Our spring break destination this year, was California to visit Mark’s parents and have vacation time as a family. We were sick of the cold and rainy Chicago weather and were ready for days where jackets weren’t required. We’d spent the first half of our week letting the kids be spoiled by their grandparents and having quality time with them. We’d gone horseback riding, played board games and rooted on our favorite teams in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
While at my in-laws, Merrick had his missing Jordan moments and he shared them with me. His sisters and grandfather invited him repeatedly to swim and play basketball at the community rec center. Merrick politely but strongly declined. I sensed how displaced and sad he felt. As he and I sat together in chaise lounges along the pool I asked Merrick if he was having any tough moments. He told me that his Grandpa’s invitations were still too hard to accept. He talked about the times he and Jordan had spent at this same rec center and all the good times they had together. As Merrick wistfully conveyed, “All the things I want to do take two. My two was with Jordan.” I let those words settle into me before responding to him. I tried reassuring him that as his sisters got older he would find it easier to join in and play games with them that now seemed too difficult. We shared a look and I told him, “I know you miss him.”
After staying with Mark’s parents, our plan had always been to take the second part of our trip as a family vacation in southern California. It was our first true vacation since Jordan died. We were all excited but cautious at the same time. We would be revisiting L.A. for the first time without Jordan. While we were visiting my in-laws, the emotions attached to visiting L.A. flooded me. We were going to visit Los Angeles, the place where Mark and I met. The place where Jordan was born and our little family lived for two years. We were going back to the beginning of our experience as a family. Los Angeles is the cornerstone of the memories of my experiences as a wife and it is where I learned to be a mother. We were going back to this place, only this time without the son who allowed me entry into motherhood. I was starting to have doubts as to whether I could revisit all the places that now served as reminders of the “before Jordan died” years. Mark shared in my apprehension and he gently told me, “We’ll be okay. We’ll be together.”
My reluctance to revisit certain venues was in direct conflict with the wishes of my children. The girls wanted to go to Disneyland because they had no memories of their earlier trip when they were preschoolers. Disneyland had been a destination for our family since Jordan was a toddler. Mark’s parents used to live in Orange County, 15 minutes from Disneyland. It was easy then to spend a half -day there and then come back to my in-law’s home to rest before heading back to Disneyland for the evening. I’d told Mark through tears, as we sat at his parent’s house, I didn’t know how I was going to make it through a trip to a place we’d always shared with Jordan. I still heard Jordan’s little boy voice echoing the excitement of all the wonder and magic a place like Disneyland holds for children, and my excitement at watching things as a first time mother through his eyes.
I extended my anxiety about going to Disneyland to Merrick. I worried that being at Disneyland might evoke too many memories of Jordan that Merrick would find hard to bear. He surprised me though. His demeanor was one of showing his sisters all the fun things he and Jordan used to do. He was taking his role as big brother and tour guide enthusiastically. One of Merrick’s goals for this trip to Disneyland was to ride Space Mountain. On our previous trip to Disneyland he reminded us that the ride had broken down as Mark, Jordan and he stood in line. He was determined to ride it on this trip. I was relieved to see his excitement and that he was going to Disneyland with eagerness and anticipation.
I didn’t let my apprehension intrude on our plans. Disneyland was part of our itinerary. We stood at the entrance, our first trip there as five. At the entrance we were asked, “How many?” on the rides we all rode together, “How many?” When we had dinner and looked for a table, the same question, “How many?” The question was ringing in my ears and the answer was incomplete. Our family has pictures that could fill many scrapbooks of our children riding rides together and having as Mark calls it, the “Mickey” experience. On this occasion for me, Jordan’s absence was palpable. His absence from our group was making me angry. We answered the “How many” question “five” every time. I wanted and needed to add every time, “But we’re supposed to be six. My oldest son is gone, that’s why we’re five.” I never spoke those words aloud but they haunted me all day.
The weather was beautiful and the crowds were not overwhelming as we strode around the park. On the rides with speed and jerky movements, I sat on a bench and waited while Mark and the kids waited in line for the thrill rides. Merrick was the first to point out to me that they cautioned against riding these rides if you suffered from neck or back injuries. I qualified. Waiting turned into watching and then thinking; too much thinking about days past and how hard it was to be in a place that we’d always been before with Jordan. Here we were, not at a new destination uncharted by us as a family, but a familiar one and we were making new memories. I felt pangs of guilt and mother loss putting a stranglehold on the day. I fought hard to stay in the present and not feel guilty that we were somehow forgetting Jordan or leaving him behind if we had too much fun. I was tempted more than once to strike up a conversation with those sitting near me. I felt they needed to know about Jordan. I wanted to tell them, “I’m here with my family, but not all of my family. I have another son; he was killed in a car accident when he was 19. He was our oldest.”
