Grief can be such a sneaky thing! You’re just going along, holding things together, and BAM! Some small thing triggers a response and grief jumps up and hits you right between the eyes again. Not really fair, is it?
I’ve experienced this a couple times during the last week. My daughter and I went to spend the weekend in Big Bear at my parents’ cabin. It had been so hot in the city, and it’s always refreshing to spend a little time at the lakeside. My favorite thing to do to relax up there is to take a cup of tea or coffee out onto the front porch facing the lake and just kick back with a book, or a crochet project or some other kind of needlework. I read or work a bit, watch the sailboats and the birds, and stress just drifts away.
It was different this time. As soon as I sat down I could almost feel Devon standing behind my shoulder watching every move and asking to help pull the needle or wrap the yarn. He found it fascinating. Periodically he would get the bag of peanuts and carefully place new ones in the gaps the blue jays had made in his long line of nuts strung out along the length of the porch railing. Looking down, I could see the driveway where Neal and Devon drew a big crooked hopscotch, made all the more difficult (and funny) because it sloped downhill. There was the tree house my father built for me, that Neal turned into so many things in his lifetime. Most recently it was a watch tower where they all kept a lookout for pirates. (I don’t know if you know this, but there really is a pirate ship that cruises up and down Big Bear Lake).
Then there was the lake itself. I can’t tell you how many hours Neal spent at the lakeside in his lifetime…fishing with his grandfather, perfecting his rock skipping skills or throwing a stick for his dog, Mattie. Mattie loved to retrieve sticks from the water. Trouble was, she was always on the lookout for bigger and better sticks, and would drag huge limbs to Neal asking him to toss them onto the water. I’m sure if she actually tried to bring one to shore she would have drowned herself! Devon and Ian could spend hours throwing rocks in the water, too. I could practically see them there.
I had been to Big Bear since the boys were killed, but usually with a lot of people or a lot to do. I don’t think I ever really said goodbye to them there. It hit me with a rush and I was overwhelmed. I didn’t venture out onto the porch the rest of the weekend. The pain felt too recent, which was totally unexpected.
Back at home now, I decided to go through a box or two. We cleaned out the condo in such a hurry, my house and my car are piled with boxes that I haven’t had the courage to look at. I also have boxes of stuff from my office at Whittier College. I sat down with a box that had mostly office stuff, sorting between things to toss and things to keep. Tucked in the box alongside the papers and coffee mugs and other office personals I found Ian’s Bob the Builder hard hat.
I usually bought the boys their Halloween costumes, and that last Halloween Ian had been Bob the Builder. He loved that yellow hard hat, and wore it all the time. “Can we do it?” he would ask? “Yes, we can!” he would answer himself, finger in the air to underline the emphasis. I sat with that hat in my lap, just looking at it. Turning it over, I noticed for the first time the warning label inside. It reminded the reader that the hat was a toy and in bold capital letters said, “DOES NOT PROVIDE PROTECTION.” That was it. I lost it then. I cried and cried. I can’t even put into words how very much I wish I could have given him something that would have provided protection – a word, a toy, a helmet, a magic shield. You do that now and then in the aftermath of murder. You second guess, you wonder if you could have said or done something that would have made a difference; you beat yourself up for things you couldn’t possibly have seen or exerted any control over. And you wish, with every fiber of your being for the power to turn back the clock, to call for a “do over”, to make it all untrue. It can’t be done, and you know deep down that it can’t, but you still wish, because you still miss them and always will.
Murder isn’t over, you know, not ever – not for those of us left behind. In murder mystery books and crime dramas everything is wrapped up with a nice red bow right before the end, which usually comes just as soon as the cuffs are put on the suspect and their Miranda rights are read. The end. Cut to commercial. Show the previews for the next episode. It isn’t like that in real life. There are no quick, neat solutions. Forensics take months, investigations can be long and painstaking, and it seems to take forever for the trial to even start. And there is the pain of loss. That pain doesn’t go away, you don’t breathe a sigh of relief when the solution is presented or the trial ended. There isn’t even any real closure. You will never, ever, understand why someone felt they had a good reason to take your loved one’s life. No reason is good enough. And the pain is still there. The pain of loss is your life companion now. You may hide it. You many impress others with your strength, courageously build a new life for yourself, even find other happiness. But the loss is still there, the pain is still there, and grief just waits around the corner for a chance to trip you up again. Monkey.