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.
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.
“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?