|Showing Riley our view in Mexico|
It was the day after Christmas in the Puerto Vallarta airport. My husband and I just spent a week in a sleepy beach town known for its gentle waves that entice surfing newbies onto waxed boards an hour north of there. As we sipped lattes while waiting for our boarding time, a familiar face passed as she headed for the restroom.No, no, no, I panicked, feeling bemused about how there could be an acquaintance nearly 1,900 miles south and two time zones east of our Northern California home. We ran away from the holidays and the merriment of friends and acquaintances and their living children to a remote part of Mexico where I imagined hearing the words Feliz Navidad would feel less painful than hearing their English equivalent. But in that moment, in the busy terminal, there was the chance of no longer being anonymous. Anxiety replaced the serenity I found in the days spent perched above the sandy shoreline, and peppered with my enthusiastic, yet flawed Spanish.
Why would the sight of an acquaintance cause emotional distress? Because I have no idea what that person will say to me if we catch each other’s eye. While I can guess the topic--my dead 11-year-old son--I suppose it’s the approach, rather than the topic itself, that I most dread. Because I love talking about my son Riley.
Just like you enjoy bragging on your kids, I like bragging about him. I want to tell everyone about his quick plays at second base during his seven years of Little League, about the short stories and poetry he wrote, about his love of maps, of his siblings, his interest in penguins, hot sauce, and his desire to open a restaurant one day. We used to joke it would have been called, “Riley’s Salads and Fried Things” or “Riley’s Tofu and Salads.” His favorite dinner from the time he was just two years old was salad. I have photos of him, fork in hand, to prove it. Caprese sandwiches were his favorite. He loved that he had Italian heritage and enjoyed making his family bruschetta and croutons; he liked eating cloves of raw garlic. I can remember sending a little three-year-old boy into the backyard to pick handfuls of basil for batches of homemade pesto that would be spread on to thick slices of crusty bread.
But as a bereaved mother, I have found conversations with acquaintances to be painful, not because I am asked to speak about my son. But because the weight of the conversation is so often plunked down on my wounded heart with good, but flawed, intention. How are you? or even Sheryl Sandberg’s modified How are you today? sounds innocent enough. But in order to answer, I must access myself for this other person, in what ultimately is a passing moment in their daily routine. To me, it is so much more as I frantically scan myself in an attempt to sum up what it is like to live today without my son for a near-stranger. Ok, fine, or hanging in there are grossly inadequate and false.
The moment’s complexity is exacerbated because interacting with humans with healthy, living children in general, is--quite frankly--a skill I have yet to master. You see, I'm still largely terrified of all of you. I'm also confused by all of you; your smiles, laughter, or your annoyance at traffic or the wrong latte at Starbucks. To be fair, I imagine your lives are far more complex than what I catch a glimpse of as I blast through my kid's school with my head down. We share the same roads and schools and grocery stores and oxygen supply, yet it feels as if we exist in parallel worlds. Most of the time I want to be invisible; yet, having you ignore me is a different kind of trauma. You're dammed if you do; you're dammed if you don't. I don't make the rules; I'm just stuck in this miserable grief game of trying to figure out how to exist among the living and having no clue about how to do it.
To avoid that potential airport interaction, I turned around, slunk down in my chair, and watched the three kids opposite me--particularly the boy who looked about the same size at Riley who wore a “Most Valuable Player” t-shirt--eat pizza and chips. And I hid under my hat. I’m sure she didn’t recognize me with my short hair in the first place, anyway.