In September of 2002, I found a piece of paper on the floor of my son Chaos' bedroom. He was ten at the time and the previous year had seen some big changes for us: the divorce, a move to a new small town, new schools, 9/11, and the loss of my beloved grandfather. It's a lot of grief for a small boy. On many, many levels Chaos held up exceptionally well. His counselor said he was doing real and honest work dealing with it all; his new teachers loved him; and he made the best friend he's ever had that year. But grief is still grief and it leaks through in surprising ways.
Here's what the worn, folded piece of notebook paper said:
Things that Died
(And I wish I could show this but I can't get it to work on this screen! Way over to the right at the top it also says - with a few smears - )
Chaos was mourning in the very best ways he knew how- expressing his grief in writing and carrying it around. The horse was actually my sister's horse from her equestrian days in high school. He died when Chaos was six and while it made Chaos sad, B-roll passed peacefully after being quite the happy, old man of the pasture for some time. Same with the cat. Himalayans typically don't live to ripe old ages and at 13, Hemingway's passing was sad but not tragic.
The ants? You'd think my son had an ant farm in his room or something, but no. These were 'wild ants'. They lived on our rock wall when Chaos was seven. The week after we'd told the boys about the impending divorce, Chaos' teacher took me aside and said she was so sorry to hear about our family's loss. She said she could tell Chaos had been close to his aunt. Er? If you ask Chaos to name his favorite person on the planet, he would - without a nanosecond of hesitation - say "TIDGET!" but my sister was (and still is) very much alive and well. It took us some moments to clear up that Chaos' dead Aunt Lilly was rather more his dead ANT Lilly. My sweet boy couldn't cry and tell his teacher that his world was falling apart because his parents were getting divorced and he had to move - but he could chronicle the terrible, tragic rash of ant death on our rock wall. Chaos' teacher smiled but had tears in her eyes when we finally sorted it out (divorce, move, dead ants and all). I loved her for that. Chaos later told me how much he'd loved her for listening so sympathetically for all of that story hour. Apparently moms and second grade teachers are some of the only people who take ant death seriously.
(Here I should point out that Chaos did not kill any of the ants. He has normal anger issues but he's never been one to stomp insects. To this day he hates having to be the one to 'deal' with bugs in the house. He'll scoop them up and take them outside. Except he won't go near spiders. He blames at least one unrecovered ant's death on spiders. As far as I could tell from the two ant funerals Chaos let me be a part of all those years ago, the ants' demise had more to do with drought than anything else.)
So two years later, that piece of paper had a new addition. "People." This one with with some tear smudges. I tried to give Chaos back his list when I found it. (He knew I wasn't 'snooping'. We have a system to protect important things from the vacuum cleaner.) He told me to keep it - he'd made another one when he couldn't find that one.
I came across this tiny testament to big grief today when I searched an old wallet for my voter's registration card. It is one of those coincidences that makes you sit back - whoosh. My family spent this past weekend mourning the loss of my uncle - whom I last saw four years ago, at my grandfather's funeral, the week this list was written. My Uncle Denny, my mother's big brother, succumbed to cancer a few weeks ago, just days after his 77th birthday. Although he'd lived across the country - in the Arizona desert - he'd wanted to come here at the end. He'd wanted to be where his father had spent his last days. We couldn't work that out - medicare and frail bodies being what they are - but we brought his ashes out and gathered the family from various corners far and wide. Our group was thirty (forty?) some odd people strong this weekend. This particular configuration of cousins and such hadn't managed to all be in one place together for 24 years - and that gathering was a beach house party to honor my maternal grandmother's unexpected passing at the young (for my family) age of sixty. No longer having a beach house in the family, we spent four days at my godmother's retreat center - the gorgeous, crisp, sunny, chilly October weather and the huge harvest moon setting the tone for our music and stories and drinking. (We tend towards red heads and wakes in my Irish descended family.) We celebrated my uncle's life with liturgy and revelry, with laughter and reminisces. We plunked the gold box of Denny's ashes in the center of the table as we feasted and toasted him. My children were amused to hear stories of that beach house gathering in 1982 - when I'd been exactly Chaos' age. My cousins and I were astounded to realize we aren't the rowdy generation anymore. (I think our children AND our parents out did us this round!!) This time, instead of guitars there were iPods for the music - and crunchy leaves on the windy walk down to the river instead of salty waves and sunburns. This time I was in the middle instead of on one generational end of the spectrum. This time things were very different, yet the same: grief and family, hugs and teary eyes, celebration and nostalgia - there is a timeless healing in the whole of it. Thank Heavens.