AddThis script

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.


  1. Dear Suzanne,

    My daughter knew Riley, they were the same year. She sat next to him in Science, she played Viola with him. She told us about him and his surgery. She has never forgotten him. Her handprint is on his bedroom door. She wears a green tulle ribbon on her converse shoes, she has since 6th grade. The same ribbon travels from old to new pair, I wasn't sure if she would continue to wear the ribbon in High School but she does. I never met your son, I wish I had, I know he had an impact on my daughter, she adored him in the short amount of time they knew each other. I have met you briefly at the 8th grade dance, was so honored to have you there to celebrate the class and honor Riley. I wanted to introduce myself but I lose my words. I've been meaning to tell you for a long time how much Riley still means to my daughter and how he will never be forgotten, by her or by us. Karen Ha

    1. Thank you for all of this. A friend pointed out to me after I wrote this that it would be impossible for a child to have attended Central at the same time as Riley and not know him, or at least, about him. I love that your daughter played viola with him for those few days/weeks that he played viola. At the beginning of 6th grade, Riley decided he was going to switch to viola from cello. I told him we should wait until after his surgery to make the switch since we didn't know how long he was going to be in the hospital. He then said, "It's not my fault that I have to have surgery." And he was right. So we went and picked up a viola, even though it would go unused for a while. He said it felt like his birthday and Christmas at the same time when he finally go to hold it. I'm grateful he had that moment. Please next time you see me, say hello. Tell me who you are and tell me who your daughter is. I'm grateful to know this. He was meeting new people and making new friends at school and I'm so grateful to know that he was a kind enough kid to have made a positive impact on your daughter such that she continues to wear the green ribbon. xxoo