Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Future Imperfect

Dear Rachel,

More on tenses… I’m still having trouble with them. I suppose I always will.

I hate referring to you in the past tense. “Remember when Rachel caught a fish and had no idea what to do with it?” “Hey, didn’t Rachel go to South America that year?” “Boy, Rachel sure could throw a baseball.” “Rachel loved Amy like a sister; no, more like a best friend who happened to be her sister.” “Rachel came to visit last winter.” [Unspoken: And she’ll never come to visit again.]

It’s that reference to an immutable and forever removed past that hurts, I guess. All of the things you did, all of the things we did together, the things we said to each other, they’re all in the past and they’ll never happen again. Not only will you never again “catch” a softball with your mouth (“I said, ‘Keep your eye on the ball!’ I didn’t say, ‘…oh, and don’t bother moving your mitt!’ I’m sure the tooth will be fine; just put it under your pillow tonight.”), but we’ll never again get together and laugh about it.

As I neared middle age, I realized that I kind of enjoyed looking back at the past; after all, as one ages, one eventually gets to the point where one actually has a history to look back on. But you were so much a part of that history that looking back now is painful. There’s a big, ragged hole in my history.

But even having to think of you in the past tense isn’t as bad as the realization that, in addition to the past being hurtful, the future has been altered—irreparably torn like a piece of fabric come unraveled.

It’s the future that hurts the most, in fact. I find myself thinking of you in various future conditional tenses: “Rachel would have found a job by now; I wonder if she’d have decided to stay in Virginia.” “Rachel would have been 25 next February.” “Rachel would have loved this lake.”

It’s that “would have” that’s so painful; it’s a grammatical construction that’s by definition full of promise, now never to be realized. You can’t say “would have” without implying a loss of the future.

I loved you so much. I still love you, I’ll always love you, and tenses be damned.



Monday, March 20, 2006

And One With Wings

Dear Rachel,

I’ve noticed that I have quite a problem with tenses these days. That’s not surprising, really; we’ve talked a bit about it with our local grief support group and it seems to be a common thing.

And really, tense is at the heart of the problem when someone asks the question that we all dread: “So, how many children do you have?” Among those of us who have lost children, that’s referred to as The Question: No parent of a deceased child wants to hear it, because the answer—no matter how it’s phrased—is going to be painful. What do we say? “Well, we had two, but now we only have one.” No, that doesn’t work. And if we just say, “We have two” or “We have one,” both answers ignore the fact that one of our kids has died. Isn’t that the same as pretending that everything is as it was? Or that you never existed? We could never do that.

One of our grief group members has a beautiful answer, but I can’t bring myself to use it because I don’t believe it. When The Question comes up, she responds, “I have two, one with feet and one with wings.”

Oh, I wish I could buy into that. If it were true, you’d definitely have wings, Rachel. You’d have the biggest, most beautiful wings anyone had ever seen. They’d shine alabaster-white in the sun, I know they would. They’d be stippled by iridescent flecks of green and blue that would flash in the sky as you soared above us all. You’d be just as beautiful after death as you were in life.

I don’t believe that, of course. No wings. No angels. No hope for an eventual reunion. I can't believe in all of that. I’ve never in my life so wanted to be wrong about something.



Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Falling Into A Hole

Dear Rachel,

We just never know when we’re going to get blindsided. I can be doing pretty well and then a song will come on the radio or a young woman your age will walk by and set me off. Lesley and I have talked about this, and I know that she gets hit by it, too. No doubt Amy and Debbie have had the same terrible experience.

This time it was during a business trip to Orlando. I’d gone out to give a speech to a PC users’ group. I like speaking to such groups, getting to meet readers, etc., although I hate the actual traveling: hours waiting in airports, followed by hours crammed into too-small seats on an airplane. (Not to mention the actual flying! Zooming along at 600mph in a glorified cigar holder. Ugh.)

