(Ted Eastburn, Self-Portrait at age 18)


Kathryn’s Eastburn’s The Middle Distance 8.27.10: The Light of Memory (Right-/option-click on link to download, or click the play button below to stream)

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photo by Sean Cayton

I had a boyfriend in high school who changed my life. I had been a good enough student up until senior year, but I was bored and unchallenged by school. Then I met this boy — an energetic guy, not fashionable but handsome. He fascinated me with his broad range of interests and enthusiasm. He loved chemistry and classical music. He was an excellent baseball player, a short stop with a wide stretch, prone toward the dramatic dive play. He read history and philosophy and Ken Kesey and Joseph Heller.

We hung out the summer before senior year, exploring the city of Memphis in his big green 1968 Buick, and we fell in love.

I’m telling you this now because 40 years later, this boy who changed my life ended his own, suddenly and unexpectedly. We had been married for 20 years then divorced for the past sixteen. We tried on adult friendship after marriage and it stuck. We raised four kids cooperatively and continued to look to one another for inspiration, even after our marriage had ended. I was never prouder of a friendship than mine with him: this boy grown into an accomplished man whose bright spirit burned so fast and hard that it could be blinding.

So many of us loved him, were exasperated by him, were indebted to him. His generosity knew no limits. But he held his pain close. Like others who succeed at suicide, he knew that his job in his last hours was to keep us from knowing that he intended to die, for fear of our clumsy attempts to stop him.

At his memorial service last week, the minister talked to us about darkness, and in that stone church, within those massive walls, we stared at that darkness for as long as we could bear it. Then people started telling stories, singing songs about his life. Memory, the poet’s muse, took us by the hand to lead us into the light.

Darkness prevails, now, as we walk through days of grief and confusion, uncertainty and shock. But every day we spend some time letting in those bright streams of light.

I remember being 17 and having to learn some basic theatrical ballroom dance for a play I was acting in. This boyfriend, this force of nature, went with me to dance class and, in his characteristic way, began to study it. We went to the ballet for the first time. He idolized Rudolf Nureyev and photographed him when the great Russian dancer came to Memphis and flew across the stage with soaring leaps. This boyfriend taught himself to do Russian splits. Here is a memory: A shaggy-haired high school senior in 1972, dressed in a T-shirt and worn corduroy jeans. Beneath a suburban street light on Shady Grove Road, amid a cloud of fluttering moths, he practices over and over. He jumps straight up from the pavement in soiled tennis shoes, his legs spread eagle. He extends his arms to reach his toes. Once, twice, three times, he rises higher and higher, until finally his airborne split looks effortless, weightless.

I learned the value of letting these memories in a few years ago, when my 22-year old son Ted died and I allowed myself to stay in the darkness for too long. I focused on my son’s unhappiness in the months preceding his death, and denied myself memories of happier times, of his true essence.

Then at Christmas, more than a year after his death, I received a letter from my sister-in-law, a family member we saw only now and again throughout my son’s life. Here is what she wrote:

When our family gathers for Christmas each year, we always remember this story about Teddy, she said.

It was the year we came to your house in Nashville and it was so cold the pipes had frozen. We had bundled up and gotten into our car to head back to Knoxville, when the front door of the house flew open and out came little Teddy, just four years old. He was barefoot, his arms loaded with bright packages. He ran to us holding his arms out. He had gone to his room and wrapped his favorite books in scraps of paper to give to us as gifts.

My sister-in-law showed me light when I could see only darkness. She grieves with us now over her former brother-in-law’s death. Her name is Faith.

Music in today’s piece is “Pop Song,” sung by Katie Eastburn, from Nick Hallett’s opera Whispering Pines, performed and recorded at The Kitchen, New York City, 2010. You can read and listen to Kathryn Eastburn’s column The Middle Distance every Friday here on The Big Something and listen to it every Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

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14 Responses to Kathryn Eastburn’s The Middle Distance: The Light of Memory

  1. Taa says:

    thanks so much for sharing from the heart Kathyrn…

  2. Ellen Troyer says:

    Kathryn, you are amazing Grace. How brilliant of Calliope to lead you into the light with wonderful epic memories of Ted.

  3. Ellen Troyer says:

    PS. Your daughter Katie’s voice is hauntingly beautiful.

  4. Amber Cote says:

    I want to say something empathetic and loving, but I am stunned and overwhelmed by the contrasting heartbreak and beauty of it all. Thank you, Kathryn.

  5. Connie says:

    This is such a beautiful rememberance of someone you have loved for most of your life. I do not personnally know you, nor did I know Ted, but you have moved me closer to that knowing, and so much more, with your words. Thanks for your openness, honesty and willingness to share. Your words help all of us who have lost people that we love beyond measure or words find ways to heal and remember.

  6. Paula Benell says:

    It does help, thank you,, but it still hurts.

  7. Eva says:

    I came home from a lovely Saturday outing, last weekend, to find that two of the most important people in my life had died. Not family, but pretty close.. I’ll think about this piece when I think of them, as I often do. Thank you.

  8. Claire randall says:

    Beautiful, Kathe. Beautiful Kathe.

  9. Jan Erickson says:

    Thank you, Kathryn. Your articles about Ted will help our community find a little light as we grapple to understnad the tragic loss of this amazing man. Thank you for sharing these intimate, and lovely stories. I hope we hear more.

  10. Sandra says:

    Thank you for bringing in the light.

  11. Brenda Holmes-Stanciu says:

    we are indebted to you for your continued openness and gift for words…

  12. Neal Wright says:

    Thanks for taking me back in time to a place where so many of my good memories of Ted were born, including watching his birthday parade pass down Shady Grove on a cold February Sunday, riding “Mod Squad” with the two of you in the green Buick Skylark to view an art exhibit at the old Guild Theater, and heeding the sage advice about life his mom would offer me upon my many visits to her house. For me, a somewhat introverted high school senior whose social life was mostly spent practicing the piano, Ted was the popular classmate/hero who took me under his wing, never failing to make me feel that I was his best friend.
    My deepest condolences to you and your family during this time of tragic loss.

    Randy Wright, Senate Chief of Staff
    State Capitol
    Jefferson City, Missouri

  13. Margaret Radford says:

    Kathryn: Thank you for sharing this, and what I hope will be many more, memories of Ted’s light. Whatever you are ready to share, we are ready to receive, someday, perhaps, without weeping. But not today.


  14. AnnaLucia says:

    I have passed these wonderful words on to my children who now live in New York and Austin…they knew your children from days gone by. I’d long wanted to write to you…telling you that your words of wisdom have long touched me. So for your “words”, I thank you.


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