that losing a child is something to appreciate. What I am referring to is the profoundly new perspective you gain on the nature of the universe we live in. Is the trade worth it? No, I’d rather have my son. But to sustain such an enormous blow is to wake up to what matters most in our short lives, and see those around us differently, and more accurately, with a more sensitive and understanding eye. Such extreme loss arms us, like nothing else can, to be unusually effective in making a difference for others who are suffering. You can now deliver the greatest, but rarest gift: understanding. A grieving parent once said to me, “Would I do anything to have her back? Of course. But I admit, I like the person I am now, more than the person I used to be.”
Take care and may we all get better at this, day by day.
We are terrified of loss. But one reason for our terror is that we feel we are supposed to be terrorized; even though death of each and every one of us, and our loved ones, is a sure thing.
In a world of beauty, where death is a constant truth, how can death not be given the benefit of the doubt? Beyond the fact that death is an inevitable part of the plan for us anyway, have you noticed our own behavior regarding the profound beauty in those things whose time has come and gone? The architectural ruins of early Greece and Rome are one example.
We honor them, and are moved by them, and their own, inherent eternity —
Once Upon A Roman Wood
I walked with others over roots
Of chestnut, oak and
Rendering our path below
Dense and dark
With limbs and leaves
When far away, a panoply
Of shafts of brilliant
Broke through the Roman canopy
As moonglow would
A winter’s night
Compelled to reach this golden space
We travelled on
Until we came upon the place
Which was there
And yet, was gone
There we stood among the ruin
Of an ancient
A once majestic monument
Now lost to
But faded frescos thrilled our eyes
And rugged stone
As ivy vines rendered
Still it heard our exhalations
And knew it took
And not for what it was in life,
But what it is,
We human beings did not invent fatherhood. We are a product of fathers and mothers, and we become fathers and mothers, because that is the nature of our existence. It is profoundly important, being the way of the Universe.
But we did create Fathers Day. It’s a nice gesture. It reminds us to call home. And it gives another thing we created — commerce — a boost once a year. But it’s only important to us because we made it up, and choose to consider it important.
Believe it or not, some of us still need to be reminded of how separate these two concepts are. Many of us fathers who have lost a child might dread Fathers Day, because the conditions are perfect therein for us to feel left out, self-conscious, or worse, embarrassed, like showing up for Father and Son Day at the ballpark, without a son.
But Fathers Day is just a play thing. Fatherhood is the real thing. And the two are so far apart from one another that, at times, they might even suggest opposing ideas. We designate Fathers Day as the one day out of all 365 to honor our fathers. But fatherhood is a constant whole, undivided by days and nights. Honoring our fathers should be happening every day. (It’s like the pride we take in practicing “random acts of kindness.” Kindness is not supposed to be random. It is supposed to be the rule, not the exception.)
To create life as a parent is a sacred privilege. We resulting human beings are usually eager and are well meaning. But we can’t truly honor Fatherhood with a new tie once a year.
So I will not sweat this day. I will continue to try and lift myself above our silly day-to-day human distractions — shopping, errands, greeting cards and parties. Continue to make relationships at higher levels. And keep in mind that fatherhood is necessary for life itself, while Fathers Day is necessary for sales at Macys.
Finally, nobody knows better than you do how easily taken for granted it is having your child with you, here and now. So do call your father. His gift is that you are still here to make the call.
Both had a love for the real, the genuine, the authentic.
Both embraced creativity like a child, and pursued it boldly.
And as unlikely as their paths were to ultimately cross, you would never doubt they were meant to.
David Ivor Balding. If you knew him at all, you’d say, “Ivor? Of course his name is Ivor!” He was the very embodiment of “circus” as we most want to imagine it: big, brave, mysterious, otherworldly; from a universe where magic exists, brought to us by characters special enough to live with one foot in that universe and another in this one.
A native New Yorker, his was a life rich with variety, of the impresario kind. Producing shows from Parisian circuses to Pinter plays, all along harboring a wish that other, ordinary people would have outgrown by that stage of life. He wanted, one day, to have his own elephant.
Meanwhile, far, far away, a younger man was getting started in the business world, out in the American midwest. I say “business” because as a photographer, he served the marketing world. Scott Raffe photographed CEO’s for annual reports. He shot products for marketing. He called on companies and their advertising agencies. Eventually, he moved to St. Louis, where his pursuit of projects for banks, manufacturers and service providers continued. It was here that he met David Ivor Balding.
David Balding himself was contagious. If you carried the recessive gene for Obsessive Fascination — which in 21st century America we tend to suppress — David awakened it. The result was often unbridled awe for the exotic, a tendency towards creative risk, respect for the clown as much as the client, and the Big Top as much as the Boardroom.
