Photo Art by Michael Dooley
"How many children do you have?"
It's a simple question, and it's reasonable for the asker to expect a simple answer. Much of the time, I respond accordingly: "We have two daughters, one in Tennessee and one in North Carolina."
The conversation then shifts to what they do, if they're married (yes), whether they have kids (one grandchild each), and how often we see them (a lot). I'll ask reciprocal questions, which they invariably answer comfortably enough, and before you know it, we're back to talking about places to go on vacation or the rising price of real estate in our area.
The chatting continues as we jigsaw the details into an airbrushed portrait of our lives. Memory was, after all, the original Photoshop.
For some time, I convinced myself I chose "simple" for the benefit of the person asking the question. With anyone I don't know well, I leave the bit about the son who passed away just short of his 43rd birthday in 2019 just beyond the boundaries of friendly conversation. I tell myself I'm not trying to hide anything. It's just that I don't want to turn casual chat into an encounter session.
Once you reveal you've outlived one of your children, the conversation can't be about anything else, even when—especially when—nothing is said.
I justify it by telling myself the "How many children" question is asked in present tense, so I am arguably being accurate. It still never feels exactly right, even though it no doubt spares me some awkward moments and long, painful conversations.
Encounters with a Smart Duck
For the last few weeks, I've been paying more attention when walking and biking around the small artificial lake near my home. We're in a semi-urban area, so the lake is popular with waterfowl. Two blue herons are the star attractions for most of the neighbors, but it's also been duck breeding season. Normally, they hide their nests in the bushes where they manage to elude the non-human predators who share the lake: a fox who appears on a neighbor's night vision video cam from time to time, snakes in multiple colors and lengths, owls, a passing coyote, a skunk or two I've never personally seen, and some surprisingly aggressive snapping turtles who once managed to kill one of the herons.
This year, we were pleasantly surprised to find a handwritten sign in the playground overlooking the front edge of the lake: "Mother duck below. Please, don't disturb!" I was impressed. Here was one ingenious duck. She'd placed her nest beneath a perforated steel platform, absolute protection for her eggs from above. The platform itself was just five inches off the ground, which made the nest both hard to see and difficult for larger predators to get at. The playground lays a few inches above the ground, bordered on all sides by a thin but raised piece of wood; it wouldn't keep small children out, but it's just high enough to keep out the snakes and turtles. This mother duck was probably smart enough to figure out that the little humans hanging out at this playground might be noisy and maybe overly curious, but they were domesticating creatures rather than the hunter-gathering sort.
Our grandson was staying with us for the week. Every day we would walk to the playground so he could check on the mother duck and test his ability to climb various objects, go down slides, and get his grandparents to chase him. Some days the mother duck would be spread out flat, covering her clutch. Some days she would be somewhere else, and you could see a circle of close to a dozen eggs inside the nest.
I wondered if the mother was at duck Lamaze or maybe yoga class for water birds. Our neighborhood, after all, has a sustainability committee, an annual gay pride celebration, and numerous signs in multiple languages welcoming people while supporting both science and choice. It has to attract similarly minded wildlife. At one point, the mother wasn't there again, and we counted fewer eggs, but she returned a couple days later. I looked it up and learned it takes 28 days for duck eggs to hatch—an excruciatingly long time, and a reminder how precarious oviparous motherhood really is.
Our grandson went home, and we left town for a few days. When we got back, the mother duck and her nest were gone. Since then, I have yet to see a mother duck teaching her ducklings how to navigate the lake. Even when they do appear, it's common to see the number of growing and increasingly competent ducklings dwindle before the ducks head off to their next destination, most likely some version of duck Coachella or Burning Fowl. Meanwhile, I keep making bad duck jokes to cover over why looking for them still matters so much.
Taking Progress for Granted
Both my parents came from large families: six in my dad's case and eight in my mom's. On dad's side, I have an aunt who's 100 and an uncle who recently turned ninety. Another aunt passed quite recently in her mid 90s. On my mom's side, her oldest sister lived to ninety-six. My father passed from a heart attack at the age of fifty. My mother's older sister who caught tuberculosis as a teenager passed away in her early 50s. In both cases, I think of them as the first members of their generation to have died. They weren't.
