My birthday was this weekend. I wanted very much for it to be the birthday that wasn’t and for the most part I accomplished that. My ability to feel joy and to want to celebrate have been all but wiped out. I had a heightened sense of anxiety because this weekend was also Bart’s 40th birthday which was a bigger deal before Nelson’s suicide. I was actually really anticipating falling apart in the way I fell apart at the one month anniversary which is to say, I was expecting to be inconsolable. Judd asked what I wanted to do for my birthday and I said NOTHING and meant it. Bart called the day before and asked what I wanted to do for my birthday and I said NOTHING. I don’t want it acknowledged. I want it to just go by peacefully. I don’t want to be an emotional wreck. I want everyone to just ignore it. I want to just join my regular life already in progress.
And then I got a text message from my friend Jenna. I had run into Jenna at the grocery store earlier in the week. She saw me in the produce section looking for leaf lettuce. I don’t do the grocery shopping. Grocery shopping is one of Judd’s things and I was uncomfortable and disoriented in the store. I had been roaming the store over and over still looking for random things and not being able to figure out why I couldn’t find them. I was near tears because I’m the pillar of emotional instability these days and then there was Jenna. Let me explain that Jenna is one of those people that exudes light. She is smiles. I see Jenna and she reminds me of the color turquoise, bright turquoise. Everyone should know a Jenna. And so; there is Jenna asking how I am and saying I know your birthday is Friday what are you doing for it? I was so stunned that she knew it was my birthday. It was days away. How does she do that?! It doesn’t matter how many times I get to relive this life I will never be so in tune with my friends as to realize which of them have upcoming birthdays without numerous reminders. But that’s the kind of person Jenna is. She is inclusive and friendly and she remembers details about people and she asks questions with genuine interest and she knows who has a birthday four days from today. And so after that brief encounter on Monday I get a text message from Jenna on Thursday night that simply said “I have a little something for you and will be bringing it by about 9am tomorrow if that’s ok.” I reply “Oh you shouldn’t have” to which she replied “But I did. See you at 9.” And at 9am the next day she showed up with the most beautiful angel food cake. It was all I could do to hug her and hold it together. And that sort of set the tone for the day of my 49th birthday.
People went out of their way to be kind to me. I had no less than three flower deliveries; one of which came with a visit from one of my dearest friends and was from my circle that I refer to as my “Primrose Moms”. That evening my son asked me on a date. How can you tell an eight year old no?
It is the strangest sensation to realize there are people in the world who are better at being human beings than you are. It’s humbling and also oddly comforting. I feel like before Nelson died I was living among these people and not noticing them. They have all been illuminated so clearly for me now. I have been spending lots of time thinking about these people in these last days and weeks. I am thinking about the people who stood with us in the rain the night Nelson was found. They stayed near us but quiet and didn’t interfere. Some of them didn’t even know Nelson although many of them, I learned, did. It was oddly comforting to realize that there were people willing to stand vigil with us so that we wouldn’t have to face the heartbreak alone. It would have been easy for them to go but they did not. It was an emotionally charged situation and it couldn’t have been easy for them and I am grateful they were there.
And then there were the numerous ‘doers’. The people who immediately went to work to keep us afloat. My friend Amy showed up the very next day with a care package of foods that she had thoughtfully selected for each member of our family. Amy was also actively grieving her mother who had died just three weeks before and yet she came to my aid. It is hard for me to get my head around. When she arrived at the house I was asleep and didn’t even speak with her. Sadly, I must confess I didn’t have the appetite to eat the Caesar salad she brought for me but I drank the hell out of the Diet Coke. The night after my dad arrived a group of Bart and Kerry’s friends prepared a huge spread of food for all of us down in Petersburg. Again, as seems to be a theme with me, I didn’t even see them. I was so emotional that I stayed on another floor of the house pacing, pacing. I later saw all the food and it was an overwhelming display of care and concern disguised as pastas and fresh bread and colorful side dishes. My friend Jen left a care package on our front steps that included our favorite snacks, flowers and a lovely bracelet with the word “Hope” on it. Yes, my world was extremely bleak and my friend brought me hope. As I am writing this I am thinking that my thank you cards for all these people remain on my kitchen counter. They have been written but not delivered. See what I mean about being surrounded by better human beings? A neighbor friend left a bottle of wine and a card of support by my front door. When I found it I must admit that I wondered if I would have been thoughtful enough to think to do the same? Going forward, I strive to have that answer be yes. It will take the rest of my life to repay all the kindnesses we have been shown.
