We live in the third house from the beach. It’s a small two-story, though bigger than our last home. The second floor is one large room with toys, a cardboard house, a craft table, my Pilates reformer and walls covered in Ada’s artwork. The French doors at one end open onto a sliver of a balcony and peering past the two huge homes in front of us, we can see the ocean. Those two homes used to be tiny beach cottages, summer time play space for families coming up from Los Angeles with their young kids. The woman who lives closest to us moved in year-round 18 years ago and is now in her 80’s, her husband long gone, with a brown and white spaniel and full-time home care for company. She loves the sound of our daughter’s voice and the little garden we’ve put in the back yard. Her sons visit occasionally – one more than the other. She keeps mostly to herself, occasionally walking up the lane to her 90 year-old friend’s house. They’ve known each other since girl-hood and are sharing the ends of their lives now too.
The house directly on the beach is a sharply angled concrete beauty with huge expanses of glass. We watched it being built last summer as we walked up and down the sand, on the days between the broken leg and bed rest. We wondered about the owners when we moved in, seeing them only occasionally from a distance: gray hair in a wetsuit, heading toward the ocean for a swim. Over the last months, we’ve met them and are slowly developing a neighborly friendship. They are our parents’ age, though he still works in Los Angeles. They’ve owned the beach house more than three decades and finally, when the sand piled so high they no longer had a view of the ocean, they rebuilt. Their sons grown with no grandchildren in sight, she stopped me the other day to offer solid oak twin bed frames, well loved and well taken care of. She invited me in to see the house and I promised to come back, with husband and child in tow.
As we wandered through their home, admiring its clean lines and light-filled space, conversation turned to life, and work, and children. Ada had fallen on their stairs and while she nursed an apple juice and held ice to a bumped leg, we talked about motherhood. I mentioned Ben. I am accustomed to different reactions when I talk about him. I didn’t notice anything unusual about hers, and the subject turned quickly to other things. We were leaving the next day for Colorado and were behind in our packing, so our visit ended shortly afterward.
We’d been back a few days and I was in the garage getting laundry, my hair wet from a late shower, when I heard a voice call my name over the fence. She peeked in, a bag of fresh vegetables from their garden in hand. After a moment of polite conversation, she began to apologize. She told me they had lost a child too and she’d been stunned into silence when I mentioned Benjamin. Only she’d lost him as a teenager, not an infant, a boy rounding the corner to becoming a man. As we spoke, I could feel one wall go down and another go up – the bond of losing a child tying us together while the desire to stay composed with a virtual stranger held us in check.
Every time I hear the story of someone’s grief, my heart opens wider. There is sadness, yes, and a massive amount of love. For all of us. For the beauty and striving of the human spirit. We do what we can to survive.
I recently learned that Patti Digh, a woman whose creative work has been shaped in many ways by loss and whose book Life is a Verb I recommend as a resource in the Picking Up the Pieces guide, is writing a new book called The Geography of Loss. She’s asking the question, “For what or for whom do you grieve?” You can read the stories already there and add your own if you wish. Let’s deepen the conversation. Let’s crack our hearts wide-open and let love in. Let’s change the way grief is talked about – or not talked about – in our culture.
It is time.