A Special Day
“Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all” This quote, often recalled at the moment of a romantic break-up is in fact from a poem entitled “In Memoriam A.H.H.” and the loss being explored here is more profound than leaving a lover. This poem is about the death of a close friend, a far more permanent and unrecoverable loss.
The sentiment is simple. You would not trade a minute of the time spent with your loved one even if you knew the pain that was to come. The love is worth the pain. The pain is only because of the love, Yin and Yang.
In the third act of the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder the main character, Emily, has died in child birth. After some time in the cemetery, she learns that she may re-live one day of her life. She is warned not to select a momentous day, but rather an ordinary one, lest the magnitude of what she has lost overwhelm her. She chooses her 12th birthday.
Over the years I’ve considered this bargain. Re-live a day, not my wedding day, not the days my children where born, not a “big” day, just an ordinary one.
For the longest time, the day I would have chosen was Thanksgiving Day 1980.
I was a junior in High School. I was in the very best shape of my entire life. I was a broad shouldered, 185 pound High School football player. On that morning, beginning at 10:30 AM on the Holbrook High School football field, I played the game of my life. I couldn’t tell you how many tackles I had, I just know that when I watched the film a few days later I amazed even myself.
In a ceremony after the game I was named defensive player of the game in a 0-0 tie. I then went home and had just about the best Thanksgiving Dinner I ever tasted. My father let me have my “first beer” (officially anyway), the family was all there, except for my brother Bill, who missed the festivities due to the fact he was sleeping off one hell of a hangover which resulted from his being convinced he was going to die of cancer, but that’s a whole different story.
I wanted to choose this day because, prior to becoming part of my own family, this was the best day of my life. It wasn’t momentous; it wasn’t the start of anything big, it was just special to me because I was doing something I loved and doing it as well as was ever able to do it.
Very recently I have decided that another day would take its place.
This was a summer-hot day late in May of 1996. My wife Lisa, my then two children and I were spending a few days with my in-laws at The Spring House Inn on Block Island. Kevin was 6, Drew was 9 months old.
Lisa and I had spent a weekend on Block Island a few years before when we were still dating. We had rented a Moped to explore the island. That wouldn’t be possible with a 9 month old so Lisa would be staying in town with Drew, Butch, Petey , Kathy and Glynn. Me and Kev would be doing the exploring.
When Drew was born I remember making a conscious effort to spend as much time with Kevin as possible. It was vitally important that he understand that even though he had another dad and a different last name, that he was 100% a member of the family. I would not treat him any differently now or ever. This was an opportunity to spend some fun time together, just the two of us.
We rented a Moped downtown next to the Italian restaurant. We were fitted for helmets and were checked out for safety and set off, heading for the northern point of the island. There is a small parking area up there, a long, rocky beach and, in the distance, the northern lighthouse. We explored all along the beach all the way to the lighthouse. It was a lot further than it looked, somewhere between one and two miles. When we hit spots where we had to trudge through soft sand dunes it was hard work, but we didn’t even think about giving up. The lighthouse was the goal, we’d be going there.
There wasn’t much going on at the lighthouse, but it was still a cool place; after hanging around for a bit we began trudging back to the parking lot. It seemed like a much shorter walk going back. We jumped on the Moped and headed back towards town. When we made it back to the center we grabbed some subs we took the road up the hill towards the airport.
We took a break up there, had some lunch and drinks and watched a few planes take off and land. After a while we saddled back up and headed downhill towards the southern end of the island. There you can find the southern lighthouse and bluffs, somewhat less famous, but no less breathtaking that the ones on Martha’s Vineyard.
The parking lot was a little bigger down here. From the top of the Bluffs you could clearly see Montauk in the distance. There are wooden stairs built into the hillside which lead down to the beach hundreds of feet below. Kevin really loved exploring here. There were huge rocks to climb on all along the beach; the waves were crashing in, the smell of the sea and the voices of the angels in the waves. We stayed down there for quite a while, exploring far along the beach.
Eventually we had to climb the stairs back up to the top of the bluffs. It was a lot easier coming down, and I was a lot younger then too. We jumped back on the “bike” and cruised back to town, the long way. It was around 3:00 when we turned in the Moped and walked up the hill back to the hotel. Everyone was sitting out on the porch when we arrived. Even that was fun.
A babysitter from the hotel took care of the boys that night while the adults went to dinner at The Manisses. For years Kevin would talk about how much fun he had making card houses and playing games with this young college girl.
It was a beautiful day that I spent doing something I loved with someone I loved very much.
Many years later Kevin would die in a car accident 21 days after his 21st birthday. I wonder if somewhere he has the option of re-living a day, and if he’d choose this one.
At the end of Act 3 in “Our Town” Emily asks the Stage Manager whether anyone realizes life while they live it, and is told, “No. The saints and poets, maybe–they do some.” The truth of the matter is those of us who have lost a child know. We know how precious and fragile life is. We know how those moments of sublime beauty we shared with the lost child can never be replaced, but must always be remembered. We even write them down so they will never be forgotten.
We live in mortal fear of losing another child, yet at the same time we appreciate all those moments we have with them far deeper than before. I find myself staring at Drew and Katalin and trying to burn the memory of the moment into my synapses, just in case.
If there is someone up there watching and guiding us, be it God, or our ancestors or Kevin himself, I have but one prayer, and this I beg. Let the others grow old, the way it should have been with Kev. Let them struggle and triumph and marry and have children. Let them come to appreciate the preciousness of the existence we have here. They have come to know loss. They won’t fail to appreciate this life.