One of the calmer poses with friends in front of the Van Wickle Gates
As I wrote about on Monday, this past weekend I took a brief sabbatical from my daily routine. My plans started to crystallize on the day of my wedding anniversary just 7 days before the event. I talked with one of my best friends, Michele, and she told me she was going to our alma mater, Brown University to celebrate homecoming and the Black Alumni reunion. As she and I talked, I realized I wanted to go to the reunion too. I didn’t feel apprehensive or nervous about attending, just excited. I’d been at my 25th college reunion in May ’10 and had left feeling shaken and lost. While I was there I kept thinking, “Jordan would be finishing his junior year. He’d officially be a senior now.” It hurt seeing the dorms, students sitting on the green talking or strolling with their backpacks in tow.
For this trip my guarded feelings about being overwhelmed by sadness and regret had lessened. I was cautiously yet eagerly looking forward to my weekend away. Excitement and anticipation feel foreign to me since Jordan died. My guilt that being happy might mean forsaking Jordan’s memory is starting to weaken and not visit so often. The thread that has joy and guilt intertwined is slowly unraveling. I can sometimes imagine as so many have promised that there is room in my heart for new experiences that aren’t weighted down by grief. I still wonder if it’s okay to feel happy and peaceful, questioning whether I should give in to the feelings of joy or stay guarded against a trigger that might send me careening into grief and sorrow. For this trip, I chose to accept the happiness I felt. There would be no over analysis. My weekend would be spent with friends who’d rallied around me on so many occasions especially after Jordan died. If I needed them they were there as a buffer, distraction or comfort.
I arrived at the reunion and shared a hotel room with Michele and another dear college friend, Doreen. From the moment we saw each other, we picked up where we left off 25 years ago. We reminisced about our younger selves and had earnest talks about our present lives, offering accolades, comfort and advice to each other. It was the grown-up version of a sleepover complete with giggles and the occasional thrown pillow.
I stepped onto campus for the first time Saturday morning to attend one of the forums. I saw friends I hadn’t seen since Jordan died. We hugged and shared our, “You look great” comments with sincerity. There were so many hugs with added whispers to my ear of, “I’m praying for you,” or “Keep holding on.” I was able to whisper back, “Thank you for reaching out to me. It means so much.” Never once during the weekend was I worried about expressing joy or sadness. I smiled, laughed and even giggled with friends without concern that I didn’t fit the image of a grieving mother.
One lecture that held particular interest for me was being given by one of my former professors. As I entered the building, it felt good to sit in a lecture hall with folks who all shared the same look of eagerness and appreciation for learning. My professor/mentor/friend and the person who pointed me on my professional path to developmental studies was about to begin her talk. I hadn’t seen her or communicated with her in at least 15 years. During my junior and senior years, I’d been a student in her Child Development class and also worked as a research assistant on her study of teen mothers and their toddlers. We both shared a loved of applied research and of children. I made sure to get to her talk on, “Immigrant Youth and the American Dream,” early so she and I would have a chance to talk. I knew she didn’t know about Jordan’s death and I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell her. Over the years I’d sent her Christmas cards with pictures of my kids so she knew about my family. With time and my moves our contact dwindled.
I walked down the aisle of the lecture hall, recognizing her from behind by her telltale “messy” bun hairdo and trademark hand gestures as she spoke. I stood beside her, waiting for her to finish her conversation. She looked up and did a double take and then we hugged. Her first words to me as I sat beside here were, “Oh my God, your kids must be huge now.” I shook my head yes and then no. I took a breath and without preface said, “I lost my oldest son in 2008.” She put her hand to her mouth and I told her the story of the accident. As I got to the words, “Jordan was dead at the scene but his friends walked away,” I sobbed and let her engulf me as I cried. The buzzing sounds of conversations from the filled lecture hall surrounded us but it didn’t matter to me. I cried with someone who remembered my son as a baby. I pulled out my phone and showed her pictures of all of my kids. She touched my cheek looking at me with such benevolence and grace and asked if I would be around after her talk. I told her I would and went back to my seat. As I sat back down I found a tissue in my purse and wiped my eyes. Her talk began and I sat at rapt attention feeling energized and transformed into a student again. She found me outside the lecture hall and we continued our conversation. We talked of family but also of research and program ideas that have started to percolate in my mind.
At lunch later that afternoon I told Doreen and Michele how alive and engaged I felt. The rush of energy, light and what felt like pure oxygen to my brain was exhilarating. It was the first time since Jordan died that I’d had such a full interactive day of activities. Talking with friends, being fed intellectually at forums and lectures, and even gathering for pictures where my smile came naturally and made it all the way up to my eyes was amazing. I told them I felt like I’d been in one of those oxygen bars in L.A. and had a hefty dose. I topped off my Saturday by walking around campus with friends as we asked strangers repeatedly, “Would you mind taking a picture of us,” at all of our old haunts. I struck one ridiculous, silly pose after another laughing all the while. (Those will not be displayed on my blog. :)) We joked that given our giddiness, people were going to assume we’d been drinking when all we’d imbibed was frozen yogurt.
After our photo shoot we made our way to the football game where the stadium was packed. I sat down realizing what a full day it had been and that I was tired. My friends talked me into coming to the game instead of going back to the hotel by describing the bands’ antics. Brown’s band does not take itself too seriously even though the musicianship is great. During halftime, they lay at the endzone flat on their backs while the other team’s band plays. When it is their turn, their idea of a formation is to run at top speed seeing who can reach the 50 yd line first.
As I sat with alumni, families from the area and current students I talked a bit with friends and then started to watch the game. My gaze started to linger on a group of students standing by the fence. They looked like current students and had the carefree, nonchalance that hanging out while in college can bring. My heart ached for a moment as my thoughts went to Jordan and imagining him standing at a football game with friends. I looked away and then found my gaze pulled back to the same group of students. I felt myself freezing in a moment of heartache and I didn’t want to. I purposely looked away wondering where I could focus my attention when there were students all around me. I lifted my gaze and at the horizon was a perfect harvest moon. I watched it as I took deep breaths, telling myself, “you’re okay, you’re okay.” For the rest of the evening when the sights and sounds of youthful invincibility felt like they were closing in, I put my eyes on the horizon and the yellow moon. As the clock wound down, Brown beat Harvard 29-14!
The final event of the weekend was a worship service Sunday morning at the chapel. I was excited that my friend Katani would be singing, although she’d informed me at the football game that it would only be one song. I couldn’t convince her to do more even by saying, “I came all the way from Chicago to hear you sing.” Katani’s singing voice exudes the essence of her spirit. She is faithful, sincere, charming and funny. I have always loved to hear her sing. Any play or concert she performed in while we were in college, I was in attendance. After Jordan died, she called me one evening telling me of a CD she was working on. She told me one of the songs she especially wanted me to hear because she felt it would be a blessing to me. Before I knew it my dear friend sang to me over the phone. I stood in my kitchen, tears streaming down my face so grateful.
Katani was one of the first people I saw as I entered the chapel with Doreen and Michele. As I took my seat I looked around at all the faces in the room. There were alumni from various years as well as current students. I thought about the times I’d been in this chapel and the things I’d prayed about. I looked at the program and readied myself for a beautiful service.
The service was a time of renewal and grace. I look forward to sharing that part of my weekend with you as well.
Here is a clip from Youtube where you’ll see what I mean about Katani’s singing. She is the second performer. Enjoy