December 28, 2014 – 10:15 AM
As we mark the one year ‘anniversary’ of Jake’s death, I find myself reflecting on the past twelve months, and what, if anything, I have learned. There have been many lessons, both painful and enlightening. It is difficult to grasp that a year has passed. Each day dragged on so slowly, but now that 365 of them have slipped away, the time seems as only an instant since I heard those dreadful words that bright December afternoon. Time is like that. We try to savor every luminous moment, try to hurry through the dark ones and yet, when all the moments have passed it seems scarcely the length of a single heartbeat.
I have learned that the human spirit has an almost unlimited capacity to absorb emotional pain. I say almost because there must be limits, although I can’t imagine any greater pain than the loss of a child at any age, under any circumstances. Perhaps it is as Mark Twain wrote after the loss of his daughter, Jean:
“It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man [or a woman], all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live. There is but one reasonable explanation for it. The intellect is stunned by the shock of it and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize their full import is mercifully wanting. The mind has a dumb sense of vast loss – that is all. It will take mind and memory months, and possibly years, to gather together the details and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss….It will be years before the tale of lost essentials is complete, and not till then can he [she] truly know the magnitude of his [her] disaster.”
Yes, the intellect is stunned, I have a sense of vast, infinite loss, I haven’t gathered together all the details and the realization of their full import is still mercifully wanting. Even a year after the fact, I still am bewildered by the whole thing. Still living in the WTF stage. Still gropingly gathering the meaning. Still numb. I only have a glimpse at the magnitude of the disaster. And yet, things are different. My wife and I are moving forward. Haltingly, tentatively, but forward. The hourly grief spasms have abated, and strike far less frequently. Raw agony has morphed into a deeper, indelible ache. I have learned, somewhat, how to manage my chronic sorrow.
I have learned that people can be unbelievably kind and supportive. We have friends who were there from the very first moment we learned of this unspeakable tragedy, and continue to stand with us to help. They are there whenever we need them. They are there whether we need them or not. They are merely there. It is the simplest yet the most important gift. I have learned that complete strangers and the most casual of acquaintances are capable of enormous acts of kindness. These seemingly inconsequential gestures, unlooked-for, have the power to assure us that we are not alone- that even though people haven’t experienced the horrific loss we have, they empathize fully and know that we are hurting beyond description.
I have also learned that people can be shockingly insensitive. Without realizing it, people have said the most heart wrenching things as if they were discussing the weather. I have learned that the people you think will be supportive disappear, and the most unlikely heroes arise to lift you up. I learned that you can’t really tell who will say or do what at which times. Whether inappropriate, indifferent, hurtful or just unthinking. As Art Linkletter once said, “People are funny.” Ha. Ha. I think some people just aren’t thinking when they open their mouths. Perhaps they are trying to relate to our pain, perhaps they haven’t a clue, perhaps they want to share a bit of their own pain, perhaps they haven’t the foggiest notion of how what they say will affect someone going through the depths of heartbreak. Many of them have been conditioned by our society to think that tragedies such as this are something to be ‘gotten over’, and ‘moved on’ from. Not having experienced such a loss, they have no idea that this is something you never get over. I don’t know. I have learned to walk away from such people as politely as I can.
I have learned that sometimes I have to fight to keep Jake’s memory alive in my heart and mind. Not that I would ever forget him, or any of the million things I miss about him, but that sometimes it is as if he never really existed. That those 24 years with him were merely a dream, and I have wakened to this grim reality without him. But it wasn’t a dream. This new reality seems like the dream. One that I long to awaken from to learn that it was all just a horrible nightmare, that Jake is alive and well. After all, we never saw his body. We had to take someone else’s word that it was him. Maybe he is someplace else, waiting to return to surprise us. “It’s been a year, come on, you can come out of hiding, son. Come home, we miss you.” Sadly that is not to be. Jake did exist, more accurately he lived. Fully and completely for the time he was here. He touched people in unimaginable ways. In ways that have yet to be realized. He planted seeds throughout his life; some have grown to fruition, some are just sprouting, and some lie dormant waiting for the moment to burst into bloom.
I have learned that Jake had a group of fiercely loyal and loving friends. Friends from different stages of his short life. These are people who are still part of our lives, who have insisted on remaining in touch. This group is far-flung, but whenever they come into town, they make a point of stopping by for a visit. I know why Jake became friends with them, they are amazing; kind and caring, smart, supportive, and at times so damn funny. I can imagine how much fun they all had together. It is bittersweet seeing these wonderful young people; seeing them grow and mature, watching them make their way through life. We get glimpses of Jake in each of them, these first friends. They keep him alive in their thoughts and hearts just as we do. No one who knew him will ever forget him. That is the sweet part. The bitter part is that we won’t see Jake make his way through his life. That all we have left are the stories, memories, and photos that his friends share with us. And they willingly share them. For that, we are deeply grateful.
