I hesitate. In my new home town of Bellingham, I make new friends and new acquaintances almost daily. The majority of the attendees in my gym class are women, so this is a very common question. You naturally wonder about the lives of people you see every day and you strike up a conversation.
"I had two sons. One died in infancy, and the other one died while serving in the Army."
Where we go from there depends upon the response. One is extreme discomfort and what looks to be a desire to take it back. "Oh, I'm so sorry I asked." In this case, I usually change the subject and allow the awkward moment to pass.
But sometimes I get a moment of silence and then some gentle curiosity. In these cases we can start a conversation. "My son Stephen was 13 months old when he contracted spinal meningitis. He was only sick for a few hours before he died. I was 22 at the time, a long time ago."
Far more difficult is conversation about my second son, Chris, who died in 2002. He was married and stationed at an Army base in Germany. One morning at work I got a long-distance call from Silvia, Chris' wife, and she was hysterical. I could not make out what she was trying to tell me. I remember saying, "What's wrong? Where's Chris?"
"He's dead." More hysterics. I am in shock. A voice comes on the phone, a man who is telling me something about Chris having died in Macedonia while on an assignment. The man told me to go home and wait for the Army personnel who would come to see me and give me the details. Because I was unable to drive myself home, a co-worker took me there and I called my siblings to tell them what I knew.
Three young Army personnel, two men and a woman, came to my door. The woman was holding flowers that she had bought for me. Later, I realized how difficult this had to be for them, and I found out they had never done this before. (This was before the war in Iraq; now they must have done this numerous times.) Since Chris was married, the Army had no provision to get me to Germany. I was dumbfounded. I was his mother! Doesn't that count for something?
But no; I was no longer considered to be the closest living relative. My long-time boss felt this was unconscionable, so he gave me a business-class ticket and $500 and told me to go. I went. Business class was invaluable, because I was in no condition to be sociable.
I saw him one last time, behind a glass, him in full dress uniform, with Silvia's sobs providing the sound track to the memory. When I returned from Germany, I wrote a memorial to him here.
This is hard, really hard work. No need for endless details, because what I have written here has stirred up enough grief for me to process for days. It's always there, lurking and able to be accessed by myriad life experiences. And Stephen was only the first: now I have lost so many others, as well as my parents, that sometimes I wonder if I have become hardened to it all.
But every once in a while something will touch me so deeply that I cannot hold back the tears, healing tears, and grief. Emily Dickinson's poems often touch me that way. The title of this post is a tribute to one of her poems that reminds me of what I have lost.
I held a Jewel in my fingers -This picture is the last one that was ever taken of Stephen. He was my best friend back in 1965 when he went to join the angels. When I look at that mother's face (me) and I think of what she has ahead, what she must face, I get all soft inside and wish I could have told her it will be all right, someday you will be able to write about it, and open yourself to the healing rays of the Light.
And went to sleep -
The day was warm and winds were prosy -
I said " 'Twill keep" -
I woke - and chid my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone -
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own -
ED, c. 1861