The Middle Distance 7.27.12: Foot-Shuffling Days

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Photo by Sean Cayton

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 “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


13 Responses to The Middle Distance, 7/27/12: Foot-Shuffling Days

  1. Bruce Merriman says:

    Very nice! Bruce

  2. Paula says:

    pain, sorrow, smiles, love

  3. Rosanne Gain says:

    Thanks, Kathryn for putting into words what most of us have felt this past month. Time is such a precious thing and it seems such a waste to spend it in the doldrums. I am sorry for your loss and take comfort in the fact that you celebrate your son’s time on earth through the stories you tell. Here’s hoping we all emerge from the fire, heat, loss and tough times with our spirits intact.

  4. januaryrenee says:

    Dearest Kathryn,

    I lost my daughter, Tiffany, at the age of 29, to suicide two years ago on August 6th. I just wanted to let you know how wonderfully poignant your essays are. You manage to put into words so many things I’ve felt and struggle to find the words to describe. Thanks so much.

  5. hannah says:

    Humans must surely have felt emotions before we could speak. But speech was a great gift for processing emotions. Who could imagine life without someone to tell our thoughts to?

    During and after the fire, we all told our stories and heard the stories of others, over and over. The same for any disaster.

    Thank you for your stories.

  6. Rose Enyeart says:

    I’m so saddened by the summer of loss. It is so hard to take in more and then
    grieve some more. You help by putting words around it

  7. Linda Page says:

    Thank you for this, Kathryn. I have been thinking about you and Teddy. Your description of him brings back so many good memories. Often so reticent to show his emotions, he would have a sudden sparkle in his eye and burst out with that giggle that made me laugh, even when he was in trouble!

    Thank you for expressing so well the loss I have been feeling with the successive tragedies in our state.

  8. says:

    When our hearts are as cold as stone, and we fear to open them as the heartbreak is just too much to bear, its good to take a deep breath and know our hearts don’t break, they burst open…to love, compassion, and grief. Grief is unavoiadable, it is part of life, of being alive. So my heart does go out to so many that have lost so much, and I am glad to be alive.
    Mark, one of the many ot the One

  9. Oscar C. Pena says:

    Thank you Kathryn for sharing. All we can offer those who mourn a sudden, unexpected, violent loss is our sympathy and prayers.

  10. Sandra says:

    Many in Colorado are emotionally raw this summer–the Aurora deaths and, I believe, just the terribleness of this summer’s fires, etc., have re-opened many wounds of loss. A woman cried in a department store I was in yesterday (she was an employee) the loss of her son in a car accident several years ago remembered when one of his favorite songs came on the sound system. I offered her all I had, a hug. Thanks for giving us all a hug with this essay, Kathryn.

  11. Eva says:

    I was lucky enough to be away, and escape some of the summer’s heat, and with no TV, lucky enough to avoid the massacre coverage. Thank you for conveying the truth of what I’d missed. Beautifully as always.

  12. Debra says:

    I remember holding infant Teddy in one arm and Bronwyn in the other. Teddy had such a lovely light brown skin tone and big brown eyes. He was built like a little tank. Bronwyn was so blonde and fair. Compared to Teddy, she was almost weightless. Nonetheless, they each snuggled just right, near to each other and next to my heart. We just rocked back and forth in the warmth of Memphis.


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