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by Marc Hudson
How do we heal? How, after loss,
Do we come back to ourselves, or what is left of our old selves, and what has taken root of the new?
I think of the slow, wayward course of my own healing, far from concluded, after the loss of my son, Ian, two years ago. Despite what common wisdom teaches, it seems to have only a little to do with the passage of time. Nor with the consolations of one kind or another—"He lived a good life," or "You and Helen were good parents," or "He is in Heaven where he is whole."
Yes, that’s all very well, but he does not live. I cannot touch his hand. I cannot ever see his living face again.
Perhaps I shouldn’t try to ask, "How do we heal?" but only, "How do I heal?" How it happened for me is all I can trace, and then with a good deal of uncertainty.
Thirty months ago our son died. Early one morning in late December, about seven, my wife Helen woke and could not hear Ian’s breathing over the monitor. She ran to check on him. I had just awakened and hadn’t yet registered his silence. A moment later, she called from his bedroom, "Marc, Ian isn’t breathing." I ran to his bed and started giving him mouth to mouth—except I lifted him up in my arms and held him to do it. It seemed like the thing to do, though now it seems like a mistake. I didn’t know CPR and I wasn’t thinking straight. He seemed so cold. I wanted to warm him in my arms. I think that’s why I held him rather than leaving him prone.
Helen dialed 911, and I continued blowing rhythmically into Ian’s mouth, somehow believing that he would revive. At some point, the medics came and gave him CPR and administered stimulant. He didn’t respond. Later, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, they found a faint pulse, for a moment. But that was it. He was gone.
Ian was 19 years old. Our only son, brilliant boy, severely disabled from hypoxia during delivery. We’d taken care of him, bathing him, dressing him, feeding him, transferring him from one piece of equipment to the next. We had a routine: it was our life. Our bodies were at his beck and call, extensions of his, prostheses of sorts.
He couldn’t talk, though he spoke through us. We were his bodies. Every parent feels that deep connection, that close wiring of selves between child and parent, but for a severely disabled child that linkage approaches identity. Now we were like soldiers relieved of duty. Death had stepped in, and with a sharp salute, had stripped us of our command. What were we to do?
After the last rites, as in a deep dream, we bathed him—the beloved face, the eyes so open, so absent, the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, legs, feet, his crimped toes. We took our time, in that strange dream, in which our son was dead. We were reluctant to put down our washcloths. That was something we could do for him.
Then we went to our daughter, Alix, who waited in the next room, silent and numb. (She couldn’t approach Ian’s bed.) We drove home. He had no need for our care. We had failed him.
The rest of the day was spent in strange errands—meeting with the director of the funeral home, deliberating with our priest on what texts we should use for the funeral liturgy, deciding where Ian should be buried, driving out to the cemetery and walking out into the snow to ponder the view. From the low hill with its cross and flag, we could see the sports wing of Crawfordsville High School, from which Ian had graduated 18 months before. Our own house was all but visible, just beyond the south gate of the school. That proximity was important. We could walk to his grave in 20 minutes. But the distance of this day from the day before couldn’t be diminished by any physical contiguity.
Those days, I would often remember a passage from Beowulf which I had translated years before. King Hrethel of the Geats has lost his son. He wanders about bereft, in an empty, wintry world. He feels a kind of agoraphobia; space oppresses him. But for Helen and me, it was time that was deranged. Perhaps it was the absence of all of the steady work we did for Ian throughout the day, a discipline that had been our lives for almost 20 years. But more, I think it was the effect of grief, or, rather, Ian’s absence. Time as well as space has a felt order of architecture. There was still a fullness to our days. Alix was 13 and bursting with new accomplishments, her growing mastery of the French horn and piano, her tennis and soccer and ever-burgeoning knowledge of natural history. And Helen and I also had our absorbing work with our students. But the days still seemed enormous, vast, half-empty halls and porticos. And, at night, there was no longer Ian’s steady, companionable breathing over the monitor. Days were more open now, and so were the nights. Time bore a Doric aspect.
We soldiered on, the three of us, through winter and spring. February was marked by the onset of the Iraq War. I felt I owed it especially to Ian and to the other young men of his age to protest what I and many had considered a tragically unwise and illegal war. I organized a poetry reading against the war—part of the national series of readings—and, later, on the eve of the invasion, a candelight vigil on the steps of the Chapel. I felt the need to engage the world more, on Ian’s behalf. If I could no longer care for him, I could care more for the world.
