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This Colorado summer has been the season everyone wants to end. Fire, drought, extreme heat, more fire, and now mass murder in the multiplex have left us blinking into the too bright sun, wondering: What next?
Watering my garden last week, I thought of just letting it go. Why all this effort for a basket of squash, a crop of cherry tomatoes, a patch of flowers, heat-stressed and prematurely gone to seed?
The day after news of the Denver shooting, I wandered the produce section of the local Safeway, shuffling my feet across the cold linoleum as if I’d had a stroke. Get it together, I thought. Snap out of it. Lift your feet. Later that night, I raged at the television, at the clamorous, ravenous coverage of this human disaster, this calamity that would yield so much heartbreak and unleash so much fear.
A day later, I still couldn’t open my heart to the pain of all those parents, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, and friends. Our hearts go out to you, the President said, the governor said, the studio heads said, everyone said, but my heart was closed like a fist. I couldn’t risk opening it as the fifth anniversary of the sudden and violent death of my forever 22-year old son approached, another calamity of a Colorado July midnight.
A week later, I still can’t take in the loss, but I have been able to release the grip on my heart, to let in the stories of these twelve people’s lives – their favorite games and foods, their silly habits and traditions, their stubbornness and courage, the ways they will be remembered. After all, that is what we did when my son died; we told stories.
We remembered the way he ate cantaloupe in summer, bowl after bowl, as fast as his grandmother could seed and cut and peel. The way he would stand in the refrigerator door, wielding a spoon, scooping up cold mashed potatoes, Thanksgiving leftovers.
The way he could seem aloof, then a minute later as focused as a laser. The way he attended to the details of a model rocket launch, stretching our patience with his meticulousness. The way, as a boy, he could turn any sheet of paper into an airplane.
The way he wore flip-flops and shorts in the dead of winter, his smooth brown legs tinged vaguely purple. The way he sniffed his wrist to go to sleep.
The way he built forts and nests around our house – tents of sheets and pillows and blankets where he would snuggle with his little brothers. The way, years later, when he grew into a thick, muscular man, he would lift them off their feet in a bear hug.
The way he could seem so stern and serious, then break into uncontrollable laughter, his eyes disappearing into the comic mask of his irresistible smile. We were disarmed, helpless in the face of his laughter. He could break any solemn spell.
The way he became a soldier and an EMT, with patience and determination and dogged focus. The way he believed it was his duty.
Last week, in the middle of my foot-shuffling daze, I wandered into a downtown store that was closing its doors after 22 years. Everything was marked half off, the shelves nearly bare. I wanted to survey the bargains, but more importantly I wanted to tell the people who worked there how much their funny, well stocked game store had meant to my family over the years. We had bought countless birthday and Christmas gifts there, the best stocking stuffers.
I half-heartedly checked out the puzzles, then saw the stripped display, just two left, of Estes model rockets.
I remember how thrilled my son had been, at age six, when we moved from Tennessee to Colorado, to discover they were made just down the road in Penrose, the Model Rocket Capital of the World.
The kind cashier rung me up and threw in a package of engines for the rocket launch I told her we would have in my son’s memory, the following Sunday.
I remember how he looked up, searching the sky, the way he jumped up and ran in his untied black sneakers to retrieve the spent shell. I remember his wonder and his delight.
I walk back to the car, my feet light. The spell has broken momentarily and I am no longer shuffling. The pavement shimmers and the Colorado afternoon is hot. I glance up and blink into the blinding summer sun.
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.