Today is (well, would’ve been) (well, is) the boys’ birthday. A year ago today, we met them and lost them.
I think nearly every parent of a dead child has the same epiphany about the anniversary of their child’s birth and/or death: let’s do what we can to associate the day with something positive. Let’s, I don’t know, have a party or take a trip or open up that champagne we’ve been saving. We’ll toast/sing/pray/light a candle/release a balloon/plant a garden/buy a puppy/recite a stirring passage from Whitman. It’ll be a day we’ll actually look forward to someday. We’ll flip it. We can do that, can’t we?
And we’re doing some of those things. Not really because we want to turn the day into something cool or happy and not really because we want to make ourselves feel better. I suppose I don’t really know why we’re doing it. Maybe because we have to do something.
It’s hard to know how to describe the past year. 12 months later and I’m still trying to figure out what grief is, how it works, how to do it correctly. Frankly, I felt like I was better at it in the weeks immediately following than I am now. When those certain moments come, the Red Moments I call them, when they hit like a cinder block to the chest, there’s really not much to be done. Breathing exercises, hasty trips to the stalls in the office men’s room, mini mantras… they don’t really help as much as they should. You sort of have to wait them out. I thought I’d eventually get used to the Red Moments, that they’d hurt less and less as time goes by, but it doesn’t work that way. I suppose they come a little less often, which is something, but the bite is still strong as ever.
“I miss my boys,” I say often. Usually it’s when I’m alone in the car or maybe just into my hand, under my breath at work. Or the shower. I say it a lot in the shower.
And it’s not just ‘The Boys’ I miss, as if they’re one kid with three heads. It’ll be a different son on different days. I had a lot of Oscar days in the beginning. Then, for awhile, it was Rudyard almost nonstop. Only in recent months has my focus gone most often to Desmond. I don’t know why, I’m sure there’s some sort of science to this, but I’m not privy.
And you’d think, a year in, I’d quit making mental plans with them. “I can’t wait until the boys are old enough for Shel Silverstein.” “I wonder when I should start thinking about parental control stuff for our internet.” And then: “oh, right.”
Carey and I have met a lot of grieving people and we’ve both, at this point, been exposed to a truly formidable assortment of grief strategies. For example, when I hear someone refer to our kids as “Angel Babies”, I don’t know. It’s usually fine and I know that sort of thing helps a lot of people, but I sometimes can’t stop myself from wanting to drive my car through the wall of a Pizza Hut.
“Does it help to know they’re with God?” Not as much as you’d think.
“Are you trying for more?” Not at the moment, no.
“You do know that, in the short time you were with them, you were a wonderful father, right?”
No. I guess I don’t know that.
But, a year later, I just mostly want to talk to them without feeling like a fucking lunatic. If there was one thing my old man was never short on, it was advice. And is it so ridiculous that I really want to be able to do the same thing? That’s a man’s right, isn’t it?
Well, boys, for your birthday, that’s what I think I’d like to give you. Trust me, I’d rather this were something more along the lines of Tonka Trucks or clever T-shirts, but it is what it is. I realize this has much more to do with my own neediness and very little to do with your edification, but, today only, I’m not going to sweat it.
So here it is. Words of wisdom from your old, broken dad.
A Few Things I Wish I Could’ve Said
When I was growing up, my own dad was full of advice for me and I didn’t always want to hear it. He seemed to have ideas on how I should be doing just about everything, from the sort of language I used to how I spent my Saturday afternoons.
But there was one piece of advice your granddad always gave me that’s stayed with me the most. Maybe it’s what he said most often or maybe I’m only remembering it that way. Anyhow, I’d mention something about being pushed around or ridiculed by the other kids. Or he’d overhear me repeating something vulgar or telling a particularly tasteless joke. His response was almost always the same:
“Son, rise above it.”
There were times that I hated “rise above it”, but I couldn’t deny it was a good thing for me to hear.