On my father's side, a girl died in infancy. My aunt shared a story—just once—about having to tend to her mother while she was bleeding in the bathtub after coming back from a messy procedure terminating a different pregnancy. My mother's family also lost a child, though there's always been some uncertainty around when and how old, possibly due to my mother being the youngest of the children in her family who made it to adulthood. My mother often talked about a time when she was very young and her family paid another family to take her in for several months, only to bring her home after they realized the other family was feeding their own children with her milk money. According to my mother, it was because my grandmother had too many children in too few years. My mother's phrase for it was "something like a nervous breakdown." My mother's older sisters did mention a younger sibling who passed away in my presence at least once.
In fact, no one in either family much mentions the existence of their siblings who never made it to adulthood. My father's family had six kids, and my mother's had eight.
I'm reminded that the notion of having all of one's children grow up to outlive you is a fairly new expectation. Not so long ago, human family trees more closely resembled those of ducks and other animals. I also realize I have several cousins on both sides who never had children at all. On my father's side, there are fewer great-grandchildren than grandchildren. It's what happens when two families shift from rural China to more upscale urban lives in four generations: marriage and children become more of a choice.
At a Gathering of Old Men with Imperfect Memories
I attended my 50th high school reunion recently. It was a boys boarding school at the time, and only 36 of us graduated. As of the reunion, 31 members of the class were still alive. I'd attended some alumni events, but this was my first time back for a reunion. Some of that was because I lived on the other coast, but a larger part may have been that I may be the least successful and least wealthy member of the class (think Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion), though—to be clear—my wife and I are reasonably comfortable and—more important—happy. Just prior to the reunion, the organizers had us fill out biographies, which got e-mailed back to us, then printed out and distributed on our arrival. In the "children" section, I mentioned our oldest son (technically my stepson) had passed away. Mine was the shortest bio in the collection, and I made no mention of my writing life. Not that anyone would have found it, but I'd published a short story based on my time there about the racial divide when the boarding schools started to consciously diversify in the '70s. At the reunion, all the class photos of the five year cohorts prior to our year were entirely old white guys. The classes after us were all more diverse and included women.
As it turned out, a number of my classmates either hadn't read the collective bios or they had and forgotten what was in them (this was a 50th reunion after all). I soon found myself trapped in the entryway of the townhouse in Somerville where my classmate was hosting a reception dinner. I repeatedly answered the question, "How many kids do you have?"
One of the nice things about a 50th reunion is one can use up most of the conversation by talking about one's adult kids instead of immediately having to talk about what one does for a living, a persistent code at earlier reunions for "just how successful have you been?" In any case, I kept saying we have two daughters.
If you spent every day for four years with the same 36 people, but don't see or talk to most of them again for the next half century, are you in a room full of good friends or strangers? At first, it felt very much like the latter. Many of my classmates were different shapes and sizes than they'd once been. Surprisingly, at least two of them were several inches taller, while some had managed to shrink. Because I am cursed—as someone who'd just as soon forget many things—with the curious ability to remember details, and because I'd read and remembered everyone else's bios, I was well aware my classmates had seen their share of misfortunes. One classmate who'd been a successful movie producer couldn't attend due to early onset Alzheimer's; one's wife had fallen off a mountain hiking trail a few feet away from him and their daughter, and he'd since raised the daughter as a single parent; some had children on the spectrum or with emotional disabilities; and there were numerous other health issues (physical and emotional), divorces, and other misfortunes. That is to say, many of them had faced challenges comparable or tougher than the loss of an adult child.
The group also had been otherwise extraordinarily fortunate. It was especially gratifying to find so many graduates of a boys boarding school appeared to be headed into late life in happy, long-lasting marriages. I suspect if I'd had an easier time remembering who was who while trying to track casual bits of conversation, then trying to make sense of who my classmates were now as individuals, I might have more readily said we have two daughters and a son. Instead, the last thing I wanted was a conversation with more emotional pressure points.
