In February, a friend from Errol’s school whose seven-year-old disabled daughter died a year ago, brings her youngest daughter to our house for dinner. We tell Owen that this little girl might understand how he feels. As soon as they arrive, Owen’s mood changes completely. His tired and sunken eyes grow bright, his cheeks flush, he looks like his old self. And while they never speak a word about their siblings, as they alternate between playing happily and listening to their parents cry, these two young mourners are bonded in grief.
Our friend asks us, “Is the party over?” The mania of Errol’s memorial service is fading, and our shock is slowly wearing off. The reality of life without Errol is settling on us like snow.
Our guests step into the bathroom for a moment and as soon as they close the door, Owen asks if we can look at Errol’s ashes. I gingerly lift the beautiful pottery urn down from the mantle and remove the plastic bag that holds Errol’s ashes. I rub the nameplate, “Errol Clifford” and dissolve into tears as Owen stares into the ashes as if they hold the secret to the universe. When our friends leave, the little girl reaches to give Owen a big hug on the way out the door, but she squeezes a little too tightly and Owen cries and cries as we try to comfort him.
After our guests have left, Owen goes right to sleep. Suddenly at midnight he wakes up, vomits, and then falls right back to sleep.
The next morning he doesn’t remember any of it. I understand. I am forgetful too, and often feel nauseated, but mostly I’m just cold - cold and tired.
The next day, Cary and I dive out to Hospice to meet the art therapist who will be working with Owen, trying to heal the hole in his heart. I remember driving Errol to his doctor one afternoon. Errol’s doctor’s office is right across the street from a retirement community, which is conveniently located right down the street from a funeral home. A huge banner at the convalescent home read “Hospice Days!” and even with Errol sick in the back seat, I couldn’t help but laugh. “Hospice Days” sounded like a geriatric harvest, and I imagined workers from Hospice, dressed in Hazmat suits, driving rental trucks to haul away all these old folks, clearing out space at the retirement home for the next batch. And even with a sick kid (was it pneumonia? Croup? Bronchitis?) who wasn’t expected to live to see 20, laughing at Hospice didn’t seem morbid because, at the time I knew that Errol would live forever – he always had.
We meet Owen’s art therapist who describes the sand tray that will be the set for Owen to act out his emotions and memories of his brother. It is a safe and confined place where Owen can unbind his fear and grief and know that they won’t take him over. She explains that we can expect to see Owen in the midst of grief one moment, and then laughing the next. “Grieving kids,” she says, “are like stones being skipped across water.”
Just last week, I walked into Owen’s room and found him dissolved into tears. He cried and cried and then suddenly got up and started playing happily with his Star Wars Legos. “Owen,” I rasp, in my best Darth Vader imitation, holding my cupped hand to my mouth, “I am your father!”
Then we meet the therapist who will be working with Cary and me. She asks us to tell her the story of Errol’s life and Cary begins. “When I was a few months pregnant I went to get an ultrasound of Errol. The doctor told me that everything looked good, but I was convinced something wasn’t right, and I asked if the doctor was sure. ‘Yes,’ the doctor replied, ‘everything appears totally normal.’”
We take turns telling the therapist how joyful and delightful Errol was, then, very slowly, we are in the midst of Errol’s last days at Duke Hospital. “In mid December, right before his final surgery. Errol and I were footloose and fancy free for an hour.” I say. “We hooked him to a mobile oxygen tank and monitors and headed straight outside!”
“I hadn't been outside in two and a half days and Errol hadn't been outdoors for a single breath of air since he arrived a week and a half earlier. We sat on a bench at the front of the hospital for a long time, watching people scurry out of the hospital smiling, surprised by the balmy breeze.” I look away for the ending.
“Our trip outside the hospital turns out to have been Errol’s last time outside. As lovely as the evening was, we had to head back into the hospital to give Errol his medicine, but the medicine didn’t work.”
One afternoon, searching for solace in the library, I glimpse Errol in the words of William Blake,
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
Now that Errol is gone, so too is our delight, as if an eclipse has blocked the sun.
As much as I think about Errol, I can’t ever think him back.
It is like riding a merry-go-round. You travel far but you never get anywhere.
My favorite French particle physicist turned monk, Matthieu Ricard, traded a scientific career at the Jonas Salk institute for a life of contemplation in a hermitage high in the Himalayas.
“Isn’t it the mind that translates the outer condition into happiness and suffering?” Asks this smiling Buddhist monk. Somehow, Errol’s unusually wired mind makes him smile at the nurse who draws his blood, the doctor who taps his spine. By all rights, Errol’s physical life was endless night. But some switch flipped in his mind and made him delight in the little life he had. Although he couldn’t speak, his whole joyous self laughed out his answer to the monk’s question in sweet delight. I try to translate these long dark nights into something light, but without Errol’s steady smile I’m at a loss.
Owen is trying hard to think his way back to the dawn. He retreats from his empty room to his best friend’s house for some imaginary play: Roman in the role of the mother cat, Owen as mama cat’s six-year-old kitten. Mother cat has had a new baby, who is just back home from the hospital. The baby kitten, Mama cat says, is a little like Errol. He is going to have heart surgery, but the doctors are going to be able to fix him. The cats are singing to the baby kitty and giving him presents. They are telling him not to worry. The baby will be in the hospital for only two weeks.
The doctors have fixed the baby, and he's out of the hospital now! His name is Water Brother and the cat family is opening presents.
Two months after he died, I am finally able to watch a video of Errol. He is in the backyard swing in the summer of the postponed surgery - that saved his life for another year-and was probably the highlight of his health. I am holding Errol in the swing, close to my chest and then I let go and he swings far away from me and up, up, up to the end of his arc and he is laughing uproariously and then gravity pulls him back to earth and he is swinging toward me, and that is funny too, and his laugh continues as he swings past me to the other end of his arc and when he comes back towards me on the way back I yell, “I’m gonna’ get you!!!!!!!!” and reach out for him and he swings past me and he laughs and laughs and this goes on and on and he never tires of the fun.
The smiles and laughter become more rare as the summer wears on and Errol outgrows his heart. And by the time the next summer – his last summer – rolls around he is very sick and weak.
We miss Errol so much. More each day, it seems. The further we swing from his life, the more we miss him. Our heartache grows, the space between sadness contracts, our despair deepens, our ability to do other things diminishes. Can it get even worse still? Is there an arc of grief that will one day bring us back to earth? How hollow can you get without breaking?
Early one morning, about the time when Errol used to wake me up, I am lying in bed when I hear Errol. My heart leaps. I am thrilled. Has his death just been a horrible dream? But just as quickly, I am deflated, distraught. It is just the cat.
One night after dinner, our little family, now numbering three, watches videos of Errol. On the small screen, Errol is flapping his hand, his chin wet with spit from laughing, and he is smiling - so alive to the world. Suddenly, the video is over and Errol vanishes again.
The video upsets Owen, and after a few cloudy minutes he has had enough. We stop the tape and Owen brightens. A few minutes later, Owen jumps to the top of the sofa, mumbling something unintelligible, as Cary and I look at each other, wondering what he means. Then Owen whispers, “Errol’s ashes went with us to the movie today.” I must have misunderstood him, I think. But then Owen says, clear as day, “Errol’s ashes go with us everywhere. Errol is with us wherever we go. His spirit is always with us.”