I began to ponder Ian’s life more and more, and how it had affected us. Because Ian was so helpless, and at the same time there was such an air of amused and benevolent good nature about him, the thought sometimes teasingly crossed my mind that he was Christ—he was that God in playful mortal disguise returned to take a look around at his beloved creatures. That feeling grew following Ian’s death. Once, driving by the cemetery, I suddenly felt a presence within me: Ian was there gazing out on the passing trees and houses through my eyes. I was sure of it. I didn’t feel violated or possessed, rather I gratefully welcomed him. When the presence slipped away, I told Ian to please visit again, whenever he had a mind to.
I read the Gospels more closely, seeking the quality that most distinguished Christ. It was compassion, of course—compassion for the family of Lazarus, for the sick and lame of Jerusalem, for his poor, clueless disciples. Day by day, we’d been learning compassion at Ian’s feet. He’d been our tutor, our exemplar, and praxis.
Helen and I were both conscious of a kind of opening in our lives. The solitude of those first enormous days without Ian could have a use for the soul. I remembered some reflections by Jeremy Taylor that I’d read years before: "There should be in the soul halls of space, avenues of leisure and porticos of silence where God waits." Our busy lives did not naturally afford those porticos of silence, but mourning Ian made us frequent them.
Early on, we also began to feel a change in our relations to the natural world. We began to be more aware of a congruence between our states of mind and appearances in the natural world.
On the second weekend after Ian’s death, some good friends visited us from Muncie. We took a leisurely walk behind the high school, where we had often strolled with Ian. As we passed through the small forest there, their son exclaimed, "Look! A blue bird!" We looked up and, seeing nothing, dismissed it as his imagining. But he insisted, and we peered more intently into the trees. There was a brilliant blue flash flitting into the shadows. Though I understand that bluebirds are occasional winter residents in this part of Indiana, we’d never before seen a bluebird in this forest. A coincidence? Probably. But for us it was a link to Ian.
When I turned in my grades that first May, I often drove down to Shades, our nearby state park of many small, forested creek valleys, all dipping down to Sugar Creek. Shades is short for Shades of Death—the first settlers in these parts attributed the name to the legend of a great battle between Indian tribes that had occurred along the creek centuries before. But I imagine the name arose because of the mournful feel of the place—dark narrow canyons with layered sandstone cliffs, hemlocks leaning over the canyon rims, the occasional ominous cry of a woodpecker. I found Shades respected my grief. It didn’t require of me any social graces. I could be as dull and lugubrious as I felt like being. Its beauty—the rippling light of the small streams, the ferns in their clefts and the lichen-mottled stones, the swallows darting in and out of the shadows—was a solace and often called me out of my troubled thoughts. There I could remember and mourn Ian more fully than anywhere else except St. John’s, our church.
One morning in early June, I’d come with more than my usual heaviness to my "study"—a bench on a flight of steps above the stream. I’d come with the essential question—"How shall I live?"—wanting to surrender to a greater power. I sat there, grieving and writing, stabbing at my journal: "I’ve heard some answers, the most insistent one, while I mourned for Ian and me under the trees, in a clearing like a church: I have forgotten my deepest love: knowing the earth, learning it with all my heart…I’ve betrayed what is most precious to me…save my wife and daughter. Something even deeper, perhaps at the source of what I am, Shadow, Self, and all, is this absolute identity with water and grass and fern and tree…"
I broke off. I heard a cracking of branches, a crushing of leaves. I turned on my bench and saw the red-brown flank of a deer descending to the creek. Keeping still as a hunter in a blind, I watched it pass quietly among the trees, through the dappled light, to the edge of the small creek where it paused and lifted its head to listen. It was a young deer, a yearling, beautiful in the slope of its shoulders, its muscled rump and long legs. Slowly, I turned, and as I did so, he moved downstream toward me, passing below the steps and down to the creek mouth, where again he paused and I could see him most clearly—lovely, sentient head, attentive gesture. He stood there a moment, as if considering what he would do next, then moved on, downstream, out of my sight.
Breathless, I thought, Ian!
I did not dream that creature. He was a gift, an answer, the very word I was seeking.
