“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.