At the age of eight, my oldest son, Eric, would spend hours juggling a soccer
ball on his knee while waiting for the big kids to walk by our house
on their way home from practice.
By high school, he spent most evenings on the phone with one or more girls, listening, commiserating, and advising. On weekends, he was off to the lake, the soccer field, or, in winter, the slopes, already teaching kids the snowboarding he loved so much. He was a carefree boy with big plans of his own.
But, in the year and a half before Eric's high school graduation
, my marriage imploded, and the kids were caught in the crossfire, despite my best efforts.
Eric was no longer the outgoing adolescent
who'd taught his teachers to snowboard and responded to my serious observations with a lighthearted, "Thank you, Captain Obvious!"
He finished his senior year as a volatile, on-the-edge young adult, and he'd changed into someone I didn't recognize.
Though I'd tried everything to make Eric see how much I loved him, I didn't know how to help him find his own way out of the downward spiral he couldn't seem to escape. All I knew was that I would do anything to turn whatever had gone horribly wrong into everything that was right.
On graduation day, Eric wore his cap and gown and walked down the aisle, reaching out to shake the school board president
's hand and receive his diploma — exactly as I'd always imagined. His brother played in the band, and I sat alone, mourning the family I'd imagined I'd built.
Though I was concerned about Eric's future, I had no way of knowing that a year later, he'd be killed as he rounded a curve on a road he'd driven countless times before. His old silver Audi flew into the air and then crashed to the ground, thankfully injuring no one else, but he was gone.
I was no stranger to grief
; having lost both parents by the age of 12 and my only sibling by the age of 20, I was determined to do everything in my power to recreate the family I'd lost, but I'd also come to believe, as Carl Jung put it, that "I am not what happened to me; I am who I choose to become."
Even after Eric died, I clung to this conviction, determined not to forget my beautiful son while also accepting what lay ahead for me.
As it turns out, grief and joy can — and do — coexist. Today, more than two decades later, I have a life I could only have imagined back then: I am married to a wonderful man, we have five children
and ten grandchildren, we laugh a lot, and we are grateful every day that we have ended up here together.
I'm no longer deeply sad on holidays, birthdays, and other occasions when Eric's absence used to cast a long shadow; instead, on Christmas
, I remember Eric with a gentle fondness that often brings a smile.
But grief isn't linear; it comes and goes; it's dormant, then wild. It's the monster that sneaks up on me when I'm not looking and whispers in my ear about the things I could have done, that could have been, that can still bring me to my knees.
Eric died on June 12, a peaceful sunny Saturday sandwiched between college and high school graduations here in the Northeast. It's difficult for me to identify with the pride
of parents who burst with pride as their teens
move into a future full of promise when my own graduate is gone.
Those achingly beautiful late May and June weekends, with the sun high in the sky, gently warming the earth and all of us on it, can still leave me overcome with grief and the cellular memory of a carbon-copy day so many years ago, and it's easy to wonder what one thing I could have done to change the events of that day.
A decade later, I was sitting with my husband in a New Orleans café, an escape from the happy chaos of Bourbon Street, when I noticed a young man with his parents at the table across from us. I imagined they were visiting him in his senior year of college or maybe helping him settle into an apartment for his first job. He had a soccer player's build, an irreverent glint in his eye, and a witty grin.
Fifteen years after Eric's crash, we were driving
up the New England
coast after a relaxing few days at the beach, and my gaze was drawn north to South Portland, Maine
, where Eric had hoped to study and play soccer, though those plans were shattered as his life began to unravel.
I was thrown into a whirlwind of "what-ifs," visions of the life he could have had if only. Overcome with regret, I felt the pain come roaring back so hard I could barely catch my breath.
I miss Eric every day, and life continues to surprise me by transporting me back to that time and place. In a Vermont craft brewery, a tribute to the life of a boy who died in a snowboarding accident reminded me of my own boy in so many ways. In an Edinburgh pub, a crowd of young men sang loudly — and amusingly off-key — and raised their beers to commemorate thei
When I see Eric's enormous grin, hear his sweet voice, and feel the stubble of his freshly buzzed haircut, the pain and pleasure coexist, because life doesn't stop, even when we think it should.
Another thing I've learned in the decades since Eric's death
is that life rarely goes as planned. As I reflect on those tumultuous years and the times I've questioned whether I could have changed things for him, I've realized how little control we really have as parents. As human beings.
We can't hold on to something that wasn't meant to be ours forever, and accepting that so much of life is beyond our control is both terrifying and liberating. I'll spend the rest of my life looking for the sweet spot.
In the end, it wasn't knowing when to work
harder, cling tighter, or care more deeply that was the real challenge for me; while these things have their place and time in our careers as parents, I needed to learn a different lesson.
We've been learning to let go of our babies since they were born.
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