As the three days of events wore on, I also realized that, even if they'd changed physically, most of my classmates' personalities were remarkably similar to how I remembered them—generally a good thing.
Less of a Digression than You Might Think
My father died unexpectedly less than three months before my grandfather died. My grandfather understood English well and spoke it somewhat less well, but understanding words is quite different from grasping their deeper cultural significance. I remember my mother urging me to talk to my grandfather at the breakfast table when I happened to be home from school. I asked him how he happened to open a gambling house. I was genuinely interested in his answer, but I suspect he didn't know I knew his actual business. Maybe more accurately, I didn't know I was supposed to know, but act like I didn't. In any case, he made a face, used a Cantonese swear word, and left the table. I realize now it might have worked better if my mother had started a conversation among the three of us, then let it turn into a more direct conversation with my grandfather. It didn't occur to me until very recently that my mother was probably no better at holding a conversation with my grandfather than I was.
On the other end, I remember being ten years old and having my grandfather ask me what I thought of Kruschev being deposed and what I thought it meant for Russia. Instead of faking an answer or simply saying I didn't have any idea (for some reason, it felt like I was supposed to be able to answer a question like this because I was supposed to be smart), I got upset, made a face, and left the table. I'm sure there are 10-year-olds who can answer questions like this, but I suspect they're rare, especially when the adults in their family never discuss Soviet politics. My father's family did occasionally talk about communism, but only at the level of terrible things that had happened to relatives we'd never met. If you do 23 and Me, you'd know what I mean. You get an e-mail they've found new relatives of yours, and it always turns out to be your fifth cousin twice removed.
I understand now that my parents tended to use me as a way to connect to my grandfather. It was not an acceptable thing for me to be outwardly upset in his presence, especially when he was directly asking me about something.
I suppose my mother might have come with me to let my grandfather know my father had died, but they'd been estranged from one another since my junior year of high school. My dad and I would go to Christmas and Thanksgiving at my grandfather's house while my mother stayed home. Before I turn this into a treatise on my family's emotional complexity, I'll mention my favorite aunt came with me. She remained my favorite aunt for the next 40-plus years, but she stopped speaking to my mother and me within two years of that summer when my father and grandfather died.
Anyway, I wound up informing my grandfather that my father had died. He was bedridden at that point, but he understood immediately, then started reassuring me I would simply take my father's place in his will. A few weeks earlier—or was it a few weeks after—I was present when my grandfather met with an estate attorney while they clarified I would succeed to my father's share of the estate, but specific provisions were added to keep my mother from inheriting in case I also happened to die before my grandfather. Given that, it's not at all surprising my grandfather's estate still hasn't closed completely, 45 years later. I spent many years of my adult life as a lawyer, and I always hated the way the practice of law overtly prioritizes the formal over the emotional, just as it did that day while I stood silently listening to the proposed, legally precise language presented to a man in his 80s who was literally on his death bed, because he'd somehow decided tending to his will was an important thing to do.
I'm not sure I suppress my grief, but I definitely try to keep things simple when I'm out in the world. As strange as I've made it sound, I loved my grandfather, and he somehow treated me as special and loved despite the fact that we didn't communicate even remotely successfully on an everyday level. In that sense, culture may have bonded us far more deeply than words, even legal ones, could ever manage to undo.
My grandfather lost a 50-year-old son, my father, and I lost a stepson at age forty-two. I never made the connection until I wrote this. I remember the way tears came to my grandfather's eyes and the way his voice broke first in Cantonese as he confirmed his understanding of what I'd just said with my aunt, then in clear but slightly fractured English for my benefit.
Here's what still bothers me. I can't remember if I told my grandfather, right then, how much my father loved him or, for that matter and maybe more importantly, how much I loved them both and how painful it was for me to see them estranged for the last six years of their lives and not being able to do anything to make it better for either of them.
