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, November 10, 2013

It would have been his birthday

The two of us
Had he lived, today my son Chris would have celebrated his 52nd birthday. Once, so very long ago, this picture was taken of us in Boulder, Colorado, where we both lived. It was painful looking for a picture of him to post, but this one makes me smile, rather than feel really sad. It's been eleven years since he died, and he was forty then. I was only nineteen when he was born, but here I am, still alive, thinking about him and who he was. Part of what makes me smile when I look at this picture is his hair: longish, with sideburns and a mustache.

Chris died while jogging. He was stationed in Macedonia, serving in the Army, and had just completed a two-mile run that was slower than he wanted, so he asked for permission to do it again. When this was granted, he took off, probably faster than his heart wanted to take him. He experienced what is known as "sudden cardiac death." He was observed falling over, and by the time his fellow soldiers reached him, he was dead. It comforts me to think he didn't suffer for long before losing consciousness.

I had not seen him since he left stateside, but in the meantime he had made a life for himself in Germany and married a young German girl, Silvia, who had a five-year-old son by a previous marriage. Chris was very close to him. Until I arrived in Bamberg, Germany, I had never met either one of them. We spent a very emotional week together. Chris and I used to talked on the phone and emailed each other as well, but I had not seen him in years. Today we would have Skyped and texted each other, but those things didn't exist then.

He had been sent on a three-month stint in Macedonia as a border guard. It was in August when he died, and it was probably a combination of heat, altitude, and effort that caused his heart to fibrillate. His father died of the same thing at the age of 51, although Derald died in bed, retiring early because he didn't feel well. Chris got heart disease from both sides of his family and was being treated by the Army for high cholesterol. He had recently had a physical, which didn't discover the possibility of the event that took his life. He was pronounced healthy.

It's been a long time now. I look at that picture of us and realize that he must have been around 21, and me around forty. My hair doesn't have any gray in it, but he had begun to turn gray himself by the time he turned forty. When he died, he was the age that I am in that picture. Time has moved on. He has not, but his remains lie buried in a grave in Bamberg, where I will never visit. If it had been up to me, I would have had him cremated, but Silvia was the one who got to make that decision, not me. It simply astounds me that marriage made her his closest relative, although I was his mother.

But never mind. I don't intend to ever return to Germany, and Silvia and I are Facebook friends, although she writes her posts in German and I don't speak the language. Now that Chris is gone, her limited English is probably never practiced, and the Army base where he was stationed has been closed. Chris worked in the mail room, which was dedicated to his memory, but now the entire place is gone. It's just as well. Dwelling in the past is not something I like to do very much, but today I am making an exception in honor of Chris' birthday. Do you still celebrate birthdays once the person is gone? He was forty when he died, and forty he will remain forever.

When he returns to me in dreams, he is inevitably a teenager or a little older, around the age he is in the picture. He's filled with laughter and energy. Chris was an optimist, like me, and he was very well liked by everyone he met. When I met his fellow soldiers in Germany, many of them took me aside to express their condolences and tell me how much he meant to them. It was very touching. When I think of that week when we all said goodbye to him, the part that stands out the most are the heartfelt conversations I had. We were grieving, missing a soul who was taken away from us in his prime.

And here I am today, living in a place he would have loved, living a life he would have appreciated. Tomorrow is Veterans Day. It is a day when we remember those who have served in the military. In my family, that includes not only Chris, but my father and brother as well, and several nieces and nephews, many of whom are still serving today. It's a federal holiday, and I had forgotten it was coming up until I saw a TV scene, and every single person in the picture was wearing a poppy. That's what they do in Canada. Yesterday on my Fairhaven walk, Terry, who is a Canadian, was wearing one and we had a chat about it. We should do something like that here in the US. Another veteran, JFK, once said, "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

I will always be grateful for the veterans in my life, and I will always be grateful for the gift I was given of my son, Christopher Eric Heath, 1961–2002. One day we will be together again, and we'll laugh and cry and hug each other, and time will be no more.


Linda Reeder said...

I really have no words right now that seem even to begin to express anything helpful.
I have heard this story before, of course, as you have written it here on this blog. You have experienced some terrible losses in your life, which makes who you are now even more remarkable.
Just know that I am thinking of you as you go through this time of remembering.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I believe we will all meet our loved ones in heaven after we die. There is life after death, as so many who experienced near-death have testified. Sometimes, I think it is a curse to live a long life.

Meryl Baer said...

A beautiful tribute to your son. My heart reaches out to you.

Mel said...

You chose a wonderful picture of the two of you to share. It is a very happy photo. And you wrote a very beautiful post to honor your son. I think he would be so proud of the person you are today, and the life you have lived.

I think of my father on his birthday every year, and I think of him every year on Veteran's Day too. He was stationed in Germany at the end of WWII, and my mother joined him there, and they married in Holland and lived in Germany for three years. They loved their time there, and the German people.
A few months before he died, I showed them Google Earth images of all the places they had been, and it made them both so happy. Dad marvelled at the technology, and I wonder what he would have thought of skype!

I'll be thinking of you today, as you are thinking of your loved ones. Thank you for sharing Chris with us.
And time will be no more... brought tears to my eyes.

Olga said...

This was a heart filled post. You will be together again--beyond time because we know that the saying "time heals all wounds" is far off the mark.

Friko said...

For as long as your son lives in your heart he is not dead.
Celebrate his birthday by remembering him and the good times you had and although the emotions will be bitter-sweet, your heart will find comfort in them.

