I am 4 days overdue in writing about James’s birthday. It’s mostly because I didn’t know what to say about the day – August 1. He should be here, and he’s not. He should be one year old. But he is frozen forever as a 5 month old. It’s hard to reconcile an event like his birth with his death.
Despite that, it was a relatively lovely day. We had a potluck meal, and people really turned out with the food. I have never had an event before where I wasn’t solely in charge of food, and it was a little (but only a little) nerve-wracking. I needn’t have worried. There was plenty to go around.
We broke bread together and remembered James. We finished his gravesite and placed his headstone the day prior. That was bitter. Seeing his name and the dates of his short life engraved in stone somehow made his life and death seem more final. It sounds ridiculous, because it’s been final since January 2, 2017. But there it is. Grief often doesn’t make much sense.
After dinner, we released butterflies at his gravesite after saying some words about him. I wasn’t particularly eloquent with what I said. I tried to write something, but the writing wasn’t flowing. I didn’t say what I wanted to convey. It was that our children carry our dreams. They are our dreams. We look ahead, at all the hopes that we have for them, and sometimes, when looking ahead, we forget to look right in front of us. Jim taught me to be in the moment with James, because we didn’t know how many moments that we would have. That has led to a greater understanding that none of us know how many moments we have. Just because we’re healthy now doesn’t mean that it will always be true. My uncle didn’t expect to drive out his driveway that day in March and die in a horrific car accident.
Live in the moment. Love those around you. Forgive easily. Love easily. Extend grace when you would otherwise be hurt or judge or be harsh. Do kind things for others. Think of others before yourself. These are the lessons my son’s life and death teach me everyday. Am I good at it all the time? No. I still have the petty hurt feelings, the emotions that well up unexpectedly, the desire to lash out when I perceive that I’ve been wronged. I’m also much more likely to try and see conflicts from the other perspective, to let my cooler head prevail, to realize that most things don’t matter so much.
James also taught me that people don’t want to be fixed. People don’t want advice. People don’t want to be told what to do. I once believed that if people just listened to me – I had the answers. I could help them make their lives better, happier. I’m not sure where this hubris originated, but it’s been a part of me for a long time. Perhaps it is genetic.
Since James has died, I’ve realized that what people want when they are hurting is to be heard. They want an ear and a shoulder. They want a sympathetic nod, a gentle touch on the shoulder. They want support. That is what I want. I want to talk about James freely. I want people to ask about him. I want them to listen. I can’t make anyone understand this pain. The only way to understand it is to suffer through it, and I wish that on absolutely no one. So in lieu of understanding, I ask for a gentle ear. And it’s what I am trying to give to others that labor under different griefs.
Today, I had a heartbreaking glimpse of what we lost. We took our semi-nightly amble around the neighborhood, and in doing so, we came across our neighbor and her 1 year old son. He is just a few months older than James would be. He’s walking in that uncertain way of 1 year olds – excited, mostly confident, with just a tinge of fear and hesitation. The girls ran up to him. They made faces at him and silly noises. Evaline helped him up when he fell. At one point, they were standing around him, forming a little circle, holding hands. For a moment, I saw James there instead of our neighbor’s son. It was a knife into my tender heart.
There is so much pain and beauty wrapped up in the package that is James Julian. He brought me so much. He gave me so much. He lets me give more to others. And yet, he’s gone. Did he do – in 5 months – what most of us can’t accomplish in a lifetime. Is that why it was so brief? He came here, he imparted his gifts to his family, and then he went away? I like to think of it that way sometimes, when the grief threatens to drown me.
For the past few days, I’ve been trying to cocoon at home as much as possible. I’m not planning things to do or rushing around. I’m sitting on the porch with my coffee, listening to the girls play in the yard, watering my plants, weeding my garden, doing the NYT crossword puzzle with my mom, and enjoying this absolutely stunning August weather. I am letting my mind rest. I am in the trough of the wave now, for a while. The day of his birth has passed. But the wave always builds. And it always swamps me again. And so now, I wait, and I rest, and I prepare. Because sooner or later, I’ll nearly drown again.