Michael Weeks at forty-two years old: he spends his evenings in the company of his wife, his children and his dogs. He’s fulfilled by his career; his relationships are steady; his hobbies, rewarding. He’s healthy, and he’s happy.
Michael Weeks at forty-two years old: he’s lonely, divorced, dissatisfied with his friendships, miserable in his unfulfilling job. Nightly, he watches TV, drinks beer, and dreads tomorrow.
Michael Weeks is the eight-year-old boy buried in the grave next to my mother. If he didn’t die, he’d be forty-two. His parents think about him every day. They try to envision the life he might be living. Their version resembles the first picture I painted.
My mother died at forty-nine. If she was still living today, she’d be eighty-two.
Death leaves a void, a hole in the universe where potential might have been. Because she died in middle-age, my mother lived only half her life. You think I’m being optimistic. Forty-nine, you say, is a bit beyond halfway through. I’m not so sure. My father is now eighty-eight and he’s still going strong. After my mother died, my father mourned. He dated. And then he remarried. His second twenty-fifth anniversary is a few months away. He sometimes says he’s living his second life.
Besides her husband, my mother left behind three adult sons, none yet married, and kids still years away. Her career, launched when I was finally old enough to be left alone after school, was a work in progress. Her second life was just beginning.
Losing the chance to live a full life seems like the ultimate rip-off. It’s like receiving just a portion of a promised reward. We put in our time on earth, building a life, a personality, relationships, our selves, and suddenly it’s all stripped away. For Michael Weeks, not much invested yet on his part, but the possibility of that life is lost forever. And for his parents, devastation. The boy they created and nurtured into a human being, simply gone.
And for my mother? Forty-three good years, happy years, I think. And six years of illness. She knew she was dying from the start. My father found some notes she wrote down early on. She lived an eighth of her life knowing it would soon be done for good.
When we die, we start over, but not from scratch. The important lessons we learn during our lives are carried with us to our next life. We build on that knowledge, we keep improving. We’ve all known an “old soul.” Someone who gets it without seeming to put in the necessary effort. The rest of us flail about receiving our bumps and bruises, breaks and contusions. The old souls, if we watch them carefully, we can learn from them.
My mother, I think, was early in the soul-growing-game. Or so it seems on the surface. In my memory, she is simple, naïve. Lots of hugs, quick to emotion—good and bad. In the sixties, we still got spanked. The tool was a foot-long scrap of a leather belt. My father made it a production: “I’m going to get the strap!” he said. And then he disappeared for a few minutes. The real punishment: terrified anticipation. My mother, on the other hand, just swatted away.
Many Christians believe in heaven. A place they can meet-up with those they’ve lost, a place to get together in a future world. Michael Weeks’ parents are Christian. Knowing there’s a future is the only way they lived through losing their child. Or this is what I think.
I lived through my mother’s death by getting drunk. I started drinking around the time she got sick and I doubled-down when she died. I turned my pain into a party. A long, long, sorrowful party. Sometimes I wonder if I even grieved at all. I might have skipped that step altogether during the hangover.
My mother’s grave is depressing. The headstone, really just a plaque on the ground, is sunken into the sod. Grass grows over the edges, and at times, it can be hard to find. On rainy days, her marker turns into a little mud-puddle on the ground.
When I was young and unencumbered and had fewer uses for my money, I considered paying to have the stone dug up and reset. But I never made the call. For all I know, the stone is buried now, overgrown. Fortunately, there’s a trio of trees nearby to use as a guide. Or there was. It’s been a decade since I’ve visited her. Those trees might be gone. But I can still use Michael Weeks as a landmark. I know he’s still there.