With my stepson, I certainly told him I loved him, and he told me the same, but I still struggle with whether or not I worked hard enough to make sure he heard it and knew it in a way that can be felt in the bones. I suspect it's the hardest thing about being a stepparent or an adoptive parent. When the child is the product of conscious choice, it's somehow more suspect than when it's driven by a mother duck-like instinct. Logically, feeling unconditional love with a stepchild is perhaps a bigger deal because it's seen as more of a "choice" than a "duty." After seeing my wife spend every day and night at his side in the cancer ward, or my just holding her hand since he died and feeling the bottomless hole still inside her, the magnitude of her loss will always dwarf my sense of loss. I even worry privately that the gap prevents our son's death from truly being "our" loss.
Many days she walks the lake, and sits on a bench silent and alone, looking over the water. She tells me she's talking to our son: yet another mother duck mourning her lost duckling in her own way. At times I wonder if our little lake will ever hold all her tears.
I don't think I ever talked to my son about my parents or grandparents, and he never asked. For many stepparents, it's sort of a triumph if they happen to ask you about you at some point. He never got to, but not because he didn't care or was insensitive. My stepson spent almost his entire adult life with a traumatic brain injury from a solo car accident just before he turned twenty. He learned to walk and talk again, but after his second accident, we sometimes weren't sure if what he said was more of a script than an active exchange of information.
Another confession, I sometimes tell myself his dying so young wasn't necessarily bad. What would have happened had he outlived us and spent the rest of his life in a group home he refused to accept as his ultimate place of residence? We'd tried to get him to move near us or even with us, but he always adamantly refused; he didn't want to be a burden.
The Spaces Between Words
At the reunion reception, I wound up talking to F___, who actually looked like an older version of himself. Even though we were both from Northern California, F___ was from San Francisco, and I was from Sacramento. A classmate, also from San Francisco, and not F___, used to make a point of telling me what a dumpy town Sacramento was every time the question of where I was from came up. He'd mostly seen it on his way to his family's weekend place in Lake Tahoe, pre Highway 50. That route didn't bypass the more skid row-like parts of downtown Sacramento. If it happened today, I would tell him Greta Gerwig grew up there, too, and he sounded like Ken in the Barbie movie. Of course, given the way the Right talks about San Francisco these days, it would probably be simpler, though less satisfying, to make the guy watch OAN or Fox. In any case, F___ was not someone I was close to in high school, but he was never the sort who would do what the other guy from San Francisco would do. Weird how memories like that cling to you.
When I reconnected with F___, I actually knew he, too, had lost an adult son, but it wasn't the first thing I'd talk about with him after close to 45 years. It was just that we shared a moment of hesitation while talking about our children. Funny, every method actor seems to know the spaces between words often say more than the words themselves, but it's not the sort of thing we normally learn in regular school. I suspect you might have to have lost a child to recognize it, but we quickly bonded in a way we hadn't decades earlier. I talked about my son, and he talked about his; then we barely talked to one another again over the next two days.
The Half Lives of Stepparents
It happens that one of our daughters is also my stepdaughter, something I don't go into when I say "two daughters." Our daughters are eight years apart, but have always been extremely close. They're half sisters, but I think of them as sisters and a half. There are half-brothers and sisters, and there are stepsiblings, and there are, of course, stepparents, with stepmothers getting an especially bad rap in children's fairy tales. For what it's worth, every stepparent understands Cinderella's father was the real villain of the story. In the two Disney versions, dad gets absolved: he dies early but not before marrying the wicked stepmother. Had Ron Desantis taken on Disney for that reason, stepmothers and stepfathers, even some otherwise progressive folks might vote for him. Fortunately, he didn't, and hopefully he'll never be more than a stepgovernor.
Have you ever noticed there's no term "half-parent"—at least not yet?
