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It follows my husband and I as we travel, takes the form of innocuous questions that arise as people try to make conversation. Do you have children? the woman asks. My husband and I are seated with three couples we don’t know. We are on vacation in Patagonia, spending days hiking through valleys surrounded by mountains studded with glaciers, walking along turquoise lakes and rivers, watching condors ride air currents. The couples know each other’s families, live in the same neighborhood, have shared histories. I fear this question, even the grammar needed to answer trips me up. Do I say I have two sons, one alive, one dead? Or I had two sons? Or I have a living son and a dead son? Nathan is… Nathan was… Nathan would be, could have been?
I tell them we have a son, Jacob, living in Virginia. I don’t say our younger son, Nathan, died 13 years ago. I don’t disclose he died from opioid addiction. I don’t tell them half of our collective hearts were ripped apart, scarred over, still bleed. I feel as if I am betraying my son by not acknowledging him, feel as if I am denying his existence, even though I know I owe nothing to strangers.
Sometimes people push, ask if we have any other children. When my husband or I answer, they get a look in their eyes, a look I cannot find words for; guilt, relief it isn’t their child, pity for us.
There is no word for parents who have lost a child. Our language is chaotic. We are not widowed or orphaned. We are without, we are incomplete.
Grief as chaos, fierce and unrepentant. I visualize it pushing my organs aside, taking up residence within my body. It never leaves, although some days it is quieter than others. Sometimes I think of it inside my brain, wreaking havoc with memories, sharpening some, tearing away at parts of others. Do I really remember bathing my son in a sink when he was an infant, or is it because I have a photo? Does a photo count as memory? This line of thinking swirls, twists and turns, never resolves. See. Chaos.
It arrives as I go about my daily life; swimming or taking walks, writing or doing laundry. Stalks me as I am in the grocery store deciding on which flavor of ice cream to buy. And here is Nathan, at 15, swirling ice cream in a blue bowl, turning it soupy, my husband and I laughing, telling him never to order it on a date. A woman walks by, stares at me as I stand by the open freezer door, my eyes damp, my hand shaking.
After Nathan died, we had to decide what to do with his belongings. We have boxes in our basement, filled with the detritus of his too-short life; his black wool jacket with metal buttons and empty sleeves, a wool blanket, photos of friends on ski trips or at the prom, the jewelry he made, some of it unfinished, baggies full of brightly-colored beads, wire-cutters and loops of wire, art projects from elementary school, yearbooks, Mother’s Day cards. Next to them, his tuneless guitar, his abandoned snowboard. They sit there, still. I can’t bear to open them, let all that accumulated grief rise to the surface, scatter like dust, coat my skin, fog my eyes.
Every year, on July 21, I get a message from Facebook, telling me it is Nathan Bacharach’s birthday, leave him a birthday wish. Every now and again, some of his old high school friends post photos or send me a text. These make me both happy and bereft.
Several months ago, in the parking lot at the post office, a young man approached me, called me ma’am, said he needed a dollar for bus fare, said he is trying to turn his life around, get to work on time. I knew he was lying, but I gave him the dollar anyway, told him don’t fuck up. He could have been my son, if he had lived. I torture myself with all the what ifs. Would he be able to stay clean? Would he be in prison? Would he hurt someone else? Would he have the life he wanted, a wife, children, a career?
Some days it is hard to remember how to breathe.
Some days I can remember the sound of his voice, the way his arms felt as he hugged me.
Some days I just don’t want to think at all.
I write a list of possibilities, what I might have done to save him:
If I read detective stories instead of memoirs,
knew the difference between moss and lichens,
had a dog instead of a cat.
What if we had lived by the Atlantic instead of a small town in the second-poorest county in Pennsylvania?
Took more vacations, or maybe fewer?
Did it matter that I listened to the Rolling Stones while pregnant with him, their wildness blasting through my blood to his, Keith Richards (and why the fuck is he still alive?) thrashing his guitar to Start Me Up?
Would it have helped if I truly believed in God or psychics?
Every day I look for signs, messages, something from him in the silent language of the dead; a torn leaf, a lark’s swift flight, a solitary crocus blooming in mud.
It was only after we had moved to Pittsburgh, six years after Nathan died, that we were able to put family photos on bookshelves in the living room. Nathan on his snowboard, bicycle riding with his brother, standing next to me in the last Christmas photo we ever took. Six years until we could live with them, look at them and not feel totally devastated. We live in a house that Nathan never saw, and yet every day I can imagine him coming to the front door, walking in, calling out hey mom, I’m home.
Copyright 2023 Valerie Bacharach.
Valerie Bacharach’s publications include Ghost-Mother (Finishing Line, 2021). She lives in Pittsburgh.
“,,,,the silent language of the dead.” The pain that always is. Powerfully–and beautifully–written.
Yes, I find this short essay very moving.
Indeed it is. The writing, as in a poem, is in service to the emotional experience.
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This is really good.
“even the grammar needed to answer trips me up.” Not something you would think of!
“Do I really remember bathing my son in a sink when he was an infant, or is it because I have a photo? ” I think everyone can relate to this.
I agree, Jason. Very powerful writing.
Yes, it is.
“Every day I look for signs, messages, something from him in the silent language of the dead; a torn leaf, a lark’s swift flight, a solitary crocus blooming in mud.” How I can relate to this… What a most poignant piece…
Yes, very moving language.
A grief that cannot die, cannot end, cannot cease, cannot….can not.
Stunling; impossible to really imagine the pain of a mother, a father, losing his son.
Yes. Thank you!