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Thursday, February 08, 2018

Grief and introductions

There is a woman. You might know her. She is tall with dark hair and she was on the trail Tuesday with her two dogs and two friends and their dogs. I know her friends, but I had never met this woman before we introduced ourselves to each other that morning. This woman who I'd never met before has a son. He's in 9th grade now, but he went to Central Middle. Just like Riley. And I can't stop thinking about her. Or about her son.

I keep wondering if her son was in Riley's 6th grade math class before he died. Maybe they sat next to each other. Or maybe he was in his English class. Maybe he sat in front of Riley. Or maybe behind him. Or maybe he was in orchestra with Riley. I wonder if he also played viola for the few weeks of the school year that Riley played viola. Or, perhaps he played cello when they were both in 5th grade and Riley played cello. Did they talk to each other at recess? Did they ever have lunch together? This boy who went to the same school as Riley and who was also a 6th grader when Riley died. They must have known each other. Or at the very least, they must have been acquaintances. The school isn't that big, after all.

From there, I wonder if this boy has a handprint on my garage door from the first anniversary of Riley's death when we made our first handprint memorial and dozens of classmates came to our house and stood in line to participate. Does he have a handprint on Riley's bedroom door from when we made our second handprint memorial? The one with the Tabasco Riley bottle? Did this boy talk about Riley with his mom when he found out that one of his classmates had died? His mom, this woman I'd never met, who happens to have a son who is the same grade that Riley would be in, if he had survived his last heart surgery. The surgery that was supposed to give him a normal lifespan. The surgery that was supposed to let him run and fly on airplanes without oxygen. Our sons must have known each other. Maybe this mother and son came to Riley's memorial after he died. Maybe they ran the Riley Run together and maybe that boy has worn a Riley Run t-shirt to school.

Does this woman know about my son at all? It's possible that her son didn't know Riley and never mentioned him in their home. That idea paralyses me. It's one of the reasons I'm intimidated by this unknown woman and her son, who I have been thinking about since Tuesday morning. She either knows about my son. Or she doesn't know about my son. If she does know about him, she didn't mention him when we introduced ourselves to each other on the trail as the dogs trotted around our feet, their tails wagging.

Then again, I didn't mention Riley to her either, even though we talked long enough to know that she and I have sons who went to the same school at the same time. I wasn't brave enough to ask if her son knew Riley. She wasn't brave enough to say that her son knew Riley. Or didn't know Riley. But if she doesn't know about my son, then Riley's life and death were invisible to this family who also lives in my town, whose son was in the same school and in the same grade as my son who is now dead. Impossible, yet possible. And frightening.

It's only in retrospect, though, that I realize that she may not have known that I was Riley's mom. I feel like I walk through the world with a sign above my head. But how could she know that I am Riley's mom, unless I say that I am Riley's mom? Sometimes it's so hard to say out loud. Not because I don't want to say his name. On the contrary. I want to say his name, but I want to say it, knowing with certainty that his name and his life and his death will be treated with the tenderness it deserves.

If I bump into this tall woman with dark hair on the trail again, perhaps I'll ask her so that I don't have to wonder anymore. But taking a chance is scary because I put my wounded heart in a stranger's hands. Will they treat it with the tenderness it deserves? So much tenderness is needed, all of the time, because my heart is so sore from all of the beating it's done without him these last three years.

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