I can remember my body shaking the same way when I was a boy. My lungs trying to pull air back in, but the convulsions from my crying making each breath stutter. I remember, too, a feeling that I shouldn’t be this way, that I should stop as soon as I could.
I saw it happening to my son as we stood in the rain of Hurricane Sandy. I searched for ways he could help me as I dug the final resting place for Zoe, our cat euthanized the night before. Between the rocks in our New England soil and the roots from the Hemlock tree above, the digging was slow – and too much for seven year old arms. But he had asked to help. And he stood there, steadfast, arms at his side, as my crow bar and shovel made slow work.
He doesn’t often stand so still. He’s much more likely than his older sister or his younger brother to be a blur, one with volume pegged high, childhood silliness taken one-half step too far. The kind of exuberance that some people label as “a boy being a boy” – the kind that looks like he’s moving way too fast to possibly stop and think, to stop and feel.
But he stood there. Not completely still, because he shook, just as he’d done the night before when, after the vet had come to the house and gone, he had asked to read a story. Sure, I said. Maybe a Pooh story, he asked, meaning one out of our vintage A.A. Milne hardcover that has long since lost its monetary value, its binding loosened by overhead reading, cover marked in crayon. It wasn’t his usual choice, at least not since he willed himself to be enough of a reader to catch up to his older sister in reading Harry Potter. I read, and he laughed with sincerity, as any child will do if you read them a Pooh story with all of your own. As he got into bed, though, the gaiety of those stories fell to the pain of his first loss. His bravado, which compels him to be faster, stronger, or funnier than all comers, which would have him best his four year-old brother by any means, his bravado fell too. He didn’t stop shaking for a long time.
I told him then that this is what makes him special. I told him his sadness, the way he lets himself feel it, is what make him a good son, a good brother, and why Zoe loved him so much. It’s more than okay for you to feel this way, I told him. It’s what makes you who you are. It’s your gift.
We had gone in to get the rest of the family after the hole was finished, and he almost didn’t come back outside. But he was so desperate to help, to feel the connection that he needed, as much as it hurt. He took the cardboard box from the barn as we walked toward the back of the yard. It hardly weighed anything at all, but looked so heavy in his arms. The effort was in his heart and in his lungs drawing in air.
We filled the grave and his brother and sister walked back toward the house. He simply stood, still and soaking. Can we mark it, Dad? What will we use? I’ll get a flat rock, I replied, I’ve got a few on the stone wall. It has to be at least three feet tall, he said. Three feet, I asked, why three feet? Well, he said, the snow can be up to that deep.