Perseid Shower (NASA)
My life, the 56 years of it I have lived so far, has been book-ended by death. To lose your mother and year-old brother when you are seven, or four, as my other brother was: that teaches you certain things about life and death and about the universe we inhabit, which is elegant and beautiful, but also chaotic and savage. To lose your own child? After such knowledge, what forgiveness?* One cannot even figure out who to forgive. One wonders about the Perseids: a beautiful shower of stardust, or a sign of catastrophic eruption and disintegration? Both, I guess.
I have spent much of my lucid time this past year thinking about life and death, materiality and spirit, freedom and grace, unfreedom and evil. I think about how to go forward; I wonder what "going forward" means. The Gerstenbergers, whose story appears here, are marking the two-year anniversary of the loss of their beautiful 12-year-old Katie today. The Johnsons, here, are gathering tomorrow to celebrate the 30th birthday of their beautiful Joey, gone for fifteen months. Our Lovely Daughter turns 22 on Wednesday; her brothers' 25th birthday is September 1, and the anniversary of Chicago Son's death is the next day.
Twenty-five years ago I was a little more than 38 weeks pregnant with my boys. Thirty-eight is deemed full-term for twins, so the ensuing two weeks were full of consternation for my doctors. I spent most of my time either doing my whale act in the city pool or fending off telephone calls from concerned family, who had been primed for baby-arrival for at least a month. I'm sure that the Gerstenbergers and the Johnsons, and all the other families like ours, have similar memories, of a time of such happy anticipation that it seemed nothing could ever mar the joy. I grew up in such a family, a family shaken by the ever-present dichotomy of life, the great gift, and death, the relentless stalker.
That my mother should have died seems impossible. My mother was beautiful, and blonde, and could sing, and four people depended upon her for almost everything. That my brother should have died seems impossible. Such a deep gurgle of a laugh he had, a sound representative of the exuberance which filled our home. People who know about such things, people who do therapy or teach psychology for a living, have on occasion told me that I must have had a wonderful mother. They tell me that my own ability to create a loving home must have been nurtured in those few years in which she enveloped us in love and delight.** And it does seem, in fact, that we lived in simplicity and freedom** in those years, with sunlight streaming onto the hardwood floors of our country house and life uncomplicated by loss.
I wanted, so much, to provide such a life for my own children. I never expected to shelter them from all of life's challenges and hardships, but I wanted to protect them from the harsh reality of early death. My husband, whose parents and siblings are all alive, said to me after our son died, "I never had any idea what you were talking about." Who would want anyone to know, really? Because, after such knowledge . . . .
*T.S. Eliot, Gerontion (1920). **Joseph Brackett, Jr., Simple Gifts (1848).