Editors note: We are thrilled to introduce Melissa Dalton Bradford as a new contributor to the Segullah blog. You may recognize her name from several poems featured in the Segullah literary magazine; Melissa’s grace, beauty and wisdom and an incredible asset to our community.
I’m sitting in a pediatrician’s examination room. We’ve been living in Munich for nearly three months, and my eleven-year-old Dalton has contracted a bad chest cold he just can’t shake. This starched-smock doctor I’ve known for twelve minutes takes notes as I recite Dalton’s medical profile. I would like antibiotics. Frau Doktor would like a complete history. Dalton would like to get out of there. Sitting stripped to his underwear on the gray examination table, he appears disconnected from our conversation which is in German, a language I incorrectly presume Dalton cannot yet understand. (He later tells me he followed this whole exchange.)
“You know, Frau Bradford,” she places her pen flat on her clipboard, “this boy seems depressed.”
“Depressed?” I feign nonchalance. “Hmmm. You think? Well, maybe he looks quite sad.” I act like I’m scrutinizing him. (Scan up. Scan down.) He does indeed look very sad. Mournful, even.
Weakly pulling at a string dangling from the leg of his underwear, he coughs that foamy, upholstered kind of cough, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Frau Doktor’s Kleenex reflex is snappy.
“And the reasons your son would be sad. . .?” she asks, extending him a tissue. She then poises her pen to make the list: “I suppose your recent move from France? The new school? Losing friends?”
“Actually. . .those aren’t the reasons,” I say. “Well. . .except maybe the last one.”
I sense where this is going, and I’m hoping I can escape without entering the holiest of all my holies and maybe breaking down. That would be bad, breaking down in front of my sad stripped-down son, in front of this woman who peers at us like lab rats, clipboard and pen in hand.
I search for Dalton’s eyes. They are the same eyes, peeled wide open with pain, during those very last minutes—just three and a half months earlier—in an Idaho I.C.U. Under this long, hot moment boils up in me a visceral craving to go back. I want to flee from this moment, to escape this language with its pointy hospital corners, devoid of condolence, barren. Childless.
Oh dearest Lord, I want to be back where we were all together. Take me back.
“Frau Bradford. . .? “ She clicks her pen and raises her eyebrows.
I adjust myself in my chair, fold my hands in my lap, breathe deeply. Then, like some reporter from the nightly news, I orate: “On July 19th, in a farmland canal in farmland in the western United States there was a water activity organized by a group of university students, among whom was our oldest, our eighteen-year-old son. That night, he and another student were sucked up stream and pinned in a hidden undertow. Twice, my son got out. Twice he went back in trying to save the other boy. The other boy survived. But my son. . .”
I finish. The woman tucks her pen in her breast pocket. And with all the tenderness of a tongue depressor, says: “Ach, such strokes of fate. You had best not think about it. Best get on with your life.”
She needn’t offer me any tissue. I’m dry as a cinder block.
We’re at church. This new, tiny ward of well-meaning strangers is struggling to know what to do with us. I know this because from where our family sits in a sodden clump in the back pew I watch as eyes flit from looking into ours. Smiles strain. Shoulders turn away to some sudden, nervous preoccupation. And behind my stock-still façade echo all the words I crave hearing—honest ones, simple ones like, “I know what happened and I’m sorry.” But none are spoken. For weeks upon weeks, silence swells.
Such silence sends the tacit message that our son’s death—and his life—never happened, don’t matter. That, and the general levity, the apparent unscathed and rollicking solidarity our family cannot join in, makes me think that, well, it must be time to “move on,” “find closure,” “be grateful,” “rejoice.” My gut winds itself into a knot as thick and bristly as oceanliner rope. Is wanting someone to ache with me presumptuous? Is quietly weeping through the sacrament hymn ill-placed? Is my grief selfish? Self-indulgent?
The knot groans.
And then one day in late autumn a brother who hadn’t spoken to us until that moment strides up to me, plants one hand on my shoulder, and with the other hand pumps mine, exclaiming, “Smile! It’s such a great day to be alive!”
My scripture pages—the Book of Job, to be exact— still bear the little warped pockmarks from the tears I shed on them that day as I took refuge in our car, blistering my palms by nearly wringing the leather off the steering wheel.
