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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Grief and alternate reality

It was a white legal-sized envelope like any other. It had fallen through the mail slot just like any other. It had my name on it. It was from a charity that we had donated money to. The day I opened that letter, the sun had shone down on the driveway as I left the house to walk the youngest to school. We held hands. We talked about flowers, then sang about them in a song we took turns making up verses for. We waved to the bus driver who trundles down our street each weekday morning.

The day that the letter landed on the entryway floor was a day sandwiched between the holidays of thanks and gratitude and celebration surrounded by family and friends. All days are hard, but those weeks of cheer and joy are especially hard because I don’t feel cheerful on the inside. I don’t feel grateful on the inside, even though I have things to be grateful for.

The letter didn’t arrive until after lunch, though. I only grabbed it after the little one’s nap on my way to give her a bath. She bubbled in the water while I sat with my laptop perched on my thighs. There were email messages to reply to. There were Breaking News messages from news organizations I subscribe to. When I was done replying to or scanning through the messages, I put the warm device on the floor next to me. I picked up the stack of mail. There were catalogs and fliers and bills. And this letter.

As I read the words – this near-form letter from this charity – my boy's name stood out. “Thank you so much for your generous year-end donation in memory of Riley Norton,” it said. It occurred to me that whoever typed this letter typed a multitude of others, replacing the name of the donor and the name of the person honored or remembered through the gift for each one.

He was just a name to them. A name to type, then forget. The admin typing up the thank-you letters has no idea he’s an 11-year-old boy. My 11-year-old boy. Nor do they care. I’m sure little, if any, thought is given to these names. These dead people. If they were curious, I wondered how likely it was that they would have found him online.

I retrieved the laptop from the floor and opened Google. I did a search for Riley Norton died. The first result was for a man of 85 who lived in Utah and died in 2019. There were some results relevant to my boy's life and others connected to old men. I went back to the first result, the one for the 85-year-old man. I read that Riley Norton's obituary and stared at that Riley Norton's photo. The old man had an oblong face and white hair. Could this have been my boy? Could this have been my boy’s alternate reality if he had been born with a working heart and the privilege of long life? 

As I stared at the photo, I squinted a bit and tried to see my boy in this old man’s face. Loving husband, father and grandpa. Then my vision blurred as I thought about my boy as an old man with grandchildren. Or perhaps the blurred vision was me thinking about how my boy was never the granted opportunity to be an old man with grandchildren. Or even a teenager with a job or a girlfriend. So much lost opportunity. So much lost. For him. For me. For his siblings. For his grandparents. For his friends and classmates and teammates. Thinking of all of the things that would never happen felt like every single life experience had been sucked from a jar with a giant syringe. I'm not sure if thinking about this alternate reality felt good or bad. 

As I wiped my face and stared into the middle-distance, the little one in the bath said she was getting cold. I closed my laptop and tried to shift my thoughts to the present, even though the present is informed by the past -- by Riley's life, his death, and grief. Every single day. I pulled her from the water and toweled her off. Then I got her dressed in pajamas and went to the bedroom she shares with Riley's things. Afterward, I picked up the letter and put it into the folder with our tax documents.