I begin to understand how the Native Americans could find their clan totems and allies among the animals. So perfect was the synchronicity, it did seem that the deer had presented itself to me. I later learned from a Jungian friend that for Native Americans, deer represented "heart." If there is a single attribute I link with my son, it would be heart; the boy’s warmth and courage, his easy smile, his readiness for adventure—these all marked him as having an abundance of heart. As I thought of Ian and the deer, I considered the Buddhist concept of bodhichitta, a Sanskrit word meaning "noble or awakened heart," a compassionate openness to the suffering of all creatures. Appearing just at that point of my need, the deer showed me bodhichitta and gave me heart.
I know I run the risk of sentimentalizing nature, of anthropomorphizing its great otherness, and making wild nature seem a mere servant to our souls. Yet this stance toward nature is a natural and ancient human proclivity found in all traditional cultures. It can be argued from a Christian, a Taoist, or a Buddhist perspective that there is a correspondence, or an interbeing, between humans and nature. Darwinian biology places us within the matrix of nature; in our DNA is proof of our kinship to the most primitive bacillus. We respond to nature with sympathy—and it reciprocates—because we are kin.
Toward summer’s end 2003, with the school year upon us, we realized that the next time we would catch our breath would be Christmas, and the anniversary, soon afterwards, of Ian’s death. We anticipated that it would be hard to be at home for that first anniversary, so Helen began planning a trip for us. Alix was learning Spanish and, as she liked to remind us, had never been out of the country, so Helen settled on Costa Rica. It turned out to be a good choice.
We spent our first few days in-country staying in Santa Elena, in the western mountains at the edge of the cloud forest, at an inn called El Sapo Dorado—the golden toad. As we strolled to our cottage our first evening there, a strong wind roared in the trees above us. Venus hung in the west, a white lantern among the phosphorus of lesser stars. The sky seemed extraordinarily clear. Even in the Cascades of Washington state, I have not seen a more brilliant night sky. Yet out of that clear sky a fine, refreshing mist blew across our faces.
Next morning, we explored the forests near our cottage. Alix was enthralled by the leaf cutter ants, how they dropped down their cuttings to the ants below who carried them back to their subterranean gardens. Long lines of them were constantly shuttling underfoot. We had purchased a digital movie camera for Alix and half the footage she shot that morning was of those streaming ants.
We ate breakfasts of fresh papaya and pineapple and melon, and large inexpensive lunches of rice and beans and plantain, tomatoes, and avocados. We browsed Chunches, the local bookstore, walked swaying bridges over mist-blown cloudforest canopy, saw rare, red-glowing poison arrow frogs and the ever-whizzing iridescent hummingbirds and thought of Ian, always thought of Ian. Where was he now?
The Anniversary, the 30th of December 2003, approached, and our driver took us up into the forested highlands above Turrialba to Rancho Naturalista. The main hacienda was a ramshackle two-story with balconies overlooking a deep valley and forested ridges rising to the broad windswept cone of Volcan Irazu 30 miles to the west.
Our Austrian guide Ulla (a willowy young woman who looked like she could be Alix’s older sister) showed us around the trails. Later I sat in a rocking chair on the balcony and watched dusk come. Clouds strayed across the slopes of Irazu, and shadows enfolded the slanting valleys. I half-dozed, dreaming of Ian. It seemed to me all but certain that he had brought us here. He’d guided us to this favored place. When I woke, night had fully come—the lights of the pueblo Tuis came on, then those of Suiza, and the far off blaze of Turrialba. Beyond were a sprinkling of lights on the flanks of Irazu and the dark mass of the volcano itself.
The next morning, the three of us joined the other guests—Joan and Ian, a cheerfully fanatical pair from Ontario, and Ulla and her partner Pedro from Portugal—on our balcony. A Chaucerian Parliament of Fowls crowded the feeding stations below: the shrill collared aracari; the keel-billed toucan; the dignified chachilaca; the huge, gorgeous Montezuma Oropendola. Sipping coffee, sharing astonishment, we were drawn out of ourselves, marveling at the inexhaustible invention of nature.
In the afternoon we rode horseback. The head wrangler, Chon, kept me company while Alix charged ahead of us on the trail. Chon spoke a patiently slow Spanish and appeared to understand my makeshift sentences. After we’d gotten to know each other a bit, I asked him about his family. I learned that he had two grown daughters and a 12 year-old son, Luis Mario. He turned to me then and asked me about my family. I hesitated. It was a dilemma. I hadn’t intended to speak about Ian.