I Remember Something I loved about High School
After sophomore year, two classmates and I decided to pedal our bikes from northern Massachusetts to one of their family's weekend places in Westport, Connecticut. We got a little over half way there, when one of us got a flat and the other two of us decided to pedal ahead to get dinner and find a place to camp before it got dark. We got separated, and he didn't find us until the next morning. We were so tired, we wound up calling T___'s parents. His mother picked us up and drove us the rest of the way. I let this bit of unfinished business sit for a mere half century, until I rode my bike to my reunion from upstate New York. As a concession to old age, I rode my e-bike. My two friends from the trip, who spent the next 52 years doing bike tours together every few years despite living on opposite coasts, rode their traditional bikes to the reunion from western Connecticut. We met at a bed and breakfast in a town not too far from where P___ got lost—or we lost him on—our Gilligan's Island bike tour, then rode the last 45 miles back to the school.
Because I didn't have a car and most of our activities required a car, my classmates arranged for a classmate also named F___ to get me there. We'd never stayed in touch, but as we chatted, I remembered we were actually close friends back then. F___'s great grandfather (or was it great great grandfather?) was historically significant, because he'd once bailed out the United States of America by loaning the government money. Throughout high school, F___'s closest friend was J___, who was black and the son of a widowed mother who worked as a housekeeper. I only learned the latter fact from J___ some 25 years after graduation. I was again the third or fourth person in that social circle. We wound up going from event to event in F___'s car. At one point, F___ mentioned his great grandfather had actually donated the land for our school, another fact I'd never known back in high school. Where in the 1970's would the three of us have ever gotten to know one another that well?
In my story's opening, I wrote I hated the school. Of course, I didn't hate everything about it. It's just that I rarely mention it to my friends at home who almost all went to public school and many of whom never went to college.
A couple weeks before the reunion, I got back in touch with one of my cousins after her father passed away. She had married an Australian man and moved to Melbourne some 35 years ago. We hadn't communicated since. You may have noticed I'm not very good about maintaining relationships. Her Australian-Chinese-American daughter is an academic and spent time in the UC Berkeley archives to look up some things about my grandfather, her American-Chinese great grandfather. Somehow, a page with my father's handwriting had turned up in the archive, so cousin W___ emailed me the image.
I cried when I saw it. My dad owned a restaurant, but he'd wanted to be an artist. He was good enough that one of his college teachers offered to get him work as a commercial illustrator. My grandparents didn't take the news well, and my father didn't pursue the job. One of Dad's "hobbies" was designing what we'd today call "fonts." My cousin was also artistic and even studied calligraphy in China. She remembered my father once gifted her a fountain pen. She apparently still has it.
It was the first time in many years anyone, other than my mother, who had actually known my father had brought up his name and specific memories of him.
As parents, we frequently share memories of our son with one another. I suppose we long to hear one of his friends talk about him, to know someone else remembers him and—heartbreakingly—hoping there's still one more story we have yet to hear about his feeling good, being happy, connecting emotionally. We live far from where he grew up. He spent most of the last six years of his life in a group home for adult males with traumatic brain injuries. He never learned his housemates' names, both a function of his injury and a paradoxical sign of how hard he longed to be "normal" again.
By saying we have two daughters, I've kept a vacuum around our son's memory.
Good and Bad Memories
My son loved to talk about high school. His car accidents compromised his ability to form new short term memories, so his clearest memories were of high school and his five interceptions his senior football season, girls he dated, parties he'd attended, and various acts of rebellion that had gotten him in trouble. High school was the last time he'd felt popular. He did marry after his accident, but the woman who became his ex-wife got so tired of hearing his talk of high school, she made him cancel his Facebook account, though he kept finding ways to restart it, possibly the only time in history a Facebook friend request for someone you'd already friended wasn't from a hacker. Once in the group home, he took to finding high school friends'—often just acquaintances'—phone numbers and calling them. He'd forget he'd talked to them already and would have more or less the same ritualized conversation with them every few months. I doubt any of them knew or understood he was living in a group home where he seldom got visitors from what he thought of as the "real" world.
I suspect none knew how much it meant to him that they'd picked up the phone and chatted with him.
One reason I would say that we have two daughters is simply that the full story is extremely painful.
