Trauma sears memories in to your brain — I can relive the minutes surrounding the one I found out. I got a phone call on the way to the Stanford fields off El Camino. Kitty and Bob were on the line with air traffic control since the plane hadn’t landed. We found out it had crashed in North Carolina. I was sitting in the grass, coworkers playing Ultimate nearby, when I found out my parents were dead. I reacted by slapping my forehead which I didn’t realize was a thing people actually did. I called Laine and she didn’t answer so I left her one of the worst voicemails of all time (sorry Laine). I called Sarah. Laine called me back. I called Meryl. I think I called some other people — Kitty and Bob handled a lot of it. Paul and George drove me home. Charlie, Lanie, Morgan, and Ronnie came over with food, of course, because Jews bring food. Things get fuzzier.

Mom had planned our honeymoon to Greece and we were supposed to leave on the 10th. This is the last email exchange I had with her on May 5th:

Me: hi mom! we have a mother’s day present for you and we’re wondering where you’d like it mailed? i figured connecticut but couldn’t remember exactly when you’re going to be back
love you!

Mom: We’re heading back to CT this week, not sure of which day. We have theater tickets for Saturday, so we’ll definitely be back by then. Are you two packed and just about ready to go? I also wanted to remind you that the driving directions for the Ammos Hotel are at the bottom of the email you have.

Love you.

I think she called me on the 7th or 8th to tell me they were flying home, I don’t remember what else we talked about. It was the last time I heard her voice. I wish I’d kept some of her voicemails but they’re gone. Here’s a better email at least, to me, Sarah, Laine, and Dad on December 21st, 2007:

Hi Guys-

I have been having such a wonderful time at home, and have been blessed with opportunity after opportunity to realize how absolutely fantastic my life is. I am surrounded by exceptional family and friends, sturdy walls to protect me when the fierce winds were blowing and the ice and snow falling. Countless blankets to wrap myself in to keep me warm (as well as fabulous jasmine tea!) and then there’s always the gas heat when all else fails… Each day I have spent time with one of my wonderful friends- laughed and shared and laughed.

I love you all and count you among my greatest blessings and send out my gratitude for your presence in my life.

Denial and bargaining are often tools used to manage grief but I don’t remember much of that. I never saw their bodies but I knew they were dead and there was nothing I could do about it. On the flight home we had a layover where I got a call and ‘Mom’ popped up on my phone. I felt a rush through my body (“It was a mistake!”) then a crash as I realized it was just someone calling from the house.

Landing at the Hartford airport and getting picked up by Vicki was ok. Walking through the front door for the first time, knowing they weren’t there, would never be there again — awful.

The funeral director asked me if I wanted Dad’s wedding ring and I said yes. I carry it on my keychain with a ring Mom wore when she was a kid. I wasn’t really thinking and afterwards I would worry he wanted to be buried with it. Over time, as a dad now myself, I’ve decided that anything that helps my kids when I go is fair game so hopefully he would’ve felt the same.

My last email with Dad is so…. Dad… somehow. May 6th:

Me: Hey dad, mom told me you have a phone number we can use to make calls from greece that are ‘practically free’.
can you send it to me?

Dad: Please call me tonite after 9:00 p.m. EDT regarding this.

But this one really captures him, from December 7th, 2007:

Me: Got the gift certificate for dinner, thanks a lot! You get anything good for chanuka?

Dad: Yeah, lots of bills.

I said something at the funeral. Something about them and how I’d be ok. How we’d be ok. I shoveled dirt on their caskets. I have no idea if they wanted to be buried or cremated or something else.

Lawyers. Trust companies. Wills. We cleaned out the house and put it up for sale. Lenny was an immense help with all the logistics (thank you). I stopped by the house after the unveiling (a year later) and there was another family there with a son living in my old room.

I went to a support group for young people whose parents had died. They had all lost a single parent to illness. Some of them had to watch their mother or father suffer, but they all got time to prepare and time to say goodbye. I was jealous, and horrified that I felt that way, but still jealous.

We knew we wanted their headstone to say something unique about them, something meaningful. Mom’s was easy — searcher. Dad’s was harder — pillar. I still feel like it doesn’t do him justice but can’t think of something better. It’s surreal that we got to pick one word to define them. I wonder what word my kids will use for me?

Most folks have absolutely no idea what to do or say when confronted with someone else’s tragedy and end up being incredibly unhelpful, not out of malice, but because we are fundamentally unequipped with better tools for these situations. Many kind, well intentioned people were useless or actively harmful. People tended to do one of a few things when they found out:

  1. Shared something terrible that happened to them. Over time I think I’ve come to understand this instinct — I believe it’s a way of saying “I see you. I empathize. I too have felt awful.” I could try to tie this back to a culture that isn’t encouraged to discuss or access deep emotions but I’m way outside my expertise so let’s just say that, for me, hearing about something awful when I felt awful wasn’t very helpful.
  2. Told me everything happens for a reason. I used to believe everything happens for a reason, then my parents died for no reason. If you are someone who finds comfort in religion or spirituality and believe that there is a divine purpose or grand plan of some kind, that’s wonderful. Not everyone is on the same page.
  3. Panicked. I think these folks understood that something bad happened but had no idea what to do.
  4. Helped. Said “I see you. I empathize. This is terrible.” Showed up without me asking. Didn’t make me take care of them or ask me to make decisions or tell me how to fix it. Didn’t ask “How are you doing?” (Hint: bad). I’m lucky to know a few people who figured this out.

I try to model this now when I’m on the other end but it’s hard. I get it. I don’t blame anyone for how they showed up. We’re all doing the best we can.

From “What Helped Me When My Loved One Died”, edited by Earl Grollman

Finding this quote was a physical experience. It perfectly summed up something I’d been feeling for years but hadn’t been able to articulate nearly so well. My body jumped at it. I look at my life and can pretty much trace the person I am today back through college. High school too, if I’m being honest, though there’s a lot there I’d rather forget (probably not alone on that one). Move back any further and I’m left with some old photos and a few stories I think I remember correctly, but nobody to check with. Mom and Dad were the keepers of fifteen years of my life and they disappeared in an instant, with no warning, in a field in North Carolina.

Especially now, as a parent, there’s so much I want to talk to them about. I have such a different perspective on them and me and our family and I finally get what it’s like to have something vital live outside of you with a will of its own. I think I’m starting to understand them and yet I can’t ever talk to them again. Those are a few simple words that can’t possibly convey the emotions underneath. Sarah barely got any time with them. They will never meet my children. My children will never know them beyond what I say. I have become the keeper of their lives and I only knew them as a child. I am completely inadequate for this responsibility. I would do practically anything for the miracle of one more week with them, one day, somehow, however impossible.

An email from Mom on March 28th, 2008:

Hi J-

Just wanted to let you know how much your phone call last night meant to me. I have been feeling the distance very deeply. I know things change, and I know you live a very involved life. I just miss our brief chats that gave me a sense of what you were up to.

So, it was wonderful to hear your voice and connect.

Love you always. I certainly hope you know that there is no blame in this, just a missing.

I think I’m starting to get it Mom. I wish we could talk about it. No blame in this, just a missing.

It’s been ten years since they died which feels like forever and no time at all. I think I’ve said that every year. I still miss them. A lot. I write that and read it back and it’s instantly infuriating how useless words are. How do I explain this feeling? Missing longing sadness love guilt anger grief acceptance pain emptiness light joy— got that? It’s so much less painful than it once was. So much less present in my daily life. Yet still there, always there, ebbing, flowing, but now part of me, integrated, or almost so.

Nobody will ever love me like they did, but there are others who love me in their way. Thank you.

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