This is my daughter’s 3rd year at the preschool she attends. It’s a lovely school. One of the things they do each year is ask that everyone submit a family photo to be displayed prominently in the classroom. It’s one of the many ways they try to bridge school life and home life. Last year we took a lovely picture sitting on an indoor bench in the living room. We took it especially for the class because we usually can’t get it together to actually take a family photo at any other time. It was all four of us. I had one arm around my son and the other around my daughter, with my husband smiling proudly next to us.
When Jay died, I saw that picture every time I went into her classroom. It was sad, but I liked it. This was still our family, I thought. It’s still accurate, even though he’s not here anymore. At the end of the year we got the picture back, and it is now displayed in our kitchen.
This year we received our “Back to School” newsletter, which again asked each family to bring in another photo for the year. My heart sank. We were going to have to submit an updated photo. I briefly considered submitting the old one. It wouldn’t be fair to our daughter. She was a year older and everybody else would be turning in a recent one.
I talked to my husband about it. He agreed we needed to take a new one. The idea made me cry. “I don’t want to take a new picture with him not in it,” I said. He understood. We were silent for awhile as we moved about the bedroom, getting ready to attend a birthday party for a child we barely know at our daughter’s school. I dug through my jewelry box, trying to find a pair of earrings to jazz up the tired-ass floral dress I wear every time it’s hot outside. I saw a double-hooped gold pair that I bought when I was with Jay about a week before he died. That pair always makes me feel close to him. While I put them on, I had an idea.
“Maybe when we get home this afternoon, we can take our family picture and I can wear my Jay earrings. That way he’ll kind of be in the picture.”
Then my husband knocked it out of the park. “I was thinking that we could take our family photo with a picture of him in our picture,” he suggested. That idea made me cry. I loved it.
Later that afternoon, we all gathered around the same indoor bench as last time. My daughter sat between my husband and me. We chose a closeup photo of our son, taken weeks before he died. We experimented with the setup. Initially my daughter wanted to hold the photo. We tried it. It looked too weird. My husband suggested taping the photo in the corner of the window we were sitting in front of. That made him look too far away.
We finally settled on taping the picture to the window, between my husband and I, above our daughter. Both of our kids were between us. After about 10 takes, we finally got one where no one’s eyes were closed, my daughter wasn’t making a silly face and everyone looked good. It came out great.
The photo is a blatant statement: Our son died and he is still a major presence in our everyday lives. It is a testament of our need to physically include him in everything. One day, I’m assuming, we won’t need to do that. We will all know that he is there in our hearts and we won’t need to actually have his photo in the picture. Maybe the ability to do that involves a level of acceptance that we haven’t arrived at yet. A part of me hopes that one day just keeping him in my heart will be enough. Another part of me hates that idea because it makes me feel further away from him than I ever want to be. Just the thought of that makes me want to scream from the rooftops, “JAY IS OUR SON!!!! HE WILL ALWAYS BE OUR SON!!!!” and then run around town holding a giant picture of him, protesting what happened to our life.
I think Acceptance (capital A here) isn’t the same for everyone. It shouldn’t mean feeling “all better” or not sticking your loved one’s photo in your family picture. It’s figuring out a way to survive, and to do it well. I don’t know what that means for me yet. We aren’t doing anything well at the moment. Well, I take that back. I’m pretty proud of all of us most of the time.
I remember right after I had Jay, I had to take our then dying cat to the vet. I wrote the following paragraph as part of a different blog:
“If you can avoid strolling into the vet clinic with a newborn, a dying cat and your purse, I would highly recommend it. But we had no choice. I sat in the waiting room, sweating and looking tired. A man walked in with a golden retriever puppy. I was right in the middle of thinking how lucky he had it, only having to think about a puppy, when he said, ‘I bet you’re busy, huh?’ That was all I needed. The flood gates opened and I felt I needed to tell this stranger EXACTLY how busy I was. I started off with, ‘This is my second baby. I have a three year old….’ He said, ‘My girls are both in their 20’s now.’ I said, ‘I just don’t know how to spend enough time with both of them,’ wanting to cry. He smiled and said, ‘You just do the best you can. Just do the best you can,’ and disappeared down the hall with his new doggy. ”
I’m not even going to get into how I wish to be back there, sweating profusely and scared out of my mind. These days a whole different level of fear is at hand. But what that man said has stuck with me. We are definitely, undeniably doing the best we can. Good job, us.