Rudyard, there are things you can’t really change about yourself, however much you might want it and one of those things, I’m proud to say, is that you’re a leader. I know it’s hard for you to remember, but kids look to other kids when they’re trying to decide who they are and how to act. They’re looking around for someone to imitate, someone who’s in on some sort of life secret. And you may not realize it, but other people your age, your brothers included, are looking to you.
You won’t always want to be an example, but those are the breaks, bud. I wish I could tell you that you get to coast sometimes, but that’s just not how it works. And, fair warning, there’ll be times when you’ll want to use your powers for temporary popularity. You’ll be tempted to reduce yourself for an easy laugh or a fast friend.
But remember who you are, what you’re about. Pettiness and cruelty: rise above it. The easy way out: rise above it.
Keep in mind that you have a family who loves you, who wants to see you become the best version of yourself. But mostly, remember that when you do mess up (and you will), I’m always proud of you.
Love you, Rudyard. Deep breaths, you’ll be fine.
When I first met your mother, there were two things I noticed: first, she was a very, very pretty lady. Second, I could tell right away that she was the most big-hearted individual I’d ever encountered.
It’s not so easy being the way she is, but you already know that. To a truly big-hearted, compassionate soul, the world can start to look awfully mean and cynical. Others don’t always understand why it’s so important for you to go to such ridiculous lengths to help those who can’t help themselves. They’d rather you were more like them: head down, unquestioning, self-serving, status quo.
But Des, the world doesn’t really work without people like you and your mom. It’s very difficult to be the person who stands up for others, who reminds us that it’s better to be selfless and good. It’s tempting to trade in your compassion for something quick and easy and fun. But there’s a tiny voice in the back of your brain telling you The Truth, no matter how loud the world gets. “Be kind,” it’s saying. And maybe that’s all it’ll ever say.
Don’t ever let anyone convince you that compassion and understanding are weaknesses. In fact, it takes more courage than just about anything. And it doesn’t stop when you’re a grown-up. Everyone everywhere will seem to have all sorts of reasons why compassion is silly or naive or inefficient or even intolerant. Don’t ever believe it.
You’re true blue, my big-hearted boy.
Your family loves you. Your dad, no matter what, is always proud of you.
Love you, Desmond.
Like you, I was not a very big guy growing up and I remember: it’s frustrating. You have people twice your size and half your intelligence making your life extremely difficult. And there are days when it seems like it’s never going to end. But also like you, I had something that most of the other kids didn’t. It was equal parts blessing and curse, but I decided early on to become very clever.
It’s fun being quick with a comeback. That bruise on your arm from the bully in your class will heal in a few days and, I know, it hurts. But the wisecrack you fired back at him about his crooked teeth? That’ll stay with him for years.
The fact is, Oz, you have to be careful with people. It’s often the little guy with the big brain that winds up intimidating everyone. Believe it or not, bullies bully because they’re scared. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but you’ll have to trust me on this. On the inside, bullies are smaller than everyone, so they tend to puff out their chests, ball up their fists and try their best to destroy everyone around them because they’ll do anything to keep people from discovering their secret.
You’ll be tempted to cut these fellows down to size, to expose them, to make them cry with your clever remarks and your sarcasm. And, okay, sometimes they should cry a little. But whether it’s them bullying you with their fists or you bullying them with your words, well, what’s difference?
You’re going to find, my man, that being funny is one of the best things in the world. It’s a gift and, just like Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. Being able to make someone laugh means that, every so often, you get to be the right guy at the right time who makes someone feel good instead of feeling awful. Isn’t that the perfect sort of person to be?
I know your brothers are bigger than you, Oscar, so this will probably sound a little strange: but go easy on them. You’re able to say and do things that they can’t. You can think of things they’ll never consider. Use your powers for good.
Make us all laugh, guy. You’re good at it.
Your family loves you. Your dad is so, so proud of you.
Hang in there. Love you, Oz.
Anyway, if you’re reading this, thanks for indulging a brief dad and his ramblings on a particularly difficult day. Your grace and understanding is appreciated.
And Happy Birthday, my boys. Your dad misses you terribly.