"I have a 14-year-old daughter, Alix," I began.
He smiled and said, "Yes, I know," and studied me curiously.
I took a breath and plunged on: "And I had a son, Ian, who would be 20, who died last year." And I told him about Ian. He listened with obvious sympathy.
"Es una cosa muy dura [It is a very hard thing]," Chon said. He told me he was the oldest of several children. His father died when he was nine and he went to work shortly thereafter on a sugar plantation to help support his mother. He rode bulls in the local fairs to earn extra silver for his family. He said that even though his childhood was sometimes hard, he remembered especially how much he loved the miel, the honey of the freshly pressed sugar cane, which the foreman would sometimes give him as a treat. He asked me if I had ever tasted that honey water. I told him I hadn’t. His expression indicated that I had missed out on an intense pleasure.
Later, I realized that Chon’s narrative held a moral he intended me to see—that in the midst of bitterly hard days there could be moments of great sweetness.
At 5 a.m. on December 30th we left for the summit of Volcan Irazu. Eddie, our driver, in front with Ulla, and the three of us in the back. Helen and I were quiet, sunk in reflection and memory of that morning a year before. The day was somber, the roads wrapped in fog. We passed through the dirty, rain-swept streets of Turrialba, and over several rain-swollen streams and rivers on one lane bridges, Eddie frequently swerving to avoid the crumbled asphalt at the road’s edge. We said little; even Alix seemed subdued. Fog and rain attended us all the way to the slopes of Irazu. Half way up the mountain we broke into sunlight, among slanting fields planted with crops bearing intensely yellow flowers and small villages with brightly painted houses and water courses bordered by great, moss-hung trees. It was a vision as brief as the flashing of bird wings. In a moment, clouds closed over us again.
As with all this business of grief and remembrance, we approached it intuitively, with no logic but that of barely discerned intention. I had brought a small silken bag containing two rectangular crystals that one of Ian’s caregivers had given him when he was a baby. In that New Age time of the mid-80s, she suggested the crystals had the power to irradiate Ian with healing energy. It was a myth we might believe. So we had placed the little pouch under Ian’s pillow when he was small, and there it stayed throughout his growing up. It became a family talisman, and, like so many things after Ian was gone, a metonymy for him.
Now as we strayed through the mists at the summit of Irazu, over the black volcanic ash and along the rims of the great summit craters, I carried the crystals in the pocket of my raincoat. The drizzle was cold, peppered with sleet, and the wind sharp. Even with sweaters on under our coats, we were not warm. As we had earlier decided, I drew close to the edge of one crater, preparing to throw one of the crystals into the crater.
But peering into the tatters of mist and seeing the dark chunks of pumice scattered along the crater rim, I drew back. The volcano seemed such a cold, fierce place to leave this remnant of our son. I went back to Helen and told her I had second thoughts—that the forest around the Rancho was a softer, greener place for the crystal. It was there we should place it. Maybe the leaf cutter ants would carry it down into one of their chambers.
Helen considered for a moment and said, "I don’t know, but it seems right. Volcanoes are these wild, creative nodes. I’d say, ‘Do it.’"
I saw her point. I explained to Ulla what we were up to. She seemed to understand.
Then I stepped a few paces from her, pulled the pouch from my pocket, and poured the crystals into my palm. They shone brightly there. I took the slighter, more broken one, and put the other one back into the pouch.
I thought hard about Ian, how his life had been with us, and how he remained with us, though changed. I hurled his crystal over the crater rim into the mist.
I can’t explain exactly what the ritual meant, something about going with, rather than against, the ebb and flow of process. I returned to Helen and Alix and Ulla, the remaining crystal tucked safely in its pouch in my pocket. We walked on in the thinning mist into the lush, garden-like scrub that grows along the spine of summit above the craters. Alix pointed into the garden—a small, gray, sparrow-like bird hopped about, scrabbling in the ash. It turned and regarded us with a vivid yellow eye.
"A volcano junco," Ulla exclaimed, visibly pleased. "You occasionally see them, even as high as Irazu."
Poet, writer, and Professor of English Marc Hudson’s books include the Juniper Award- winning Afterlight, Journal for an Injured Son, and The Disappearing Poet Blues. His work has appeared in Sewanee Review, Poetry, Audubon, and Poetry East. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo above: Marc pictured with his Costa Rican guide, Chon