I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Tomorrow is the ninth anniversary of my son Chris' death. August 15 is also the day in 1964 when my second son, Stephen, was born. Time has a way of helping one to forget the joy and pain we experienced in the past. Sometimes nine years seems a long time ago, and sometimes it seems much more recent. The remains of both of my sons lie in separate graves somewhere, but I wouldn't visit them, even if I could. Stephen in Flint, Michigan, and Chris in Bamberg, Germany. To me, graveyards don't contain the important part of a person's remains.

Somebody else made the decision in each case to bury them. I myself will have my body cremated and leave nothing but ashes behind, hopefully to be scattered in some beautiful place. But it won't matter much to me in any event. It's those of us left behind that it matters to. Silvia, Chris' wife, wanted him buried in her cemetery so she could visit him, and that's fine. Everyone has different ways to commemorate those who have passed on before us.

When Chris died in 2002, I remember waking up that morning and thinking it was a special day somehow, but I didn't remember why, at first. By the time the day was over, and I was making arrangements to travel to Germany, I remembered that it was also Stephen's birthday and I had forgotten. Today the anniversary of those events does not escape my notice. But I didn't set out this morning to grieve, but to celebrate the full life my son Chris had accomplished by the time he had turned forty.

People die prematurely all the time, and in the old days, forty was not so premature. Chris had lots of gray in his hair and although he had not produced any children, it was not for want of trying. I think he really would have been a good father; he was very close to his stepson, Silvia's son from a previous marriage. I am not close to him and only met him during my stay in Bamberg for Chris' memorial service. Silvia is German and her English at the best of times is not good. We are Facebook friends and that is enough for me these days.

Chris worked in the mail room on the Army base and so many people told me of his generous spirit and quick laughter. I remember when he was a young boy that he was fiercely independent. When I would read to him, it was for me and not for him, since he would allow me to read to him but didn't care if I did or not. And forget hugs and kisses! But we would share many things and I remember laughing together at things long forgotten. But I still remember the affection and laughter.

He was a pretty good student. That changed as he grew older and lost interest in academics, but I am grateful that he never experienced the kind of bullying that seems rampant in elementary schools today. Although he was influenced by his peers and took up drugs in high school, it was his habit of smoking that I believe killed him. He tried so many times to quit, and finally managed to give up cigarettes completely a few months before he died. He was so proud of his accomplishment and we emailed back and forth about his struggles and progress.

He had been given a three-month temporary assignment in Macedonia, and he was away from his wife and stepson when he died. His roommate in their quarters told me of Chris' enjoyment of coming into the air-conditioned comfort of his room after a hot day outside, when he would quaff a beer and sit in his skivvies, making everybody laugh at his satisfaction of a job well done, the day's work finished.

Chris would call me twice a year, on his birthday and on Mother's Day. He would tell me of his latest trials and tribulations, but he seemed really happy most of the time, and that was confirmed when I went to Germany. He was not only well liked by his friends and loved by his family, but he loved the Army, and he wanted very much to stay in the service.

I was astounded to learn that he was also known by his friends and acquaintances as a very accurate palm reader and would tell the future that appeared to him in the lines of people's hands. When he developed this interest, I have no idea. But it reminded me that Chris had a second sense about people; he would make instant likes and dislikes to those he met. I had no doubt that he loved humanity and especially his mother. His relationship with his father was a good one, too.

Although I didn't want to talk to Derald (his father) and didn't for years, unless it had something to do with Chris, he kept pushing me to call Derald and talk with him. His desire to have us reconciled was something he never gave up on, and one day, sometime in the 1980s I guess, I called Derald and we talked on the phone for hours. We healed old wounds and spent time forgiving each other for our youthful mistakes. I knew after that phone call that Chris was responsible for removing our old painful memories and replacing them with good ones. Not long after that phone call, Derald died suddenly. He was only 51, and his son Chris would die of the same thing: sudden cardiac death.

Chris has been gone for nine years now, and I didn't see him in person during the last four years of his life, but he lives on in my memories, and I'm sure also in the memories of many others who knew and loved him. The infant I held in my arms almost fifty years ago grew into a very special person who made a difference in the world. Chris, I love you, I will always love you until the day I die.

And then, if there is life after death, we will meet again and I'll join you over a cup of coffee and we'll tell stories of our adventures since we were last together on Earth.


Teresa Evangeline said...

Dear Jan, I cannot imagine having to endure what you had to endure, with the loss of both your children, but your strength, your ability to stay in a very good place is a testament to who you are. One very cool, fine person.

