He hits me blindside, like an unprotected quarterback. Pinned to the floor by a 400-lb wall of angry flesh, I am cracked, broken, concussed. Everything was going so well. The day was progressing normally; I was functional, productive even. As a final insult, he gives me one more push as he arises, sauntering off into the mist while lay there, awash in tears, my chest crushed from sobbing, my head reeling. It takes me a day to recover.
In her book, “On Loss and Loving Onward,” Melissa Dalton-Bradford describes her Grief Beast:
“The Grief Beast is enormous – a hybrid of Jabba the Hutt, Sasquatch, and Grendel. His head scratches any twenty-foot ceiling, and he doesn’t speak; he transudes. He is warted and hairy and lumpy – a shaggy, slate-khaki thing with hair balls and sodden patches of a matted, grimy pelt from sitting for long stretches in pools of tears and mucus.”
Melissa is a dear friend of many years, and I can see her Grief Beast vividly. As she has shared her experiences with me, and as we have wept together, I have imagined her with this “blubbery, slavering mass” following her around everywhere she goes. I see her lying on the cold tile of her bathroom floor as he sits there next to her, a “hulking, stinking, unwelcome sidekick.” In the years before Ethan passed, I knew his death was coming – his health was fragile and deteriorated year by year, and I mourned this horrifying fact together with my dear friend. She, mourning the loss of her beautiful son, Parker. I, mourning the child that never was, that never would be, whom I would inevitably lose. She, dragging around her Grief Beast, becoming accustomed to its presence while my Grief Linebacker stayed on the sidelines, waiting patiently to be called up by the coach.
And now, nearly six months after Ethan’s passing, my Grief Linebacker hits with semi-regularity. Some days, he comes out of nowhere, but others, I see him coming, barreling down the field, gaining speed and momentum. On the seventh of every month, the anniversary of Ethan’s death, I stand at midfield, my feet planted, my body relaxed and waiting for the hit. I look him in the face, see the beads of sweat on his brow, smell the foul odor of pain and loss emanating from his hulking frame, and feel his powerful arms in a vise grip around my chest as we hit the turf together and I am crushed under his weight. I lay there on my back, gasping, tears flowing into my ears, waiting for him to retreat to his regular position on the field so that I can roll over into a fetal position, a pulpy mass of mucus, tears, and pain.
The other day, I went to the science center with my two sons. As we entered one of the exhibit areas, I spotted a woman sitting next to a little boy with spastic cerebral palsy in a wheelchair. I smiled at her, and she smiled back, looking away. Knowing all too well the smiles of well-meaning strangers as I have sat with my similarly disabled child in his wheelchair, I have used the same deflection technique. Acknowledge, look away, engage in something else to avoid uncomfortable conversation. Undaunted, I bravely walked up to her and said, “That’s a great wheelchair! Is it a Quickie? My son had a Quickie (brand) wheelchair.” Instantly her face relaxed and she smiled, realizing that I spoke her language. We chatted a bit about her grandson as I knelt down next to the wheelchair and smiled at him. The grandmother was in town with this sweet boy and his two siblings while their parents were away on business. An indoor activity away from the blistering Florida heat and humidity was the perfect way to pass the afternoon. “What is your name, sweetheart?” I said to the little boy.
“Ethan,” his grandmother responded.
This time, the Grief Linebacker was kind. He picked me up and carried me to the other side of the exhibit hall, as I managed to sputter out, “Oh! My son was named Ethan too. Have a fun day!” It was only then, behind one of the brightly colored exhibits, in a quiet, private space that he threw me to the ground and pounced.
[Image of Jack Lambert courtesy of Best Athletes by the Numbers]