Lars is straight from the cast of The Sound of Music: blonde, blue-eyed, with a bank of snow white teeth, as quick and light on his feet as a Bavarian leprechaun, perfectly proportioned and perhaps thirty-one. Or nineteen. Ageless. He’s murmuring along with Celine Dion (his German accent does wonders for her English), who’s piped into the salon where I’ve arrived for a long overdue trim. Lars tries to make small talk while admiring our mirrored reflection: me stiff and old in the chair, him elfin and nimble on his toes. I sense under my lips a polite smile trying to emerge from hibernation—I’ve not been able to smile since July, four months earlier—but I just don’t have that kind of strength.
Lars hums and sections off hair, cooing, crooning and combing. But I’m so clogged with anguish I sit frozen, fearing what will come out of my mouth if I open it. My mind scampers ahead, frenzied, trying to plot escape routes around the inevitable question about family and children. At the rate Lars is talking, we’ll hit that question head on before he takes his first snip.
Then he catches me off guard: “Life’s short,” he says, stretching smooth a swath of my hair, scissors held at attention. “There’s never enough time to love the people who matter the most to us.”
His exact words. My scampering panic stops like I’ve pinned its tail under my boot. My throat constricts.
“You’re right, Lars,” (and where this came from, I’ll never know,) “I buried my oldest son four months ago today.”
I recall details of Frau Doktor: clip board, pen, white orthopedic sandals. As I write this, I can feel her words clawing into my torso like a sharp-tonged trowel. I recall with a pit in my stomach the clenched grip and forced smile of the jubilant brother from church who was, I know this now, trying desperately to smile away my frowny face.
In contrast, I recall with sweetness every last millimeter of Lars: scissors in the right hand frozen midflight, length of my hair held taut in the left hand, neck craned forward and eyes narrowing as he asks, “Wha-what. . .?!”
I repeat myself, whispering. But it costs me my composure. Celine’s high notes, thank goodness, cover my low tears.
And here’s the image I cherish the most: Lars drops hair, scissors, and both his arms, hangs his head in a slow side-to-side shake, turns from the mirror to me, tears welling up in his eyes, and with a scarcely audible groan, bends toward me to wrap my shoulders in a hug. “Oh, no, no. I am so sorry, so sorry. . .”
It’s true. Not everyone is a Lars.
But would that more of us were.
So very many of my LDS sisters and brothers are, gratefully, like him. . . and then some: expressive, unafraid, patient, intuitive, selfless, inspired. Being the recipient of such godly compassion has been utterly awe-inspiring for me. Our family has had mortal angels on our right hand and on our left, round about us to bear us up. From their wings has come the warm updraft that has at times held us aloft, above the dark suction of the abyss.
What’s been perplexing and sobering, however, in our own journey through the valley of great grief and in the vicarious journey we’ve shared with many bereaved friends, has been the hurt and alienation that have come from—who would have guessed it?—faithful LDS church members. In fact, in retrospect we’ve found that the most hurtful comments (or hurtful “avoidance silence”) have come from those within our faith. (Author and bereaved father, Nicolas Wolterstorff writes, “Your tears are salve to our wounds; your silence, salt.”) The comments (and silence) are almost always rooted in a lack of understanding of the nature of grief, (its duration, depth and necessity), in a misunderstanding of faith (its compatibility with grief and its potentially increased density as one reaches the bedrock of grief’s valley), and in a misapplication of “doctrine”: the mis-belief that faith supplants grief, that grief can be eradicated or curtailed by quickly “getting your mind off yourself” in service, and that if grief lasts more than “X” months or if it keens and wails it is pathological and will damage those left among the living and distract and deter from their “mission” those newly gone to the dead.
But what of the straightforward doctrine found in the 23rd Psalm? “And though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . .”
To that wisdom I add: Blessed is she who walks (or crawls or claws) through that valley with me. Blessed is she who does not insist I hurry, do the fake jollity-jig, buck-up, or bungee jump over it. If we, mourner and co-mourner, share some of that descending and ascending journey together, we will one day kneel side by side on the upper rim of this shadowed valley. While we will surely be bruised and bloodied, we will also be bonded.
Inimitably to each other. Eternally to our God.
When have you been the recipient of inspired compassion? Have you ever experienced any of our faith loaded with answers but lacking in the gift of empathetic comprehension? How have you “mourned with those that mourn” and “comforted those in need of comfort”?