Saturday birthed a perfect Michigan September morning: cloudless cerulean sky; clean, cold air; golden sun rays spotlighting pockets of newly turned leaves.
September Saturdays are soccer days. We had to chauffeur Marshall to an SAT exam and Micah to marching band, but after that Scott and I planned to park our lawn chairs in the mushy grass at the middle school and enjoy an hour of what he likes to call mob-ball (as anyone who has ever seen a bunch of 8-year-olds play soccer will understand). Our son, Ethan, is new to soccer this year and his exuberance is catching. He counts the days in between practice and games, and lays out all of his gear the night before.
After letting Ethan out in front of the school, we parked on the street and unloaded our paraphernalia (chairs, coats, blankets, coffee mugs). I waved as my parents drove up behind us.
As we walked toward the soccer fields, I scanned the scene for green jerseys. There was only one, Ethan, and he was running toward us. I smiled, but as he came close I could see that he was near tears.
“What’s the matter, honey? Can’t you find your team?”
“The game is done,” he said, restrained tears wobbling his voice. “It’s already over!” he gushed. And then the tears.
As a parent, the most perplexing thing I have to do is let my children feel loss. I feel as if I’ve put them on a roller coaster in a seat with a faulty harness or asked them to turn around and face an oncoming train; I feel their nakedness, their defenselessness, and I know they are about to have the wind knocked clean out of them.
As a human being, the most perplexing thing I feel is loss. I feel diminished by it, un-done by it. There is no question of whether it is natural; everything dies, everything passes away, making space for the new—new flowers, new puppies, new people, new moments, new ages. But there is also no question that loss is perennially impossible for us to accept. We want to hold everything at once. Life seeks homeostasis; in fact, all of the change in a living system could be characterized as an attempt to stay the same—to go on living, to retain its essence, to maintain. The organism remains so long as it keeps the upper hand on entropy, but this is a losing battle. If we plot it, life and entropy form an arc, of which life owns the beginning and entropy, the end. We walk this globe, dropping pieces of ourselves all over it. We know how the story ends. Loss engulfs us with our first breath and abates only when we have drawn our last. Every held breath, every sharp intake of air, every gasp in between is merely preparation.
Ironically, living—or maintaining—depends upon our ability to metabolize loss. We have to eat loss, spread it around like fertilizer and pull from this diffuse flatland the energy to create something new. Few do this well, but I like to imagine the best and wisest of us as magicians, waging entropy against itself; Abracadabra! A lack becomes a presence, loss turns into gain.
Saturday morning in the soccer field, seeing my son in the path of a moving train, I knew I had to tell him to turn around. It would be so much easier to distract him: take him out for ice cream, go to the movies or send him off with Grandma for a special afternoon. There is nothing wrong with these things, but they are candy for a scraped knee—mere distraction; a good tack, perhaps, for a skinned knee, but should he move on as quickly from this loss? Soccer is joy to him. Soccer—this morning, this game—was beauty to him, was life, and I could strip him of his loyalty to it with one fell scoop of lemon sorbet.
“Ethan, I am so sorry,” I said.
He let me hold him for a moment, but he was still crying as he got into the car. I explained to him that I must have looked at the wrong schedule (my refrigerator sports five, at the moment) and that I was really sorry. I asked him to forgive me and he nodded, but every so often a fresh sadness overtook him.
By the time we reached home he had turned from mourning to sulking. This is common with Ethan; sadness turns into acting out. He curled up like a pill bug on the back seat and refused to come out of the car, offering me only his hard exterior when I approached.
“Ethan, I already told you how sorry I am and you forgave me. There is nothing else I can do. It’s okay to be sad, but the way you’re acting now hurts my feelings.”
He rushed out of the car and into the house with a big, angry wail. I followed, feeling simultaneously exasperated and like a heel. I needed to get by myself for a bit, so I went to my bedroom. Ethan was lying in my bed, on my pillow, with the blankets pulled up over his head. I knew right away that his anger had shifted from his personal loss to his offense against my feelings. As adults, we don’t always know what to do with strong emotion, but for a child, navigating emotional territory is immensely frightening. When Ethan thinks he has hurt me, his compass goes completely haywire. He pushes where he wants to pull, he acts offended where he wants to be forgiven.
I climbed in the bed beside him and touched his back, but he shook me off, pulling the blanket tighter around his head. I put my arms around him, but he thrashed out of my grasp and wormed his way to the other side of the bed. He scooted nearer to me, then away again, nearer, then away when I touched his shoulder. “Ethan,” I said. “Are you angry with me? It’s okay if you are.”
“No,” he said. But the blanket went back over the head.
“Then why are you pulling away from me? I know you feel bad about making me feel bad, but I’m okay. I’m fine. I just feel sad for you that you missed your soccer game. I know how much it meant to you and I love you so much.”
He turned then, encompassed me with his arms and buried his face in my neck. We were still for what seemed like a long time, or not like time at all—like being, it seemed like being. He turned his face toward the ceiling but did not otherwise move.
“BEEP!” I pressed his nose with my finger, like I used to when he was little. He giggled.
“HONK!” He pressed my nose. I laughed.
“Do it again!” he said. I obliged.
After we had made our way through the farm animals, jungle animals and not a few random mouth noises, he said, “I’m going to draw a picture on your back.” It was a picture of me.
A few days later a card came in the mail from my mother to Ethan, telling him again how sorry she was for his loss and even recounting a time, of which I have only the vaguest memory, that she got mixed up and somehow missed my performance of a classroom play.
After he had read the card, he took out a pencil and wrote something along the bottom.
“Mommy, we have to send this back,” he said with a smile, and he handed me the card. In pencil, in 3rd grade scrawl was written, Ethan does not care about the soccer game. My son, the magician.
Love swallows up death, love transforms loss. Love remains.
Oh, death, where is thy sting? Oh, grave where is thy victory?I hope that in the end I will be able to summon a pad and pencil and write sincerely, in death’s-door scrawl, Rachael does not care about the loss.