Not why, what now? That’s the question I try to remember as each birthday approaches. After Jordan died every birthday leaves me stunned for a moment. How can I be growing older and one of my children has died? I’ve tried to schedule a vacation for the kid’s spring break, which coincides with my birthday since Jordan’s death. It feels like the only way to quiet the buzz of loss that throttles my mind on March 24th. Planning, packing, and being on our way to a warm place help me to accept with grace the exuberance of my family has in wishing me happy birthday. The smile of gratitude I give to them with each passing year is slowly becoming my own as well.
“We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two, housed as they are in the same body.”
Every time we travel as a family without Jordan, we’re relearning what a family vacation is. When we boarded the Southwest flight, I scoped out two rows like I always do, made my mental count and said to Merrick as I pointed at two rows across from each other, ”Okay, you save those three seats and I’ll save these three so we can all sit together.” He nodded. It wasn’t until we were all seated, Kendall at the window, I sitting in the middle, and Mark on the aisle. I looked across to see Lindsay at the window and Merrick on the aisle an empty seat between them. I’d miscounted again. I seem to do it every flight we take. We don’t need 6 seats anymore. We travel as five. We’re a family of six learning to live as a family of 5, slowly with twists and turns along the way.
Grief and joy have taken root in my heart and I know they’re both here to stay. As we get set with chairs and umbrellas on the beach, the attendant tells us they rent chairs in sets of two or four. Mark blurts out, “We need an odd number,” and gives me a look I can’t quite decipher. We don’t ever want our children to feel odd as a family of five. The attendant looks at us and quickly says, “We’ll just add an extra chair, no problem.”
Merrick and Mark decide to jet ski. I watch Merrick jet ski for the first time and then come back to shore with a broad smile that is rare these days.
“That was ballin.’”
“So you had a good time?”
“Yea, it’s great out there?”
“I’m glad you tried it?”
“I pushed it full throttle. It felt good going so fast. I caught air.”
“I know I saw you. You looked like you were having a great time.”
As he strolls to his chair, I can’t help but notice how he and Jordan have the same body type. They both have the same small waist and broad shoulders. Merrick would have loved jet skiing with his brother.
The attendant at the rental stand sees Merrick coming.
“He sure looks more relaxed, look at that beautiful smile.”
“He’s worried about when he’ll hear from colleges so I’m glad he tried something he’s always wanted to, but never did before.”
We stand watching him approach for a moment and I start to tear up glad to have sunglasses hiding my eyes. I look over at the attendant and tell her, “You know this is the first real family vacation we’ve taken that all of us were excited about since my oldest son died.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Nodding my head, “It’s just good to see him smile.”
I settle down in my beach chair and watch as Merrick shows his sister how to use a boogie board, the activity that he and Jordan did for hours until we would call them back to shore. He’s teaching his sisters now, letting them know the carefree feeling of riding a wave and letting it carry you, no hesitation, just freedom.
In between looks at the horizon with the waves softly crashing, I text my sister, “How was Daddy’s morning?”
She texts back, “Woke up in pain, but doing better now.”
My mind flashes to the MRI scans that showed all the places cancer has taken hold of Daddy’s body. I send love and light my father’s way praying that pain won’t rule his day. As I lift my gaze I smile, catching sight of Mark and Merrick making their way back to shore after playing in the waves. With the sun behind them and their strides matching, I see a glimpse of Jordan flanking his dad on one side. I smile and cry knowing I’ve conjured up my son and settle into joy and grief housed together.