Shutterfly: Remember this? Your photo memories from this week nine years ago…we couldn’t resist! The bold unread messages and their pick-up lines are stacked along the left side of my screen. Sometimes Shutterfly is sandwiched between the neighborhood newsletter, where locals sell their lightly used snow tires or Christmas ornaments, and the frequent sales pitches from Zenni Optical, enticing me with deep discounts. Shutterfly is a relentless flirt. I gird myself. Just open it, scroll through the photos, and unsubscribe. I debate. Nine years ago this week. He was nine. Don’t look! Yes, rewind! Do it! No, walk away! Will it help or hurt? Both.
It’s the Florida trip. The Disney-under-duress trip. I was safely in my forties.
My dad, long retired from teaching public school, and my mom, a part-time secretary most of her working life, wanted to take me, my siblings, and the grandchildren on a winter holiday to Florida. A trip we never had growing up.
Wouldn’t this be wonderful? All of us together again!
We’re so sorry we never gave you this kind of vacation when you were kids.
We took plenty of family vacations, basecamp-style: stay with family on Long Island and tour New York City; stay with family in Virginia and visit Washington, D.C.; stay with family in Phoenix and travel to the Grand Canyon. I loved those trips. We all did. Suburbia with cousins, MTV in finished basements, and malls. What did we have? A drafty farmhouse always under construction on a road with a Quaker cemetery at one end and the only neighbors at the other. Our playground—the big tree, the cornfield, and the huge irrigation pipe—in between.
The Florida trip was a generous offer, but I wanted my two weeks off from school in my cozy winter wonderland in the mountains. I wanted my books and a hot toddy by the fireplace. I wanted to cross-country ski in the field, cook hearty soups, bake bread, take the kids sledding, and try to shoot the moon in endless rounds of Hearts.
My husband and I prided ourselves on never taking the boys to Disney, keeping them entertained with homemade fairy tales and a steady stream of classic and contemporary children’s literature. We didn’t give them too much sugar and we never had soda in the house, waving the decisions around like some self-congratulatory flag. Our vacations were mostly in the spring and summer, exploring rugged terrain or vibrant cities.
We refused to lodge in the cramped condo where my parents and siblings stayed, knowing our family needed more than a pull-out couch and a kitchenette. Our points on a home exchange site allowed the Canadians to use our place as a home base for their downhill skiing adventures while we got the party house in New Smyrna. Only a few blocks from the condo, everyone joined us for time in the pool, use of the full-sized kitchen, and an evening for dessert and gifts on the roomy screened-in porch. We could walk to the beach and the grocery store, poke around in shops downtown. The warm sun showed up every day.
Shutterfly only shows me two photos.
In the first one, his right leg is bent, allowing him to lean on the concrete border around the purple and pink pansies. His head is turned towards me, offering a wide, impish smile. His whole hand is positioned over one of the eighty-something flowers, ready to snatch it out as soon as I’m done. I can hear his little boy giggle. I know his whole body is floppy, tired. We had ice cream and tried all the free soft drink samples at EPCOT’s Club Cool, featuring Coca-Cola products from around the world. In the geodesic Spaceship Earth, he pressed the button to narrate the ride in Chinese and we couldn’t restart. He didn’t know any Mandarin then. He wasn’t fluent in Spanish yet. His beginner Russian was years away. It was just the two of us in the dark as the car lurched forward along the track. It was roomy. He was my wiry little bird.
Cavemen, ancient Rome, and Michelangelo eventually gave way to the Steve Jobs automaton tinkering in a garage.
I hope I’m not clenching my teeth behind the camera or annoyed with his antics, sighing and begging him to be careful with Disney’s landscaping efforts. I hope I am doing then what I am doing now: soaking up his adorable fourth grade face looking directly at me in this moment.
I joined a club, the club with millions of members who’ve paid their dues and discover each other by chance—The Terrible Club. My son died. I’m in a special subset of The Club. Maybe it should be called The Terrible Terrible Club or The Super Sad Bad Club or The Double Whammy Club or There’s a Staggering Number of Us Club because he killed himself at sixteen.