This is a very moving post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

CiCi said...

Nine years since your son died. You are still a mom; it just so happens that your son passed on before you did. Chris did a wonderful thing to coax you to call his father and allow some healing to work for both of you. I haven't seen my son in person for three years now and I probably won't see him in person again. I don't have to be around him to love him and care about how he is doing. I imagine that is how you felt too. Some miles between you does not affect a mother's love.

Trish said...

This post has it all, DJan - the kind of writing that makes a difference in people's lives. I can't imagine losing one child, much less two, and being able to come out on the other side of it. You're one special person.

I also found a synchronicity in this post - the Aug 15 date. One son dies, the other is born.

Dee said...

Your words and your memories brought tears both to my eyes and my heart today. In the natural order of things, we always think that parents die first, then the children follow. Both of your boys have died before you and you carry within you the memories of their lives.

The first words that came to me years ago when I wrote a book called "A Cat's Life: Dulcy's Story" were "At the end, all that matters is love, my love for my human and hers for me. I have planted the memories of our life together in her heart. She will find them there and they will comfort her." Chris has planed the memories of your life together in your heart. I trust that these cherished memories comfort you.

wendyytb said...

I wish that there were a means of reaching through this screen to give you a huge hug! You have endured far more than your share....

Linda Reeder said...

This is such a moving tribute to your son, and to you, the enduring mother,written so beautifully and movingly. My eyes are tearing up.
August 15 is also the birthday of my father, who has been gone now for almost 17 years, and my mother endures too.
Love to you on this anniversary.

Sally Wessely said...

Why is it so difficult to find the words to respond to such a moving tribute? Sitting here trying to put my thoughts and emotions into words, I am most aware of not wanting to write anything because whatever I write seems so insignificant.

This tribute to you son serves to remind me that memories are what are important after loss. Holding on to those memories keeps our loved ones nearby.

You are in my heart today. You truly have had to endure far more than most of us. You know that I think of you and your ability to go on with life and thrive after loss as a model to follow. Going forward after such loss does not mean that you do not grieve, remember, and take out those memories held so close to your heart and examine them from time to time. Thank you for sharing this beautiful tribute.

Rita said...

I feel like you do about graves. The loved ones aren't there. The graves are sweet tributes for the living. I talked with Dagan decades ago about if he did die (as has been predicted since he was born--LOL!) that I didn't care where his father wanted to bury him or what arrangements he wanted to make and I'd hand it over to them if they wanted--which they probably would. I want to be cremated and don't care where they spread my ashes--just want to be useful. In a garden would be just fine with me--LOL! Dagan and I agreed that we wouldn't visit each other's graves, anyways. If I died first, he said, I wasn't there anyways. Graves seem pointless to us both. Dagan will sprinkle me somewhere...I don't care where. He even teases me that if he has enough money he'll make a diamond out of me. I always loved that song--"I'm just an old chunk of coal, but I'm gunna be a diamond some day." Cracks us up every time.

I've been close to losing my son several times over these almost 37 years. But I have never lived on the other side. That is an altogether different place. My heart goes out to you in losing both a baby and grown man. Mine is a grown man now. I am lucky. He has been blessed with good fortune and has still avoided predictions and escaped close calls. Shocked them all and hasn't even been on the heart transplant list yet. You never know how life will go.

I have a Dagan shaped hunk of my heart. It will never not be there. If I could reach out and hug you, Jan, you would feel big old Swedish arms around you...and we would sit over coffee and laugh as we wiped away our tears. :):)

Rubye Jack said...

Oh Jan, it is sad to think of your having lost both sons. Nine years can seem like only yesterday. I've always felt that the saddest kind of death is when your children die before you because our children give us such a strong sense of who we are, along with giving us meaning as we watch a part of ourselves grow. I'm sorry for your sadness.

Like you, I don't visit graves. I don't even go to funerals much. My mother was cremated and we had no formal grave for her but her sisters insisted on one. I've never been there though. I also would hope to be cremated.

Anonymous said...

Such a painfully beautiful post. I can't imagine the kind of pain tomorrow will bring. Losing two sons is far too great a burden to shoulder.
My thoughts will be with you.
Arkansas Patti

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

DJan, I am sorry you've had to endure so much loss and pain. I'm glad that you have good memories of Chris, including his helping you resolve things with Derald. What a gift that was. I also can't relate to grave sites. I will be cremated, and I suggested that my ashes be spread in center field at the baseball stadium where we spend so much time (it has to be done secretly, of course). Peter wants his ashes put in a secret place on the carousel. Silly ideas, I guess. Please be extra kind to yourself this week; you deserve it.