I learned that I miss so many of the little things he did. Simple things like fixing a light switch, cracking a joke, whipping up a batch of impossibly good gelato, installing a headlight in my wife’s car. Things he did with utter confidence and expertise. He was so capable in so many areas. I am constantly aware of his absence. I miss doing things with him, the enjoyment we shared in our ‘boy’s days’, the simple pleasures of hitting a little white golf ball, lying on a beach watching the sea roll in, cooking together, building things together, sharing a joke, sharing a meal, sharing a dream. I miss those things, and a million others with a primeval longing that will never go away no matter how many years pass. I have learned that time does not heal all wounds. There are some wounds no amount of time can heal. I am scarred for life. I will always miss him.
I have learned that we, as a society don’t “do” death and grieving very well. It is not a subject people talk about; it makes everyone so uncomfortable. Rarely do I have a conversation beyond, “Oh, I am so sorry for your loss”. I guess there is not much really to say. People who know us and knew Jake ‘know’. Those who don’t will never know. I am not sure what I expect, but people really don’t know what to say or do in the face of such unfathomable tragedy. Mostly they nod and pretend they understand. The people I have met through writing this blog, they truly do understand, and we don’t really have to say much, other than we know and care and love and are truly sorry, in a way that someone who hasn’t experienced such a loss can’t be. As someone I know observed, there are two kinds of people in this world – those who have lost a child and those who haven’t.
I have come to the realization that no matter how much society expects men to “be strong”, there are times when I am immensely weak and fragile, and that is just how it is. Will probably always be. And that’s okay. I have learned through my contact with others on this journey, that people grieve in different fashions. Each of us finds our own way to express the unimaginable pain such a loss brings, and our own way of dealing with it. Men grieve differently from women they say. Women may be freer to express their emotions, men less so, constrained by societal expectations and conditioning; “real men don’t cry,” we are told. That men and women grieve differently may be true, but everyone is unique, man or woman. I have no shame in crying in public, in breaking down when I least expect it, hit by a wave of sadness that takes my breath away. I have cried my share of tears this year. There is no right way to grieve, nor is there a wrong way. There is only grief.
I have learned that I can still laugh, still find some enjoyment in life. I learned that whatever enjoyment or pleasure I can eke out now comes with an asterisk. There is a fundamental piece of that joy missing. Every pleasant experience comes tinged with longing and sadness. Recently, we went to a sale event by a company, Epicure Imports, that is a wholesaler of culinary supplies and ingredients. It is open to the public a few times a year, and as we wandered through the cavernous warehouse filled with exotic oils, nuts, chocolate, spices, vinegars, truffles, cheeses, meats, I could only think how much Jake would have loved that place. I think that whenever I do something he would like. Happiness and sadness exist simultaneously in nearly everything. This year I learned the true meaning of saudade.
I have learned that Jake comes to visit us. Sometimes in a dream so vivid and memorable as to be almost palpable. Sometimes in a vague awareness of his presence, the flight of a bird, the rustle of wind in a tree, the blaze of a sunset, the twinkle of a star. Sometimes in an impossible synchronicity of events or things that have no other explanation. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Sometimes we can smell him; a whiff of tobacco smoke that wafts by in a house where no cigarette has ever been smoked. Perhaps I am projecting these things, but there are times when I can feel his spirit nearby.
The fog has lifted somewhat and I can see for a short way down the road; I am still not sure what lies ahead, what the destination is. I know Jake will not be with me as we move forward, will not share in our successes or our failures. I won’t share in his successes or his failures. I won’t see him marry, have children of his own; we will never have grandchildren. I know Jake won’t be there to hold our hands as we grow old, I won’t be able to bequeath anything to him. On the contrary, I have inherited several things from him in a bizarre upending of the natural order of things. I take pictures with his camera, I shave with his vintage Gillette razor. I read his books, I use his tools. Exactly the opposite of how it is supposed to be. I know that my father’s line of Kohanim, the descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother, ends with me. My wife’s mother’s and father’s lineage ends with Jake. There will be no more Jewish children to carry on their names. No more Colmans to carry on ours. So much of what I did this past 25 years was for my son. I worked to create something to leave to him. Now, to whom will I leave it?
I have learned that I still have a long way to go; if I was going to lay down in front of a bus, I would have already done it. That I will walk this road to its end. That life is about the journey, not the destination. I have learned there are far too many of us on this voyage of sadness. Too many of us sailing down the River of Tears. There is small comfort knowing that we are not alone, very small comfort. On second thought, there is no comfort at all. Why do we have to sail this river? Why has this happened to us? Why Jake? Why any of our beautiful children? This is something I haven’t learned yet, may never learn the answer to. Sadly, even if we could get an answer, there is no reason good enough. Would that this boat could dock, and all of us adrift on the ocean of heartbreak could disembark in a land of happiness and peace. I have learned that is not to be. I have learned that my lot, like Don Quixote, is to bear the unbearable sorrow. Some days it feels like I am tilting at windmills.
I have heard from those ahead of me on this path that the second year is often worse than the first. Some say it is better. I am sure it is different for everyone. I will see what other lessons are mine to learn as we turn the page on the first year and continue down this lonesome highway.
Mostly what I have learned is that I still have a lot to learn.