The Eleventh Year

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Photo by Matthew Bedford from Unsplash

Eleven is drawn with parallel lines. Parallel lives.

In one, my son survived. He is with us in England, in the rain; or we are still in California, in drought. He is like me at that age — obsessed with science and discovery; or like his mother, he is at the piano, practicing. He is like neither of us, in surprising ways. Ways we will never guess.

I inhabit life on the other rail instead. It is definitely England, definitely raining, and I have become a poet. Science and engineering failed to show me how to address the vast inner landscapes I felt pressing from an early age. Miłosz, Dostoevsky, and Mahler succeeded. Subjectivity is the enemy of science, but the lifeblood of poetry.

Objectively, our son is gone. Subjectively, he is everywhere.

I am not a monorail. I am the smoke drifting up from a neighbour’s chimney, and I am the chimney, and I am the air.

Only at the place where parallel lines intersect, only there, at the point of points, can this all make sense.

One day I will join you in the space between lines. Until then, of each day I will try to make some kind of poetry, and in it, a space for you to dwell.

Godspeed, James, my son.

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X

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“Who would give me a map to find you, the paper / superimposed with a constantly moving ‘X’?”
-From “Father-Son Conversation

Malcolm. Professor. Triple. Dos. So many x-es, so many ex-es. Expatriate. Expletive. Ex-father. Ex-son.

Two lines, for a moment, cross. This is how the Romans made ten.

In Arabic numerals, it takes two digits: father, one; son, nil. Zero is a placeholder: round, complete, and gone. A circle describes its absence.

It has been ten years since our son was born and died, and not a day goes by that he is not a felt part of me, like the fingers of my two hands.

X

Why I Should Be Over It By Now
(ten reasons for ten years)

  1. Because it was a long time ago.
  2. Because, after all, he was very small.
  3. Because hawthorn blooms a lace cover for its thorns.
  4. Because many couples don’t have children (yet, ever).
  5. Because you had choices (not choices).
  6. Because beech-leaf orange rages the valley unchecked.
  7. Because you look best in photos when you smile.
  8. Making overrated is good sense, because.
  9. Because who can remember his name?
  10. Because of the wonderful things he does.

X

The first snow of winter has dusted our part of England, and I am sitting by the fire, warming up after a long country walk. To prepare for a poetry reading this afternoon in London, I leaf through my new book, the one I read from all last year. Unlike the previous slim pamphlet, it contains no mention of James, our son. No dedication. Not a single poem.

X

Cognates of Grief

Kobus, Koos, Jago,
Jamma, Diegu, Joggi,
Ya’aqov, Yaakov, Iacobus,
Iacomus, Jakobus, Iakov,
Jakobe, Köbe, Iago,
Jaime, Diego, Santiago,
Yasha, Séamas, Siâms,
Yakobo, Jems, Jacques,
Jakku, Jaak, Jake,
Jack, Jim, Jimbo,
Jimmy, Jamie, Jay,
first, only, baby,
James.

X

We are in Edinburgh for his tenth birthday, visiting friends. It has become a special place to me, my most-visited city outside of London in the Old World.

I only know a handful of lullabies, but I sang them to James in his final moments. After the doctor confirmed that his heart had stopped, all I could hear was the refrain:

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry.
Carry the lad who’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

X

Countdown

9  —  years of love (in a world in need of love).

8  —  Acht and Uno (and infinity).

7  —  Lucky (and miraculous).

6  —  For idealists (ideal father, ideal son).

5  —  It is complicated. It gets better.

4  —  Art, compassion, courage.

3  —  My inner life is my real life. In it, I carry my son.

2  —  I wash my hands as though life depends on it.

1  —  Compassion, poignancy — how much everything matters…

0  —  The essence of parenthood — that pure and selfless love.

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Nine Years of Love

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Nine of HeartsNine years ago today, our son was born. Three days later, he died in my arms.

Reflecting on my life as it is now, it is hard to imagine being the father of a nine-year-old boy. Yet it is equally hard to imagine my life without this experience of both loving and letting him go.

Two important men in my life passed away recently. My maternal grandfather showed his love for his family by working hard to lift us up from his agrarian pioneer roots in New Mexico to establish a more prosperous and secure lifestyle for his descendants. My dear spiritual teacher John-Roger dedicated his life to loving and uplifting others, and attracted a like-minded community of people dedicated to using everything in their life to learn and grow.

As much as my own parents gave to me from the depths of their hearts, it is also this greater “village” that helped to raise me into who I am. The hallmarks of this form of parenting were unconditional love and selfless service.

Nine years on, it is not so much the grief at letting go of the opportunity to parent my own son, as it is this great impulse of love, and a desire to pass forward all I have been given in my own life, that remains strong with me. I look to that greater “village” for examples of how to love and serve within this lineage.
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Das Achte Jahr

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Uno Blue Eight“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.
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Lucky Seven

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Seven of HeartsOne month after we opened the final flap on the Advent Calendar, a child was born. Far from the environment of a stable, the operating theatre was brightly lit, clean smelling, and sterilised. Everything had gone just as Science had said it ought to go right up to that moment. Yet when our son emerged, he did not cry. Three days later, he died in my arms.

Perhaps to reassure us, since they knew we wanted to try for another child, the doctors told us that what had happened to us was a one-in-one-thousand occurence in the developed world. In the Euromillions lottery, beating one-in-one-thousand odds will win you about fifteen pounds. What happened to me seven years ago was worth so much more than that.

In the past, I would have defined a miracle as a significant, often inexplicable change in a course of events toward an outcome I had been hoping for. The miracle of James coming into our life, however, turned into something I had never imagined would happen, and something I would not wish on anyone. Yet I still call his birth a miracle, because it transformed me. Continue reading…

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Numerology of Grief (The Sixth Year)

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“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”

-Albert Camus

Six is my favourite number. It is the number of years between my younger sister and me. It looks like the lovechild of zero and “C”. The only single digit that is divisible by two as well as three, it seems to encompass both even and odd with a swirling, round-bottomed equanimity.

This tadpole, half of a yin-yang symbol, is also the number for idealists. Six years ago today, I counted myself among them when our son was born. I was determined to be the ideal father to an ideal son. Three days, eight hours and forty minutes later, when the doctor pronounced him dead, that idealism shattered, not by twos and threes, but into innumerable pieces.
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