“There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ~unknown
On a Sunday afternoon in August of 2015, I received the worst news a mother could hear. My 22 year old son Nick had taken his own life.
I could write about that phone call, about when I fell through the earth, about our handsome son’s history, that little four year old who once asked: “Daddy, what is chaos?” And after listening to his father’s explanation replied, “Yeah. That’s what I like!”
I could write about our family, what I and everyone might have done differently and I could describe my obsessive need to piece together his final days, to understand each event that led up to that moment when he decided he could take no more.
But not today. Because at times, almost simultaneously, pushing through the haze and waves of my grief are these incredibly powerful and healing experiences that I just can’t ignore.
The Gas Station
It was a particularly difficult morning for me, less than a month after I lost my son. I was feeling weighed down by debilitating exhaustion, a common companion to the shock and disbelief one experiences in the aftermath of traumatic events, I’m told. Faced with what seemed a monumental task–I headed out to put gas in my car.
While I stood there waiting for my tank to fill, I noticed, kitty-corner to me on the other side of the island, an elderly woman sitting in an older model white sedan. Her back seat was filled to the roof. She was a large woman, her movements slow and labored as she stood up and maneuvered around and in-between the car door and island. She wore a light blue hat with a dollar bill tucked into the fold.
We greeted each other with a “Good morning.” I then said something that surprised me, probably as much as it did her!
Me: “You know when you’re feeling really bad? Sometimes if you do something for someone else, it helps you feel a little better?”
She looked at me and nodded yes.
Woman: “Did you lose someone too?”
Me: (Wow) “Yes, my son.”
Woman: “I’m so sorry. I just lost my sister. What was your son’s name?”
We briefly exchanged the relevant information and condolences.
Me: “You may think this is strange, but the reason I said that earlier is because I’d like to fill your gas tank, if you’ll allow me to.”
Woman: “Really? Thank you! (Laughed) You must have noticed the pillows and blankets back there–I’m on dialysis and have to bring those with me to get comfortable. Are you sure?”
Me: “Yes, I’m sure. Let me finish up here and I’ll come over and put my credit card in.”
We stood by her car and talked. I learned that she had lost many of her family members, including siblings, but was particularly close to this sister. Perhaps she recognized something in me, having experienced so much loss herself?
Woman: “When did your boy pass?”
Me: “About 3 1/2 weeks ago…”
Woman: “That’s right around the time my sister passed.”
Me: “It was August 23rd.”
Woman: (She almost whispered) “It was a Sunday.”
Me: “Yes. It was.”
Woman: “That’s the day my sister passed!”
Much longer pause…
With the tears that had been welling up in our eyes over the course of the conversation flowing freely now, we held each other. We were two perfect strangers with broken hearts, yes, but we had so much more in common. So there we stood–hugging and crying on a September morning at the Chevron Station. It was magic, really.
We said goodbye, and as she walked slowly toward the mini mart she called out “Now I can buy some food for my kitties!”
I was feeling so much more than just a little better. It’s difficult to describe. Stunned. Touched. Awed. I think the word I am looking for is LOVED. I remain grateful for our “chance” encounter.
Postscript: It's now been almost three and a half years since Nick passed. After several more of these types of experiences, (they continue to this day), and much study and exploration on my part, I now know that this incident was among the first group of signs my son Nick would send me. He is not lost to me. He is very present in my life and the lives of those he loves.