I feel lost these days, bumbling around, going through the motions of life. I go into the office and I get my work done, but I’m not really there. I have a pulsing headache that begins somewhere in my shoulder and snakes its way up into my jaw, which I must be clenching at night.
After four lovely days with D, the girls, and my mom and step-dad up north at my mom’s cabin over New Year’s, we came home to the news that the son of friends had died suddenly. Benjamin was 21 years old. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in May and had just mailed off applications for graduate school in economics. He was just beginning his adult life.
I never met Benjamin, but I feel as though I knew him. We met Ben’s dad, Bob, eight and a half years ago. He came highly recommended as a pediatrician, and prior to Stella’s birth I was going to set up an appointment to meet him, to “check him out” in that overly anxious new-parent way. When I finally called him, Stella was a week old and in an incubator. I explained that she had been born early and was in the NICU.
“Yes,” I said.
“I’ll come down to meet her tomorrow,” he said.
“Absolutely. I can just pop down and see her. It’s only a floor away.”
I didn’t know what I expected him to say, but I hadn’t expected that.
The next morning, a doctor I’d never seen walked up to my sister and me as we sat at Stella’s bedside. He was smiling broadly, and I knew it must be Bob. He shook my hand and then Rachel’s, then he bent down to gaze into the isolette at Stella. “Oh, you guys,” he said, “she’s absolutely beautiful!” He was bursting with gentle good humor, and immediately I fell for him; he was the one, the pediatrician of our dreams.
I met Ben’s mother, Lucinda, separately, without knowing she and Bob were married. (Nor did she know that Bob was our pediatrician.)
Lucinda was in my first writing class for mothers in 2006, and immediately I fell for her, as well. Her prose was quiet and lyrical, her writing about her sons and motherhood and her own childhood thoughtful and probing.
Over the last five and a half years, I’ve had Lucinda in four classes, and this is how I came to know Ben. I’ve known him as a fussy infant, always moving, never resting, never quiet. I’ve known him as a spirited four-year-old, “accidentally” overflowing the bathtub in protest after his younger brother, Sam, was born. I’ve known him as a six-year-old, who, after his mother hesitantly answered his questions about the house alarm, stared out the car window, trying to process what it meant that the world might be a dangerous place. I’ve known him as a teenager who practiced Mongolian throat-singing, who could hack into computer systems, who hung motherboards on his bedroom wall. I’ve known him as a political young man, an ardent admirer of Paul Wellstone, ready to make a difference in the world. I’ve known him as a reader of all the Russian novelists and Proust. (A better and more thorough reader than I, for sure.)
In this fall’s class, I asked my students to write about what they most admire about their children. When Lucinda wrote about Benjamin, she described him on the living room couch (he’d been back at home since graduation) surrounded by stacks of books, scouring the Internet, connected to as many information outlets as possible. I can see him there, his brilliant mind at work, making connections, hatching plans, refuting accepted policies.
I have had many students come to me after the loss of a child. They resurrect their children on the page to celebrate and cherish, to not forget. They write into a more nuanced understanding of themselves, of motherhood. Sometimes they find peace. It is heartbreaking, but also beautiful.
Until now, I have never had one of my current or former students lose a child, a child that I already knew and loved, a child they had introduced me to through their essays and memoirs. I feel numb with Lucinda and Bob’s loss, with my own loss.
The funeral and burial were lovely and devastating. Before the funeral, I met a group of friends/students (mostly from that first class in 2006) at a nearby coffee shop. This group has continued to meet monthly since 2006, and they have a bond that is much more intense than most writing groups. It felt like buoy to be with them. And at the funeral it was reassuring to see Bob and Lucinda and Sam surrounded by so many—hundreds of people—who love them and who love Benjamin.
At the shiva on Wednesday night, Lucinda said that she had asked her rabbi what this meant for her manuscript. She has been working on a wonderful memoir that is in part about the isolation of early motherhood and learning to be the mother to Ben that he needed. How does the fact that Ben is now gone change the book, change what it all means, because certainly it does. I don’t know. I don’t know how Lucinda’s book will be different, but I know it will be wonderful no matter what. And as I told her on Wednesday, “We’ll figure it out together.”
Benjamin shouldn’t have died. No parent or brother should have to go through what Bob and Lucinda and Sam are going through.
He will be remembered and he will always be loved. And when Lucinda is ready, I’ll be there to help her write her way through her grief.
Hold tight to those you love this week, and please remember Benjamin.