It’s been four weeks today since I last saw my oldest son alive.
I hugged him, told him I loved him.
He looked odd to me, through my maternal view. I asked him if he was sick. He said no, he was fine, but to my eye, he looked “faded.” Something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That was a Thursday. He ran the delivery route, then returned to his college classes and retail job. Sometime around midnight the following Monday, he died in a single vehicle accident on top of a mountain some 70 miles away from me.
One day I won’t remember in weeks or months, I hope. One day I’ll just remember my son without remorse. Honestly, I’ve been grieving him—a piercing and a tattoo and an over-the-road job at a time—for a decade.
I want to remember Ethan with joy, not with the mind-boggling, gut-wrenching message the county coroner brought to my office midday on an autumn Tuesday. I always thought my husband would be the one to get “the call” I’ve always feared. (yeah, you crazy cult religious peeps, “that which I have greatly feared has come upon me.” Here’s your lovely justification and way to consider yourselves immune to destruction. I feared, and so I suffer, and you can count your blessings.) But, back to reality, everyone knows where to find me, so I got the notification. We go to the same church and chat at commissioners’ meetings. When she asked for a private meeting I was expecting a juicy county news scoop. My adult daughter left the office to give us privacy. The coroner, seated in my cheap folding chair, asked if my legal name is Samantha Turner, and if my husband’s legal name is John Turner, and if we have a son named Ethan Alexander Turner. That’s when I knew something was seriously wrong.
Jail? I thought. He’s been arrested for doing something stupid.
And then I remembered to whom I was speaking.
He’d been in an accident sometime the night before, on a high mountain road with which my husband and I are intimately familiar. It was our high school party road some 30 years ago. Ethan’s body was found early Tuesday morning, ejected from his vehicle in a rollover some 113 feet from the road. He’d only owned the SUV he was driving for 24 hours, his third car in as many months.
Oddly, I slept soundly through the night that night. I’d always thought if something happened to my children I’d KNOW. I’d wake up. I’d have a panic attack. I didn’t. Someone else had to tell me my child had died.
Initial reactions? Thank God his little brother wasn’t with him. Thank God no one else was with him. (If someone had been with him, he probably wouldn’t have wrecked… he was responsible for everyone, just never responsible for himself). Why wasn’t he wearing his seatbelt? DUMBASS.
For the first few days, I felt like I had a bad case of Tourettes Syndrome combined with the stomach flu. Both reappear periodically.
Now, some weeks later, when I can’t escape the feeling I’ve fallen into an ugly parallel universe, I scour the initial accident report from the state patrol. They have a little diagram of the accident in which the location of the body is shown as a tiny burrito-shaped bundle, like a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Somehow the accident report makes it real and practical and is oddly comforting. Maybe that’s my journalistic nature coming forward. Just the facts, please. I can deal with facts.
In the early days after the accident, a telephone call from the coroner told me the cause of death was “aortic laceration.” There are comprehensive YouTube videos about aortic laceration for the morbid among us. I know because I’ve watched them all. I haven’t decided if I’ll request the full autopsy report. I can’t decide if knowing all the details will be less traumatic than the horrific things my writer-brain imagination has conjured about his demise.
Meanwhile, thank God for my husband, who called all our family members and took care of all the other dirty work. I’d had to call him and that was bad enough. I couldn’t say “Ethan’s dead.” I said, “Ethan’s gone, and I need you to come to the office.” He took care of all the hard things, the things I couldn’t have endured, while I continued working, and for that I’m grateful. When you own your own business, and it’s a weekly newspaper, there is no such thing as “bereavement leave.” There’s just being bereaved and going to work anyway. Suck it up, peeps.
People have been wonderful and kind and supportive. It really does help, the way stanching arterial blood flow helps an accident victim. Just when we think we’ll bleed out, someone steps up with soft words and comforting food and physical hugs and encouragement.
We made it through the memorial, held on what would have been Ethan’s 26th birthday, Oct. 20, 2018.
And now we return home, and we continue to deal with the “detritus of death,” words that came to me the morning after the news. Death is messy.
My daughter took on the responsibility of memorializing her brother’s online accounts, my husband and son went through his personal effects, and we’re still stumbling across the random reminders that hit like a sucker punch to the gut: the CD of his wretched thrash metal music left in my car CD player; his phone number in my “favorites” list; is ashes in a temporary container in my living room because I can’t bring myself to move them and I twistedly enjoy having my adventurer safely under my supervision. (I took the container with me to the memorial service, safely buckled into the backseat of my car. Poetic justice.)
We will never be the same. This I know.
There is a word for a person who loses his or her parents: orphan. There is a word for the person who loses a spouse: widow/widower. There is no word for the parent who loses a child, or the sibling who loses a sister or brother, or the grandparent who loses a grandchild. There literally are no words. I’m still a mother. I still birthed four children. One of those children is no longer with us. There’s no easy way to explain that in casual conversation.
We will always love him. But we refuse to allow his loss to define us, individually or as a family. He’s in us, and we love him, but his loss will not be the fulcrum of our lives. He would not have wanted it that way. If Ethan wished anything, it would be that we would, as his knuckle tattoos reminded us, “LIVE FREE,” and that includes not allowing his untimely death to define the rest of our lives on this planet.
It’s been four weeks today since I last saw my oldest son alive.