I skim glistening waves of starcloud in a boat borne by weightless ancient dragonflies, one at the bow, one port, one starboard, one abaft, guiding from behind. My bright daughter Lula, the sun, hangs above me to my left, and the woman with whom I’ve chosen to share my life, Thelonius’ and Lula’s mother, Karla, the moon, hovers over my right shoulder. We sail to the distant Land of the Dead to visit our son and our brother Thelonius. I hope this time he will take a shape that is pleasing to see. In this Land of the Dead, the spirits sometimes recline on vast beds of ripe vegetation, sipping paradisiac joy from tulip cups, where laughter comes as easily as breath. But sometimes, dead shades mope in Grecian chains and groan with ghostly Roman longing, trudging through forever one-legged, syphilitic, blind. Other times in the Land of the Dead, blithe spirits romp with kittens, peacocks, lemurs and llamas, cartwheeling the Elysian Fields with giddy glee. Sometimes, though, the dead roast screaming in Christian pits of eternal Hell, or hide in the rotten cavities of Niflheim. And some other times, they stare at one another for days, and fall down laughing, in love with each other and with the sound of laughter, and with everything.
It all depends on me: if my mind is right, my beloved dead boy will this time be as I choose to remember him when he was at his best, when he was smiling and eating, aping our expressions and laughing with us. If all goes well this time, when we reach that celestial shore, he will be as I choose to remember him.
Everything changes: this is for you
What will he look like this time?
I run my vast catalogue of images of him through my mental viewfinder. Will he be the baby who emerged for his first breaths, fluid and wriggly, bloody but safe after such long labor? Or will he be stiff-armed and rigid, a crooked frame of locked muscles, his nervous system forever tight and impaired? Will he be happy and laughing, mirroring faces that brought him such joy, or will he be anxious and frightened, unable to comprehend the sounds he is hearing? Will his eyes be open or closed, laughing or frightened, amused or pained? Will they be focused on daddy and mommy and little sister Lula, or will he stare dead-eyed and blind, lost in a morphine haze? Will he be two months old, curious and amazed, or will he be three months old, stroked-out and nervous, startled at the world? Will he be nine months old, the age he reached when he died? Will he be filled with a tumor, with the wires and tubing that kept him alive? If he is nine months old, will a caretaker accompany him on the shore, a nurse or a nanny? Will this nurse be kind? Or might he be 11 years old, as he would be in this land of the living had he lived? Will he be good at math, bad at soccer, or brilliant at both? How tall will he be? How is his language proficiency? Is he good with his hands? Does he like to read? What kinds of books do the dead read?
What will he look like this time? I think on all of the drawings I have made of Theo. Drawings as he was then, and as he is now---as barrel-chested baby and as skeleton. I have a big black book with thick paper, and with colored pencils and crayons and paint, I draw him. Sometimes he is a dragonfly, like those wise animals bearing our ship; sometimes he is only his tumor, a tiny human overwhelmed by black rot; sometimes he is a baby, sometimes an enormous, astonished eye floating in the sky. Sometimes he is an old man in an old hat and an old coat standing quiet in the rain. Sometimes he wears a golden dress. He is a cloud. He is in a purple tower. Through art, you find Self. Through art, you communicate with the your subconscious. In art, you can see your soul. It is one method by which you transform yourself. My Soul-Surgeon told me so, and I believe my Soul-Surgeon.
I converse with Theo in my drawings. He tells me he is doing fine, that he is okay, that all is well. While it may seem insane to talk to my dead kid while rendering pictures of him over and over in different iterations, I think it’d be insane to ignore him.
I see him everywhere, yet can never really see him. I close my eyes and am in the room where he died, and sometimes it feels like I never left that room. A crucial part of me died in that room, and when dementia and insanity claim me, I will eternally be locked in that room on Sheppard Street. I remember to the nearest skin cell and ounce what it was to hold him in my arms as he lived and died. I remember the pressure of his weight, the smell of his head, the texture of the sutures on his skull, the tubing of the catheters, of the machines, his intracranial pressure; my hands ache in the cold because of how hard I crossed my fingers to keep his ICP below 20. I remember the feel of his blind eyes and his chemohair and his soft blanket cloth, and they way he sucked the air when I placed him outside on a bed of fallen October leaves, knowing he’d never again get to smell this autumnal perfume.
There is no cure for the grief that accompanies having a dead kid. And this grief becomes more acute during the holidays when I watch our sad TV, like the commercial wherein a rhythmless, drunken, red-and-white miniskirted woman throws presents at me in the spirit of the season. It seems the only way around the grief is through it, so I go through with paper and pen and paint and a wee dram of Maker’s Mark. I draw Theo. He is always changing; I draw Theo, and in minute ways, I change. And I write about it, and I change.
Change can be good, change can be bad, change can be hard. Change is the only thing we can always count on. Nothing stays the same. This blog, a public forum, evolved from a private moment of intense pain. Karla’s experience on December 21, 2006 as she contemplated the empty and flat stocking which represented our first Christmas without our boy, our first Christmas with our dead child. The first year we asked our friends and family to do something kind for someone else. They typed down their stories and emailed them back to Karla. She printed them without reading them, folded them lovingly and put them in his stocking. On Christmas morning, the stocking was full. We read those gifts all morning. It changed our experience of that mournful day. The next year, she asked the same thing. The next year, we felt we wanted to share the kindnesses with a broader public and started this blog. People sent stories of kindnesses in Theo’s memory and we posted them here rather than stuffing the stocking. Soon after, we wanted this space to be for anyone to remember their loved ones.
We want this space now to be for you. It’s not about Thelonius anymore. Not really. He’s fine; all is well with him. What he’s left behind, this mess of a world, full of slavery and genocide and bullies and bullshit demagogues and guns and drugs and psychosis and murder and tumors and desires, this is the place of suffering, of bad decisions, of addiction and loneliness. If this stocking helps anyone aside from us, it is a good thing to keep doing. The holidays are enough of a slog. This stocking is for you. It is for you to remember your dead beloved. We are no longer doing this just to have something to put into a stocking made of felt and sequins. It is for you to think about what you’ve lost, and to try to make something nice, to make some sort of teensy weensy change somewhere with someone.
Postlude: Dream’s End
I stand in the bow of the boat and watch for the shoreline, Lula on my left, Karla to my right. My family is aglow, brighter and brighter, and the light wakes me and everything has changed again.