In David, Scott had stumbled onto the world his camera had been looking for, whether he knew it at that time or not. Through David, and David’s very own elephant, Flora, along with the beloved family circus performers who made up his one-ring circus, Scott’s lens found the big, important things. The capital-letter subjects that have been around forever, but, at times, seem unlikely to last forever: Craft, long practiced and taught, carried down through generations; Wonder, made of such humble ingredients as grease paint, popcorn and sawdust floors; and Family, so close, that fathers, grandfathers, nieces and nephews lived, worked and performed together, well past the time it takes for the child who on stage plays the child, to begin playing the father.
And Scott found children who never dreamed of running away with the circus, because they were already there.
David and Scott weren’t formally partners. They were simply artists, and each respected the work of the other. They had an unofficial understanding that whatever David and his circus dreamed up, Scott would have access to shoot. And in exchange, Scott would record David’s dreams through photography that was as human, revealing, and yet as respectful, as David’s work itself.
The collaboration lasted many years. Whenever David needed images for advertising, promotion or press, Scott was there with literally thousands of photographs, all at no charge. My advertising agency, Rodgers Townsend, utilized Scott’s work for Circus Flora advertising. Scott not only made the circus look good, he made Rodgers Townsend look good.
Having first met each independently, I initially knew David as a client, and Scott as an advertising photographer. Over time I became friends with each.
Once, David and his wonderful wife Laura opened their farm to me so I could produce a commercial there for a global relief organization, Outreach International. Both were there with us all day, and never asked for a penny.
After Scott moved to Oklahoma, he self-published a large, elegant coffee table book of all his photos made around that state. He wasn’t sure if he would make his money back. He gave one to me.
While I knew how much they worked together, I also knew Scott had many other clients, and was living in Oklahoma. I knew that David’s shows went on and on, around the country, whether Scott was in town or not. So they were still separate artists in my mind, who overlapped once a year, when the circus came to town.
That is, until my oldest son suddenly died, in an automobile accident. He was 21.
Although Alex grew up going to Circus Flora, neither David nor Scott really knew him. And I didn’t see David or Scott that often, so I hadn’t thought to reach out to either of them and tell them the news.
A few weeks after Alex’s service, I was back at the office. Out of the blue, I got a call. It was David.
“Tom, Scott Raffe’s in town. The two of us want to take you to lunch.” They suggested Duff’s. I arrived, and there they were, waiting at a table, watching the door. They stood and embraced me in such a way that words were hardly necessary. We spent a personal hour or two together, not as client, photographer, and ad man. But as David, Scott and Tom.
One year later, Scott was taken by pancreatic cancer. Now, three years after that, David has passed from complications resulting from a fall. And now I can never return the favor they gave me that day.
A writer named Todd Mitchell was working at Rodgers Townsend when he wrote a headline for Circus Flora. Years later, after David and I were no longer working together, he told me it was his favorite line. Today, it occurs to me why.
We thought it was about Circus Flora.
He always knew it was about David Balding.
He understood that it was about everyone who knew him, loved him, and believed in what he believed in.
Today, I find more truth in Todd’s line than ever before.
Maybe as much as David Ivor Balding once did.
“Childhood ends. But circus is forever.”
— Tom Townsend
After the tender
white magnolia flower
bursts on the scene
and fulfills the
of a short and beautiful
the time comes
for it to return
from whence it came.
After the tender
bursts on the scene
and fulfills the
of a short and beautiful
the times comes
for it to return
from whence it came.
The magnolia flower
of the magnolia flower
of the child
And the body
of the magnolia flower
hard and stiff
and lies in the earth
in new life
and we say
look, again it is beautiful.
And the body
of the child
hard and stiff
and lies in the earth.
in new life
and we will say
look, again it is beautiful?
This was the day I went into the basement where Alex’s belongings had been since they all came back from Savannah to St. Louis.
I went through dirty clothes and folded them, to be washed at some future time.
Among his belongings were some miscellaneous paper scraps that I was sure were little bits of trash. But before tossing them, I took a closer look. When you are going through the things of the child you no longer have, you don’t want to throw anything away that may have had some connection to him. Even paper scraps.
In this little pile I found ticket stubs to every concert, movie or event he’d experienced that year. He was very sentimental about time shared with others, and kept those artifacts religiously.
Then at the bottom I found a very small square of folded paper — well-worn, folded gingerly. It had seen a few miles.
Carefully I picked it up and began unfolding the square. And I kept unfolding it, because it had been folded over as many times, over and on top of itself, as possible the last time it was held. The paper was soft, the creases deep.
Once completely open, another folded square was revealed to be inside, hardly larger than a postage stamp. I opened it to discover a note that he had written to Chelsea, his girlfriend. It was long, loving, and very emotional. It was written in light blue pencil.
