It's been over two months now since Jess's birthday, yet the day won't quite leave me alone. It keeps coming back to me in memories and details that will scroll through my mind in the most unlikely places. It's almost as if the details are asking to be recorded, begging to be recorded, as if details could do such a thing.
So, I suppose I'll sit here and type for a while.
I was going to let June 11th go by with little more than a head nod this year. It wasn't a conscious decision, it was more the absence of a decision. A non-decision that was created by subconsciously choosing in the weeks and days leading up to His Day to push the rising thoughts of him to 'later'. Again and again the thoughts would surface, they'd knock at my consciousness and ask for my attention, getting more and more frequent the closer the calendar crept towards June 11, and again and again I would push them away to later until I woke on the morning of his birthday to realize...
...there were no more laters.
But, before my body even turned in my bed, the thought of 'no more laters' brought feelings of overwhelm and discomfort, so I opened my eyes and told myself that, really, there were still hours of laters left in the day, which gave me the room to, once again, push the thoughts of Jess away.
That might sound cold. I know. It's just that, thinking about him can sometimes feel so deep and intense and overwhelming that I don't always have the courage for it. And this year felt particularly difficult because I didn't know exactly what I should do to honor and remember him.
In the past, I hadn't needed to make that decision because it was already set in tradition. But our tradition to take the kids to the temple grounds on the evening of the 11th had been broken two years previously when Jess's 12th birthday turned out to be unexpectedly grueling for my emotions. I had run away from church in tears that day and wasn't able to stop them long enough to come out of my bedroom for the rest of the day, let alone to take the entire family on an outing. And then Brian was out of town the following year for Jess's 13th birthday and I didn't feel strong enough to face it by myself... so again, we didn't go. Which meant that this year, on his 14th, the inertia was decidedly moving in the direction of not going, and changing that direction by myself felt hard.
Also, our family felt all weird... Carson was in Utah with my parents and Mckenzie was on trek, and our beautiful Colombian daughter, Daniela, was visiting for the month. It didn't seem right to carry on the tradition without McKenzie and Carson, and I wasn't sure how I felt about letting Dani into this most tender and vulnerable piece of me; it has so much to do with my beliefs in temple ordinances and the plan of salvation, after all, and even though Dani has always been utterly respectful and lovely when it comes to my religion, she is Catholic and doesn't have all the same beliefs that I do. I didn't want things to be awkward sitting on the temple grounds - for her or for me.
So, all that to say, I didn't really know what to do. Which is why I suppose it just felt easier to push the decision away until 'later'.
And since I still had hours of laters left in the day, I didn't have to think about it right then, and decided I might as well get up and get dressed instead.
So I got ready for the day, helped the kids with breakfast and chores, threw in a few loads of laundry, put a shopping list together and headed out to pick up some groceries.
And all the while there was a nagging voice inside telling me that I wasn't really fooling myself with all the rushing around. Sure, I'd have a long list at the end of the day to make myself feel justified and, sure I'd be able to say, I was just so busy, I didn't have time. But I mostly knew that that would hardly compensate at the end of the day for the feelings of sadness and guilt that would come from realizing I'd pushed the day away from me and let it pass in a colorless, dull blur. I knew it, but my will to protect myself from any short term negative emotions was strong, and I pushed it all away again.
Keep yourself busy, I told myself instead. Keep yourself distracted.
It's safer that way.
So I stopped by my dear friend Melissa's house to help her paint, unpack, and clean for an hour or so. She just moved her family into a new place over the mountain into Henderson (breaking my heart in the process, but that's another story) and had all the things to do that come along with a story like that, so she could use an extra set of hands. Plus, I hadn't seen her in a couple of weeks and I missed her.
The chaos in her home felt wonderful to me when I walked inside - distraction at its finest.
"Show me your house!" I said. We both laughed because we could hardly see through the mounds and mounds of half-emptied moving boxes, let alone make it through a walking tour. But we lost ourselves in conversation and companionship while she shared her visions of tearing down walls and putting up shelves, and painting kitchen cabinets. And somewhere in the middle of it all, she picked up a vase full of beautiful flowers that had been sitting out-of-place among all the wet paintbrushes, used paper towels, rags, drills, half-emptied moving boxes, paint cans, and hundreds of other odds and ends. "Hey," she said, "these are for you."
I laughed out of confusion. "What the...?! Why are you giving me flowers?"
She looked at me gently and said, "Isn't today Jess's birthday?"
How did she know?
The world inside of me seemed to suck itself into a tiny pinpoint deep within my chest, leaving a silence and darkness in every square inch of me. And then a whisper of a rumble came from that deep space as, far away, a dam crumbled. I couldn't speak. I couldn't think. There is nothing in a vacuum. I stared at the flowers for long seconds before I slowly reached my hand out to accept them. And when my fingers touched the cold glass, the wave of emotions that had been held behind the dam hit hard, roaring through that pinpoint, filling the vacuum with all of the thoughts and feelings I'd been trying to hide from myself for weeks.
