“All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
When you’ve got no one to tell them to…”
“The Story”, Lyricist-Phillip John Hanseroth
I love stories. I see them everywhere—how they shape the world, how they build or dismantle understanding and relationship, how they are always at work crafting the person I was into the person I am becoming—never allowing complacency in the “I am” because stories are alive, they are moving and never still. I give witness to their power but don’t give my power over to them. I recognize that as often as I might feel lost in circumstances that seem to have become my only narrative, that it is my responsibility to pause, to breathe, to understand, to take back the pen, and to write my way forward.
So, telling a story should come easily. And yet, this one, that I’ve told so many times, is resisting a new telling. In an effort to begin, I wrote the line “Eighteen years is a long time” last week and I cannot seem to get past it. I cry every time I step up to elaborate and the words I know I want to share get lost somewhere in the back of my brain. Because in that diminutive and deceptively obvious sentence are embedded not only grief laden memories of a day and the immediate days that followed, but also the vast emptiness of all that has been missed in those 18 years and all that will continue to be in the years to come.
Maybe I need a different way in? Maybe just the truth—not prettied with lush language. Maybe I can start there.
On December 16, 2004, my husband and I discovered during a less than routine ultra-sound that, at 17 weeks, our first son, Nathan, was no longer alive and I would have to be admitted to the hospital that same night to deliver into the world a child who would not only never know that world, but who would also never know his really mom and dad (and later his brothers). And the weight of his loss was heavy and immediate. I wrote his story for the first time some years ago here.
The story of that day is not the story I want to tell today…18 years later. I don’t think rehashing the intensity of that grief is what Nathan would want for his mom, so instead, my work here will be to climb out of my grief and to reclaim ownership of it and in doing so also claim my freedom from an obvious story of a lifetime of sadness. This climb presents a challenge though as this is a particularly steep one—especially today—but the effort has allowed me to realize that what was once a point of vulnerability is now this area of strength. That Nathan’s tiny life has and will continue to inspire the rest of mine. But to detail that impact even briefly, I have to share the parts of the story that are harder to see—I have to reflect on how my beautiful boy and his early departure have sown seeds of goodness in me that would not be rooted so deeply without him.
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.”
“Lost”, by David Wagoner
The days and months that followed Nathan’s loss coincided with what could only be named a season of babies. It was just that time in life. I dug deep and decorated my face with smiles while attending showers and sitting in hospital waiting rooms all the while my heart was sort of a Sisyphean tragedy of shattering, pasting together, and re-shattering with every passing day.
And then one day, I was leaving a friend’s house after delivering a fruit tray so she enjoy a healthy treat while taking care of her newborn. I got in my car anticipating a tearful drive home and what happened instead shifted my entire trajectory.
I looked out of the window and saw the sky.
As though waiting to be noticed, the sky stood still, brilliant and blue with only a few wispy clouds and without even thinking about it the words “thank goodness for beautiful things, that sky is beautiful” came out of my mouth (out loud…alone in the car…clearly, I needed to hear them and not just think them). In that moment, I knew that my life would be so much more than this impossible grief…that there were still beautiful things in this world if I could find a way to pay attention to them…that my beautiful boy’s memory would be wasted if I spent every day immersed in the depths of this grief.
But I also knew stepping away from grief would not be a trek down an easy path. And it hasn’t been. Here I am 18 years later still writing about it—because it is hard—even when you’ve never really met the person you are missing, grief is just hard…and lasting. What remains from that day though is a practice, a gratitude practice, that has pulled me through some of my hardest days and guided me through some of the darkest wildernesses. A practice that removes me from inside of myself and grounds me in the world—reminding me there is more in this life than a moment can hold. A daily practice that I sometimes have to force because some days are just harder (and for all kinds of reasons), but still a practice that reminds me that like Lucille Clifton wrote, “today we are possible…everything waits for us…what will become/waits in us like an ache.”
And so, what has become of Nathan’s memory?
I see him in the faces of my own living children. I see him in the faces of every single child I teach, of every child I encounter. And in doing that, I am able to speak, to parent, to teach, to lead with greater empathy. I see myself in those around me and wonder “What aren’t they revealing in their smile? What might I be missing?” And my patience grows (I mean, maybe not when I’m driving…but still) and my vulnerability emboldens because maybe I can share something that will help…or maybe I can just listen and be present. I encounter difficult things and know that they might be terrible, but I can, in fact, survive…if I just look for the sky.
So, yes, 18 years is a long time. And yes, I would prefer it if my Nathan were still here, in his senior year, getting ready for graduation and the rest of his life. But my life and that of my family is the rest of his life, and it won’t be wasted. For that, I am willing to work hard. For that, I am grateful.