Sending you my very best wishes.

amanda said...

Thank you for sharing such personal & moving thoughts, DJan, I'll be thinking of you today after reading this.
I can't help but think of my own sons with November birthdays, the 8th & 15th, and the relationship as their mother.
As you saw, our Johnathan arrived in 2002, the year your son Chris left.
The circle of life is sometimes a dizzying thing to wrap my mind around. Lives begin & end.. and inbetween there are us - meeting up along the way. People come & go, but some leave an imprint on our lives forever.
You are a remarkably strong soul, DJan. I sure like that picture of you & your son smiling together.
Our kids, by the way, will be honoring Veteran's day with a special program at their school tomorrow, and are asked to all wear red, white or blue.

Red said...

This is a great tribute to your son. I like how you worked Chris's story into Remembrance Day.
I certainly remember birthdays of people I've lost. My sister would have been 72 Jan. 1. We lost her when she was eleven.
I think you do the right thing about thinking and writing about your son.

Sandi said...

Somehow I had forgotten that both of us named our sons Chris. When I dream of my Chris, he is a teenager as well. He was 30 when he died. I'm glad you had this photo for yourself, and, to share with us. It is a great picture and it made me smile, also.

"It simply astounds me that marriage made her his closest relative, although I was his mother." I had the same sudden realization when my son died. Fortunately, Shari was (and still is) close to me, and of the same mind on most things. We had Chris cremated, and split his ashes.

Sending you hugs today, DJan, and lots of love.

Jackie said...

I couldn't read all of this without stopping and crying, Jan. That's not a bad thing.... It's in a Mother's heart to do that. I wish I lived closer so that I could hug you; I know that wouldn't make anything any better for you, but it would for me....and perhaps it would help you a little bit. As you are thinking of your son today and every day, please know that I am so very grateful for the service he provided for us. I am so very sorry that he died at such a young age. I don't understand the reason why....
A beautiful blog about your son, Jan. Your blog about your sons is why I began following you. The first time I read your blog, I went to your sidebar listings and read what you lovingly wrote about them. You are blessed to have had them...and they are blessed to have had you as their Mama.

Arkansas Patti said...

I am glad you posted a picture that made you smile. The delight between you two in that picture jumps right off the page.
Some how I have missed the telling of this ever so sad explanation of his passing. My heart goes out to you and hopefully he will visit you tonight as you sleep.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I tusually remember my loved ones on their birthdays rather than the day they died; a birthday is something you have associated with that person forever and it brings thoughts of the living person. I love this photo; Chris's eyes are smiling and he looks very happy. Looks like he got your beautiful hair, too. He died in service to our country and I am grateful to him. I will be thinking of him and of you tomorrow as well. And by the way, when I was a kid we did wear poppies, but maybe it was a regional thing as I lived about a hundred miles from the Canadian border.

Shelly said...

What a lovely, poignant tribute to your son, who lived a full life, abundant with love. I jut celebrated my 52nd birthday a couple of days ago, so this post was close to home. That's a terrific picture of the two of you~

Gigi said...

Djan, I'm sending many hugs and much love across the miles. xo

Teresa Evangeline said...

I've been thinking about you off and on all day. Your strength is incredibly inspiring. You just amaze me.

Linda Myers said...

What a great picture of a mom and her son!

Sally Wessely said...

My heart is deeply touched right now. When I first read the story of how you lost your son, it gave me courage to face the loss of my daughter. I continue to gather up more courage and peace and acceptance regarding the loss of a child from you.

Your son must have been such a great guy. He had to have been if he were your son. I am just so sad to think how short his life was cut. You show much grace in the way you have accepted how your son now is buried in a place you will never again visit. He was serving his country. He was doing what was expected of him, and then, he went beyond that and ran when he should have rested. I too take comfort in knowing his death must not have caused him pain.

Thank you for sharing his life and his story with us. I too look forward to that time when time will be no more and we are with our dear children. Hugs.

justme_alive said...

Tenderly written, tenderly received. Thank you for sharing your heart. May your memories of your son leave you with many more days of smiles.

One and Doll said...

This is beautiful.

Glenda Beall said...

Your post touched my heart today. Having lost so many loved ones myself, I feel the depth of your pain and you expressed your emotions so beautifully. Thank you for writing about your precious son. The picture is lovely.

Rita said...

I absolutely love this picture of the two of you laughing! What a wonderful tribute to a good man. I'm glad he went fast. It is harder on the survivors, but much easier on the one leaving.

He lives in your heart, Mom. :) :)

Far Side of Fifty said...

I smiled at the photo too! I think people are better remembered on their birthday than their death day, although many people I know mourn both after a loved one dies.

I am sending you a hug, I know it must have been a hard day for you remembering it all:(

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

You have survived a parent's worst nightmare - not just one child, but two. The fact that you are here now, writing about it, says a lot about the core of who you are, DJan. I am truly humbled by this post.

Cynthia said...

Your post is a beautiful tribute and memorial to yours on. I'm so very, very sorry for your loss. May your memories of the lives you shared together be a source of comfort and happiness.

Deb Shucka said...

What a wonderful story, and tribute. Kathleen was also 40 when she died - I didn't realize that before. Her birthday is a bittersweet time for me - I always spend it with her in one way or another. Thank you for sharing this with us. Sending you hugs.

Stella Jones said...

Very sad x I wonder if that is why you are so hooked on exercise? It's almost as if you are living his life for him because he can no longer do it for himself. He was very good looking and you look more like a sister than a mother, in that photo.