Now you see ’em


Kids making merry in mama’s theater .

Either it’s childhood that disappears, or the child itself. We’ve had both in our family, and as bittersweet as it is to watch one’s children grow older, it is an unspeakable gift to do so.

I was looking through my digital photo archives to find a picture of my children’s oldest nephew, who would have turned 16 this coming Sunday. I only had film cameras when Erik was alive. I borrowed a digital one for the first six months of my daughter’s life, which were his last six, and they were not something I was in any way capable of or inclined to documenting photographically. Even though I wanted to (selfishly), to me it felt invasive and opportunistic to take pictures of him, knowing what we knew. The pictures would outlive him; we were trying to steal what we could, when we could.  An image.

My mother’s death a dozen years earlier taught me that that’s what you’re left with: photographs, various physical ephemera, video — if you’re lucky, and memories which, over time and in an excruciating process, become simply memories of your memories. You’re also left with the love you still have. And your grief.

What digital images I have are just a few which didn’t look so much like the general boy I knew, but of the boy fighting with cancer (moon-faced from steroids, wearing a bandana over his bald head, as he did when he came to visit the hospital the morning our daughter was born).  Before his diagnosis he was — and without it, would have continued to become — a regular person, just like you or me.

I made a list of topics he was interested in (at nine), when we were trying to figure out how to homeschool him, during those first, utterly disoriented, utterly unknowing months of the nine-month, post-diagnosis, precipitous lurch into hell. Like I did with letters from my mother for a good decade after she died, I keep these notes in the drawer of my nightstand.  Nonchalantly, as if they were some casually current scrap of paper, a part of my ongoing life.  Instead of the fragile tendrils from the past that they really are.

Here’s what he told me he was interested in studying:

  • potions
  • bubbling, smoking fluids
  • about molecules
  • mining
  • geology

Ever the teacher, I asked him to frame his curiosity in questions that we could go about answering. These are the ones I wrote down:

  • How close can you get to the sun without melting?
  • Would we burn, or would we melt, or would we crack apart?
  • How long would it take?
  • Why can’t we breathe water?
  • What’s in the umbillical cord?
  • Why do we breathe? (like, why do we need oxygen?)
  • Why would you float in space?
  • Why is there a color in the rainbow that we can’t see and animals can?
  • How do gaseous planets hold their shape?
  • What can we find out about new solar systems?

And a few more, once we began to get silly:

  • How many pieces of cat poo could my dog Max eat (total, without throwing up)?
  • Why is she interested in eating it in the first place?

I can only imagine what he would have been interested in at sixteen. Really: I can only imagine. His tenth birthday party was an event that will remain one of the most starkly etched as anything in my memory.  As with just about every event, every decision, every moment after the diagnosis, it was: impossible, unthinkable, beyond words.  He died less than a month later.

Nearly six years after that, we are still struggling to answer the questions: Did we get that close to the sun without melting? Did we burn, or did we melt, or did we crack apart? With heart heavy, my take on the answer as of his sixteenth birthday is: “all of the above.”

8 thoughts on “Now you see ’em”

  1. The pictures that are left behind are what gets me, and has caused a somewhat obsessive need to photograph my own child. When my brother passed away, my mom was sobbing, because there were so many pictures, but almost none of her with him.

    Your posts about your nephew always strike me to the heart; I wanted to say that I think of him often.

  2. Thank you for sharing your memories and vulnerability. I can sense your love and pain in your writing, and those of us who have had a loved one die can empathize and feel it with you.

    I lost my younger brother almost two years ago to a sudden heart attack (he was 39 and had two teenaged sons). It was shocking and terribly traumatic. I lost my father two months ago (on Christmas Day) to a massive, sudden stroke. Also shocking, and traumatic.

    I have often pondered whether there is any difference in the pain and loss if the death is sudden, or you know it is coming (as with a terminal illness). I have come to the conclusion that pain is pain, and no matter the circumstances involved, the heart cries, the souls dies a bit, and for those of us left to sift through the memories, life will never be the same.

    Hang on to your memories of your lost loved one, and the love of those who go through the healing process with you. You have my most sincere condolences and heartfelt empathy.


  3. Your memories of him are so touching and so heartbreaking. I’m sitting here weeping…such a lovely post. I just found out last night my grandmother has just a few months left with us at most – something I’ve known was coming since she’s had advanced alzheimer’s for years, but it’s still painful news. I cannot even imagine losing someone as young as your nephew. I’m so sorry for your loss, but so glad you have your memories and your mementos.

  4. Oh, my friend. I am so sorry for your loss.

    And as sorry as I am, when you write about your nephew, I know that who you are has been profoundly shaped by your experience with him, with your family. You may have melted, burned, and cracked apart, but you and yours have also been fused into something new.

  5. I was saddened by Erik’s death at the time, but as the years have passed, it has become sadder for me. Partly because my kids have given me more and more now and to have it taken away would be so unbearable, but also because his absence now represents so much time that he should have been here, thinking about that precious list of questions.

    I am so sorry for your family’s loss.

  6. Once again weeping at my desk as I read your post. Reading you hones my appreciation of what I have. Thanks for helping me stay awake.

  7. Yeah… weeping. For all our losses, so precious and so unfair. My little sister dropped dead at 49-not yet three years ago; will it always feel like it happened yesterday ?~?

    She and I were together in 2005 and someone, i don’t know who, at the reunion took a perfect photo of us standing together. The only one taken in our adult lives. You see, she and her family went to Moscow in the early 90’s as missionaries and we so seldom saw each other over the years… She was supposed to come back to the states and there was going to be time to talk about all the stuff we didn’t while she lived overseas.

    Well I have learned how that is not guaranteed to anyone, ever. Rude damn awakening I say. Thanks for a place to drop some of these thoughts, LD.

    • I am so very sorry, Lynda. So sorry.

      And you are very welcome to the space to leave the thoughts. I strongly believe there aren’t enough places in the public sphere for those of us — most of us, to one degree or another — carrying wounds of grief to salve them for one another. One of many reasons why personal blogs serve a unique purpose, I actually think. They can be nuggets of emotional truth, accessible sometimes even more so because of their seeming anonymity. But we’re all in the same large family, is the thing.

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