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Rare Bird: An Excerpt

An excerpt from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

anna jack vbs hugI wonder how much to share. I want to be honest about what the first days of early grief are like, yet I don’t want to be cruel. That’s why I don’t think I can move forward in this story if I don’t first tell you what happens when I eventually see Mrs. Davidson in the grocery store.

The grocery store is the absolute worst, most hellish place for me to be after Jack’s accident. Far worse than seeing the ridiculous, empty joke of a creek everyday or driving over the drain pipes or sitting on his bed surrounded by his things but with no Jack. Or even church, where my raw emotions are right on the surface, always, threatening to pour out when I’m just trying to make it through the hour and get back to my car.

The grocery store trumps them all.

When you spend years trying to get two underweight, picky eaters to eat something, anything, every section holds a memory. The dairy case reminds me of the years when all they wanted to eat was cheese. Chicken noodle soup reminds me of tummy bugs and, later, sore teeth from braces. Dill pickles remind me of the time Jack and I froze the pickle juice left in the jar to make a giant “picklesicle” for him. I stagger through the aisles, throwing things in the cart, the pain leaking out in tears, as I try to figure out how to shop for our new reality. It’s where I buy Old Spice body wash for a boy who no longer needs it. I’ll wash myself with it every day, just so I can smell him sometimes.

Yet this place of pain is also where, months after the accident, I see my childhood neighbor, Mrs. Davidson. Her son Kenny died in a car accident at age nineteen, over twenty years ago when I was away at college. I recognize her instantly from her jet-black hair and bright red lipstick. It’s as if she hasn’t aged at all, while I feel like I’m at least 150 years old.

I’m nervous about saying something, but I know, just know, that I must ask her a question. I’m afraid she won’t remember me or won’t have heard about Jack, and I’ll have to tell her about the accident, right here in the middle of Giant Foods.

But in the cereal aisle, burdened by Frosted Mini-Wheats and Reese’s Puffs, but emboldened by desperation and pain, I stop Mrs. Davidson and re-introduce myself to her. She has heard about Jack. I tell her I have a question. “I just have to know: Does it get better?” Without hesitating for even a second, Mrs. Davidson answers,”Oh yes!” I think, even in my shattered condition, I would be able to see through her if she’s lying to me. Her answer is quick. Confident. Assured.

It’s not as if she says it is easy, surviving the death of a child. I’m not stupid enough to ask her that and would call bullshit if anyone dared try to convince me that “easy” is even possible. But there she is, still coloring her hair and putting on her signature lipstick after all these years. Still grocery shopping, which I now know should never be taken for granted. And she confidently asserts that it does get better.

Mrs. Davidson and I are not close. I doubt that we’ll ever see each other again, but I need to share her “Oh yes!” right now because if we are going to look at what the days and months are like following Jack’s death, spending time with these snapshots of grief, if we are going to take brave steps together into the confusion of losing what we love the most, doesn’t it help to hear from the outset that somehow, in some way, it does get easier?

And it’s true. I can assure you, looking back on those days and months now, it does get better.

But not before it gets worse.

*   *   *

As I write about what those days and weeks are like, the what seems less important than the how. How does one wake up the next day and the next? How do you force yourself to breathe and to eat when both seem disgusting and ridiculous? How do you keep from losing your mind? How do you live knowing the dirty secret that most moms try to stave off as long as possible if they ever face it at all—that control is an illusion?

Because despite my attempts to follow my mother’s example and relax and trust God with my kids, I’d clung to a belief that I could somehow control our futures if I just tried hard enough. And if my solo efforts weren’t enough, there was always God. Surely God could see how we wanted to live our lives for Him. How we had formed our family around loving and serving Him. And praying.

Jack was well prayed for. That he would be healthy and grow. That he would make true friends.That others could see in him what we did. That he would know his own worth. Prayers of courage. Prayers of protection. Was it all a crock?

We made sure we were in church every single week. Not because we believed in getting credit for good behavior, but because we wanted our kids to understand our house was built on something bigger than ourselves, on the solid rock of God, not the shiftings and of money, status, or busyness that was so valued in our society.

Now I can’t shake the image we have on video of three-year-old Jack singing his Sunday school song with motions, some of his r’s coming out more like w’s in his little-boy voice: “The wain came down and the floods came up. The wain came down and the floods came up. The wain came down and the floods came up, and the house on the rock stood firm.”

How will our house stand in this flood?


RARE BIRD Cover Art FinalExcerpted from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson Copyright © 2014 by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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