Anniversaries around days that are hard can be funny things. What are we supposed to do to acknowledge something that brings grief? July 7 will mark one year since my beloved friend, Lauren's, brother Christopher died. Christoper was too young to die, in my opinion, and though he has been making himself known in astonishing ways this past year, still, the one-year thing looms ominously in the not-too-far future.
Twenty-nine years ago today I was hit by a car, and so I have always thought that this is the Day I Should Have Died. But didn't. The thing is, of course, we all have lots of near misses in our lives. Think of all the times you have narrowly escaped a car accident or even made a choice that moved you back toward living and away from the possibility of death. Life is pretty tricky that way.
Here is what I learned in the class I took last week that was called Death, Dying & Bereavement: we will all be dead one day. And also, lots of people have been through really awful stuff. Most of the time we don't even know what sadness people are harboring. In my little group of 13, there were three widows, one person who had lost both her husband and only child and one woman whose grandfather and husband had both chosen suicide. And those were the things that people revealed. Who knows what other sorrows were with us in that space, too hard for the bearer to reveal.
We grieve a lot of losses in this life. Sometimes small things: we might grieve the loss of a dream or even an idea. We grieve when a relationship dies. When we have to move, we grieve all that is left behind. We grieve when we no longer feel safe; we grieve the loss of who we imagined ourself to be when the humble truth is revealed: we are simply human and we make a lot of mistakes. Life, truly, is full of sorrow and letting go. But that's the quest, isn't it? The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us, was what Hermann Hesse wrote, but moves us stage by stage to wider spaces. We can't get to those wider spaces if we're dragging the whole of our lives with us for the journey.
In the journal that I kept during the week I was in class, I wrote this: "There are a lot of things you cannot do when you're dead."
I don't even remember if I read it or thought it up, but it still amuses me.
Like, for example, if I had died on this day, June 10, twenty-nine years ago, I wouldn't be going to Nate's graduation today.
And the really great thing is that I AM going to Nate's graduation today. Nathaniel Swift McChesney is celebrating the end of his high school journey this afternoon, in the Patrick Gymnasium on the University of Vermont campus. He will move that funny little tassel on his cap from one side to the other, signifying that he has completed this phase of the journey. And then, in about two months, he'll start the next leg, two thousand miles away, at Montana State, in Bozeman, Montana. Vermontana, is the name I have made-up for the great adventure that is becoming Nate's life.
I have yet to coin a phrase or a word to describe the mix of awe and delight and sorrow I am feeling inside about this kid and the eighteen years I've known him and the reality that he is leaving and the beauty of a life that lies ahead for him.
"He has such a nice demeanor," is what everybody always says about Nate. "You feel peace when you're near him," is how some describe the Nate Factor. "He is kind to everyone, " was what his teachers said when he won the Humanitarian Award a few years ago. "I have no idea where he came from," is what often falls from my lips.
Nate is deeply loving to his little sister and spars appropriately with his big brother. He never asks for anything and he doesn't care much for things that screw people up in life, like drugs and booze. He's pretty much gotten straight A's his whole life. There was a moment a few years ago, after Nate traveled to Sweden and Germany and France and spent time on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, when asked by his teachers what he did that summer, he responded, "I played some basketball."
Nate doesn't feel the need to impress anyone. He doesn't care what he's wearing and he doesn't care what he's driving. He spends his energy being nice. And not in the kind of way that says...I want you to like me! In the kind of way that says...I understand that this is how being human works.
Somehow, at 18, he gets it.
If I start to talk about how much I am going to miss Nate when he moves to Montana, the grief will undo me. I want him to go! I don't want him to go! But really, mostly, the truth is that I want more of the world to know Nate in the way that I have known him and his family has known him and his friends and teachers here have known him. We can't keep him to ourselves. The world needs more of our Nate.
We have a funny little thing we do from time to time, the kids and I: we play the What If game. What if I hadn't gone out to meet a friend that night and your dad and I had never met? What if I hadn't gone to St. Lawrence and went to a different college instead and met a whole different group of people and then had a different job in a different place? What if I had married my first boyfriend? What if it hadn't rained that day and I had gone to the beach instead of going for a drive and getting lost and stopping to ask for directions and meeting your dad?
That's actually the truth about how easily I might have missed my chance to bring Nate into this world: it rained that day, and so my plans changed, and I met his dad and we fell in love and we made Nate.
Nate has made a place for himself in this world already, and yet...he's just getting warmed-up. Scott and I have done the bulk of our work as parents, now we have to let him go because one chapter is closing and another is opening; today's ceremony means that Nate's not so much ours anymore, and that brings both grief and joy, sorrow and delight as is so often the case in life.
And, too, for me, in the very quiet spaces of my heart, deep deep gratitude that I am, indeed, alive.