“Blue?” “Blau.” My ten-year-old friend is teaching me German as we play the card game Uno.
His eyes are also “blau” and his hair light blonde. His English is only slightly further along than my heretofore-nonexistent German. So I mime. I ham it up, both winning and losing with panache. I shout “Uno!” and wave my final card high over the discard pile — whether or not I can actually play it. I feign desolation when forced to draw again. He laughs.
That was less than a week ago, in Berlin. Today, back in London, I reflect on the eighth anniversary of the birth of our son James. He too came out with fine blonde hair and his eyes, had he ever opened them, would have started out baby blue.
Until recently, I have found it difficult to be with other people’s children. Two years on, washing my hands in advance of meeting a friend’s newborn twins, I flashed back on the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where I scrubbed up several times per day before checking on him. It was not until the fourth year that I could hold a baby in my arms again and truly surrender to that moment’s joy.
This past year, our three-year-old nephew (another tow-head) came to visit us from Australia. We spent a week playing cars, riding trains, chasing chickens, and watching cartoons. This year, the University of Salzburg also published my short poetry collection The Silence Teacher, comprised entirely of poems relating to my journey through grief, and dedicated to the memory of our son.
If you turn the number eight on its side, it looks like the symbol for infinity. In those first few years, it certainly seemed like I would carry a great weight of sadness forever. “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Andy Warhol was right. Through counselling, and writing, and deep spiritual introspection, in my eighth year as a childless father I have found solace in new and simple ways of sharing my love.
At the end of the poem, “Father-Son Conversation”, I tell James that, “I will go on speaking to you for as long as I live.” Indeed, I will. But now, even more than describing the strange and poignant beauty of this world through writing poetry, I find myself carrying on that conversation in new languages.
“Red?” “Rot.” “Green?” “Grün.” “Yellow?” “Gelb.” There are many other colours to learn, in many more languages. But for now, this is all I need to know.
Happy Birthday, my son.