Facing the Music

April 15, 2010 at 6:48 am | Posted in Family | 34 Comments

His name was Keith. He had red hair and wore glasses. He always walked fast, like he knew where he was headed and needed to get there. He took French.

It’s been 16 years. And that’s about all I can remember.

Except for this. He played the saxophone. I mean, he played. And when he did, it was like honey: sweet, smooth, thick, golden.

And this. His mother collapsed in on herself at his funeral. She wept desperately and fiercely, as if her feral cries would somehow yield courage.

And this. Someone planted a tree near his gravestone. Its tiny green leaves practically glowed when I would visit each April. Hanging on one of its branches, the yellow tassel from his graduation cap faded a little more each season.

He was on his way to a music lesson at a local university when he crossed the center line, collided with a truck, and was killed instantly. He was a senior in high school.

He was my friend.

I was 16. I had no idea life could be that way. Could end so fast. Could just stop, while the rest of us tried to stay in motion. While we tried to keep the music playing and find harmony again.

Now, as a mother, I reflect on his loss in a different way. I dread that my children will know such grief. I worry that I won’t be able to kiss away their pain, as I do with their scrapes and bruises. I fear that I won’t be able to silence the dark voices and unanswerable questions. Because I know those monsters lurk much longer than the ones under their beds, behind their curtains.

And sometimes I let myself go there. I break through the mental locks, gates, and barriers I have steadfastly constructed since I became a mother. I let myself imagine the utter devastation of soul and strength that Keith’s mother felt. Just for the briefest of moments, because that’s as long as I can bear.

And then I turn back. I relock the gates. And I listen for the music.

Because it’s always there. As sweet and soothing as honey.



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  1. My goodness. I had a similar experience, newly into high school. A much beloved peer was killed walked homing on the highway from a very popular annual party. It rocked the school and affected so many of us in a real and very difficult way.

    I want to protect my children too, but I recognize that the path to living is feeling and that we simply can’t shelter them (but oh how I will try, and oh how I will weep for them when their naviete starts to fade away). I’m not looking forward to the pain they will feel. Do you suppose though, as mothers, that we feel it even more intensely than they do? I sometimes wonder.

    • You are so very right. Even though I want to protect them so desperately, I know they must experience life, the joy and the pain, for themselves. And I can let them know I’ll be here if they need me.

  2. This is a heart wrenching post! Losing a child has got to be the worst thing that can happen to a mother! I ignore this possibility. Not that it can’t happen, but that I can’t handle thinking about it. Even when my kiddos question me about what they will do when I die, I tell them I’m going to live to be 98 and they will have a family, children and grand-children by then, so when I leave they will be fine. Having buried my mother a few months ago, I realize now that isn’t true!
    Lindsey Petersen

  3. Oh wow. I can’t even open the gate to think about what Keith’s mum went through. Can’t even peep. Gives me goosebumps of fear just to consider it. These are the kinds of questions I ask myself at 3am, the darkest, darkest time of the day. Then, they’re scary. Bring them into the light and they’re real. RIP Keith.

  4. By the time I graduated from high school, I was on pretty close terms with death: the father of a classmate, a classmate in a house fire, 3 out of 4 grandparents, a cousin of mine who was only 22.

    And then of course, there’s Gabriel. Sometimes I think about losing my children when they are older and I shudder at the thought. I mean, losing a baby is devastating as it is.

    I don’t peek behind that door, not intently. I’ve been there, and I don’t want to think that it could be worse.

    As far as protecting our children, I don’t know. It’s cliche, but death really is part of life. It’s going to hurt them to lose, for example, Nanny, but it’s also inevitable. I just hope that I can help them through it, and let them feel it, rather than shield them. I hope teaching them to grieve can be a gift I give them.


    • I hope I can teach my children to grieve, too. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn myself.

  5. Chilling and poignant. Last night I had to attend a state mandated Parent Driver’s Ed class (in order for my daughter to get her permit), and they showed us a film of kids changed by brain injuries due to vehicular accidents. Even as a former pediatric nurse who treated kids like this, it was hard to watch. With 2 of my kids living away at college these days, sometimes I hesitate for one split second before I answer the phone.
    I can’t imagine…

  6. I needed to hear this today, as I prepare to go to the funeral of a dear friend. For me though, the imagining is different… He was elderly, and his wife of 37 years spent the last few months watching him weaken. She lived each day in a state of saying goodbye, but this past week it was the worst. She knew his time was very close, and she had him at home, and lay in the bed next to him, holding him and going over memories of their lives. When I unlock my own gates, and try to imagine what it must be like to say goodbye to a spouse… I can’t leave those gates open very long.

  7. My brain has been going to similar dark places lately. I don’t know how to stop it. A mother’s love can be a terrible thing.

  8. It’s one of the most terrifying parts of being a parent, isn’t it?

    Having lost my Mother suddenly when I was 11, I add that fear in as well. Not only, what if something happens to them but What if something happens to me?

    Like you, I don’t allow myself to think on it too often because I feel like the fear will swallow me whole.

  9. A mother’s grief – I hurt just saying those words, let alone feeling them. I fear this each and every day, and I have found myself frozen with terror as soon as the unthinkable crosses my mind. It is this fierce, aching love that makes motherhood at once wonderful and unbearable.

  10. What a beautiful post. I don’t let myself go there, usually, and it surprises me. I am a worrier; before kids, I worried about my husband constantly. But with kids, I think I’ve also constructed barriers for those dark places, because I don’t know that going there would contribute to any mental health I might have left.

  11. that was beautiful…and so sad. Another reminder to be thankful for each day.

