In the wake of my son Jack’s death, I was frozen in disbelief, stayed in shock, cried angry tears, pretended that it hadn’t happened, and often sat feeling lost and afraid. Grief feels a lot like fear. That’s the way I woke every morning for most of the first year, startled and afraid. (“What’s the matter? I’m missing something. Oh. My. God.”) And the day would start all over again.
January 15, 2012 was the 3rd anniversary of missing Jack. Georgie and I met in Fredericksburg; my niece Claire and my sister Mary Ann joined us. We planned to start a climb up Enchanted Rock at dawn on Sunday.
It wasn’t daybreak, but it was early enough for us to get into the park with a minimum wait. We had a small red satin sack with Jack’s ashes. When Georgie and I stopped on the climb, reflected, laughed sometimes, wept sometimes, we left a handful of ashes. The little red sack got lighter as we got closer to the top.
We found a generous soul who was willing to take the picture of us at the top. He suggested that we take a picture at the survey marker that marks the highest point on Enchanted Rock. He talked like a geologist, but there was a frustrated America’s Next Top Model photographer in his heart when he posed our second picture. Bless him for giving us such a great laugh!
When we reached the top, we looked around for the best place to put Jack’s ashes. Georgie suggested a cave since that was what had fascinated him on our climb for my 50th birthday. Claire thought putting some ashes on the plants at the summit would be better. In the end, we put them in both places.
One of the few songs that I have recorded with Jack singing and playing guitar is “The Aftermath.” Those of us who loved Jack live in the aftermath of his death.
That aftermath drove home life lessons with a vengeance.
1. I don’t know which day will be my last. I’ve often thought that I’m on the downside of my life. Having lived well past the 50% mark of an average woman’s lifespan, I know that I don’t have 70 years left to live. At 20 years, 1 month, 1 week, and 1 day, Jack’s life ended. What’s that? A little over 25% the average lifespan for an American man?
I wish I could say that I’m always mindful that I need to live one moment at a time. Most nights, I review my day in terms of what I’ve been able to “pack into the stream of life.” I don’t often just mark time. I want my days to count; I do not want to just count the days.
The thing is that I never knew when I was living the best moment of my life with my child until life slammed me into the reality that there would be no more moments.
2. I try to gentle my words. I have often had sharp words for folks. For some reason, the people I love the most get cut with my words worse than strangers. The night before he died, I yelled at Jack for not taking care of business on his day off from school and work and squandering his paycheck on video games. Regret that? Maybe not the words, but the way I said them. You bet!
I try to think before I speak. When the words come out sideways, I make amends as quickly as possible. Often in the next breath because I hear what I’m saying today better than I did before 1/15/2009.
3. The people I love are important. Warts and all. I cringe when I’m in an AA meeting and someone rags on a family member. I want to say, “Do you have a clue what it’s like to NOT have them in your life? Of course you don’t. I do. Trust me. You will miss them more than words can say.” Don’t get me wrong. Family members can really make me mad, but I try to make sure they know how important they are to me.
I play a mental slide show of them each night and thank God for them. I tell them how important they are with words since sometimes I over-rate my intentions and actions. I don’t want any doubt about how I feel about them!
Jack’s life was a source of pure joy. His spirit was gentle, kind, funny, creative, and positive. I’m not building him into a saint; he was full of humanity. But the good of him tipped the scales over any bad.
It is a new day today. The beginning of a new year. I found that the aftermath of sobriety was taking the wreckage of the past and building a new life of freedom. I often use the wreckage as salvage building materials. For some reason they seem to make stronger foundations and infrastructure. That’s my hope with the aftermath of Jack’s death.