Hitching a Ride
I never settled into a career partly because I mostly wanted to be a writer. I never had the luck or probably talent to make writing a paying career. It's similar to my dad wanting to be an artist, though different in that I indulged it more, something I could do because I inherited money from my grandfather and more recently my mother. The other reason is I'm both time-blind and a careless planner, and I happen to have been in a profession premised on billable hours. I got to my high school reunion and just hoped someone could give my bike and me a ride back to my car at the train station parking lot in Hudson, New York. It happened that F___, my classmate who'd lost a son, too, lived in that direction and had an electric truck with space for three bikes. One of the reunion events was a bike ride, so he'd brought his own. He even invited me to stay at his house before I drove back to North Carolina.
As we approached his house, he slowed to point out the tree his son had driven his car into during that stretch of night that blends into morning. The son had then rolled out of the car and fallen face down into a creek and never made it to morning. I can still hear the way F___'s voice slowed as he talked about it. I still feel the way the air in the front seat of his high tech pickup truck seemed to go still. After all, my son's accident had been eerily parallel. He was driving alone late at night when he hit a telephone pole and rolled into a creek face down. It's just that an EMT happened to live in a house near the creek and managed to pull him out, though not before aphoxia got to his brain. Instead of dying, he lived for another 23 years. Though, it can also be said the high school version of him died that night; it just took 23 years for the rest of his body and leukemia to catch up.
I was surprised to learn F___'s son's accident had happened a decade ago. He still talked about his lost son as if it happened in the last year. We talked about how his wife had wanted to move away because she didn't want to drive by that tree. Once we got to F___'s house, it was clear to me why they'd stayed. It was in a beautiful mountain setting and their home seemed filled with happy family memories.
Earlier in the day, F___ mentioned how one side of his family had once been one of the partners in the Central Pacific Railroad, the western company that imported thousands of Chinese workers to build the Transcontinental Railroad, sometimes called "Crocker's Pets." I'd spent at least some of the afternoon teasing F___ about reparations. I left out the fact that none of my ancestors, at least to my knowledge, had been railroad workers. I tried to get his electric pickup but wound up settling for a dinner of supermarket chicken parmesan, a ride, and a bed for the night in an idyllic setting. Over dinner, we wound up talking more about our sons. F___ mentioned how so many of his son's friends had come for his memorial service and how special it had been that some still called to check in with his family. We talked more about how both our sons had been impulsive, attracted women easily, and had some substance issues in their teen years. I then talked about some of the differences.
At the end of dinner, I asked F___, "When people ask, do you tell them you have three children or four?"
After a pause, F___ explained there were times when he said three—two sons and a daughter—but he learned, with his wife's encouragement, to always say four.
We've exchanged emails since but haven't made plans to get together. I don't know for sure if we will, but I've entertained thoughts of asking F___ to come ride bikes on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Memory is Shockingly Fragile
I know this. I am, after all, in my late 60s and spend too much of my days looking for glasses, keys, cell phones, or just trying to figure out what I said I was going to do half an hour earlier. Still, it's unnerving to realize I couldn't possibly have been in F___'s pickup when he slowed to show me that tree. He'd taken me to the train station parking lot to pick up my car before we headed south to his house. I was in my own car. Possibly, we were talking via cell phone. We left them on because the final directions to F___'s house weren't straightforward. My e-bike was still on the back of F___'s pickup, but I wasn't in it right then.
I definitely had both conversations with F___ at dinner at his house and at the reception. What I've reported about our conversations is accurate. It's just that I don't know where they were said or in what order. I suspect it has something to do with the way grief can distort how we talk about and remember things. I know parts of the memory are simply incorrect, yet intertwining the loss of our sons helps me feel better.
It helps me see that I need to say, "We have two daughters and a son. We always will."
If some stranger wants to talk about it more and I don't feel like it, I can just say, "I'd be happy to talk more about it some other time, but..."
Beyond that, it's not my problem. Honoring one's children by not leaving them out: that was my problem.