"How...?" I started, finding some words and fighting through the roaring emotions. "How did you know?"
"You mentioned it once," she said with a shrug. She waited until I looked her in the eyes before continuing, "I know how hard it can be to feel like you're the only one carrying the memories, the only one carrying love for a child who didn't get the chance to make any other connections. But I want you to know that I love Jess, too. Even though I never knew him, I love him and am so grateful for him because he has helped make you into the person you are - and I know you. And you have blessed my life so much."
Well, that did it. It was the ugly cry. The uuuuuuuuugly cry.
See, in order to understand how deeply her comment cut, you have to understand something else. But it's hard to understand and even harder to explain. One of the most interesting things regarding how this all works for me is that, when my mind fills with thoughts or when my body fills with feelings about Jess, they never seem to have any origin point. Meaning, there's rarely something that happens externally that will trigger a thought or a feeling of him. That, alone, makes some sense to me because I don't have any 'normal' memories of Jess, so not much of what happens in 'normal' life reminds me of him. Therefore, when I try to trace my thought train back to find the station from which it left, I can never find the station. It's as if the thoughts and the feelings just appear out of thin air. And, what's craziest about them is that, they often have a mood. Sometimes they feel gentle and sweet, and sometimes they feel pushy, like they don't intend to leave until I've given them some attention. Sometimes it'll be a long time between feelings, and sometimes they're so frequent I can't keep up with them. But whether they're calm or intense, frequent or sparse, when they do come they always feel alive.
Nothing else in my life feels this way. And lately, I've started to wonder if it's him... Of course, I don't know how the spirits of our loved ones on the other side interact with us while we're here on this Earth, but I've always believed that they probably play a much bigger role in our lives than we realize. So, to me, it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that those unique and special thoughts and feelings I have of Jess could be coming as a result of him reaching out to me.
But I hadn't been thinking about any of this in the weeks leading up to his birthday. Instead, I'd been pushing the thoughts into the background, suppressing the feelings, hitting them all down with a mallet like I was playing wack-a-mole. But when Melissa expressed her love for Jess, she reminded me with softness and clarity that he is there, capable and deserving of love and still playing an active role in my life. Though not her intention, her comment showed me how shallow I'd been acting, and breathed the life back into Jess for me. And in that moment I realized and believed with a crushing guilt that he, my son, had been trying to connect with me. And that I had turned my shoulder and put up a wall in response.
Melissa stood there in compassion and gave me a safe place to cry those ugly tears. She looked at me with such tenderness in her eyes, tears rolling down her own face while I talked, and I knew in that moment that Heavenly Father and Jess had not given up when I wouldn't let them through my walls. They had found a way around me, right there in Melissa. I felt so intensely grateful for her that she had followed the promptings in her heart that had nudged her to put down her paintbrushes and get a vase of flowers for a friend in need.
"Thank you," I said to her when there was nothing left to say. "Thank you for breaking this all open and forcing me to think about it today."
There are so many invaluable lessons I have learned though my life that have Jess and his story at their roots. Lessons about faith and God and trust and love. Lessons that have made me into who I am. Lessons that keep coming and that I have felt prompted and guided again, and again, to record. And one of the most important lessons I've learned is how essential it is to remember, and how quickly I forget.
I had not remembered, and I felt chastised all the way home. It was a bitterness I'd never felt before, and more than once I pulled my car to the side of the road because I couldn't see well enough through my tears. God was reminding me that Jess coming into my life in the way that he did was not an accident, he came here to teach me. And that I have a responsibility to nurture that knowledge and to pass it on as much as I can to my own children. The pain was both intense and motivating, and suddenly the discomforts that had been holding me back before in getting my family to the temple that night seemed insignificant.
I explained my heart to the children as we sat around the temple that night. And all of the concerns I had about McKenzie and Carson being gone, and about Daniela joining us turned out to be empty.
It was a beautiful night.
The children were all reverent and attentive and full of the most beautiful questions.
And at the end of the night, while Timothy and I were walking hand-in-hand to the car, he turned to me and asked, "Mom? How do you make things a memory?"
"What do you mean, love?"
"Just... how do you make things a memory?"
"Well, I suppose you just take the time to notice the details around you while it's happening, and then you keep thinking about it as much as you can once it's gone... Does that answer your question?"
He shrugged his little shoulders. "It's just that, you told me that we came here before, but I don't remember it... I just really don't want to forget this time."
I squeezed his hand a little tighter and tried to breathe around the lump in my throat. "I completely understand, buddy."
Just then, I noticed a small, smooth rock next to our feet. "Do you see that rock?" I said. "Why don't you pick it up and take it home with you. You can put it on the shelf above your bed and then every time you look at it, you can remember."