A month or so ago, in the space of about 10 days, two women I know lost step-children to gun violence. In two completely separate instances (in two different states), two teenagers lost their lives in broad daylight for no other reason than being in "the wrong place at the wrong time."
When I say I know these women, I should clarify: I've never had either over for coffee. But I see one almost daily, weather permitting, and we chit chat about weather and kids and such; and the other I see in her professional setting when I happen to be there and we are on a hello basis. But it really doesn't matter how near or far I hold these women: children died.
I don't claim to know what it is they're going through -- I have no fucking idea. One woman I hugged, said I was sorry, asked if there was anything I could possibly do, asked to please express my condolences to her husband. I felt trite and superficial and wondered if I should have said something deeper and more meaningful. I wondered what on earth that something could be. For the other woman, I attended a memorial service for her daughter. I hugged her tightly twice, and told her as briefly as possible that I understood the very outer parameters of what she might be feeling, and could relate to much in the service. She said she'd like to call me.
These deaths have made me feel extremely small, and extremely . . . lucky. I at least got to set the terms of my daughter's death (to a degree), and she died in my arms. She did not die violently, she likely felt no pain. I said what I needed to say to Maddy even if she likely heard not one word of it. She did not die in view of the world, in the headlines. These parents have none of that peace.
Since Maddy died, I feel a strange sort of connection to parents whose children die in war, or die in gun violence, or die in car crashes. Or jump off bridges, or accidentally step off cliffs, or fall victim to being on the wrong Duck Boat on the wrong afternoon in the middle of the Delaware River. Just this past weekend, the local headlines blared the death of a child in a house fire. We are not remotely the same these parents and I; I can't claim to have any idea what it is they might be feeling.
And yet. What used to be some otherworldly Shakespearean-type tragedy glimpsed peripherally between the day's political news and the comics now hits very close to home. I now stop to pour over these stories, and the language is so similar -- the grief so familiar in it's outline. These parents hang on to times and places. There was the man who kept his son's watch set to Iraq time. Time. That bastard. It doesn't stop for us. It keeps going. Even where your child fell for the last time. The mom who sat in a lawn chair, simply being in the presence of a cold piece of granite bearing her child's name. Parents who try desperately to have something positive come out of their most horrific experience through scholarship funds and concerts and road races. The pictures, the shrines, the tears.
I don't know. I can't possibly. And yet once, while listening to a program about mothers of fallen soldiers who congregate at Arlington cemetery, I had to fight every fiber in my being not to whip my car in a U-Turn, hop on 95, and drive three hours to see if they were there.
As a historian who spent a fair amount of time studying war, I've always felt I at least understood Memorial Day and observed it to the best of my ability. I realized after Maddy died that I didn't have a fucking clue. Three Memorial Days ago, the remembrances in the paper and solemnly on my radio -- that I absorbed on my way to a family picnic -- broke me in two. I asked my husband, who was driving, if he felt like continuing on the road to a small Pennsylvania town where the son of the man speaking on our radio was buried. He said he did, but we had another commitment. We did decide that we both needed to do something more on this day, now that we at the very least could hear what people were saying.
We have yet to formalize our observance in any significant way. But this holiday now strikes perilously close to home for the both of us. We do spend time thinking of it's meaning. And all of the parents who who received the worst possible news and then spent the remainder of their lives tending gravestones instead of grandchildren.
I'm loathe to call such new awareness a "gift" because Maddy's death was simply a tragedy and I've come to decide I don't need to peel any good away from it unless it beats me on the head. I certainly don't need to look for it in order to understand it. But it left me with a new frame of reference, a new vocabulary, new metaphors, fluent in a language that I now recognize instantly. Because I may not know what they're going through at all, but I understand what they're saying. About missing, and promise, and a future without. About having a child permanently frozen in time as a child, never to progress. About mourning dreams. About having to move through time (that bastard!) while the milestones rain down like an avalanche of boulders.
In the memorial service I attended for the young woman, people spoke about continuing the speak the child's name, associating her death now and forever with a season (Fall), and not wanting to find joy in what was left, but simply wanting her. I have never been good at languages, finding all the rules too easily malleable and forgetful. Here, for perhaps the one time in my life, I felt I grasped everything said while everyone else sat rather uneasily, shifting in their seats, trying to comprehend the sounds and locate sympathetic similes within their life stories. I got it all.
And yet, I have absolutely no idea.
I just felt horribly sorry for the parents, and wondered what on earth one said to another at a time like this.
How do you feel when you encounter other parents -- either in person or via the news -- whose older children have died? How has it made you feel about your own grief and circumstances? Do you find their situations -- with children older than babies dying by means other than usually discussed here -- completely foreign or somewhat comprehensible? Do you feel a strange camaraderie with these parents, or do their vastly different circumstances leave you fumbling for words and feelings? (Is it possible to feel so similar, and yet so wildly removed?)