I'm helping a student write an essay about her older brother who happens to be on the severe end of the autism spectrum. LiIke me, she happens to be Chinese, and there are some cultural traditions about keeping these sorts of things private. She mentioned she hates the way people with autism are portrayed in the movies. At one time, it was Boo Radley or nothing at all. Now, every character on the spectrum seems to be obviously gifted, charming, and/or able to express profound truths we neuro-typicals can't articulate. Come to think of it, even Boo Radley is in that tradition. Her brother's not like that, and I suspect most cognitively different individuals lack the charisma of the TV or movie characters who purport to be representing them. It upsets her, because TV neglects the fact that we can love a neuro-divergent brother just as he really is.
That's true about my son, post brain injury, as well. He could still be charming and quite funny, but it was never TV kind of disabled person charming and funny. He had judgment issues and wasn't always emotionally stable. No, it's not fun to repeatedly explain to someone he has cancer and help him understand why, or that his wife divorced him and now has a child with someone else so you're not likely to be getting back together, multiple times.
Sometimes, when I question my own half life as a parent, I have to remember I spent three days in the hospital alone with him when he got chemo. I flew out to take him to the doctor's appointment where they had to tell him his chemo hadn't worked and they were out of options. I did both while my wife, who did her share of these things with and without me, spent time looking after our newborn grandson. She'd missed his birth when our son was first diagnosed and hospitalized. I sometimes forget that some biological parents aren't there for these moments when their children need them.
I remember, too, how my son wanted to write a book to save the world. In reality, it was mostly about how he'd never gotten over his parents' divorce. Especially painful, he blamed his mother for things that were clearly his father's doing. As his half life parent, I did my best to read it, make some suggestions, and tried to help him understand his book was 14 pages of memories repeated over and over, though sometimes in different order, for almost 1,000 pages. He too dreamt of being a writer, and so much of what he wanted to say was just beyond his grasp.
When I said my son's last happy memories were in high school, I realize now I was distorting my own memories. Dying in an oncology ward is hardly a happy thing, but it might be one of my best memories of who he really was. He was younger than most of the patients there, certainly younger than the other ones who never got to leave. Having a faulty memory is actually an asset there for a patient. It seemed like every day, my son would be constantly thankful to the people who were helping him. He often didn't learn their names, but he always remembered to let them know how much he appreciated their help, multiple times. Throughout, he would joke with them, as he apparently thought it was his job to cheer them up instead of the other way around. At one point, I realized staff tended to hang out in his room longer than they were supposed to. He simply had an incredibly strong spirit he maintained even when the cancer left him shivering in the night or crying from pain. Going gradually is an awful way to die, especially in what should be the middle of your life. Still, I like to think trying experiences strip away all but our true essence. In my son's case, it left someone who faced death bravely and who still wanted to look after others.
Every parent dreams of better lives for their children than he got. At the same time, I can say it's been a privilege to help raise all three of my children. I had to go to my own high school reunion to remind myself to honor that. Once I asked my son, since he talked so much about high school, did he ever want to go to one of his own high school reunions? He immediately said, "Absolutely not." I never shared the fact that I understood his "why" implicitly.
On my bike trip, I took a slight detour to Northampton, a college town close to where our son's group home was. We used to go there when we got to visit him, and we'd stop for maple ice cream at a place called Harrell's. While the group home was located at the edge of an ordinary residential neighborhood, the group home residents couldn't just take a walk in their own neighborhood. If they went somewhere for an outing, it was in a van with a cage separating the passengers in the back from the driver. When we went to Northampton, he got to sit in the front passenger seat of our rental car. He always asked me what the make and model year of the car was. I do wonder if he thought we owned the car and were buying a new one for each visit. He'd also play obsessively with the radio controls as if he were still in middle school. On those too short, too infrequent visits, he got to feel sort of normal.
On the way to my reunion, I stopped at Harrell's, ordered an ice cream, and sent the photo to my wife, knowing she would know what it meant. I now realize I was trying to celebrate his never to be high school reunion, too.