  12. Very beautiful post. I try not to go there, too. But I once came very close to experiencing that loss. When my son was six, he and my husband were on their way home from a baseball game on a sunny Sunday when a young man – who was driving home from working a night shift – fell asleep at the wheel and hit them head-on. My son suffered a severe traumatic head injury and they actually had to revive him in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. I’ll never forget that call. I was five months pregnant with our daughter, and enjoying the beautiful sunny day at home. I jumped in my car and drove so fast to the hospital that I can barely remember the drive. I’m not a religious person, but all I could do the whole way was pray to God that he would live. It was so scary.

    He spent four days in intensive care at the children’s hospital and it was very touch-and-go for a while. After a week in the hospital and regular visits to therapy, he was doing great. He is 12 now and fully recovered.

    I was never much of a worry-wart, but that day changed me. I realized just how quickly our loved ones can be taken from us. Just thinking about it gives me chills. When I see a story on the news, or even a movie about children being injured or worse, I cry. I also never want my kids to experience loss, or the possiblity of losing me or their dad. But it’s not something that we can control, so I try to lock up those gates and just live life. Sorry for rambling… I guess something about your post just grabbed me! 🙂

    • Wow, what a terrifying four days and journey toward healing that must have been. I’m amazed how, somehow, mothers find the strength to do what needs to be done, to make it through. And I am so glad your son is OK!

      • Thanks Stacia! I hope you’re feeling better.

  13. Beautiful post. Losing a friend in high schoolis an experience one carries because they can’t fully understand (not that we comprehend any better as adults) and then look back and see it through a parents eyes and heart…heart wrenching. Poignant piece.

  14. I know what you mean. To contempate the “what ifs” is unimaginably scary. There was an obituary in our local newspaper this week – a 20 year old boy died of cancer. Three months earlier his only sibling was killed in a car accident. So his parents went from having 2 sons to having no children in 3 months. I felt absolutely sick reading that…

    Okay, off to hug my kiddo!!

  15. Oh my! My son leaves home everyday now with my car and with my worry. I can’t imagine. THe grief. Or perhaps I can. And that is why i live in fear.

    Live changes on a dime. And there is nothing we can do about it.

    I’m sorry you lost a friend. I’m sorry a mother lost a son. I’m sorry his life was cut so short.

  16. Before I became a mother, I never knew that my heart would break every day, just by virtue of wanting to protect my son, yet knowing that I can’t. The world is out there, life is uncertain, and someday, sooner or later, he will encounter a loss that I can’t protect him from. I try not to think about that, I try to keep all the dark thoughts that creep into my brain behind the gate, but sometimes they slip through, unbidden, and it makes my blood run cold.

  17. This is wrenching. Beautifully written, and painful to read. As a mother, I can’t go to those places either. Can’t. I cannot imagine any grief so unbearable.

  18. This gave me chills…
    I can’t even imagine what it was like to know someone die under such circumstances at such a young age. But those thoughts frighten me beyond anything right now.
    I’m so sorry.

  19. It sucks but you can’t protect them from the world. Sometimes it may be easier to lock them away, but life will always find them.

  20. Stacia, you’re so right. It’s like the craziest thing in the world, having these kids we love to abstraction but also having the flip side: we love something too much to lose it. It’s too much to think about. Yet there they are, those parents who live through it.

    My mother’s sister died when I was a kid and she was in her thirties. I didn’t think my grandmother would ever smile again and she didn’t smile for about seven years. And then one day she just started smiling. It was pretty miraculous.

  21. And then you let your mind start to think of the millions upon millions of parents who HAVE experienced that loss and continue to experience it, every day. It’s too much. The magnitude of the world’s loss is too great to truly comprehend.

    I always say that if the world were run by mothers, there would be NO WAR. For only a mother knows the pain that losing something as precious as one child means.

  22. What a beautiful and tragic post. I hate when my mind wanders to the very darkest of places. Unendurable, just impossibly undendurable.

  23. Being a mother is so scary. I worry about things I never imagined.

    I lost a friend in high school too – very eye opening.

  24. This is my biggest fear. This is what keeps me up at night, staring at the ceiling, trying not to cry. This is why I kiss the soft cheeks of my children while they’re blissfully asleep and hug them a little tighter when they’re awake.

  25. This is beautifully written, Stacia, and in it you so powerfully capture the feelings so many of us share. Suffice it to say, motherhood has increased my range of emotions: with all the joy and transcendent love that my children have brought into my life comes the potential for the deepest despair. I needed this reminder of how lucky I am not to have experienced any of that latent darkness.

    • I, too, feel lucky. So lucky sometimes that I convince myself it is surely about to run out. It’s another one of those wonderful, terrible paradoxes of motherhood.

  26. This so so gorgeous! I had to read it twice. Every mother’s worst nightmare.

    In high school, a friend of mine (who lived for rodeo) was stomped to death by a bull. I’ll never forget the sounds of his mother weeping at his funeral.

  27. Beautifully shared. Thank you.

  28. When my oldest was almost a year old, the son of one of my high school teachers died suddenly at age 21. I had not been in touch with my teacher in years but could remember her son as a little kid, hanging around school while his mom supervised different student council activities on weekends.

    With almost a year of motherhood under my belt, hearing of another mother losing a child was just devastating. I could not imagine losing a child after 21 years of the kind of love and emotion (and exhaustion) I had experienced in just 12 months.

  29. You described the mental locks and gates that come with mothering better than I ever could. Actually, I’ve never even tried. I fear that in the trying I’ll leave the doors open and my mind will jump where I can’t bear it to go.

    Just today I had the dreadful, dreadful thought of something happening to myself or to my husband. And the thoughts played out in my mind. What would happen to our children. A life of loss. But these thoughts are not half as bad as the ones I cannot even bear to write. The ones that would put me in Keith’s mother place.

    Beautifully written. Beautifully!

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