This week my first grader came home with a paper bag and an assignment to fill it with items from our household that represent our family. In weeks to follow, students would be presenting these items to the class, little historians excavating and explaining treasures from their families of origin.
Anderson, this first grader of ours, knew exactly what he wanted to excavate. He was halfway into the garage, about ready to yank the cord that pulls down our attic staircase before it hit me: he’s hunting for Duncan’s pacifier.
Our fall break trip this year, just weeks before, took us back to our old stomping grounds of Ohio. We have always spoken of Duncan, the son we lost at five months of age to congenital heart disease, to our four living children, but now that we are living in Colorado, 1,300 miles from his grave, Anderson doesn’t remember the frequent visits we used to make to it. Which means he’s also forgotten many of the accompanying stories we’d told while on those visits.
Now, at seven years old, both the impact and his interest are higher than ever.
“What happened to his body?”
“Why did his heart not work right?”
“Will my heart stop working right?”
“Is he in Heaven?”
“Will I ever get to see him there?”
My husband and I do our best with the answers. But the best way we know to honor Duncan, beyond getting any answers right, is to tell about who he was and what he did in our lives. So, in light of the recent visit to Duncan’s grave, we took extra measures to do this storytelling on October 26, the 12-year anniversary of his death.
Scott, my husband, told how Duncan would always raise his arms, like declaring a field goal, when he was getting a diaper change. I explained there was this one obnoxious, blue pacifier Duncan preferred, and it would take up half his face it was so big. We explained how soft his head of hair was, fuzzy as the plushest of stuffed animals.
And we spoke about how, at the time, we were overcome with love from loved ones. Countless cards received during Duncan’s frail five months of life and the season of grief afterward. Folks who showed up to rake our leaves and clean our toilets and take out our garbage. Friends decorating our house for fall or Christmas just so we could have a sense of festive amidst the difficulty. And meals lined up to spare us from the work of feeding ourselves for months. We spoke about this love and how it was as close to the unconditional love of God as we’ve ever known . . . that we couldn’t reciprocate it, and yet it just kept on coming. In this way, Duncan’s life and death showed us, through people, just exactly how boundless the love of God is.
Turns out, after all that, all our Anderson took away from that conversation was the adorable image of his brother sucking away on a clunky, blue pacifier. When he and I found ourselves up in the attic swapping our Halloween decorations for Thanksgiving ones, he caught out of the corner of his eye a small chest painted in pastel colors. I had forgotten it was up there—it was Duncan’s chest, where we kept his pictures, keepsakes, favorite clothes, and hats. Eyes big as saucers, Anderson asked, “Is Duncan’s blue pacifier in there?” I said that I thought it was and, sure enough, I was able to show that darn thing to Anderson. There, sandwiched between pumpkins and bats and pilgrims and gourds (and cobwebs and exposed insulation) was a tearful, sacred moment between him and me.
So, when he came home with it, it clicked that that’s what he was eager to take in his brown bag.
But then, the next set of questions: Was it OK to send a kid to school with an object that involved a story such as Duncan’s? Would Anderson’s classmates be able to handle the explanation that came with the bag’s contents? Would Anderson be able to handle the questions from his classmates?
What nudged me toward yes to all those questions was when I checked in with Anderson, “Love, why does the pacifier feel like the right thing to put in your bag?”
“Well, that’s easy. We are supposed to pick something that makes our family our family and Duncan is an important part of what makes our family our family. He loved the pacifier, so I want to share it with the class.”
Well said, Anderson.
After a bit more fact-checking and preparing him, he was ready. Ready to share a story about a soft-haired warrior named Duncan who in his short time on this side of life had a preference for a big ol’ blue pacifier and a heart, while defective, that showed us how big everyone else’s is.