How long does it take to change the world? It’s a question that men have been asking themselves since the beginning of time. Can it be measured in the millennia of continental shift and upheaval? Can it be measured in the centuries of rising and falling Empires? Can it be measured in the decades of one man’s influence on world affairs? No – the answer to the question is far shorter. One second. Not that long even, when you really get down to it. One second is all that marks the space between “before” and “after”. Before a child dies, and after.
Last week, a friend of my son named Jonathan was killed in a tragic playground accident. It was a senseless, random event. My son was one of the boys playing with him at the time, and was the one who ran to get the teachers and nurse. I cannot even begin to understand the magnitude of the pain and loss his family feels. What we are feeling is overwhelming almost to the point of incapacitation, and our son is still safe and healthy and here.
I understand that death is a part of life – we all do. But the death of a child is something that cuts to the quick of everyone’s soul. This boy was only 9 years old; he had his entire life ahead of him. Now, in the blink of an eye – in one single second – it’s gone. I still just can’t seem to get my head wrapped around that; it doesn’t fit. These are the things that happen to other people – the ones on TV, or in books, or in movies. They don’t happen in your hometown, and they surely don’t happen to you and your friends.
I have found myself thinking about all the things this boy will never know. His first kiss. Getting his driver’s license. His first love. Graduating from high school and college. The joy of having children of his own. Here is an entire life gone in a single second. How do you tell your own children about that? How do you explain the why of it all? How do you mourn?
My son is a sensitive soul – he was lucky enough to get that from his mother. He feels things intensely, and the death of his friend has hit him very hard. He tries to hide it at times and at others he is able to lose himself in a book or video game. Still, that day on the playground is lurking there in his mind and sneaks up on him when he isn’t looking. It’s something he will take with him for the rest of his life.
We support him and hold him and try to help him find his way through his grief, but it’s hard – for all of us. As a person, I grieve for Jonathan’s family. As a parent, I grieve for my son. He has lost not only a friend; he’s lost a large piece of his childhood innocence. Death at that age is supposed to be a distant thing – unknowable and unthinkable. If it does come, it’s something that happens to old people, sick people, people you’ve only heard your grandparents talk about around the kitchen table. It’s not supposed to be this close. It’s meant for funeral homes and people you barely knew, not for your friend on the playground at school.
On Saturday we attended a Memorial service for Jonathan. After a week of cold and gray weather, it was a beautiful sunny day. The church was filled with family, friends, and children from the school. Everyone there, including the youngest, seemed to understand the importance of why we had gathered. I was struck by the absolute silence as the crowd rose for the presentation of the colors by a local Boy Scout troop. As the preacher rose to begin the service I could not help but wish I was somewhere else. However necessary and right it was for us to be there, no one should have to attend a memorial service for a 9 year-old little boy. No one.
The service was both beautiful and haunting, filled with both laughter and tears. The fourth grade sang a song that had been written the day before by Jonathan’s best friend. When it came time to head up to the stage, my son did not want to go – he was in tears. My wife took him by the shoulders and told him this was something he needed to do. She did not want him to look back with regret later in life. She walked with him up to the stage and helped him join his classmates. I was proud of them both in that moment – him for having the courage to face his grief, her for having the wisdom to point him in the right direction.
We made it though the rest of the day as a family. We made each other laugh when we could. We held each other tight when we couldn’t. That night, I went into my son’s room after he had fallen asleep. I put my hand on his chest to make sure he was still breathing. I haven’t done that since he was a baby – but it felt like the right thing to do.
On the Friday before the Memorial service, I went to a baby shower for a co-worker. It was a joyful time, but made for a discordant 24 hours; confused with thoughts and emotions, alternating between celebration and mourning. This confluence of events, one a beginning and one an ending, gave me pause. I took step back and took time to think. Really think.
It’s one thing to say that life is too short – it’s quite another to see up close how short it can be. We use words like “tragedy” and “horrible loss”, but they can’t do those feelings justice. There is an emptiness and finality in those moments that is both overwhelming and inescapable. Still, I was reminded that for all of the pain and loss in the world, there is still happiness. There are new beginnings, there are paths forward – they just lead into a world that is different from the one from “before”.
I don’t know how my son is going to grieve over time. I don’t know how he’s going to process all of this. I don’t know how he’s going to rationalize the senselessness of it all. I don’t know how it’s going to affect the person he is going to be. I do know this – I’m going to be there to support him. I’m going to make sure he understands that real men DO cry, and be there to wipe his eyes when they are full of tears. I’m going to everything I can to protect him. I’m also going to do everything I can to prepare him for those times I can’t be there. Most importantly – I’m going to love him with all of my heart, without condition and without fail.
I’ve come to terms with a lot of things over the past week – chief among them this: it only takes one second to change the world. One second. You won’t always see it coming – be it happy or be it sad. That single second will separate your world into a time before and a time after. No matter what that after looks like, you have to live it. You have to feel it.
I’ve also learned they are a gift, this collection of seconds we get to spend together on this earth. Whether gracefully long or tragically short – they are still a blessing. Don’t let them slip through your hands. Don’t take them for granted. For me, I’m going to gather those seconds to me, hold them close, and cherish them. Do the same with your life. Do the same with your children. There is no promise of tomorrow, only today.
In Memory of Jonathan
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