Compassion, One Tweet at a Time

There is a locked door in my head. It is solidly padlocked and I am the only one with a key. It gets noisy behind that door. For the most part the sounds are muffled. At other times I’m certain the door is going to fly off its hinges. It shakes and rattles and pulses outward. I hear shouts and thumps and loud bangs. Then, silence. Until the woman begins crying.

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The Best Christmas Ever

It was the craziest thought. Ludicrous, really. So nuts, in fact, that I dismissed it even before it disappeared from my mind.

Christmas 2013. At the beginning of December I booked off work until the new year. I was a freelance writer and it was not uncommon for me to cut back on assignments in the weeks leading up to the holiday. But I couldn’t remember the last time my schedule was free for the whole month. While it felt good not to be at my desk, there was an underlying current, a tension almost, pushing me to create some sort of fairy tale Christmas. I baked, decorated, wrapped gifts, oiled furniture. Norman Rockwell would have been proud.

Heck, I was proud and a little mystified, because, to be honest, I am not that person. I’ve always been lukewarm about Christmas. I find the prep leading up to the day exhausting. One more gift to buy, another trip to the grocery store for a forgotten item. The looming holiday was a marathon, where I sprinted for the finish line but never actually got there.

My son, David, and I were kindred spirits when it came to the season. Like me, he didn’t quite get the extravagance of it all. He lived a minimalist lifestyle, buying his clothes at thrift stores, walking and cycling, rather than driving, eating plant-based foods to protest factory farming. As a musician, who delved into punk and experimental music, and a university English Major, his weaknesses were records and books. But he found ways to get around that too. He bought most of his records used and his books second-hand.

As a matter of fact, that Christmas he asked for a copy of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel, The Castle, first published in 1926. I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it. David came across a copy at his local used book store and put it away for me to pick up. That year, I also chose a special book for him from our own family bookcase. It was a first-edition copy of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. The leather-bound volume, with its filmy, onion-skin pages, had belonged to David’s grandfather and was passed on to us when he died. It was time, I felt, for David to have it in his own library. On Christmas morning, he sat lost in a sort of reverie, carefully turning the delicate pages, stopping now and then to read a passage.

David was adamant that he receive gifts that were useful. Underwear and socks, books, a gift certificate to his favourite used record store. In return, he donated to a local homeless shelter in my name. We were both happy with the arrangement.

But this year was different. I wanted to make it David’s best Christmas ever. I was aiming for over-the-top. Perfect tree, new recipes, a magical dining table with silver-star confetti sprinkled on the red and white place settings. Old friends to join in the celebration. In the months that followed, I wondered if subconsciously my frenzied efforts were spurred by that one brief thought that flitted through my head and disappeared as quickly as it came.

“It’s gonna be fun, David,” I said to my skeptical son.

And it was. While the guests sat in the living room, David and I prepared the meal. I basted the turkey and boiled potatoes while he checked on his vegan dinner simmering in the oven. And we talked. I told him things about my childhood that we’d never discussed before. Private things that I won’t get into because they were between me and my son. He told me things about his life that I didn’t know and I will honour those confidentialities too.

At the end of the evening when the guests had gone and we were cleaning up, David said, “That was a pretty good Christmas, Mom.” I hugged him like I would never let go. The two of us, surrounded by the gaiety and celebration of the day, had carved out time just for us, where we met on common ground and reaffirmed how much we loved each other and liked each other, too.

And the crazy thought I had early in December?

I wonder what music David would like played at his funeral.

One month and two days after Christmas, David was killed in a crosswalk by a distracted driver. His memorial service was filled with jazz and punk, post-punk and experimental. All the music he loved so much.

One Giant Voice

I was walking up the path to our house, my arms laden with groceries, when the front door swung open. David was standing there, smiling. I thought, “David’s dropped in for a visit!”

Then I remembered. David was dead. He’d been dead nearly six years. I opened my mouth and screamed. I screamed like a madwoman. It was a scream that filled the world. As I screamed, I reached for him and drew him into me. He put his arms around me and the screaming stopped. “Hi, Mom,” he said, holding on to me as tightly as I held on to him.

The house was crowded with his friends. Colin was there and Ben and Alex and Chris. They were the ones I recognized. Everyone was just hanging out as if this were perfectly natural. Like David hadn’t been dead for nearly six years.

He stayed close to me, so close. He was smiling. But he was puzzled. “I can’t remember where I’ve been, Mom,” he said. “It’s like I’ve been asleep. I just keep drawing a blank.” I didn’t want to say, David, you’ve been dead all this time. I was afraid the spell would be broken and he would be dead again.

It was foggy in the house, but the sun filtered in. We touched constantly. Not just me touching him, but him touching me. Our shoulders touched, our hands touched, we walked side by side, the length of our bodies constantly in contact.

At one point I looked up at him as he turned to talk to someone. The back of his head was concave. In the hollow were items that his friends had put in the coffin with him: Some band pins, letters, photos. I was the only one who saw it. Everyone else seemed not to notice.

I don’t remember speaking much. I just was aware of his close physical presence and his constant smile. But sometimes the smile would fade and he’d say again, “Mom, I don’t know where I’ve been. I can’t remember.”

