Listen to me, mister. You’re my knight in shining armor. Don’t you forget it. You’re going to get back on that horse, and I’m going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we’re gonna go, go, go!
— Ethel Thayer, “On Golden Pond” (1981)
As some of you may already know, I lost my dear younger son, Christopher, a few weeks ago. Since then I have been unable to write more than a grocery or task list. I wanted nothing to do with reading, talking, or putting down on paper my innermost thoughts. I even got to the point where I didn’t care if I ever published another thing.
Something similar happened when I lost my mother in 2016: I couldn’t sing.
Like writing, music and singing have always been a huge part of my world. But for a whole year, I couldn’t get past the first few notes of a song without tears welling up behind my eyes and a burning feeling in my mouth as if I’d eaten a lemon! I despaired that I would ever be able to sing again without crying-especially the arias that my mother and I had enjoyed together.
Then one day, the spell was broken! Poof! It was as though my time for mourning was over and I had to get on with my life.
This loss has been different perhaps because, unlike my mother’s passing at age 89, it was not expected. I was able to function fairly well unless I said Chris’ name–at which point I’d unsuccessfully attempt to stifle a loud sob that would burst from the depth of me. I’d explain to my listener that I did that every time I said his name and then go on speaking as if nothing had happened. This occurred so many times that I stopped saying ‘Chris’ and started referring to him only as ‘my son.’
I soon realized that I was in no condition to go out into polite society or run into neighbors. So I bought a copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s little book, “Gift from the Sea,” which was recommended to me as a wonderfully inspirational short read. I grabbed one other book and packed my bags for a bit of time away at the New Jersey shore. Never mind that it was February, and there was snow on the ground. I was wounded worse than I had ever been in my entire life, and I needed to heal away from prying, even if sympathetic, eyes.
Never in my entire life have I allowed myself to do exactly what I pleased, when I pleased, and as much or little as I pleased. I intended to do a lot of things while I was away, and working on my manuscript was at the top of that list. But what I did was nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero.
At first, I slept very little, and ate almost nothing. My host thoughtfully provided a coffee maker and some delightful pods of a delicious brew – something I hadn’t enjoyed in a great while. I bought some apples and oranges. There was a television, which I didn’t want to watch, but I’d sometimes put it on without sound when it got dark. It wasn’t that I was lonely, but my room seemed so small when the draperies were closed without a ‘window’ to the outside.
When I’d wake in the small hours of the morning, I’d whisper through my tears all the prayers and Psalms I could recall from childhood. I sang hymns as they popped into my head. I pulled out my copy of Science & Health and read and read until I fell back asleep. Seeing familiar phrases that my mother used to quote was incredibly calming. My grandfather was known to say that, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” He was right.
Every day, I’d bundle up and go for a long walk. In the past, I’d had a hard time quieting the voice in my head that would either dart around aimlessly or delve deeply into a subject, depending on what was going on in my life. Now, there was only a strange, empty echo. Whereas I usually struggled when meditating to clear my mind, a hollow, vast silence was effortlessly achieved. I strolled along the boardwalk listening to, but not really hearing, the sound of the waves and the squawk of the seagulls.
Some evenings, I spoke to my dear sister, but I have no idea what I said. I only know that she was there for me, making me feel loved and safe, despite the three-thousand mile distance between us. I called a few other close relatives and a good friend, and they helped me more than I could ever say.
There were nights I’d sleep from early evening for twelve hours straight. I’d sometimes open my eyes to check the time on the LCD clock, and it was always some multiple of ninety minutes—a full cycle of REM and non-REM segments. I’d just figure out when the next three or four-and-a-half hours would be, wake up again, check the clock, and go back to dreaming.
And dream I did. Over the weeks, I was ‘visited’ by many people I had known over the course of my life, including my parents (together and one at a time), as well as other significant figures. My son–or the person I perceived to be my son–was often present. Once my ex-husband, who passed in 2009, suddenly appeared. I had been holding a little child’s hand, and he said to me as clear as day, “I’ll take care of him now.” I woke up crying, feeling the loss more acutely, but also a sense of responsibility melting away. Upon awakening, I felt refreshed and as though my subconscious had been working out a lot of things that I couldn’t deal with during the day.
I vacillated between grieving and reasoning with myself about the timing of my son’s death. He was forty-nine, not a little boy. Would it have been harder if he had not had time to enjoy his life? He was ill – and probably for a long while, but he got up each day with a smile on his face and went out and did his job. He could see the worried look on my face, but he’d grin and tell me, “I’m fine. Don’t worry.” And every single time I’d see him, he’d wrap his big, strong arms around me and say, “I love you, Mom!”
Would it have been better if he’d spent the last part of his life shuttling between doctor appointments? He’d traveled back and forth to Memorial Sloan-Kettering with his father during his final illness, spent long nights with him at the end, and had seen how a body can be ravaged. After that experience, he never again told me that if I got sick, he’d drag me kicking and screaming to a doctor. His girlfriend became very ill years earlier, and he was there each time they “took out parts” as Chris would say, to prolong a life that held little joy for her at the end.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book lay half read on my nightstand. I just couldn’t identify with her. Published in 1955, her feminist manifesto was not what I had been led to believe it was. It was not a quiet time of reflection, but rather an escape from an overbearing, philandering husband, a parcel of children, and a three-year affair.
But that was not the point. The idea of her book-a personal ‘time out’-had given me the impetus to escape the ordinary, oppressing, obligatory rituals that might have been my lot. It prevented me from having to sift through papers and go through drawers and closets before I was emotionally ready to do so. It taught me once again the power of prayer. It shored me up and gave me the time to reflect upon and remember my past, and reassess my future.
I know from experience that sorrow and loss ebbs and flows. I know that this pain will lessen, but never really disappear. In truth, I wouldn’t want it to. In the last analysis, things happen as they should, and for a reason. We don’t understand this fact as we go through our challenges, but when we look back on them, the pieces all fit together…perfectly.
Christopher used to sing Bon Jovi’s song and I can hear his voice now–a little off-key, but joyful nonetheless.
It’s my lifeBon Jovi
It’s now or never.
I ain’t gonna live forever.
I just wanna live while I’m alive.
My heart is like an open highway.
Like Frankie said,
“I did it my way.”
I just want to live while I’m alive
‘Cause it’s my life.
And he wouldn’t want me to stop writing.
Christopher Jon Volk
(November 3, 1971 – February 6, 2021)
4 thoughts on “Getting back on the horse.”
Very sorry to hear about your loss. Sending prayers your way. ❤
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That was beautiful; heartfelt; a great piece for someone who is grieving. Love you.
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Love you, Hillary.
I’ve just started following your blog and when I saw something somewhere (I don’t exactly remember where or when) mentioning your son’s passing I didn’t know how to react. As a mother of two adult children, my heart breaks for you. Thanks for sharing your experience of his passing and putting it in context with other losses you’ve suffered and even more so by adding the caring and comforting expressions (real or imagined) you received from important people in your life.
You are doing what you need to do to take care of yourself and continue to live life in the best way you can, at this difficult moment and for the whole gamut of moments ahead. Sounds like you have been partaking in some mindfulness practices which are probably just the thing for you now.
I too found some of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s memoirs and essays (and I have not read many) to be a little unreal and unrelatable, given her privileged upbringing and unusual (for the time) life. Even so, I did find some of her feminist thoughts to be uplifting and some of her emotions to be real. IDK if it’s any help to you but consider that she also lost a son before his time.