Meryl Baer said...

DJan - Thoughts and prayers are with you tomorrow. You have written a sweet remembrance and tribute to a beautiful person and wonderful son.

#1Nana said...

There isn't anything I can add to the comments written before me. It is the memories that live on, and your beautiful words.

Anonymous said...

Chris is probably chuckling at your post today, DJan. How thrilled and proud he must be. Maybe, he and Stephen are together as we speak, the older son holding his younger brother in his arms... God bless!

Red said...

As always well written. Remembering special days is so important. Great that you share it with others. Many people hide these special days. I remember my parents noting my sister's birthday and date of death. I don't think they ever forgot those two days. I haven't seen my son for about six years and communication is sparse. It bothers me. I hope someday it changes.

Linda said...

A very touching post remembering your sons. I'm speechless.

Mel said...

Beautiful post as always. I agree with you about the gravesites. I decided as a child that the person I loved was not there, not anywhere really anymore, but everywhere maybe. Chris' sixth sense was uncanny. It's good he prompted you to reach out while there was still time.
I like to think we all get a nice visit again with the ones we love someday. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today. I always learn something important and am moved by your eloquence every time I visit here.

Gigi said...

My mother is buried back in Houston, the only time I visit is when I'm there and headed back to the airport, since it's on the way. If she were buried here I'd probably never go. You won't find any memories of the one you loved at a cemetery, I find.

DJan, you are a strong and wonderful woman; and I'm keeping you extra-close in my heart today.

Whitney Lee said...

I'm thinking of you today. It must be difficult no matter that time has maybe softened the edges of your grief. I cannot imagine the scope of the loss or how moving through it has shaped your life.
Thank you for sharing this with us. Interesting about the palm reading-I don't recall your having mentioned that before. It's hard for me to fathom a time when I don't know every little thing about my children, but I know that day is rapidly approaching!

Jenny Woolf said...

I feel sad to read this post. I don't feel there is much I can say that is of any use, but I wanted you to know that I read it and was deeply moved.

Grandmother Mary said...

Sharing your heart and your journey after such loss strengthens others who endure the same thing and think they can't survive. I missed you when I was gone and thank you for your openness.

Sandi said...

Dear DJan, I came here to thank you for your comments on my blog today, and instead I want to thank you for this moving and real tribute to your son Chris and the memory of your other son's birth. As a mom who has outlived a son also, my heart weeps for you today. I understand the loss, I feel the heartache, I know the passage of time is so inconsistent.
Your words were so honest and heartfelt. I'm so glad you listened to your son and mended the broken bridge between you and his dad. It was an important gift to all three of you. I wish you peace.

Stella Jones said...

Yes I did think about you yesterday. I do because August 15th is a special day to me too. I'm glad that you have found some closure to the sadness. There is something within us which allows us to move forward, eventually.
Blessings, Star

Donna B. said...

My precious friend...I believe Chris's sixth sense knew how important it was for you and his Dad to mend your past. Hearing your story of Chris, I have always felt a connection to him. He sounds like my kind of person. The fact he died on the day Stephen was born, is comforting in that, Chris is letting you know he is with his younger brother, and now, also with his Dad. Indeed you will meet again...

I agree with some of the other comments, your Mother's love does not cease whether you see them or not.

I have said it before, and I will say once again...you are a super woman and always my hero. Your strength and grace are just two of your many attributes! Love and hugs...

Friko said...

Dear Jan,

there is so little I can add here, except to ay that I find your indomitable spirit, your acceptance of what is, wholly admirable. I salute you, dear, brave, friend.

If ever you want to write to your dil and need help doing so, I would happily translate any texts for you and her.

Glenda Beall said...

Dear Jan,
I am visiting your blog for the first time. Thanks for stopping by Writing Lifes Stories and leaving a comment.
Your post is touching and your grief still real. I lost my husband two years ago and I am slowly making it back. I've lost my parents and two brothers also, and I will always miss them.
You seem to be an unusually strong person with all your physical activity. I've heard that is the best thing to do.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I will disagree with some of the comments. A graveyard is a place to remember and to grieve if you need to. Sometimes it helps to heal the soul when you visit a graveyard.
Such a sad post today..I am sorry for your losses..It seems to be so much for one person to overcome.
I am sending you a hug:)