One day prior to the anniversary of my son’s death, I found myself sitting outside in the sunshine trying to conjure images of his youth – happier times. Some friends had recommended that I do that; moreover, they recommended that I write about those times as a way of providing respite to those reading the stories of his final years.
So, I set out to think, first.
But as thinking goes, I found myself bird walking, moving away from my purpose and pondering other things.
D and I had talked the night before after a long silence. We talked of her writing (she never asks about mine) and of an essay contest addressing the topic of the things we fear the most. She admitted to fearing the act of writing about the loss of her baby some fifteen years ago. She had never written of it.
The conversation was still perched in my mind like a bird’s nest tucked between the branches. I knew it was there. I peeked between the limbs and noticed the scraps of fabric and twine within it. Tucked into the talk was the advice she had given me when my son had died. You need to see him, Ellen.
And as the branches snapped back into place, my mind was hurtling back to the days following his death – the storm, the morgue, the decisions I had made. D had looked at her boy.
As I sought to remember him full of life and fun and possibility, I remembered only the emptiness, the loss. The images I had conjured of his last hours…and beyond were vivid despite the fact that I hadn’t seen him.
I looked around me for something to bring my young boy back to me and saw only evidence of the “bad” times. This rental house in its entirety highlighted the loss of the home where I had raised all of my children. I saw the patch on the screen in the back, the place where he had tried to jimmy the window to get in when we had locked him out. I saw the chaise where he used to sun himself, but with it came the brevity of those moments, the up-and-out and turmoil that engulfed those moments and sucked down the peace.
I took myself on a mental tour of the house, looking for the joy. I couldn’t find it.
So I went back to another space and time – the house where my children had grown up. The house had been torn down while still full. Full of books, antiques, clothes, appliances, memories.
And though there were many happy times there, I could only pull on the images of holes in the walls, blood stains, listening through locked doors, the feelings of hopelessness that had turned a place full of love and hope into an embarrassment. When it came down, I heard that the dumpster had sections of old cribs that could be seen from the street. I never saw the wreckage until it was just a hole in the ground.
As my memories of place failed me, I came to understand something.
I am displaced.
I have no place to call home.
For someone who holds onto the “things” of life as a way to keep the memories, I had come up starkly short.
I had saved some remnants of my mother’s clothes closet, some boxes of antiques. I thought those would help.
The places of my life are gone.
My childhood home had been torn down – all but a fireplace demolished and a new insta-mansion in its place.
My grandmother’s house in Spring Lake was gone. I had driven by and seen the real estate sign. Even dreamed of buying it back. The next time I drove down the road, I saw the basement – topless. I could see the stairs leading down to the cozy laundry area. I remembered the smell. The hanging clothes. The rolling wooden toy box with books – Teddy Bear of Bumpkin Hollow, Little Red Riding Hood. I remembered the coal bin that my cousin had adopted as his bedroom when my grandmother had taken him in after his parents ousted him. He wouldn’t sleep in the beautifully appointed bedrooms on the second floor. Maybe he didn’t feel worthy. As I looked down into the hole full of memories, I saw a cigar box perched on a ledge. I eased my way down to claim it, to find the jewel of my youth hidden away within it safe from the jaws of the back hoe. It was empty.
I tried to hold onto place – somewhere. Short Hills – my grandparents’ house had been torn down.
Highland Lakes. Kevin and I had searched for the old log cabin to no avail. My grandparents had sold it when the grandchildren had stopped visiting in favor of being with friends. I could have made new memories there with my children. Memories like mine of learning to swim in the clear lake water with hundreds of little fish surrounding me. Memories of sleeping in a loft and crawling down the ladder early in the morning to swim with my dad. Trying to canoe out to the island and abandoning the canoe for the rowboat.
That place was gone.
My first home as a married woman still sits on a little hill with a stream running in the back. But the house has been transformed from a small cape to a magnificent home, bearing no resemblance to the original structure and surrounded by other renovation projects, not the homes that were my neighbors’.
So my reverie brought me to the truth. I have no place in this world.
I feel displaced because I am. I have no center.
People would say, have said, “Home is where the heart is,” attempting to convince others that the actual abode doesn’t matter. It only matters that you are with the ones you love.
My heart is broken, though.
So my “home” is broken, too.
Scrolling through the images of home, searching for the moments of joy has brought me to a newfound appreciation of place as holder of memories.
But it is more than that. Place grounds your now as well as your then. Surroundings matter. You can imagine yourself into the life you build for yourself. I have allowed mine to reflect my broken heart. I have quit caring or working to make it beautiful. Oh, how my mother would cringe at that. She who was all about creating atmosphere, exuding class and refinement, beauty even.
I have to keep looking back to pull the beautiful and glorious memories from the gaping holes and lost homesteads. I can see them in my mind’s eye, and I can find them. I will remember him as he was then and bring him along with me as I continue this journey.
And I must re-place myself in my own space. Create and imagine it to hold the joys that are still within my heart, the people who are still with me here, the people I have and love as I loved him.
Is this the thing I fear most in the world? As D fears writing about her lost son? She had looked at him. I have looked at my boy in a different way, looking closely by examining those hard days and putting words to them. Maybe we both have seen in our own ways.
Am I ready now to put to rest those difficult images and to remember the beautiful ones?
To find a place again?