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A few weeks ago, my son and I sat on the front porch and watched as two strong young men took down the fence across the street, piece by piece.
They had a rhythm. One guy would raise a sledgehammer and slam it into a row of planks until they came loose from the posts that held them in place. Then the other guy would push and shake and shimmy the loosened section until it cracked and splintered and fell to the ground.
When the whole thing was down, the world behind it opened up, a vision: a long, neatly bordered expanse of green lawn, a child’s toys scattered about, a patio, a stately old elm and the shade it cast. The same guys came back a few days later and rebuilt the fence exactly as it had been before, but for that moment, our eyes were liberated and the small world of our front porch expanded.
About a week later, I asked that same son what he wanted to do to commemorate the anniversary of his brother’s death, July 29, a day that was fast approaching, like the thunderstorms that roll in from the west every afternoon.
He said, “I’d really rather commemorate his birthday than his death day.”
And with that, the wall I’ve erected around July 29 for the past four years began to crack and chip. It needs knocking down. That day needs liberating; it needs to be like other days, filled with possibility, an expanse of green, partly cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms, the sun poking through with a blast of washed light before it retires behind the mountain at dusk.
It was important to protect July 29 at first, to partition it off from other days. We needed to be careful and rest on that day, not forge through it. We needed to linger. It was not like any other day; it harbored land mines.
And I confess, there’s a small part of me that foolishly thought walling off July 29 would make me a better and more attentive mother to the son I’d lost. If I couldn’t care for him and ease his pain when he was alive, I could at least be vigilant about commemorating the day he left us.
But his brother is right. We have faced and endured his death. Now we need to hold his life up to the light. The wall needs to come down.
This July 29, like every July 29 for the past four years, I’ll be teaching a class of college students. But this year, I’m not going to tell them that I need the morning off, that it’s too hard to be with them on this day. This year I’m going to bring the dog to school and let my students run with him on the wide fields outside our stately old classroom. I’ll watch them be 18, 19, 20 and I’ll try to remember what it feels like to be so light and fast, to not care if your pants get soaked, to worship motion. I’ll try to conjure my son at 18, strong and funny and brave.
He died on a full moon night, lightning crackling in the distance. And for a time after that night, I was haunted by the sight of the full moon. Friends from around the country would sit in their back yards and watch the moon come up, and they would send me comforting thoughts through the night air and over the Ethernet.
This year, a few weeks ago, some friends had an almost full moon party at their house, as they do every July. Guests poured in with covered dishes and chilled bottles around six, and we visited and ate and drank as the sun went down and black clouds boiled up in the summer sky. At moonrise, I sat with a friend on the porch steps and faced due east, the horizon just beginning to brighten. We talked and watched and couldn’t tear our eyes away from the sight that was unfolding.
The massive orange moon rose steadily through a clearing in the sky as if it were tethered to a cable and being pulled upward. Above it, the wall of black clouds turned purple, then cracked open. We applauded. Our host offered a toast and thanked us for being his friends. The moon settled into the sky and lifted its ancient face like an old grandpa lighting his pipe.
I said goodnight to my son, as I do every night, as I will for the rest of my days, every last one.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.