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Excerpted from: "Losing Malcolm" by Carol Henderson


Every year I am aware of Malcolm's birthday. I always wake up on September 22 thinking about him, missing him, wishing he were present. For ten years, I couldn't get through a single birthday without crying. Some fleeting moment would inevitably trigger me: a few phrases of melancholy classical music heard on the car radio, a lanky boy about the right age pedaling by the house on a bicycle, my mother's phone call just to let me know she too was thinking of Malcolm–even if we didn't mention him.

Several years after Malcolm’s death, after we had moved away from Boston, I contacted the other grieving women I had met and asked them how their feelings had changed over the years. “You go shopping and find yourself looking at the clothes for your dead child’s age group,” Debby said. She now had two sons, close in age to my daughters. She added, “There’s always a sense, somehow, that someone is missing.” After Carolyn, Dot had had a healthy daughter: "I never know when it will hit me. At my oldest daughter's school graduation, I suddenly broke down. Carolyn would never graduate from anything.”

We all agreed that the best thing we had done for ourselves was to seek out Cathy Romeo–and each other.

Do I think about Malcolm often? Yes, just about every day. Do I find myself conjuring up a phantom son: a boy, tall like Olivia, with piercing blue eyes like Colette's? Not often. But I keep track of the big events he's missing–going away to camp, becoming a teenager, graduating from middle school, getting his driver's license. I can't help myself. I am still a mother who counts. And I am still a mother who cries, when I least expect to.

It happened at the Driver's License Office the other day. Having just passed the eye test without my glasses, I was ecstatic. (Never mind that I'd had to ask the examiner if the hieroglyphs I was squinting at were letters or numbers.) The good news was that, when my glasses were lost, I'd still be able to drive legally. All I had to do now was get my picture taken and leave. The entire ordeal had taken less than twenty minutes. I wouldn't even be late to work!

"You're up next," the examiner said. "Right after I photograph this young man." I glanced at the boy–clad in jeans, a white T-shirt, and oversized basketball sneakers. He ran his fingers through his mop of disheveled, dirty-blond hair. His father gave him a proud clap on the back. The boy beamed up at the camera, triumphant. He was sixteen and getting his first license.

Something about that boy triggered everything. My mood plummeted. In a flash the everyday world shattered, and I entered another reality, a timeless zone of deep, frantic pain.

Malcolm would have turned sixteen this fall.

Pallid in front of the camera, I faked a smile for the driver's license examiner. This too will pass, I told myself...until next time.

Every summer we return to Rhode Island for vacation. Sometimes we stay in our old house in Wakefield. My parents now have retired there full-time. They've completely remodeled the upstairs. Malcolm's room has been merged with the adjoining bedroom and so no longer exists. But the red maple is still there, in full glory, out the window. Sometimes, I look out and remember everything vividly–the sleepless nights, Malcolm's grunting, my sweaty terror. Other times, what I'm seeing is only an elegant tree I'd like to climb.

At the beach on sparkling days, I sometimes stand by the ocean's edge, in the spot where we scattered Malcolm's ashes. I gaze out at the razor-line horizon. I feel the play of the cool waves around my feet, the salty mist on my face, and the sun on my body. I'm glad we chose to cast our son's ashes into that magnificent sea. At the water's edge, I close my eyes and wait for the enduring image to appear, the one Cathy Romeo helped me find. It materializes on the inside of my eyelids, the image of Malcolm and me looking out at the view together, our silhouettes etched like bronze pennies. As long as I am of clear mind, I will find peace in that picture. And as I grow older, the image becomes sweeter and stronger. The wrenching memories recede. Like old newsprint, they are fading, becoming harder to read.

Malcolm and I stand together, gazing at the tranquil view. Our silhouettes are strong–mother and son, together. Always. We are bathed in radiant light. And love.

pp. 242-245. Excerpted from: "Losing Malcolm: A Mother's Journey Through Grief" by Carol Henderson. Posted by permission from the author. Published by University Press of Mississippi, copyright 2001.

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