Excerpt from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson
I get hundreds of messages from friends and strangers telling me the impact Jack’s death has had on them, in many cases making them more loving, attentive mothers who hold their children closer and take the time to really be present with them. It has been a wake-up call about how fleeting life is.
And shouldn’t we all become better people, because we know what’s important now? Isn’t that the lesson when someone we love dies? To cherish life? To love and appreciate one another, because we realize the time we have together is a gift?
But that’s not really what I’m seeing play out in my house. I don’t suddenly turn into some grace–filled, holy woman just because something horrific happened to my child. To think so would be as simplistic as thinking all moms whose kids have cancer are somehow braver than everybody else. Or that no mother with a multiply handicapped child can be a raging bitch. We are human. We are flawed. We are ordinary people thrust into less than ordinary situations, just doing what we have to do.
I’m far from perfect, even with my new perspective. I feel great love and I love, but I’m also irritable and overwhelmed. The sound of Tim chewing his cereal makes me want to crawl out of my skin just as it always has, even though I now know he could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Can’t I show him grace in the little things when he has shown me grace in the biggest thing of all, by not blaming me for letting the kids play in the rain? But Tim’s no beacon of sweetness and light either. He is short with me and defensive. And I can’t figure out the best way to relate to Margaret, as she swats away my hand or wriggles away from me when I try to pull her close.
It dawns on me that another injustice of loss is that it’s easier for others to talk about and process the loss of Jack than those of us who have lost the most.
They can gather at bus stops, over a meal, or in small groups to try to make sense of it. For those of us who fully realize what we have lost in losing Jack, not just a son and brother, but our son and brother, the pain is so deep it scares us to approach it fully. To try to give voice to our feelings, our longings for him, and our fears for the future seems too primal to put into words. Instead, our sadness comes out in small irritations and slights.
Mealtimes are tense. I think of family dinners past, some of which were wonderful, some of which were horrendous. I remember one in particular, when dinner was spinning out of control. Jack gagged on his broccoli, using his dramatic skills to their full extent. The microscopic piece of broccoli ended up on the floor. Margaret spit whatever she was eating into her nice doth napkin and kept putting a dirty, bare foot right on the table. Any attempt at civilized conversation failed.
I could tell from the look in Tim’s eyes that he wondered why he’d busted his butt to come home to this. After the kids left the table to run around out side, Tim looked at me and, using a rare curse word, said, ”I’m worried we’re raising assholes.”
“Well, I’m around kids all day, every day,” I replied. “Dude, they’re all assholes.”
And now I yearn for more ridiculous dinners like that one – bad manners, dirty feet, curse words, and all.
Instead, we sit in a triangle around the table, eating food prepared by friends and left in a cooler by the kitchen door. I try to train myself to reach for only three plates in the cupboard, but muscle memory is wired from more than a decade of reaching for four. I must remind myself each night: three, not four.
I sit alone under the window on the bench that Jack and Margaret used to share. Margaret has moved over into my seat, without a word. We hold hands, which now involves a long, awkward diagonal reach, and we sing a halfhearted “God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for our food.” Margaret starts whining about something, sounding more like a four-year-old than a ten-year old. I can tell Tim’s frustration is starting to build, because the two veins on his forehead-nicknamed the Tigris and Euphrates-begin to bulge. Dinner is going downhill fast.
I’m already in my flannel pajamas and bathrobe, and it’s not even six o’clock. Despite my exhaustion from living through the day, I swoop quickly into emotion-interpreter mode.
Avoiding all eye contact, I say to my plate, in a formal but neutral way, “I wonder if Margaret is getting tired of eating food that other families have cooked for us. With all the changes in our lives, it’s just one more thing she has no control over. And I wonder if Daddy is frustrated that we can’t eat dinner in peace without any crying and complaining. I wonder if he’s worried that every single dinner from now on will be like this.”
No one says anything in response, but the tension disappears. We eat.
Jack was a great emotional decoder. I think of the time a few weeks before the accident when he quietly cornered me in the upstairs hallway on a night Margaret had a friend sleeping over. “Alexis is a year older than Margaret, and you’re making them go to bed too early. I think that’s going to embarrass her.” He was right, but I hadn’t noticed a thing.
Jack seemed to have such insight into our moods, talking me down off the ledge and trying to explain to young Margaret that parents get angrier and yellier the later at night it gets, so if they were going to act up, earlier was definitely better. I need him here to help us with all of this!
But we try the best we can without him. We look at dues for one another’s methods of coping, even though we don’t understand them. We try to decode what God’s purpose could be in giving us signs of warning before, and comfort after, but not bothering to save our son. We try to figure out how to act normal enough to make Margaret feel safe, while not pretending everything is okay. Because it’s not. The reality is, we just miss Jack. Our lives feel unnatural. We are shocked. Bewildered. Sad. Bereft.