The caregivers were also present immediately. My friends, Chris and Karen were so remarkable. The moment Chris heard about what was happening he came to our house and stayed with my son so that Judd could come to me. He and Karen showed back up the very next day. They were this gentle presence in our home that made me feel so comforted. I don’t think they even know how much their visits meant to me. They both have ‘clinical’ backgrounds and maybe that gives them an unfair advantage in the area of how to handle the survivors of tragedy but having the tools doesn’t mean you have to use them. They could have held back but they waded in. Chris played on the floor with my shell-shocked son which is the sort of thing Nelson would have done. It was just the thing my son needed and I will never forget it. If you want to make a mother feel your love; tend to her child. Chris and Karen have been relentless in their concern. They call, they text, they show up. They have listened, they have advised, they have encouraged and reassured. With honesty I can say that I am not sure where I would be without them. I hope they know what a difference they have made.
My friend Jen, the friend who brought Hope? She also helped focus me at the very moment I was really going off the rails. It was the night of the big feast in Petersburg; the one that I heard through the floor because I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to join the gathering. I was in a constant state of tears and I was overly fixated on the upcoming memorial. The emphasis I was placing on finding the right thing to say was actually making me immobilized. Earlier in the day I had heard the piece my sister had prepared and it was so sincere and tender and I realized I would never craft something so eloquent and I was bordering on panic. I was also tasked with speaking first which gave me the sensation of having the enormous task of setting the tone. I wasn’t sure of the tone to set. I had terrible ideas about things to talk about. I had to do so many course corrections that I was blind to my ‘true north’ feelings about Nelson. I was well on my way to creating the worst memorial talk in history. Trust me when I say this, it was going to be bad. It was going to be awkward and would surely have made everyone uncomfortable. If I had given that talk I would have regretted it forever. And then Jen texted me. I don’t remember how we got to the subject of the memorial but I most certainly told her I was struggling and in a few, short sentences she reminded me of so many things about Nelson that I truly loved. She said it so plainly and simply and its truth resonated with me and gave me a place to center myself. The next morning I sat at my kitchen table and wrote my remembrance in one sitting. Did I get it right? I don’t know, but I felt good about it, I still do. That is another gift that Jen gave me.
The funeral was packed. Every room filled with people. As I stood to speak I realized that I was looking at the faces of several of my friends who didn’t even know Nelson. They had just come for me. There was one friend who brought her son because they wanted to support my son.
We had an open mic at the funeral for anyone who wanted to speak. It was overwhelming how many people did. They came prepared to talk and tell stories. One woman from the library where my brother worked for years read a children’s book to us. It was magical. My former husband spoke even though, as he explained it, he felt like a ghost there. It was a lifetime ago. The director of the library spoke and said there would be a brick at the library dedicated to Nelson. There were people there who I never even spoke to that day. They were just there because they wanted to be there. When you lose someone it means so much to see that other people cared for them so sincerely. I will never forget the people who came.
After the funeral everyone gathered at Saucy’s in Petersburg. The owners, family of Bart’s girlfriend Kerry, closed down the restaurant for the afternoon and fed us all. It was humbling and important and terribly terribly kind. The generosity was mind-blowing. It was a generosity on a scale that might not have occurred to someone else to do. Those McCormacks are good people.
And the kindnesses continue to this day. My friends take my son on play dates when I’m too sad to rally. My workout buddy calls me every week to nudge me. People text for no reason other than to see if I’m okay and to remind me they are still there. My coworkers urged me to stay out as long as I needed with a sincerity that took my breath. The biggest and simplest kindness? People remember. They remember Nelson. They remember what he meant to me. They know when a birthday cake will mean everything and when a text message is worth a thousand words. And that in turn holds me in place on this earth.