At any rate, the trip was fine, as these things go, until I got up Saturday morning and went outside to have a smoke as I drank my morning coffee. It was then that I suddenly realized: I always called you when I was on these trips, usually in the morning while drinking my coffee and smoking the day’s first cigarette. For some reason you got a kick out of me calling from Florida, Texas, California, Washington state, etc. And I got a kick out of it, too. You’d laugh and say, “So, Dad, where are you today?” And I’d respond, “Let’s see, it’s Thursday, so I’m in Orlando.” Or Seattle or Las Vegas or Dayton or wherever.

But this time there was a hole in my morning—a huge, ragged hole that matched the one in my heart. I was on another one of those trips, but this time I couldn’t call my little girl.

I stood there drinking my coffee and my eyes filled with tears. I hoped no one would walk by and wonder what my problem was.

This is like falling into a murky, gloomy pit. I’ll be going along feeling pretty well, and then I stumble and fall into a deep, dark hole, spinning and tumbling out of control in the darkness. Sometime it feels like I’ll fall forever.



Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Saying Goodbye

Dear Rachel,

You came into the world so quietly, and so few people were there to greet you: me, your mom, the doctor, and a couple of nurses. That was about it. It was early in the morning, a little after 7:00, and your mom and I had spent the entire night in labor. (Of course, I got off easy.) But you finally arrived, the two of us fussed over you for a bit, then your mom went to sleep and I (foolishly) headed for school, thinking that I could manage to teach my classes after having been awake all night. (I didn’t last long.) It occurs to me now that not many people knew that you had arrived.

What a difference from when we said goodbye to you.

It’s been nine months now since your funeral and I can finally think about it without falling apart. It was a beautiful funeral, as these things go. You had so many friends! We all loved you, of course, but I hadn’t realized just how many people felt that way.

The funeral home was overflowing. The owners had to open up the lobby and several anterooms, and they piped the service out into the rest of the building so that those who couldn’t find a seat could still hear what went on.

Many people came to the podium and spoke lovingly of you, and there were many funny Rachel stories told; we laughed through our tears. (My favorite story was about how when you were pregnant with Shaylyn and your belly was too big to allow you to sunbathe at the beach—which you dearly loved doing—your friends dug a “belly hole” in the sand so that you could lie on your stomach in the sun.) Amy spoke long and lovingly about you; she was very brave, crying the entire time but still managing to tell those gathered how you and she had become stepsisters who were closer than many (most?) real sisters. Others stepped up and talked about how you were always there for them, how you refused to give up when life placed obstacles in your path, and how you encouraged them to do the same. There were young people in that crowd who would finish college largely because you showed them that it could be done.

Finally, your mom spoke. She was amazing. Whereas I couldn’t have said two words without falling apart, she stood up there and talked about you and about her love for you for several minutes. She cried, but she was composed and coherent, strong and beautiful. (She finished by inviting those in attendance back to the very house where, only three weeks earlier, many of us had celebrated your college graduation.)

There were VIPs in attendance. Many of your professors from both TCC and Old Dominion were there, as were the head of your department at ODU and the dean of the school. (In fact, I recently heard from one of your TCC professors. He was kind enough and thoughtful enough to drop me a line just to say that you were a wonderful person and to note what a great help you were when he took you and your fellow students to Russia.) The admiral in charge of the base at Norfolk sent an aide to represent him, since your mom works for the Navy. Most surprising of all, I thought, the president of ODU was there. That was a very nice gesture for one intelligent, dedicated, and accomplished woman to make to another.

But as beautiful as it was, nothing could alter the fact that we were there to say goodbye. That’s a terrible thing to have to say to someone whose life was really just beginning. It’s so hard to find anything positive in such a tragedy. I try, though, I really do. I think about some beautiful lyrics I’ve been hearing lately:

I probably wouldn't be this way,
I probably wouldn't hurt so bad;
I never pictured every minute without you in it,
Oh, you left so fast.
Sometimes I see you standing there;
Sometimes it's like I'm losing touch;
Sometimes I feel like I'm so lucky to have had the chance to
Love this much.

And I am thankful, truly thankful, to have had the chance to love you. But I would give anything and everything I have to see and hug and kiss you just one more time.