That evening we were all going to a punk show. We stepped outside the house. The night was balmy, the sky full of stars. There were cars filled with people everywhere in our little street, all waiting to go with us to the concert. As we stood in the velvety night, a popular punk song began playing. The tune filled the air and all the people started singing, including me. It was like one giant voice. The sound swelled and rose until there was nothing but the music and the people and my son.

I felt, This is where I belong. This is exactly where I am meant to be.

The Madness of Grief

We sat in the funeral home. Five of us gathered around a table in a windowless room. Me and my husband, our son’s girlfriend, M, her mother and a funeral director. It was two days after David was killed in a crosswalk five blocks from the home he shared with M. We were planning his memorial service.

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Energetic Action

Note: The first line of this poem appeared to me in a dream, exactly as you see it here. I had the dream several years after my 27-year-old son, David, was killed by a distracted driver in a crosswalk. From the time David was young, music was his passion. He took guitar lessons for years and played in many bands. His last band was Energetic Action. Shortly before his death, he and his band mates put out an LP, “Becoming.” When I listen to it, I feel his energy reverberating through every touch of his fingers on the guitar strings. It is like he is in the room with me, and it’s the same energy I felt in the dream.

I Am Immersed in Grief, Steeped in Sorrow
The words flow across a blackboard in bold, rolling script.
Powdery white chalk softens the lesson of the day:
I Am Immersed in Grief, Steeped in Sorrow
The classroom is empty.
Sunlight streams through a window, illuminating the message on the board.
I stand in the doorway gazing at rows of vacant desks.
In the silence.
Immersed in grief, steeped in sorrow.
Permeate the stillness,
Wash over it
With sparkling light
That infuses everything in its path.
Your particles crackle in the void.
I listen,
My senses straining for any sign of you.
I feel your energy dancing in the room,
Bouncing off walls and blackboard.
You are the teacher, I am the student,
But I am unable to cross the threshold.
I am frozen in the doorway
While the air within vibrates,
Hums, creates music from nothingness.

David performing with his band, Energetic Action.

Shooting Star

It is early morning. The sun has not yet risen.The dog and I walk past slumbering houses along empty streets. The only sounds are my footsteps on pavement and the panting of the dog as she trots ahead of me.

This is our time. Setting out before the world awakens is deliberate. It is the hour when the wonders and mysteries of a darkened universe reveal themselves before they are eclipsed by the brilliance of the sun.

We don’t have long to wait. A pair of coyotes emerges from a back lane just metres from us. The dog tenses. I murmur to her. There is no danger. They are eager to get to the safety of their den before the world goes bright.

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David’s Room

Editor’s Note: I wrote this piece when David was eight years old. I read it at his funeral after he was killed by a distracted driver in a crosswalk at the age of 27. Today is his 33rd birthday. He will always be my little boy. I ache at his absence.

Stepping into my son David’s room is a little like falling into the middle of a huge natural disaster. Dog-eared books, greying socks and bits of cracker crumbs drift across his bedroom floor like so much flotsam left in the wake of a tropical storm. The top of his desk is hopelessly buried under an avalanche of pencil shavings, drawing paper, felt markers and glue bottles. A flurry of shredded fabric, all that remains from a recent craft project, blankets the bedcovers like volcanic ash.

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Nicole’s Garden

My border collie Gracie picks her way delicately through the flowers in Nicole’s garden. For a dog known to hurdle headlong into tree trunks in manic pursuit of balls, she is showing considerable restraint as she weaves among the ornamental grasses and tiger lillies. She stops for a moment to sniff a gnarled log, barely visible beneath a blanket of moss and swaying pansies. Then she all but disappears under the low-hanging branches of a Nanking cherry bush.

Gracie is banned from the other gardens in my yard, but she and I have reached an undersanding on this one. As long as she doesn’t dig out the flowers or drag the log from its resting place under the bird bath, she is free to wind her way among the plants or lie in the Nanking’s cool shade.

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Music of the Universe

“I’m making music, Mom,” you say. “I wish I could hear it,” I reply. “Just listen,” you say. And I do.

As I walk through the darkness of a pre-dawn morning, I open myself to the music of the Universe. A light rain taps a soft military tattoo at my feet. In the distance, I hear the steel-drum boom of shunting rail cars, and a motorcycle roars by, its gears whining upwards like a Fender guitar in heat.

“Where are you my boy?” I whisper. The reply is instant. “Right here beside you, Mom.”

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The Way of Life

Let me tell you about the way of life.

The weekend after my 27-year-old son David was killed crossing a street near his home, the police came to the door with his black backpack. Inside were his laptop, his glasses, and a small, white paperback, titled, The Way of Life.

I ran my fingers over the cover. The last thing my son had been reading before he died was a book called The Way of Life. Now, his life was over and I had to find a way to live without him.

David and I shared an enormous love of books. He started university late, at 25, after years of working low-paid jobs to support his real love, creating music with his band. He’d been skeptical of higher learning, believing everything he needed to know was in the books he read. And he read a lot. But, university opened new worlds, and he was delighted to fully immerse himself in what fed his soul: literature and music, and a new passion, philosophy.

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