We drive back from Margaret‘s soccer game an hour away. Soccer is the only thing we look forward to on these long, quiet, empty weekends, when church is no longer a refuge but just something we endure. I guess it’s good she plays year-round. We have no baseball, no Boy Scouts, no youth group. Tim speeds along the highway and swerves a little, making me reach for the plastic handle above my head. From the backseat we hear Margaret say in a sarcastic voice, “Jack, we’re coming! We’re coming!” and we all laugh. Laughter has always been one of our family’s greatest gifts. And it feels so good.
Excerpted from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson Copyright © 2014 by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Anna Whiston-Donaldson, a suburban DC wife, mother and part-time bookstore manager, thought her first book would be about how to paint and restore furniture. On an ordinary September day, her 12-year-old son Jack was swept away in a neighborhood flash flood. Anna’s story of courage in the face of sudden loss and her surprising encounters with the supernatural after Jack’s death, shape this hope-filled story of rebirth. Rare Bird is not only for bereaved parents. This book is a gift to anyone who has looked up at life and thought, “This is not what I signed up for.” Rare Bird is moving, candid and eloquent, as it explores how to honor the tenderness of pain while acknowledging, as Donaldson writes, “that God is closer than your own skin…and you are
braver than you think.”
Anna was gracious and agreed to answer a few questions for our readers:
Q: Rare Bird is such a raw, emotional book to read – it must have been an emotional and challenging one to write. How did you get started, and how did you keep going?
A: I gathered up bits and pieces and ideas that I had in notebooks and on my blog and headed to a borrowed house near a pond. Then I cried for a whole day as I began to write. I did not know how to write a memoir, or how to establish a framework, so I just wrote about what was rising up in me: what the first few days without my son were like, how my husband and daughter were coping, and little stories about our family life. It was very difficult emotionally, but it also felt infused with love as I tried to put our simple family life into words.
Eventually I found a way to string it all together, in a loose chronological order. It is definitely a book about early grief, but I REFUSED to let myself end it at the one year mark, because I didn’t want to perpetuate the myth that grief somehow magically ends after one year. In my experience, and you’ll see this throughout the book, grief and love, pain and hope were co-mingled from day one, and this continued after one year for sure.
Q: How did you feel when you finished writing the book?
A: I felt relieved. I wasn’t certain that it was any good, or if it could be considered complete, but I was tired. I gave myself a cut-off date. I was ready to think about other things. After I turned it in, I stepped away for a long time, not re-reading it until it came out as a finished product. It is good to look back now at what I wrote. Not only am I proud of the memoir, I think it is healthy for me to compare where I was then to where I am now. A memoir is not an autobiography. Instead it is a snapshot of a particular period in life, with a few particular themes. Looking back on this snapshot, I see that today I am not exactly where I was when I wrote the book, and I assume I’m not where I will be tomorrow.
Q: Rare Bird is not just a book about loss and grief, it is also very much about love and hope. Did you set out for it to be so when you began writing it?
A: I didn’t really know. The publisher did not put any constraints on me, so I just let my grief unfold in real time. In that way, the book is very similar to my blog, An Inch of Gray, but with added details and description. I didn’t want it to be falsely cheery because there is nothing good about losing a child, but I decided to just write my experience and be myself. Love and hope somehow bubbled up from the very first day of the accident, and I chose to include that in the book. I wouldn’t have ever guessed that would be possible, but it’s what happened to me. And even though the book isn’t a tribute to Jack, and it’s not all about Jack, I think our love permeates the book.
Q: How does your family feel about Rare Bird?
A: My sister is my biggest cheerleader. She, too, lost so much when we lost Jack, and she fervently wants something good, some sort of redemption to come from our loss. She will shout about Rare Bird from the rooftops. Tim and Margaret are quieter about it, and more private. Fortunately, they were used to my having a blog, so it’s not too much a shock to their system that we might run into people who know our story. That said, I tried to make it clear in the book that I was writing about MY experience. Their experiences are their own.
Q: What’s next? Will you write another book, and if so, can you tell us what it’s about?
Great question. Before Jack’s accident I was writing more and more about home decorating and DIY because my children had reached an age where preserving their trust and privacy was more important than blogging about them. After the accident, my writing focused on grief, and has for the past 3 years. I’m not sure what direction I’ll take next. Definitely open to ideas!
Buy her book now:
Anna Whiston-Donaldson – Anna is a popular blogger at An Inch of Gray. A graduate of James Madison University and Wake Forest University, she taught high school English for six years before becoming a full-time mom and writer. She lives with her husband, Tim, and daughter, Margaret, in suburban Washington, DC.
A former high school English teacher and bookstore manager, Anna began writing the blog An Inch of Gray in 2008 to share funny stories of life and motherhood and to find online community. After the sudden death of her 12 year old son Jack in 2011, Anna chronicled her grief journey in real time for her readers in order to reveal what grief is really like and to find healing for herself.
Her memoir Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love was published by Convergent Books, a division of Penguin-Random House.
“Meet” Anna on BonBon Break LIVE on Tuesday, September 23 at 10 AM PST – Click here for details
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