Wednesday, August 21, 2013

August 6th, part 2

With the perspective of two weeks, I want to share about the passing of another August 6th. This year marks the tenth time the date has scored my life directly, going far beyond the vaguer meaning instilled when I was a teenager in Japan. The actual day Simon died was Friday, August 6, 2004. That was the original mark. And the date has come and gone again nine times since then, with our lives growing new life rings around a jagged scar.

The anniversary effects of weather and location are diluted because we live in a different place now. Still, summer temperatures and long daylight hours work on the body and the mind surreptitiously. The night sky. The foods we choose to eat. The looseness of summertime. The season brings memories and feelings to the surface, although this year they haven't been "on cue" so much as slowly emerging. 

Yesterday, two weeks after the anniversary, I experienced my deepest crying. I occupied the living room for a yoga practice while the apartment was empty for a few hours. Lying on my back, hugging one knee to my chest, then the other, I felt a sadness squeeze out of me. It's always a relief when that happens. Why then? I don't know. I learned yoga when Simon was young, pre-cancer. Or maybe it was a muscle recollection of holding his infant body on my shins while lying on my back, thighs and knees raised in a 90-degree angle, doing post-baby exercises while he "airplaned".

I looked around me. Should I light the "Simon candle"? I drew the second knee close to my chest and let the tiny bit of moisture from my tears run past my temples, into my hairline. I looked for a photo of Simon in the room. His first grade picture, with the slightly frozen smile, sky blue T-shirt, short hair. Or another one, where's he's bald as an egg shell and playfully lifting a flap on his chest that opens the mouth of a grey wolf. I kept at my yoga.

October 2002 in Oberlin. Simon (5) was about six weeks post stem-cell transplant.
I love everything about this shot, including its view of his wide little hands (like his dad's).

Anniversaries strangely emphasize points in time. What's so important, actually, about a 50th birthday (mine was in June this year), for example? We humans are counters. We like to measure the passage of time as well as its accumulations. Disneyland Paris, which Miriam and I visited last week, is celebrating 20 years (oh, I remember how skeptical the Europeans were about that idea, back when Markus and I were living in Karlsruhe in the early 1990s). On the one hand: who cares? On the other: sure, we'll take that 20% commemorative discount on our ticket, thank you very much.

For those of us who are missing Simon, a tenth anniversary looms. Addressing a few things this year, in writing and photos, may take some pressure off how things will feel in 2014. If I were back in Salt Lake City, I would certainly want to visit his grave on the anniversary of the day he died. So, I have put together a slide show from my most recent visit to Mt. Olivet Cemetery. While visiting Salt Lake in June, I took a long, solitary afternoon to tend the grave and carefully clean the letters on the gravestone, drinking in the beauty of the cemetery and the truly perfect weather.

Here in Flein, we have a physical connection to the Salt Lake City grave. Another sculpture by Chris Coleman, the one that served as the model for Simon's sculpture, stands in our backyard. (It traveled to Germany, just like the beds and sofas and piano, in the container when we moved.) This sculpture is titled "Flying Thinking Man". It's about 10 feet tall and constructed of salvaged rusting steel and a wooden mold for a concrete footing.

Overcast morning light in August, looking at our backyard from the deck.

As every year, the anniversary of Simon's death occurs close to Markus' annual trip to the Academy of Management conference. Over the years Miriam and I have sometimes joined him, putting us in Philadelphia, Anaheim, and Boston on or near the date. Once we were with my parents in Ohio at a park with a frog pond and river for skipping stones. A few times we were together in Salt Lake. Maybe we've had to be separated once or twice. At the first anniversary, Markus went alone to Hawaii for the conference.

What to do to commemorate the day? Markus was packing to leave for Florida on August 7th, and Miriam and I were headed to Paris for 6 days on August 8th. Nonetheless, we had a worthy list for the 6th, most of which Miriam had proposed the night before. At 4:00 we'd bike along the Neckar river into Heilbronn to an ice cream shop. For dinner, we'd recreate Simon's favorite Spaghetti Factory meal (spaghetti with tomato sauce and meatballs plus a family favorite of fresh garlic bread). Then we'd watch a movie and eat popcorn, like the old family movie nights for Pixar flicks with Simon. At some point we'd toss dried rose petals around the sculpture, something we used to do at the cemetery. Not a bad list, only here's how it went.

At 4:00 pm, on cue, the skies opened in a downpour. We scratched the ice cream trip. While Markus and Miriam ran errands, I followed a Joy of Cooking recipe for meatballs (make the German meatballs up to step three, but leave out the capers, then add…). Miriam made fabulous garlic bread with a baguette when she got home, and I finally had the sauce and meatballs ready for an enjoyable enough dinner. By then it was late, and Markus excused himself to finish packing for his early departure the next morning. For thirty seconds we scattered rose petals in the fading light. Miriam and I, too full for popcorn, set out to pick a movie to watch. It should definitely be Pixar. Which movie? We considered watching Brave, a pretty new one, but it felt more authentic to pick a movie Simon would have seen. Right there the passage of time becomes clear. Simon knew Toy Story and Toy Story 2. A Bug's Life and Monsters Inc. The last Pixar film released before he died was Finding Nemo. He never saw The Incredibles or Cars. Or Ratatouille or Wall-E or Up. Or Brave.

