It has been a little more than three years since, what was for me—and a few others, that fateful Saturday in November, and I find myself drawing this story to a close. The journey I have walked since that day has been as difficult as it is rewarding and as terrifying as it is wonderful.
The difficulty of forward movement through each step has offered the reward of finding that each day is a new opportunity to acknowledge my grief while seeking out the beauty life still has to offer. And the terrifying prospect that my son is forever lost to this plane of existence has yielded to the wonder of knowing each life that remains here with me.
Through my son’s passing, Tim has taught me more than I could possibly know about myself, the value of others as individual contributors to my wonderful life, as well as the very meaning of life itself. I would never have known what it means to be utterly broken and find the strength to somehow make it through each day and to do the hard work of recovery. I would also never have experienced the divine kindness and support of people who would do anything to make the journey just a little easier.
I understand things in a way I didn’t before that day. I have lost friends and family over the course of my life, but losing a child strikes at your heart in a very different way. The inversion of the course of events in which a parent must bury his child underscores the fragile nature of this thing we call life. And in the frailty, the estimated value is amplified. The value of each day and the importance of this moment increases.
Rather than a thing to get through as we deal with the day-to-day challenges of work, child rearing, and relationships while looking forward to some future event like a weekend, or a holiday, or a vacation, it becomes something sacred. A Divine gift to be cherished by virtue of its transient nature.
Long ago I lost a very dear friend to yet another senseless one-car accident. My last words to her on a Friday afternoon were “I’ll see you Monday.” 10 minutes later, her car left the road and she was instantly killed by inertial forces as her car landed in a tree. Too much speed, a wet road, and an unanticipated right curve at the top of a hill all conspired to claim her life.
It was in the moment of the phone call I received the next morning that I received my first glimpse at age 35 of how quickly life can change and how effortlessly fate can step in and disrupt your plans. But I had no way of knowing that I would experience the life-altering nature of an untimely death nearly 20 years later, in a much more personal and much more unexpected way. For she was my peer and he is my child.
As my friend, I was able to accept from the outset that it was a mere roll of fate’s dice that would determine which of us would attend a funeral and which of us would be the object of grief for those we left behind—although the assumption is always “Not today.” And in the aftermath I spent many hours listening to questions posed by her friends and exchanging letters with her oldest daughter, all the while being able to offer nothing other than comforting words and embraces. However, this was but my introduction to the lesson of loss. I consider myself fortunate; many people experience this introduction much earlier in life. Tim’s passing, though, became a much greater fulfillment of the lesson.
And while the lesson came at a great price, in a strange way, I feel fortunate to have learned it, and I hope I learned it well. For learning it well and acting on it is the only gift I have to give to my son.
As I write this, it is the holidays. Were he here, I would no doubt be thinking about what present I might buy for him. I would be thinking in terms of his interests, his likes and dislikes, or what might he be able to use as he traversed his day-to-day. This is how we think when we think of gifts we give to the living. To those who have passed, however, the only gift we can give is to honor them by sharing whatever legacy they left us. And if we can find and know that legacy, it is the greatest gift you can give to those who remain.
This is my son’s legacy I now offer to you:
A paramount sense of The Other.
This was what he gave to the world when he was present, both literally and figuratively. As a child and teenager, and later as an adult and recovering addict, these are the things he brought to the world.
And as I contemplate this holiday season, the gift I want to give to you is nothing more than the mindfulness that it is all too easy to let one day slip into another. I ask that you embrace each day as an opportunity to be present for someone else and to give into that person’s life to the degree you are able.
Tim’s life mattered a great deal. For that was his approach to life and to everyone he met. I can think of no better way to honor his memory than to ask that of you.
And Tim, sharing your story is my gift to you, a child who was born to lower middle-class parents, and who would know difficulty most of your life, but someone who would also overcome life’s adversity and leave the world just a little bit better than you found it.
Well done, son. Well done.