I sat with my eyes closed in my counselor’s office. I’d come in for a second session last week because as the anniversary of Jordan’s death loomed closer I felt myself growing more anxious and afraid. The images of him lying in the coffin with the bandage on his head wouldn’t leave my mind. I was jumpy and weepy every time I heard a siren. I wanted to be able to go longer than a few minutes without crying and feeling like I was going crazy. My mind needed to be quieted.
My counselor sat across from me and told me to be aware of where I felt the pain and anxiety that was overpowering my body. I pointed to my chest, which felt like someone was squeezing my diaphragm and not allowing me to take a full breath. Then I touched my throat, which throbbed and felt like it was closing because of unshed tears.
She assured me she’d help me find a place for all the feelings that were overwhelming me. I leaned my head back on the chair hoping to find a way to ease my sorrow even if it was just a little bit. My counselor told me to imagine a container or a place that I could use to store the pain and help heal it. The thing that came to mind was a big, black bowl sitting on the grass. It looked like a huge salad bowl. My counselor in her low soothing voice spoke to me, “Do you have a container?”
I shook my head, “Yes,” as tears streamed down my face.
“Were you able to put some of your pain in the container?”
I shakily said, “All of it.”
I already felt relief knowing that I’d found a place for my sorrow. It didn’t feel like it was overpowering me anymore.
She continued, “ Now if you want to, you can send some source of healing to the container. It can be light, a higher power, anything that you think would help to be a healing force.”
With eyes still closed I took a deep breath and nodded my head to my counselor letting her know that I was imagining the healing of the pain. I knew who I wanted to help me with the pain. In my mind I called out to my grandmother (Nanny) to come and help me. She’d helped me before in sessions like these. In the months after Jordan died when I wondered what prayer was for, because it hadn’t kept my son safe, Nanny was my intercessory. I asked her to watch over my boy until I could see him again. I asked her if he was okay? I begged her to help me learn to talk to God again. In life and beyond I felt her unconditional love.
I saw Nanny walk out and stand by the container. Then she said, “Come on now, we’ve got to help Jackie.” Then one by one my grandmother’s sisters all of whom are with her in heaven, appeared and stood around the bowl that contained the hurt my heart couldn’t hold.
To me all of them were fearless. One summer, when I was a child, during one of our family reunions in West Virginia, I’d seen them shift from sisters sitting around my aunt’s kitchen table talking, drinking coffee and playing Scrabble, to warriors. One of my cousins came upstairs from the bedroom portion of the house panic-stricken. With wide eyes and a shaky voice she said, “There’s a bat downstairs.” Nanny, Aunt Mary, Aunt Gaynel and Aunt Frances rushed from the kitchen table, one of them grabbing a broom on the way, as they went downstairs to kill the bat. Aunt Gaynel’s voice rang out, “You kids stay up there. I don’t wanna see any of you downstairs.” I stayed in the kitchen still perched on the red vinyl stool that was my post for watching the Scrabble game. I heard, “There it is,” “Be careful,” and “It’s over there,” float up the stairs as the sound of brooms and shoes and whatever they could use as weapons struck the walls and ceiling. I finally went outside to sit on the porch with my other cousins telling them about the bat. A little while later, one of the sisters put a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on the porch. My cousins and I dared each other to look into the container. I finally took my turn and quickly peeked in to see the dead bat lying on its back. Through the screen door I heard one of my great-aunts call out, “Ya’ll don’t get to close to that bat now.” I looked in the door to see them seated around the kitchen table again, Scrabble game and sister-talk resumed. Their actions and teamwork still rank as one of the bravest things I’ve ever witnessed.
Now as I sat with a tear-stained face in my counselor’s office, they’d come to help me. All of them knew about the kind of heartache contained in my bowl. Nanny had mourned the loss of a son from a miscarriage. During one of our late night talks when I was a teenager I remember her telling me, “It was a boy, and he was about this big,” as she held her hands a little less than a foot apart.
