Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The sanctity of objects

I took this photo today. It's Leif's wallet, nearly exactly as he left it, even the $12 in cash. I still have it. Why?

Some people keep their deceased loved one's room untouched. Some can't bear to part with their belongings. Why?

I've thought a lot about this in the nearly three-and-a-half years since Leif died. There are probably at least three reasons why people do this.

First, some really can't bear to part with those belongings or clean out and change a room. There is something comforting about having them. It provides some kind of emotional connection, makes them seem somehow nearer than death. Some people even keep unwashed clothing that they feel smells like their loved one.

Second, it seems somehow wrong to take someone else's belongings and dispose of them. They aren't ours. Even though that person is dead, it feels like some sort of stealing or misappropriation. We aren't sure they would approve of what we decide to do. It's as though we are doing wrong.

Third, and this is perhaps the strongest reason for me, at least in my conscious mind, is that getting rid of their belongings, especially things like ID cards and drivers' licenses, feels like dismantling their lives, their identities. It's as though we are erasing their existence, wiping it out. That is emotionally painful and very hard to to.

One could argue that keeping these things is unhealthy and allows the grieving to focus on loss even more. For some, that may be true. For others, perhaps here is some tiny comfort in the thought that we have not disposed of those small pieces of their identity, as foolish as that may seem.

We washed and gave away most of Leif's clothing, though Peter W. chose to keep some of his shirts, particularly some we gave him as gifts or some he could wear. I kept a set of his army fatigues and his dress greens, his combat boots, his dog tags, his photos, even his high school yearbooks, his school records. I don't know whether we will keep them always, but for now, they are here.

There are other things we kept and use daily, even some forks and spoons, but those are utilitarian items that we kept because they were practical, not because of any sentimental reason. Leif was not attached to such objects. Still, I sometimes think of him and remember that they were his when I use them.

But the wallet, that is somehow for me a poignant symbol of identity. I can't even bring myself to take the $12 out and spend it. That's Leif's money, the last money he had in his wallet. It's not mine. I can't take it.

The only thing missing from Leif's wallet is his military ID card, which we had to turn in (or at least we were supposed to). I've written about how doing that made me cry, how I felt then that it was dismantling his identity. I can't bring myself to go further and destroy the rest of his wallet's contents.

Who would ever want them but me? Someday they will no doubt be destroyed and gone, and I won't be there to see that or miss them, but as long as the wallet is in my care, even though I KNOW he is not coming back for it, I will save it for him.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Determined Little Boy

In the past week, I was treated to a photo of a beautiful one-year-old baby girl whose father, Leif's friend Phil, named her after him, using his middle name, Ashley. How can a year have gone by so quickly?

I often see photos of Leif's other namesake, who bears Leif's first name as his middle name, the son of Leif's friends Jason and Melissa. He is now two-and-a-half.

I wonder what Leif would think of these two beautiful children, how he would feel knowing his friends care so much about him. I wish he could see them grow and change, experience life anew, and hopefully happier, through their eyes.

I find myself wondering how Leif really felt throughout his childhood. He was so strong, so big for his age, from birth, and so self-contained, so curious about the world, so seemingly fearless, that we missed his vulnerability, and I don't think we knew of all the times he was hurt or unhappy.

There were a few times we did, when his frustration, fear or anger broke through, times when we saw his temper, times when he was moody, but they didn't seem, outwardly to be more than any child's ups and downs. But I wonder now, whether he didn't conceal a lot more than we could feel, know or guess.

The child we saw, especially as a young boy and teen, was eager for physical challenges, whether learning to walk early, loving to climb anything he could, playing soccer, throwing the discus and javelin in track, earning his black belt in judo, SCUBA diving, fighting in the SCA, and even joining the infantry. How hard it must have been for him to accept the physical limitations of the asthma he developed.

The child I remember was a curious and questing one with a big imagination. He loved science fiction, the stars, fast vehicles.

He was eager to learn, frustrated with the lack of challenge in school, had little use for academics.

This picture of him such an icon of him at that age. Look at the determined look on his little face, the stance of his baby legs, the skinned knee. He seems focused, knows where he's going. How I wish he had found a focus for his life as a young man!

He was a "I can do it myself" child, not wanting assistance with much of anything, and resisting it even when it was needed.

Like Peter W. says, you look at this picture and he looks so huggable, so precious. I miss that little boy, and I miss the man he became.

This photo was taken at Mint Spring Valley Park in Albemarle County, Virginia in August 1976. Leif was a year-and-a-half old.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

This photo of Leif was taken at Avebury Circle in England in June 1980 near sundown. He was five-and-a-half years old.

"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, 
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
 — Omar Khayyám

And yet, our tears come despite their futility. Our love endures despite it's powerlessness to bring back the times and loved ones we miss. Our memories flood back though they will not convey one embrace to the past. We cannot forget, though we must go on.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Importance of Light and Sunshine

I was working out in the yard today. I'm not an eager gardener. I don't look forward to rushing out into the heat and humidity to prune shrubs, weed, or spray. But oddly enough, once I'm out there, I always enjoy it. If it's not the work I really like, though I do take satisfaction in it when I'm doing it, why do I enjoy being there with sweat running down my face and back?

