Last night Joe and I went to a wake.
When I first read the news report, the one that said a 23-year old man had been killed in a car accident, my first thought was that twenty-three years old is too young to be a man. He’s a boy really, barely out of adolescence.
My second thought was: I know them. I know this family. I know this mother.
I don’t know her well. We see each other a few times a year at barbecues and cocktail hours and, once, for dinner at a sushi restaurant downtown. In August we danced together at a birthday party to hits from the 80’s like Jesse’s Girl and Livin’ on a Prayer.
I’ve never met her son.
I didn’t call her when I heard the news. I didn’t e-mail her, or text her, or go to her house. Yet I thought about her for days, and my husband Joe and I decided to go to the wake and offer our sympathy.
Today is the funeral. Right this minute, in fact. As I sit here at my desk, a mother is burying her son.
A father is saying good-bye.
Two boys and one little, little dark-haired sister are each struggling for bravery as they stand tall and straight at the graveside of their beloved comrade–their partner in crime, their Batman to Robin, their tickle-monster and ponytail-puller. Their brother.
It is one of those breathtaking end-of-summer-almost-fall days, and when I glance out of the window, the sky looks like something my 6-year old might draw with his markers. It is a brilliant Crayola blue, and once in a while a fluffy white cloud floats by, lazy and plump and slow.
When I think about losing one of my children, I feel as though I’m reaching out my hand and trying to touch the sun. I have to shield my eyes against the brilliant glare, and defend my heart from the heat. I am afraid I will be shattered by it’s blinding whiteness.
And when I think about my children grieving for one another, I am equally pained. They are like the five fingers of a hand, and I’m not sure how they would function if one was missing.
Over the summer, New Hampshire went hands-free, so instead of talking quietly on my phone, all of my conversations in the car are now broadcast over blue tooth when I drive, and while hands-free is the best and safest thing ever, it can present certain, uh, challenges when you spend most of your time driving around with an 11-year old who has autism and shrieks if a phone call interrupts Rihanna mewling away on his favorite radio station.
So when Joe called me as I was driving Rose to dance class so we could talk about the evening’s logistics, Jack was all ears.
“Why are you going. For a wake,” he asked me in his flat voice as soon as I hung up.
“You remember the little girl, Victoria? The one who came over that time? Well, her brother, he passed away.”
This is not the first time I’ve had to try and explain death to my son. It’s not the first time I’ve tried to tease open the rigid, literal rivulets autism has etched inside his mind, and make room for a conversation about heaven, and bereavement, and sudden, irreparable loss.
It feels absurd, to be honest. Talking to Jack about death feels like talking to an infant about infertility, or an elephant about the refugee problem in Syria; their minds are simply not equipped to manage the information.
His mind seems unable to process the idea that their story has been forever changed; that every holiday, every season, every recital and graduation and wedding will be punctuated by the missing figure in their familial landscape.
He can’t begin to fathom how deeply a mother longs to wrap her child in bubble wrap like the kind you get at the post office, yet at the same time teach him to fly.
And his emotional pendulum is almost stuck at the most basic human feelings; hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain. He is still so child-like in his reactions, so naive and young and immature.
I also have to be careful not to ignite anxiety’s glowing embers–I need to tread lightly with my description of danger, or there’s a good chance I’ll never get him in the car again.
“What is. For this wake.”
“Well, it’s where friends and the family get together to talk and stuff.”
“And for him. The brother. He will wake up there. At this wake.” He leaned back in his seat, satisfied.
“No, Jack,” I said quietly. “He will never wake up.”
“Do people,” he asked, staring straight ahead at the car ahead of us in line. “For do they cry at a wake.”
“Yes. Yes, usually they do.”
All of the wakes I’ve ever been to have a few things in common; the neutral carpeting and the tasteful wallpaper, the antiseptic couches and all the awkward small talk. Then there’s the line that snakes slowly past the casket, as everyone waits for his or her turn to soothe, to hug, to pray.
As I waited, I considered what I know about this twenty-three year old.
He played football in high school.
He served in the Air Force.
He is the oldest boy, the biggest brother, and a mother’s first son.
When it was my turn at the front of the line, I hugged this mother and offered her the usual condolences.
Wendy, I’m so sorry.
I can’t believe it.
I really am sorry.
But as I started to step past her, I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know more. I wanted to see the big brother twirling his little sister, and the football spiraling high against an autumn sky. For a just a moment, I wanted to know his life.
I leaned back toward her and whispered in her ear, “Tell me something. Tell me something about him.”
Her face opened wide and she said, “Oh, he was so funny. He kept us in stitches all the time. He made us laugh.”
This morning started off the way it usually does; Jack was awake around 5:45, fumbling around in his room for his glasses and his clothes. He stomped downstairs, and by the time I walked into the kitchen a few minutes later, he was already working his way through an enormous bowl of Rice Krispies. We had the same conversation we always do.
“The bus. For it comes at 8:01.”
“I know, Jack, I know it does.”
“At 8:01. The bus comes.”
“Yep, it does.”
Then he paused and asked, “How was it for the wake.”
I smiled at him, surprised he’d thought to ask me.
“It was okay, Jack. It was sad.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“If Joey had a wake,” he said thoughtfully, “I think for me I would cry.”
I looked away, up the at the ceiling, and with just Jack and I alone in the room, I thought about infertility and elephants, Syria, and car accidents in the middle of the night.
I thought about life’s big losses and small, nearly invisible gains.
I thought about autism’s rivulet’s widening just the tiniest bit to let in the sunlight.
And just before I turned my gaze back to my own son sitting at the kitchen counter, I thought about a tall, strong twenty-three year old reaching out a tentative hand, and touching the face of God.