Yesterday, the air was so clear you could see the Wet Mountains and the Spanish Peaks from Colorado Springs. Not a distant blur, but a sharp blue line in a stark blue sky. I took the dogs to the park in the afternoon, and as we rounded a turn in the path of Monument Valley Park, where those huge, ragged old cottonwoods stand, a gust of wind rushed through and sent a spray of leaves falling. I froze in my tracks and the dogs froze, standing witness to something glorious we hadn’t experienced in a year, the chilling rush of pending autumn.
All of my sons were born in late September and mid-October, so this was our family’s birthday season. Back yard parties with sports, aviation and superhero themes were punctuated by cool gusts of wind and diminishing sunlight. When I think of them growing up, I always see them in a haze of orange and gold, in jean jackets and sweatshirt hoodies, stretching a fall afternoon out as long as possible before winter fell.
This week, my son who died in 2007 would have turned 29. His birthday came and as it approached, I was a little paralyzed in the way that I have been every year since his death, not knowing how to commemorate his birth in the shadow of loss. But something is different this year and I hesitate to try and explain it for fear it will come out sounding like “time heals all wounds” or something equally as inane and unhelpful.
This year, out here in the middle distance on a late September afternoon, I feel untethered — not so much a helium balloon tumbling upward in the sky but a small boat freed from its moorings, set afloat.
Yesterday in the park on that wind rustled trail, I remembered walking on a different trail in deep, crisp autumn, in a park surrounding a lake in Middle Tennessee, the woods thick, the trail in shadows, the ground spongy with a thick layer of fallen leaves. Ahead of me, my black-haired boy plunges through the forest, poking at every mysterious corner of the underbrush with a big stick. When we emerge into the light, blinding sparks off the surface of the lake, he rushes to the water’s edge and picks up the biggest boulder he can manage. He wobbles under its weight and with all his small might, drops it into the water, howling at the big splash. No skipping stones for this boy. Only big splashes will do.
It is frightening to say it, but this birthday season I feel as though I’ve tossed off a big stone, freeing my hands to pick up something new.
I remember a perfect fall, senior year in high school, when my boyfriend and I roller-skated through the leafy streets of our east Memphis neighborhood to school. We took a little pleasure in feeling offbeat and weird, but even more in unleashing all that energy. Skating was our thing that fall — on Friday nights we’d pull on weathered leather shoe skates and race in circles around a wood-floored rink, rubber wheels clunking rhythmically. On school days, we strapped metal skates onto our tennis shoes and wore the keys that tightened them on strings around our necks. We skated over pavement and through the cigarette littered parking lot and down the long linoleum halls. We were untethered.
I read somewhere recently that doctors have found the repetitive right to left motion of ice skating or roller blading is therapeutic for people suffering from PTSD. It is a fine paradox for progress — leaning left and right, left and right, building momentum to move forward.
What I am trying to describe is the shift in feeling that comes after a great fall, after a plunge into darkness, especially the kind of darkness that comes to feel like your skin, your breath, grief that becomes a blanket, a straitjacket. Of course, I can only describe my own.
Here is the thing: it is not big and in your face and ah-ha. It is a small ring of bright motion, a halo surrounding the sadness that is still there, like a ring in the water when a stone drops. It is happiness even, but not the ecstatic happiness of roller skating to school, a steadier more sustainable happiness that knows the light is diminishing and can feel the comfort of that.
On my son’s birthday this year, I’m seeing the face he had when he was most engaged in living, poking with a big stick at dark corners, straining to lift the biggest boulder and then, with great effort, letting it go.
<em>Kathryn Eastburn is the author of</em> <a href="http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Sacred-Feast/Kathryn-Eastburn/e/9780803217416/?itm=1&USRI=kathryn+eastburn">A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground</a>, <em>and</em> <a href="http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Simon-Says/Kathryn-Eastburn/e/9780306815522/?itm=3&USRI=kathryn+eastburn">Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West</a>. <em>You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life. </em>