Next I saw my Aunt Gaynel determinedly walk up and grab Nanny’s hand. I swayed in my seat as I thought of the early morning call so many years ago telling us that Dougie and Dawn; her grandchildren had been killed in a house fire. She’d felt the same kind of tear soaked pain that my container held. I continued watching as Aunt Frances and Aunt Mary came and stood around the bowl. Aunt Mary’s hair was still pulled back in a bun. I couldn’t help thinking, “She looks the same.” She stood there with her sisters, who’d helped her mourn the loss of a son born prematurely. A son she tried to keep alive and warm by placing him near the open oven in her kitchen. They helped her hold vigil because there was no hospital in West Virginia where she could take her brown- skinned baby and get quality care.
Then my Aunt Frances came and stood by the bowl too. She looked at me with all-knowing eyes. She’d stood and wept at the coffins of both of her adult daughters who were taken by illness. Witnessing her mourning helped me to accept that no matter their age, your children are always your babies. My grandmother’s youngest sister Juanita was there too. I watched as they coaxed her to the circle. She moved slowly and Aunt Frances in her raspy cigarette smoke-stained voice said, “Hurry up you can help too.”
Juanita died when I was a child. My memories of her are as the “Cosmopolitan,” sophisticated sister. She could have graced the cover of any fashion magazine. She gave me my first real jewelry when I was about five. It was a birthstone jewelry set with matching heart-shaped necklace, bracelet and ring. The heartache she endured was inferred by my family, but never talked about to me. I felt Juanita’s love as she stood by the bowl with her sisters.
I took a deep breath in and exhaled slowly as they circled around the bowl. I talked to my grandmother, “Nanny, I’m so tired. It hurts too much. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through another anniversary. I miss my boy. I want him to come home. Help me.”
Nanny briefly looked at me and nodded her head. Then she and her sisters bowed their heads and began to pray. I couldn’t hear what they said but I’d heard all of them pray before. Their prayer was a balm of healing over my bowl of pain, longing and loss. I felt peace and protection coming my way. As I watched them pray, the tears that fell from my eyes didn’t burn so hotly. My breathing came easier and didn’t get caught in my throat. My hands that were clenched in my lap relaxed and I uncrossed my legs. As I sat feeling the tension subside in my body, I heard my counselor’s voice in the distance bringing me back to the room in her office. “Listen to the sounds out the window. Feel the floor beneath your feet and your back against the chair.”
I sat for a moment eyes still closed taking a few more deep breaths. I opened my eyes still not ready to make eye contact with my counselor. She sat patiently waiting for me to compose myself. After grabbing a tissue and wiping my eyes I looked at her. She gently told me, “The container and the healing image that you used today can help you whenever the pain feels overwhelming. Just take a few moments and close your eyes and allow yourself that comfort.” I looked at her attempting a smile as I nodded. Then for the first time in our sessions, I told her of the image I’d just witnessed. “My grandmother and her sisters held hands and encircled the bowl. They came to help me.”
She looked at me and simply said, “That’s beautiful.”
As I rose to go, I grabbed my purse, told her, “Thank you” as I always do and walked to the elevator. I put my sunglasses on as I reached the first floor. As I walked to my car I continued to feel the fierce love and protection of Nanny and my aunts. They are my role models of strength and resilience.
Today the phone rang and when Mark answered I heard him say, “Whose calling?” He then stood and walked out of the family room. The next thing I heard was, “Jordan passed away in 2008.” Like I’d done two years ago almost to the day at hearing Jordan’s name, I got up and followed Mark. I held my hand over my mouth waiting for him to finish the call. He then told me, “It was MoveOn.org. Jordan was on their volunteer list. They were calling to see if he wanted to volunteer again.”
Sobs broke through my hand covering my mouth and Mark held me as I cried. I sobbed at the pain that announced more precisely than any date on a calendar, “My son is dead.” He isn’t here to volunteer for his favorite causes. I don’t know what direction his interest in Political Science would have taken him. As I cried, the fact that Jordan’s been denied the opportunity to have new adventures and experiences made the ache of loss surge. He died. Even though I want to go and look for him to bring him home I can’t. I leaned against the doorjamb in the dining room, crying and thinking of all the things he wanted to do and be.
October 12th is the date Jordan was killed in a car accident, but everyday I struggle to learn to live without him. After the phone call from MoveOn, the images and sounds associated with losing Jordan threatened to overpower me. I took a moment and remembered the 5 sisters with their fierce love and arms of protection. I closed my eyes and saw them encircling and praying over my container of pain.