All of us can remember exactly where we were at the time of a catastrophic world event. In my parents’ generation, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing entry into World War II was the incident which created a permanent memory for them.
In my generation, two events stand out: The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and the 9/11 attack in 2001.
I can still remember sitting in 9th grade Spanish class in Verona High School (New Jersey) when our principal, Edwin Willard, came into each class to announce what had happened. A hush followed and we all crowded around a small transistor radio which one of the students had brought to school. I can still remember the facial expressions of my fellow students when we heard that he was pronounced dead.
When the attack on the World Trade Center occurred, I was driving to the hospital to see a patient. When the broadcast was interrupted to say that the first Tower was hit, I immediately returned home to be with my wife to watch the horrific events which occurred within the next few hours.
On a much more pleasant note, I also have very strong memories of what happened when I was in 10th grade in 1964. I was sitting in Mrs. Alleine Graef’s Biology class when Mr. Willard entered the room. The class froze because it was not even a year after he had delivered the news of the JFK assassination.
But this time, he had a wide smile on his face. He held up a telegram and read it aloud. Mrs. Graef’s son, Jed, had just won the Gold Medal in swimming (backstroke), setting a new world record.
I can still remember the expression on Mrs. Graef’s face. She then told us proudly about his swimming achievements which many of us had never heard about.
In 1964, live coverage of the Olympics was very limited. There were a few broadcasts transmitted by satellites but nothing like today where we feel as if we are standing next to the Olympic athletes.
Jed graduated from Princeton University and he went on to receive a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Michigan. At the age of 79, he lives in Vermont and is still working in software development.
We just passed the eight-year mark. It is difficult to find the words that describe the feelings that run through our minds on these special days. Birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and D.O.D. (Date of Death).
These days are steeped in the pain of loss, depending on your frame of mind. We have met countless parents who like us have lost a child and there are some we have observed who have not successfully adapted to what we call “the new normal.” While it is sometimes a daily struggle to maintain a positive attitude, there are long periods of time when we find ourselves subconsciously re-embracing the pleasure of our once happy lifestyle.
Our eighteen-year-old son, Ari, was killed by a drunk driver while he was innocently riding his bike in our neighborhood one night eight years ago. The flashing lights of the police car, the unforgettable pounding on the door and the impending scream of my wife who had been awakened from a deep sleep, have etched an indelible memory in our minds.
On special days like today, multiple sensory experiences compete with our positive thoughts. On our early-morning walks in our neighborhood, we try to focus on the beauty of nature. As photographers, we enjoy seeing the “golden light” of the early morning sun as it brightens up the tops of the trees while the bottom branches still hang heavy in the shade.
We delight in hearing the mockingbird’s many songs slice through the still quiet of the pre-rush hour hum. The distant cry of the limpkin travels unimpeded across the lake. The rat-a-tat of occasional woodpecker’s beak against a metal gutter on a nearby house causes us to laugh. The early morning fragrant smell of the night-blooming jasmine permeates the neighborhood, filling our sensitive nostrils with the reminder that our special month of May is in full bloom. The yellow, pink and lavender tabebuia trees announce the season with their brilliant display of color, only to be rivaled by the bright red-orange blossoms of the Royal Poinciana trees.
Our memories of our son are occasionally jostled in other ways. The cross-country runner passing us on the sidewalk interrupts our daily nature show. As he quietly runs past us, we both sigh in that shared moment. As we later savor our post-walk breakfast facing our backyard lake, an unusual sight suddenly appears in our peripheral vision. A tall teenage boy slowly walks across our backyard as he casts his fishing line into the awaiting lake. Baseball cap, short haircut, bright red board shorts and the same thin build immediately cause us to reach for each other’s hand.
These visual reminders are called “sightings” by parents who have also suffered the loss of a child. While these are sometimes painful to watch, they provide a living memory of the joy of re-seeing our son in the form of another, but distinctly similar person. This has happened several times before. Once on a long cruise, one of the performers in the show bore an uncanny resemblance to our son. We noticed him instantly at exactly the same time as he appeared on stage, and our response was the same. We reach for each other’s hand in a non-verbal shared moment.
These visual reminders are called “sightings“
The acceptance of our son’s passing is different this year. Along with most other people, our travel plans have been seriously disrupted. We realize now that in the years since his death, we have carefully avoided being at home on his D.O.D. It is much easier to plan to be away in some other far-flung location than it is to be at home with the constant reminders of his anniversary.
This year, however, the acceptance of our loss has been challenged by having to remain sequestered at home. We have kept sufficiently busy with our multiple interests and somehow we have survived. Friends’ thoughtful remembrances of Ari’s D.O.D. have helped make it easier to get through that day.
As we watch the morning backyard bird show, we are touched by the slow soaring of the lone white ibis, catching each gust of wind, before he finally lands on our lawn.
“That’s Ari checking on us again,” I remind my wife. “He wants to make sure we are still enjoying our lives.”