Then I looked closer at the first piece of paper that had been hiding the second inside. There he had written the following:
“Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”
These days I feel compelled to tell everyone that I just lost my son. I don’t know why. Whether I’m in St. Louis, or across the globe in India, where I am at the time of this writing, I feel as if I’m not supposed to keep it inside.
Is that because it makes me feel closer to others? And do I need to feel close to others so much that I’m drawn to telling complete strangers? Being so far away from home, is it borne of some deep-seated longing for a kind of human bridge across cultures, across the world, being so removed from the anchors of my life, especially my first-born son?
I took a walk down a narrow street in the quaint town in rural India where we have been a few days. I was taking photographs of the people as they came out, excited by the camera, and curious about the new white guy in town carrying it.
Two young girls approached me proudly, excitedly, to meet me and demonstrate their grasp of English. They asked me friendly, simple, basic questions about where I was from, why I am here, and if I had a family back home. “Yes,” I answered. One of them followed up. “How many children,” she asked in her broken English. I just blurted out, “Three, but a few months ago I lost one in an automobile accident, so I have two.” Her young face dropped in such obvious sadness that the one thing we shared — the humanity within us — became palpable. I kept the conversation going so her excitement about exercising her language wasn’t diminished by that news which so clearly affected her.
Later, we were in Gumiguda, a much, much smaller village, deep in the mountains. We stayed at a primary school there. Upon arriving, I found a very elderly man (pictured here) sitting in front of the old gate designating the entrance to the school. He seemed to have an injured foot. He appeared frail, and walked slowly with a cane. He had dark, sun-scorched skin, and white hair. The people I was traveling with identified the man to me as the father of another man in our party. He knew we were arriving there that particular day, and had walked from his village — a day’s walk away — the day before to see his son.
We were introduced, and even though we couldn’t communicate with words either of us could understand, we greeted each other every morning with a sense of welcoming recognition. Soon after meeting him I learned that this man’s other son had died earlier.
That knowledge connected me to him in a very personal way. We were so very different, but shared this common blow to which no man is immune. I wondered if I should somehow let him know I had heard he lost his son, and tell him I lost a son as well. But I never did. I guess I felt that while the loss was so fresh to me, and several years removed for the loss he experienced, I didn’t feel I could help him really, and might inadvertently suggest to him that I thought he could somehow help me. With the intense language barrier, I was concerned, I guess, that I was opening a deep topic that we would have neither the time, nor language to successfully communicate about. And there was risk that I could communicate the wrong thing.
A day or two later, my two traveling companions and I were in another village, this one smaller still. It seemed to consist of about 10 huts and 25 people. They all gathered to meet us when we approached. They knew Dennis, my traveling partner with Outreach International, so they greeted us warmly. This was a Christian village — not Hindu. The one very old woman looking through the cracked lenses of her dirty, old glasses who seemed to be the respected elder in the group suggested we pray before leaving. Her dark, heavily calloused hand took mine, and everyone followed suit, and she prayed in her native language to God.
Again, at that moment, I felt unified with all humanity, at some place deep down inside. The woman had nothing in this world by the standards of my culture. Her aged, brown skin was like leather, her clothes soiled, the skin of her hand coarse and dry. But she had family, love, despair, hopes and dreams. And at that moment, in a mountain village sitting on the dirt of one of the poorest regions in the world, we faced the same fears, the same sadnesses, the same helplessness at the hands of a life we didn’t ask for and are just making the best of.
Again, part of me wanted her to know I lost my son. Maybe she would have had something wise to say. Maybe I would have gained from what ever reaction she might have had. But it struck me as somehow selfish.
So I left it at just appreciating the comfort of that moment. The realization that even beyond the people I know back home, I was not alone in my struggle. The mysteries of the world and the suffering imposed on us in it are nothing new, even if they are new to me.
I am part of the flow of humanity, everywhere it is. We are one, we face the same questions, share the same hopes, struggle with the same horrors.
And most importantly, we do it together.
Am I devastated because I fear Alex is in pain?
If so, he’s not in pain. So stop.
Am I devastated for myself? Because I want him here with me, instead of where he should be now?
I can’t let this be about me. So stop.
Am I devastated because I want to save him but don’t know how?
That’s useless as well. He moved away and doesn’t need me now. Out of town, out of state, out of
the country, and off the planet. He’s not waiting for me to save him.
Is it that simple? That the pain we feel when we lose a loved one is self-inflicted only?
Can we find peace in remembering just how much our grief is mostly about ourselves?
Alex isn’t calling me to save him.
There is no swimmer waving his hands out beyond the breakers.
There’s no child lost atop a mountain ridge, looking down, calling to me, trembling.
To the contrary.
If Alex is atop a mountain ridge, he’s looking up. And taking pictures.