I read recently an excellent article by Jesmyn Ward about…
MOTHER AND SON: 19 YEARS AND COUNTING
Children think their parents know all the answers.
Their parents are pillars of rock to which they can tether themselves in the storms of youth. When all falls to the ground in seeming ruin, parents still stand tall.
It gives them comfort. It makes them feel safe.
I remind myself of this when my older daughter thinks I am about to cry.
I very rarely cry.
But when my friend Chris was run over by a drug addled 23-year old bank teller, I cried plenty. I sobbed like a baby. It was such an unexpected bolt out of the blue, “Rich, Chris was killed this morning.” It took me about two minutes after hearing the news to let it sink it. I literally could not believe it at first.
But then sink in it did.
And I cried long and loudly.
And a lot of that time I was thinking to myself, “Dude, you sound really lame when you cry like that! You sound pathetic, actually!” Hard to describe what it sounded like. A full grown man crying full bore sounds mighty unnatural to my ear.
And I cried in front of my daughters, too. For a couple of weeks. Just out of nowhere at the dinner table or on the couch.
My daughter Julia hated it. She demanded I stop. Immediately. Because it scared her, I think.
And occasionally, when she thinks for some reason I am going to cry nowadays, she asks me with a frown, “Are you going to cry?” No. I am not going to cry.
I had no apologies to her about my crying when Chris was killed. I told her crying was a sign of strength, not weakness. (And I believe that.) I reminded her of the circumstances. I said if this was not a time for crying then no time is. I was not ashamed. It was an entirely natural reaction to tragedy.
It did not matter.
She did not want to see me cry. Still doesn’t. Ever.
Fair enough, daughter Julia.
But tonight this October 31st she and her sister are trick or treating around the neighborhood with their mother. I stay at home and give out candy, preferring some “alone time,” like I always do. Because Halloween every year is the anniversary of my mother’s death.
That was another era in my life that brought on much crying. The unadulterated grief that summons sobs straight from the soul. When you listen to your heaving and sobbing and you are startled. It seems as if that sound is coming from someone other than yourself. But you cannot stop the spasms of shuddering sobs.
The heart grieves. The rest of your body just comes along for the ride.
My daughters are much too young to get their minds around the adult concept of death and loss. The age-old ritual of mourning the dead. And I hope they remain distant from that kind of knowledge for a good long time.
But I also think my daughters would be surprised how often fear and even panic rise in my throat.
I keep a game face. I learned over the years first as a teacher and then as a parent that if young people see fear in your face, then the world shifts under their feet. They tend to panic.
But adults are afraid often, and they hide it. They pretend everything is fine. They just make a lot up as they go along, and the kids think it was all planned that way. They think their parents knew perfectly well what they were doing.
But they didn’t. Often they were winging it.
In the last few years I have taken to a strange new ritual. When the adrenaline starts to flow, in a moment of crisis — when I get a $1,600 bill from the IRS unexpectedly, when I see signs of a water leak in the ceiling in the garage, or termite damage in the attic — I say my mother’s name to myself. “Margaret Mary Geib, Margaret Mary Geib.” And sometimes I say another say, too, “Christopher Allen Prewitt.”
It makes me feel better. More calm. It is as if I can summon those two persons from the spirit world and they stand tall with me in a moment of danger. I have had tennis matches where the score could not be tighter in the third set and I felt old injuries beginning to threaten. I say to myself, “Chris, help get me to the finish line. With a victory, if possible. But without an injury that sidelines me for months.” In a competitive situation when I want to win, I will throw my body around just about as hard as it takes. I am competitive. I will “red line it,” but I am almost forty nine years of age. Between points I say to myself, “Christopher Allen Prewitt. Protect my body. Keep my knee or shoulder from blowing up. Help me through this. Help me to the finish line.”
I understand the devout speak the same way to their patron saints.
I am a little embarrassed to admit to this relatively recent habit. But it is true.
I have some videos of my mother online with Vimeo. I have them saved on my cellphone Vimeo app so that I can watch the video without having to download it over and over. I watch those videos often. Sitting in my car by myself somewhere in a parking lot. During lunch in my classroom. At the kitchen table before I turn in. Always by myself.
As I look at her face on the screen, I would try to make contact. I wonder if my mom and Chris are present in some alternate universe and able to hear me. But if so, where is that world? What are the physics of it all? How can it be so hidden from us? After all these centuries no evidence that would stand clear in a lab?
A couple of times I have lifted my hand and reached out, to see if I could not somehow touch Chris. Where is he now?
His widow believes that Chris talks to her routinely. I do not have her faith in the supernatural. Or maybe I am too deaf to hear the evidence.
But I do believe nobody is truly dead as long as they are remembered by the living. As Thorton Wilder wrote, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
And that bridge between the two is mighty important. And even if the dead are gone and moldered in flesh, with no spirit remaining anywhere — well, they are still important to those whose lives they touched. The pain behind their passing in death is mixed in with the happiness they added to our lives in life to produce a potent and bittersweet cordial.
Even with the bitter bite, it is pleasurable to drink this cordial.
“Margaret Mary Geib, Christopher Allen Prewitt. Margaret Mary Geib, Christopher Allen Prewitt.”
What is this?
The older I get, the more superstitious I become?
Recently I watched a man commit suicide in a video, and his last thoughts before the screen went black were the following: “He is not completely gone as long as one person remembers his name.”
Well, Mom, plenty of people remember your name. They think about you every day.
They say your name out loud and feel better.
You are still a mother, even when dead.
I miss you.
And your children?
Even as adults, they need you.
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