Roberta F. King

Author site for the memoir, He Plays a Harp and other writing by Roberta F. King

23 September
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Birthday. Not Birthday.

I wouldn’t want to do the math wrong and make a mistake about how old he’d be today, so I pull up the calculator on my laptop just to make sure. Noah was born on September 23, 1988 so today he would be 28 years old. Without ritual it’s hard for me to remember his exact age. When you take away the cake, singing, presents, dinner out and the old Scooby Doo birthday banner; the marking of another year becomes nebulous.

I’ve lost my ability to imagine what Noah would look like as an adult. I guess he’d still be very thin, tallish and he’d have a good head of sandy curly hair; men from my side hold onto their hair. But that’s as far as I can take that vision.

I have a better mental picture of what his day-to-day life would be like had he lived—it was something we were looking ahead at, preparing for, like gazing down the highway a half mile or so, to see what the traffic is doing. I expect that he’d be living away from us by now, probably in a group home with other young men with disabilities. He would have aged out of educational programming two years ago, so he might have a job somewhere. He worked at Meijer for a bit in high school–he might have stayed on there, slapping circulars in the hands of incoming shoppers. I imagine that we’d still travel together down to the Keys in the winter and maybe he’d drink a beer with us.

Bleeding HeartsAll too infrequently, Noah visits me in my dreams and when he does, he’s never older than he was when he died. He visited once as a fully mobile person and walked right up to me. In that dream, I was awestruck by his ability to move on his own, “Noah, you’re walking!” I said. His gait seemed a little stiff, perhaps from all those years of sitting in his wheelchair. In that dream, he just smiled his crooked smile and then walked away without me.

Maybe I can’t envision him growing older because he isn’t any older, he’s stuck at 17. Today isn’t really his 28th birthday—Noah ceased to age on the day he took his last breath.

Today is, more accurately, the anniversary of his birth-day.

So, it has been 28 years since we first brought him into the world and 10 years, 7 months since he left us. It’s all just time, an ancient measurement system based on the movement of the sun and the moon, and it truly  passes like a white hot flash. Those 28 years, those 10 years are just gone.

What give me the worst sort of ache though, is the sense of drifting from him that I feel. I still miss him every minute of each day, but his presence, which used to be so powerful, is fading and like the passing of time, there’s no way to bring him back.

21 July
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Member of the Tribe

It was a hotel with one thousand rooms, but even in that expanse, recognizing the bereaved parents was easy. We were the worried-looking people with name badges on blue lanyards and big photo buttons of our kids. Though we didn’t pack them, Mike and I had our big Noah buttons by noon the first day of the conference. A volunteer assembled the buttons onsite with a hand-operated button machine. Ours were made from a scan of a worn sixth grade picture that Mike carried in his wallet. I must have missed the memo about bringing a nice photo of your child to the conference for a big button and ours looked worn. Some parents wore two and even three buttons—one for each child that died. I can’t imagine that, which is just what people say to me when I tell them my son died.

So, in our own way, we chose to show our belonging to the group by what we wore. A big photo button and name tag badge with the name of our deceased child printed next to ours told everyone that we were part of the bereaved parents tribe.

Conference Goer from Across the Way

Conference Goer

Across the skywalk from the Hyatt Regency O’Hare where parents and siblings gathered for national conference of The Compassionate Friends (TCF), Exxxotica, the Largest Event in the USA Dedicated to Sex and Love was holding its annual show. They were easy to spot, too. The Exxxotica women wore bum-showing shorts or skirts, sometimes with leg warmers and stilettos or with thigh-high boots. They wore cinched up bustiers with bellybuttons showing, There was lots of black and hot pink clingy material and spangly sparkly tops. They showed inches and inches of cleavage and were generous with their colorful eye makeup and lipstick. They had plenty of ink, too. I spotted a leg length snake working its way from an ankle around the calf, up a thigh and up into the front of a short skirt. The men, for the most part, carried women’s stuff—bags of whatever people in the erotica industry need to have on hand. When you’re toddling around on seven-inch heels, you don’t need to be schlepping a heavy bag.

It was an odd mash up and I wonder about what the hotel conference planner must have been thinking at booking time.

The last night of the conference, I wanted to get a picture of one of the participants from Exxxotica. I needed proof of this unlikely convergence. Mike and I walked the musty and warm skywalk over to the Rosemont convention center after the closing candlelight ceremony for TCF. The skywalk was carpeted, which seemed to be contributing to the dank smell. We passed several possible photographic candidates, but they weren’t interesting enough. Finally, I spotted the one. She was at least six feet tall, but with her spiked heels it was hard to truly gauge her height. She was probably as old as me, and easily seventy pounds lighter. Her makeup was heavy and her expression worn. She’d probably been working a trade show booth since noon. I wondered if she was repping a line of dildos, or was it lube lotion, leather goods or videos? I didn’t ask.

“Hi, do you mind if I take your photo?”

“Sure,” she said cheerfully. She let go of the arm of the man who was escorting her. She smiled and posed against an unfinished trompe de l’oeil painting of a window. I took two images with my phone.

“I just wanted a photo, well, because we’re from the bereaved parents conference. We’re in the same hotel as you guys,” I said. “You know, bereaved parents and erotica in the same hotel. I just thought it was interesting,” I stammered.

Big photo button“Oh. So did we,” she said, nodding. “Who did you lose?”

I told her a bit about Noah’s life and death as we walked back toward the hotel. I was glad she asked, and we were happy to tell her about our son. She steadied herself on her companion’s arm and we fell behind them a few steps. We parted as the doors opened from the smelly skywalk opened to the marble floors of the hotel lobby. Her heels clicked as she and her companion strutted toward an elevator.

I’ve thought about this brief meeting and how the tribes we represented that weekend are on the fringe of what’s considered normal in American culture. Death and sex are two topics people are generally uncomfortable talking about. So here we were, parents celebrating the lives of our beloved dead children, mixed up with other adults reveling in their sexuality and simply looking at one another in wonder thinking: how do you do it?

27 February
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Tolerance of Grief

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of Noah’s death.

I admit, the pain of his loss isn’t as acute as it was seven years ago. But still, when I think of him, I can feel the tightness in my throat and my eyes start to burn.

And I think about him every single day.

That’s the reality of this kind of loss. The grief hangs on and on. It’s become a part of me. As much as I am a writer, a runner, a public relations professional, a wife and a friend, I am a grieving person.  I don’t mind the sadness as much anymore, like running I’ve built up a tolerance to it. Just like going out to run five or ten miles, there’s effort, but not the pain I once knew.

A friend of mine pointed me to a poem by Emily Dickinson, I found the last line of it to be intriguing. It seems hopeful,  aspirational, but impossible.“First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.”

Her word choices describe the early bits of of death very well. I struggle with the letting go part, though. I don’t think letting go is something I’ll ever completely do when it comes to Noah. All that I have left of him are memories. Grief and memories are interconnected and without memories what would I grieve? I grieve as I remember the good times we had with Noah, eating supper, reading books, getting ready for school, the trips we took, celebrating holidays and how he looked, felt and smelled.

As long as I have memories of my son, I’ll have grief in my life. The letting go is something I don’t ever want to do.

Noah on a boat in the Keys

One of my favorite images of Noah, we were boating in the Florida Keys. He was about 15 years old at the time.