I honestly believed tragedy careened into other people’s lives. I hunched by my son’s bedside in the ICU. That weekend wore on and he was declared dead. I earned what every other person who’s traveled this way is gifted—my after, my now. I embraced my sorrow and studied. I’m still racking up the credits for this graduate degree in grief. I absorbed video courses about depression, post-traumatic growth, trauma and the body. I sent myself to therapy, bought massage packages, and stretched with grief yoga; I immersed myself in websites and forums and blogs of other mothers, other sons. I read books about resilience and hope in the face of the unspeakable. I will not lie. The loss is still a massive, messy, bubbling, lava-filled crater I peer into often, feeling the immense heat burning my face. I stumble. On the steadier, softer days, I hula hoop while I wait to plunge the French press. The hoop is one of the few left from a DIY extravaganza. I’d learned the simple process with the easy-to-acquire materials and he followed along. He wanted to sell the ones he’d made at the art sale table I’d reserved at a local festival. That August morning, pulling out the bucket of markers and poster paper, he’d drawn a person in a blue t-shirt and orange-striped board shorts twirling away. Some of the hoops were still just spheres of industrial black tubing. He’d set aside an assortment of colorful electrical tape for customers. Five Dollars! Design Your Own! He sold out in the first half-hour on that radiant day by the lake, disappearing with a friend to buy ice cream for lunch. I don’t know which one of us made the hoop that rests along the kitchen wall.
I continue to look.
The larger Shutterfly photo shows him, his older brother, and their dad. My husband’s broad hand sits protectively atop his smaller one gripping…what? That stupid backpack on wheels? Is it holding all our rain gear? Yogurt? Books? The large, round EPCOT admission pin is affixed to their shirts. An image of Mickey & Friends against a gaudy yellow background announces 1st Visit! I notice they’re wearing the same shirts in the photo that’s still on the fridge at home: July visiting day at sleepaway camp the summer before Disney. A single day together out of seven weeks. Our boy was so pleased to see us, to let us in, showing off friends and fiber art projects. Leaving at the end of the day was a series of extended hugs and endearments. While we headed back to the parking lot, he’d jogged ahead to sit atop a boulder at a junction along the driveway. He waved at us with both hands as we turned the corner. We waved back through the car’s open windows.
In that shot on the fridge, he and his dad are sitting together during the afternoon announcements, scrawny arms draped around his father’s neck and shoulder. The new button bracelet he crafted earlier that morning is clearly visible at the end of my husband’s outstretched arm.
Back in Florida, the Mickey & Friends button is pulling and tugging the banana shirt downward. My son’s mouth and eyes: A question? An observation? A plea? My husband, his wild and frizzy dark hair devoid of gray, is facing him and listening.
Older brother is twelve and wearing a bright white polo. No EPCOT pin. He’s flushed. His hair is matted. Slightly furrowed brow. Lips together. Elbows out slightly, hands in his pockets. He’s halfway through seventh grade. He’ll be asked to join the stage crew for the spring play and figure out the new lightboard. He writes what he learns, creates a detailed manual. He’s a year into the jewelry design business I encouraged him to launch; we share a small studio and a kiln. His marketing strategy: name each glass piece he’s crafted with names like Moonlight, Chagall, and Solstice. Middle-aged women pluck three or four pairs of the glittery earrings from his display at craft shows, hold them to the light, and say, “Are you your mom’s helper?” I put my book or knitting down and shake my head. He educates them about his process, his inspiration. In a few months, he will land wholesale accounts. He’s itching for braces; he asked us to make an appointment with an orthodontist. He’s shifted his body slightly away from his younger brother and his dad, looking past me.
Sometime later, the Canadians will contact us to say they are ending their vacation early, abandoning our dog. The rainy, slushy weather all week has made their holiday miserable.
I enlarge the photo and focus on the sign above the depot in the background—Transportation to Future World.
I must’ve climbed aboard one of those boats at Friendship Landing. I have arrived.
Lauren McGovern lives in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. She is a teacher at North Country School in Lake Placid, NY. Her writing has appeared in Greater Good Science Center Magazine, What’s Your Grief, and The Brooklyn Review. Visit laurenmcgovern.online.