There is one word for it: light.

Human beings evolved in the light, in sunlight. Sunlight is critical to life on earth, not just because it heats the planet, but because our bodies respond to light. Without light, we cannot see. Light, full spectrum sunlight, affects mood and health, creates vitamin D, and probably increases endorphins or something akin to that.

It's for the same reason that I prefer to swim in the outdoor pool instead of the indoor one. It's the same reason I enjoy going for a walk in a state park, though of course I enjoy the scenery and wildlife, too. It's the same reason that we enjoy riding our bicycles through the neighborhoods more than pedaling on a stationary bike at the fitness center while watching television.

There is something elemental and indispensable about our exposure to sunlight. Without it, we become depressed. Without a window to look out of, an office becomes oppressive. In the winter, many of us experience SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, from the lower exposure to sunlight.

I was thinking about Leif, and how sunlight deprived he was. He worked a job with hours from 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. He worked in a cubicle with nothing to look at but a computer screen, virtually tied to a chair since he had to be on a headset. There was no window to look out of, no sunshine to brighten the day.

He got home around midnight and then he would stay up late online, playing computer games, watching movies. Between his late night hours and his insomnia, he would go to bed very late and get up late. Unless he had some errand he had to do earlier, something that couldn't wait until one of his days off, he didn't see daylight except for the narrow slit of time between when he got up and when he got to work.

As a boy and youth, he had always loved going out in the woods on hikes, going to the seashore, riding a bike, and later a motorcycle, and in high school, skateboarding and in-line skating. He played soccer. He was forced by school, work and his parents to get up in the morning and go to bed at night. He had exposure to that all-important light.

Of course, it would be a gross over-simplification to blame his death on the lack of sunlight in his life, but I believe it contributed to the depth of his depression and hopelessness.

Partly, he lacked the opportunities to be outdoors in the sunlight, and partly, when he did have them, he had no one to share the experience with, and he often sat at home in his apartment rather than go out and seek the light. As I have written before, when we are depressed, we don't feel like doing any of the things that ultimately would make us feel better.

There was a pool at his apartment complex. I asked him if he ever used it or went down there sunbathing. He said no. Partly, I'm sure, it was because he didn't want to be seen in a bathing suit after he gained so much weight, but partly it was the lack of companionship. It was easier and more absorbing to be online, watch tv. Television is entertaining, but it rarely lifts our mood the way being out-of-doors can.

My brother and our son Peter seem to think we are foolish for having a home with a yard we have to spend time on. I know I could use the hours I spend working in the yard to other advantage, and yet, each time I actually do it, I am grateful for the sense of peace, the appreciation of the light, the songs of the birds, and the greetings of the neighbors.

Go out into the light. Soak up the sunshine. It may be the best medicine, and it costs nothing but the willingness to walk out the door. How I wish Leif had done so.

This photo of Leif was taken at Busch Gardens in Virginia in June 1977. He was two-and-a-half years old.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Where's the Bravado?

I haven't posted anything here since August 23rd, two weeks ago, though I've thought about it every day. I think back to the first two years after Leif's death and how posting on his blog was one of the most important priorities of my day, how I thought I would end it on the second anniversary of his death, but couldn't, and how I've posted less frequently since then, how other crises and needs in my life have taken over the time I used to devote here. I know that's normal, but how I would want Leif to know that I think of him just as often. Peter W. and I talk about him every day. We still miss him terribly, so terribly.

When I'm looking through those old photo albums from the days before digital photos, I still see so many photos of Leif that haven't been scanned, haven't been shared, and each one has memories attached to it, some of them things we probably wouldn't think of without a photo to remind us.

This photo was taken in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, in a boat on the lake that was formed when a Thai family friend was head of a project to put a dam on the river. We were in Thailand in December 1981. Leif was one month shy of his seventh birthday. Ben took us to see several sights in that area, the dam, the lake, the Bridge on the River Kwai, and the Erawan Waterfall to name some of them. We stayed in a government resort on the lake shore which was guarded by officers with impressive-looking guns. The boys were interested in those, but didn't dare to approach the guards and ask about them.

The were also fascinated by the dam and how it worked, and loved the boat trip on the lake. You can see Leif's hair blowing in the wind. He was wearing a life jacket, of course. What surprises me about this particular photo is that he looks a little scared, a little dubious, and to use a term that Peter W. now often uses to describe some of Leif's childhood photos, vulnerable. Yes, he does look vulnerable. Peter W. said yesterday that he thinks because Leif was always so big and physically powerful for his age, and put on such a good front, that we didn't really see how sensitive and vulnerable he was. I agree. I knew that he felt things deeply, had strong emotions, and that he could get hurt feelings, but he concealed so much that I don't think we were really aware of the depth of his emotions except during the more extreme outbursts of frustration or anger. And, I think he, like many men, often burst out with those rather than show hurt or cry as a child.

When we see these photos, Peter W. says Leif looks so huggable. He was, a beautiful, beautiful, huggable child, though he wasn't a cuddly one with most people. He was too active and squirmy for that.

I thought that by the time we were nearly three-and-a-half years past his death, the hole in our lives might feel less deep, but it doesn't.