A somewhat balmy and overcast Saturday morning, just a day or so before his twenty-fourth birthday. I shuffled through grass and sand, greeting and hugging those I hadn’t seen since the inaugural memorial fishing tournament the previous year. While sitting down and waiting for a few others to return from fishing, I mentally began going through the names of people that I hadn’t said hello to. Oh, I need to go say hi to Connor!
It was subconscious, and the reality hit me just as quickly as the original thought had come up. Connor was the reason we were all there, casting lines, reminiscing and taking in things that had been added to the garden. We were celebrating another year of his life, despite that he wasn’t able to celebrate here with us on earth.
Momentarily panic-stricken, I didn’t know whether to cry or merely shrug it off. The former would have been more than appropriate, but I felt guilty for wanting to do so randomly and in such a public place. Later on, I would feel guilty for not crying, but in that moment, I grabbed a Miller Lite (one of his beers of choice, if I remember correctly) and tried to see all the construction business taking place across the lake at my childhood home.
How has it been two years? A question repeatedly asked at Country Thunder, a rich summer tradition and the last place I saw him alive. I was adamant on staying for Luke Bryan, and raised a glass with the best of them as I was reminded I loved this music so much in the first place. I wanted to honor two great men that were taken from this world much too soon, who left an imprint on my life and memories I still recall to this very day.
It’s not just the bitter sweetness of birthdays, weddings, or long-standing traditions. It’s when your world, your perspective, your life as you know it has changed, but everything else around you acts like never nothing. You suddenly feel distant from those who haven’t experienced it, and truly the only way to understand it is if and when you go through it. The concept of not taking anything for granted and loving people while you have them—most of the time it’s just lip service until you’ve been wrecked to your shoes by a sudden loss or looked death in the face. Tack on the popularity of being savage versus sensitive, and that’s a whole other wall to break through.
It’s when you know you’re not the only one going through it, but feeling like you’re the only one willing to openly and honestly talk about it.
Reminiscing has been, and continues to be a saving grace. I didn’t get to do that at twenty-one, when a friend from high schooll was killed in a drunk driving accident. It helps me to see that living counts for something, even in the moments that made you angry or pissed off, but seem so small now.
There is no formula for grief; it is not linear, and most of the time it’s not temporary. Books like Option B and The Colors of Goodbye are helpful, but ultimately the best thing I can do is face the waves when they come. Sometimes I just bob with it, like when I randomly get the sniffles and goosebumps at work and can act like I’m fighting a cold. But if I hear Eric Church or Cole Swindell, it’s best to just hold me and let me cry it out.
I learned a long time ago not to be afraid of emotion, and the discomfort that often comes with it. I don’t know how to answer, “Why do I get my cat back but not my son?” (A miracle that is not mine to share), but I say without question that you do not tell a parent when or even if they should stop grieving the loss of their child (and vice versa) Don’t assume that talking about a lost love one always makes people sad or brings back bad memories; at the very least, it never hurts to ask. And while we all grieve differently, there’s a huge difference between doing so privately and full-out running away from it.
There is room for both joy and pain, particularly when it comes to navigating life after tragedy. It doesn’t have to be a blessing or a gift right away, nor might it ever be. Sometimes it just the unfortunate and painful reality that has to be dealt with.
I am grateful that Connor’s life has brought me closer to those whom I’ve known since I was a baby, and brought me peace with various situations that I’ve struggled with up until then. And I will always refer to our little group of siblings as the seven of us, nothing less.
He has given me a new appreciation for where I grew up, a place that I wanted to leave behind completely beforehand.
I am grateful for the garden created in his honor, a place that I can hopefully bring my future partner and children to someday.
And I am grateful for his spirit; a spirit that I will not apologize for trying to keep alive, whether it’s through the stories I tell about my life, or the motivation to give love and to love deeply.
Take care of them, Lord.