I’ve never seen a picture of my father as a boy, yet I’ve heard so many of the stories of him growing up in a coal mining community in West Virginia, third youngest of thirteen children, that I have a distinct picture of him in my mind. My father is quite the storyteller and I’ve sat in rapt attention as he’s told me of his boyhood antics as well as those of his siblings. I’ve also listened as he’s shared the sorrow his family endured. As a young man in college, Daddy in less than 14 months, lost a sister to illness, a brother to murder, and his mother after making the statement to my father as they sat on their front porch following the death of her son-“I will not live to bury another one of my children.” She died a few months later.
Every time Daddy shared the story of losing so many loved ones in such a short span of time, I looked at him with compassion and awe. How do you keep going when you lose so much in such a short amount of time? Daddy had survived unimaginable loss and yet didn’t seem haunted by what he endured. His life had gone on with a college degree, marriage, work and family. He spoke lovingly of his family. He told funny and poignant stories of relatives that were long gone by the time I was born. Because of him I felt I knew them. Their deaths did not erase them from Daddy’s heart. He talked about them all the time. I watched him because as untouched as I was by the death of someone close to me, I knew it would happen eventually. Daddy provided my first road map on mourning loved ones.
My “eventually” came with the unexpected, shocking news of Jordan’s death. When I made the call to my parents in the middle of the night to tell them that Jordan their oldest grandchild had been killed in a car accident my mother screamed and cried, and then my father was on the phone. He told me they would be there as soon as they could and they were. By Monday afternoon they were sitting at our kitchen table. The friends who had held watch over us since early that morning quietly left once our family arrived. We sat, cried and talked. Daddy’s words to me were simple and direct, “Don’t stop talking about him. You say his name everyday.” I’m not sure if I would have taken such direct advice from just anyone, but I knew my father’s experiences with loss. Daddy’s advice was him speaking what he had lived. The way I knew about my aunts, uncles and paternal grandparents was because Daddy didn’t stop talking about them. He said their names and his eyes lit up with the memories they invoked.
Every time I called him in the weeks and months after Jordan died sometimes barely able to speak because I couldn’t catch my breath from crying he would calm me, soothe me, always telling me he wished he could take some of the pain away. He never failed to remind me of his feeling that holding in my grief would make me sick. Then he would ask, “Are you talking about Jordan? You make sure you keep talking about him.” I always told him, “yes we talk about him everyday.”
My children know by the example of their father and I that it’s okay to cry and miss Jordan, but it is also okay to remember all the funny Jordan stories and talk about him as much as they want and need to. We sit at the dinner table and one of my daughters will say “remember the time Jordan raced into the bathroom right before I was going in to take a shower and jumped in the tub with all his clothes on and starting singing in that high voice “I’m taking a shower” as he pretended he was really taking a shower. We would all nod in remembrance and laugh. That story would remind another one of us of some other Jordan story and the love in remembering would grow. There would be other times when something happened at school and one of them would ask Mark or I “did that ever happen to Jordan?” We never turned away from an opportunity to talk about our son/their brother. He always will have a seat at the table.
Even almost a year after Jordan’s death my father still reminds me to “Say his name.” Now with the clarity of my own experience I know what he means. His philosophy about loss has become my own. The person we lose cannot become a taboo subject. Holding in our pain is also holding in our memories and ultimately the joy that person brought us. I knew about my aunt, uncle and grandparents long gone before I came along because of Daddy. They are etched in my heart as though they told me their stories themselves.
My children freely talk about their brother. They laugh together, imitating him and remembering. The way my children talk about their brother assures me that their children will know their Uncle Jordan. And one day in the distant future I pray that I’ll live to have my grandchildren sitting at my knee as I sat at my father’s and have them ask to hear about their uncle, my son. Without hesitation I will openly, wistfully, freely “Say his Name.”