I had to look away from those sitting next to me so as not to tell them of my loss. I was trying to figure out a way to make Jordan surreptitiously a part of our day at Disneyland. The feeling of loss was overpowering. I wanted so much to be in a different time. A time where Jordan stood in line with us, he and Merrick teasing each other and looking out for their sisters together. I closed my eyes, hidden behind my sunglasses and calmed myself by thinking of an image of a chair on the beach with nothing but the sounds of the ocean. I took deep breaths and then opened my eyes when I felt less frantic. I willed myself to watch all that was going on around me as a distraction. I watched a little girl not yet two walk and try to catch a duck that had made his way into the park. Her grandmother held her hands to steady her. She followed as quickly as she could but the duck proved elusive. I looked at all the passersby in their collection of ridiculous Disney hats, everything from Mickey Mouse ears to “Pirates of the Caribbean” Jack Sparrow hats, complete with locks of hair. Everyone with hats walked with such ease and comfort in headgear that would look ridiculous anywhere else. I wondered as they passed, “When will these adults have another opportunity to wear these hats?” I laughed and decided that that I wanted a picture of Mark and Merrick in the “Jack Sparrow” hats. They along with Jordan loved the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and had seen the first one together. I reminded myself to tell them when they got off their ride that we’d go to the “Mad Hatter” store and take pictures of them wearing the hats and making what I knew would be ridiculous faces.
As our day came to an end, we were all exhausted. I forgot about my picture- taking goal until Kendall reminded me. We made our way to a store near the entrance of the park and found the hat section. I picked out the “Jack Sparrow” hats and the girls found “Mickey” wizard hats from the movie “Fantasia.” I had them all group together and I snapped my first picture, and then took one more for good measure. Merrick took the camera and looked at the digital pictures, laughing as we headed out of the store to the parking garage.
On our way out of the store I saw a father talking with his son in the checkout line. His son spoke animatedly as he put on his “Mickey” gloves and wizard hat while his dad assured him it was okay for him to put them on as they waited to purchase them. I smiled at the comfort and ease between father and son. I only saw the back of the father’s head but something about him felt familiar. As we walked outside, a woman stood holding her pre-school aged daughter, singing to her as she held her close to keep her warm. I smiled at her as I walked quickly to catch up with my family. As we walked I saw the man I’d seen in the store up ahead talking with his family. His voice sounded so familiar; then I realized why, it was the actor Jeffery Wright who has starred in such movies as “Syriana”, “Cadillac Records” and “Casino Royale.” I leaned towards Mark and asked, “That’s Jeffery Wright isn’t it?” Mark replied, “Yeah, I saw him in the store but I didn’t want to bother him. He’s here with his family.”
I had a different feeling entirely about going up to him. I immediately heard Jordan’s voice in my head. Jordan loved Jeffrey Wright’s work as an actor. After Jordan was accepted to Amherst, Jeffrey Wright was one of the famous alum’s that Jordan excitedly referenced. His excitement and comfort in his decision grew the more he learned about “his” school and about those whose work he admired who had also attended. I increased my pace and matched that of Jeffery Wright’s. I spoke, “Excuse me, your Jeffrey Wright aren’t you?” He looked at me politely but with the weariness of one who is recognized and approached too often. He responded, “Yes I am”, continuing his pace. I quickly spoke, “I know you attended Amherst College and I wanted to say hello. My son also attended Amherst.” At the connection between he and Jordan, his face relaxed and he replied, “Oh he did.” I then told him about my Jordan.
“Our son Jordan was a student, but we lost him in ’08. He was killed in a car accident when he was 19.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, he was a big fan of your work and when I recognized you I wanted to say hello.”
Hearing of Jordan’s death and realizing my reason for interrupting his time with his family changed Mr. Wright’s pace and approach to me. He continued talking with me, asking what year Jordan would have graduated. When I told him he would have been in the class of 2011, he made a connection I had forgotten. He suddenly said to me, “Two-thousand eleven, I spoke to that class.” My voice shook as I spoke and his wife, the same woman I’d observed holding her daughter outside of the store looked on with a compassionate smile. It all came together for me. I said to him, “That’s right. Jordan was so excited that you were speaking at Orientation. I remember him telling me about hearing you speak. You made a great impression on him.”
Mr. Wright asked me my name again, trying to commit it to memory and then introduced himself to Mark, Merrick, Lindsay and Kendall. I told him of Jordan’s dean who he also knew and of our plans to establish an annual scholarship at Amherst College in Jordan’s name. I held back tears, so happy to meet him and so grateful that as we left Disneyland the experience that felt missing from the day happened. I had my opportunity to talk about Jordan. I felt him near and someone whose work he admired and respected, now knew about him. Jordan came to the park with us that day. He revealed himself as we left. “How many”, could now be answered six.