“Sorrow comes in great waves…but rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us, it leaves us. And we know that if it is strong, we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain.” – Henry James
After the events of the past weeks: the COVID pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, rioting and looting in many of our major cities, it is difficult to think of celebration. There is so much I worry about, so much anger that needs to be healed, so many problems that need to be rectified. It seems insurmountable. This country I love is deeply troubled. But today, I find myself having to pause for celebration.
Today, June 4th, is Henry’s birthday. It is Henry’s 40th birthday. Recently, Henry and I reconnected after 36 years. In 1984, Henry was three-years-old and one of my nursery school students. His mother, Catherine and I became friends that year, and I also took care of Henry three days a week while Catherine worked on her dissertation on Henry James.
Then something unbelievably senseless happened. One February night, Catherine was killed by a drunk driver. I did not know how to process this loss. The only thing I did know to do was to take care of Henry, and that’s what I did. I became Henry’s full-time caretaker for the next two years. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life and the most rewarding.
Henry and I had many adventures together. We shed many tears, and we also experienced everyday joys. Then Henry, as boys have a habit of doing, grew up. Gradually, we lost touch with each other. However, I never forgot about him and every June 4th I would say, “Happy Birthday, Henry – wherever you are!” I hoped that he knew that I was thinking of him and wishing him well.
Henry graduated high school, went to college, created several restaurants, and became a creative adult. I continued teaching and writing. I hoped that one day, Henry and I would be able to reunite so that I could tell him about those years. And then it happened, out of the blue. He reached out to me and said that he wanted to know more about his mother. I was so overjoyed. We talked over the phone, and the 36 years melted away. Even though we were actually strangers now, we talked together as if it was a normal, everyday occurrence.
I realized that I had been waiting for 36 years to tell his story. I sat down for 5 days in a row and wrote and wrote and wrote. I created a 33-page book of memories for Henry. It was such an interesting process because the more I wrote, the more I remembered. I felt a calm and ease come over me. When I sent the book to Henry, he said that many people had promised to write down memories for him, but no one ever did until now. That made me sad for him, but also happy. I am so amazingly happy that I could finally give him this gift, which he will read today on his 40th birthday, June 4th.
This is a poem I wrote a number of years ago about the day Henry and I came home from school to his house the week after Catherine died. I hope my memories of that time will bring him closer to his mother.
Three days after Catherine died,
I took her young son home from school.
I put her key into her door
As her son pushed ahead,
Running through the house, calling,
“Mommy, Mommy, where are you?
I made a picture for you!”
He was three and didn’t understand
The permanence of death.
I ran after him,
Took him by the hand,
“You remember, Henry, don’t you?
Mommy’s not here.”
He leaned into me,
His face hidden between
The folds of my skirt,
“I remember,” he whispered.
We went into Catherine’s kitchen,
Made cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches,
Sat on the floor of her sunny living room,
Built castles out of wooden blocks,
“When’s my mommy coming?”
Henry asked again.
I looked into his eyes,
“Henry, I’m sorry –
Mommy’s not coming home.”
“But I didn’t say good-bye to her,
She’ll be lonely without me.”
I turned my tears away,
Looked out the back door
Trying to find the words
To make him understand.
I caught a glimpse –
Something bright from Catherine’s closet,
One of her dresses, the Marimekko
With the bright flowers,
The one she wore the first time I met her.
I took Henry’s hand,
Opened her closet, gathered all her dresses
And laid them on her bed.
I picked up each dress, one by one,
Held them in front of Henry.
He looked up at me and knew what to do:
He hugged each dress,
Nestled his face into the familiar fabric,
Have fun in heaven,
Remember me,” he whispered.
15 thoughts on “A Pause for Celebration”
What a special gift for both of you. I believe stories heal, and I hope that your gift will fill a place in his heart. This pause for celebration may have been needed for you, but I think many of us as readers will find celebration as well. Thank you for sharing this serendipitous story!
Thank you Leigh Anne!
This story and your poem touched my heart. I could picture Henry hugging his mom’s dresses – how sad you all must have been, but how lucky he was to have you. Now, you can bring joy to each other again by helping him remember his mom. I am so glad you kept reaching out and that he found a way to reach back. Thank you for sharing this story.
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Simply beautiful. It is wonderful that you and Henry have reconnected and may share each other’s lives again. Must add, Henry was fortunate to have you in past, present and now in his future. Only, you, my dearest sister would put her heart into a thirty-three page gift to a young man who never had the memories of a mother who die so tragically and do young. You have my love, always.
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Reconnecting fills hearts. What a special gift for Henry!
Thank you, Elsie!
What a wonderful gift you gave to Henry’s mom and Henry. So wonderful too to be reunited. What a gift!
So beautiful–I cried reading it. You two are so lucky to have had each other.
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Oh my gosh, Jojo! Even after hearing the story I am so profoundly touched by reading your retelling of it, and your remarkable poem. You, Henry, and his mother — such incredibly wonderful blessings to one another, even amidst the sadness. I am SO very glad that you and Henry have reconnected. I think you have been connected this whole time, and that your birthday wishes have reached him across the miles that separated you. But, yes, I am so very happy that communication has been re-established. And, if I am happy, imagine how happy Catherine is! My heart is overflowing for you all. xo
Now, you made me cry! Thank you, Molly. It has been an incredible journey. And yes – I think Catherine can rest easy now too.
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What a story. Mighty emotions. It’s wonderful that you were able to reconnect and give a gift of memories to Henry. Thank you for sharing the story with us.
Terje – I loved you post on No. 9. You expressed exactly what I’ve thought so many times as I lay in bed. I posted a comment, but it was registered as anonymous. Just wanted you to know that I’m reading your work!
Your words flooded me with so many emotions – sadness – joy – excitement – tenderness. What a gift you have not only for writing, but for loving. Even in the middle of a world turned upside down, you find room for celebration. You made room for joy! #MakeRoomForJoy
Thank you! That means the world to me!