“It’s been a bad day,” said my son.
A mother can read the spaces between words, and my maternal instinct kicked into high gear.
“What happened?” I asked.
I’d been on edge since my post-Christmas return to Halifax. Illogical worries had been lurking round the bend for days, plaguing my thoughts. That morning, my feet had pounded the earth accompanied by a particularly noxious brew of terrible “what ifs” that I could not shoo away. Awful images kept dancing in my head of love and loss and children. Adult children.
However irrational and absurd, questions hammered me. Where would I be without my sons? Who would I be without my sons? How would I be without my sons?
My eyes had raked the water, sky, and sun for the answers, or at the very least, some assurance that, surely, thinking such irrational thoughts could only act as inoculation against any of them coming true.
Just a menopausal woman’s dark musings, I’d hoped.
So when my son answered my question, the strangled words eking out, the other shoe dropped. His boyhood friend had died.
“He was only 25, mom, and I don’t want to talk about it,” said my son.
“I love you,” I said. “It makes no sense and never will. But I’m here if you want to talk.”
I clicked End on my cell phone.
That was it. That was all I had for him.
Platitudes were pointless and explanations impossible. A Vulcan mind-meld might be in order, to painlessly pass on all I’d experienced that might help assuage his grief. But I knew pain was the only path he could traverse to the other side.
I could not even begin to fathom his friend’s parents’ inconsolable loss. I elected to side-step the unconscionable, at least, for the moment.
It’s not so much a matter of growing used to the certainty of death, as accepting its touch is never very far away. The best that comes of acceptance is that with time and repeated exposure the mind may somehow become relieved of the hamster-wheel task to find logical answers to unbearable endings.
But this progression had only now just begun for my son.
This was the first death that touched the circle of his world. And the first death, like a first love, is a tsunami of foreign emotions that wash over the unknowing, the unwilling, and the unprepared. The first is never forgotten and becomes the measure of all that will come, none of which can ever be quite as shocking or unbelievable.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When I was 20, I was alive with the idea of possibilities and beginnings. Endings were simply not yet a part of my common vernacular.
I knew death was out there, but it hadn’t come close enough, even though by the end of high school, I’d shared the halls with some who came to tragic, early ends—the handsome boy that I’d longed for, driving too fast down Sauble Beach road; the beautiful girl three grades above, snatched on vacation by the undertow of Mexico’s tropical waters; the tough guy who forgot to pull up the kickstand on his motorcycle, claimed by a curve on Westmount Road. I knew them all, but only from the edges.
My first death was my friend, Cory.
Ours was an awkward friendship, forged by happenstance. My mother worked at the shop her family owned. I’d only known her a few years, but we’d grown on each other, even though most of that time she was ill.
When my mother told me her diagnosis, I said the new word to myself over and over, rolling it off my tongue until it no longer felt strange. Melanoma, melanoma, melanoma, I repeated.
To my ears, it sounded innocuous, almost musical and not altogether unpleasing. The lyrical annunciation was cotton candy in my mouth. I liked saying it, ignorant and clueless that this utterance was a death sentence. How such a lovely word could be evil, I could not comprehend.
I saw Cory for the last time on her 21st birthday. By then, she’d been in the hospital for a week or so. Her skin was almost translucent, parchment-like, barely masking the blue veins criss-crossing her bared arms.
I’d bought a card for her, taking far too long as I stubbornly read every single one on the rack on my quest for something suitable for a dying friend. I’d finally settled on one that read “May all your wishes come true,” missing the terrible irony of the message.
In the hospital room, Cory lifted her head when I rushed in, her pale face whiter than the whitest of pillows that cradled it. She read my card and sampled a lick of icing from her birthday cake, and then dropped her head back down onto the pillow, exhausted.
Days later, she was dead.
Standing at her grave, the coffin physical evidence that the impossibility that death was not only possible, but inevitable, took me no closer to this absolute truth. I remained suspended in disbelief that someone my age that I loved could die.
For years, I evaded the section of Westmount Road that took me past the graveyard where she lay, though that often meant driving a longer, more circuitous route to my destination. At first, I did it because I didn’t like being reminded of her body encased and buried, and then later, because habitual behaviour had evolved into unconscious pattern.
Sometimes, when someone else was driving me along the block, I had no choice in the matter. So I would turn my head to the window and hold my breath until the car cleared the last rung of the black wrought iron fence in the cemetery that corralled the tombstones and Cory.
But life goes on, and so does death, and my reality stretched over the years to encompass other endings, far closer to me than Cory.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Perhaps my uneasy thoughts since back in Halifax came because the last time home, I’d driven down Westmount Road, forgetting my usual detour. When I realized where I was, I looked to the cemetery on my left and thought of her, Cory. I’d forgotten where her grave was exactly, but I knew she was there. I let myself breathe in her memory, and it was okay.
And this is what I can neither tell my son nor teach him—that although his world will be filled with change, it will be okay. Both he and his brothers would learn this, each, on their own terms, in their own time, just as I did when I was young, and as I still do today.
The death of my son’s friend was the third young death, in the space of barely that many months, where my connection came through being a parent. It is new and unsettling terrain. I used to think being a mother to a child was forever, but I now know, not always.
The worries I had the other morning, fretting about my sons, have fallen away. In their place, I grieve for the mother and father who walk the earth without their son.