We picked Toy Story 2. And also watched the special short (For the Birds) and the Outtakes (I always smile at the memory of how Simon called them "Take Outs" and how he loved their silly ironies). But it was a strain to immerse in an old favorite. Miriam had trouble keeping her hands off her iPhone. Markus wandered in the background. I sat there feeling less engaged, too. Still, it's a stunning movie. And my favorite Outtake gag is when Woody sits on the roll of packing tape and his butt falls through the hole. Simon, buddy, I laughed with the memory of laughing with you!

Having all traveled well and having made it past the ninth anniversary of the day Simon left us, we are nearing a second August milestone. Three years ago (almost--August 25 to be exact) we arrived in Germany. We're moving forward into a new year.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

For the solemn date of August 6, part 1

(Please excuse the time delay. Here is a post partly drafted last week on August 6, then interrupted by a 5-day trip to Paris. Just Miriam and me, up and down the Champs Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Seine. Oh, and the paths of Disneyland. But that's another sort of post.)

August 6th

When I lived in Japan for the summer of 1979, I learned to call this date "Hachi-gatsu Muika". Eighth month sixth day. I had found my way to Hiroshima for two months, by happenstance more than design. My tenth grade history teacher, the late Alice Schlossberg, had encouraged me to enter an essay contest about "Japan and the Japanese People Today". I was in her classes in Chinese & Japanese history and Asian religion. I credit Ms. Schlossberg with teaching me how to write, as in how to make distinct points, meaningfully connect them, and be cognizant you are doing so. (Her method was simple: In this essay test, you must make four points. If you make only three, your maximum score is 75%.)

The final stage of the essay contest involved an interview with Youth for Understanding, a student exchange program. I was named one of two winners in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area (a sabbatical year for my father had taken us to Bethesda, Maryland from Ohio). So, I was off to Japan at age 16, curious about what was to come.

Akebono-cho, Hiroshima. I joined my host family in their quarter of Hirioshima, a city full of pale concrete buildings and devoid of almost all traces of the buildings that had existed before August 6, 1945. The devastation of nuclear attack was just 34 years in the past in 1979, and the memory was clearly present, especially among adults. The events received mention now and then in conversation, just as the city had its markers of the tragedy: Heiwa Kōen (Peace Memorial Park); the A-bomb Dome (a building skeleton left standing); Peace Memorial Museum, also located in the park, which bears witness to the instantaneous loss of 70,000 lives and the lingering effects on 70,000 more; the Children's Peace Monument with its origami cranes; and the nearby rivers, where those suffering from the mighty heat and fire of the blast found some refuge. I remember people I met expressing gratitude for the water as if it somehow assuaged the anguish they felt in legacy.

On August 6, 1979 I accompanied my Japanese host father, a school principal, on his official duty to join the solemn parade in downtown Hiroshima. Other members of the family did not participate. I remember walking quietly past displays and other people, understanding little of the language and feeling regretful--and powerless--about representing the aggressor nation. Over and over, and not just on that day, the people of Hiroshima spoke of their commitment to peace and to the prevention of violence and destruction. I never had cause to doubt their sincerity. No other response seems possible in the face of what happened in Hiroshima.

Years later, the date of August 6th took on a second and infinitely more personal meaning. On August 6, 2004 my son, Simon, died at home of advanced neuroblastoma. He had endured cancer from the age of four and a half to the age of seven. His end came slowly and peacefully after the mix of dire struggle, tedium, and respite that make up a lengthy illness. For many months, at least the first year after his death, we found the need to do something to commemorate the 6th of any month. Often it was dinner out at the Old Spaghetti Factory, a family favorite in Salt Lake City's Trolley Square. Always it was a visit to the cemetery.

As the first anniversary of Simon's death neared in 2005, we sponsored an event with the Simon Craig Vodosek Memorial Fund. It was an open air concert at Utah's Hogle Zoo by a favorite singing group, Two of a Kind children's music. Jenny and David Heitler-Klevens, along with their twin sons Ari and Jason (about age 10 in 2005), performed their lively, creative songs ("I lead a double life--I am an amphibian"), reminding us of entertainment on car rides, with both Simon and Miriam in the back seat. At our request, they performed their moving rendition of Fred Small's Cranes over Hiroshima, a song that tells the story of Sadoko Sasaki and the thousand paper cranes she tried to make before she died at age of twelve of leukemia in 1955, a late-effect victim of the Hiroshima bomb. It was a lovely resonance with the sadness of Simon's death in a mostly light-hearted and invigorating evening.

Jason, Ari (or vice versa?), Jenny and David Heitler-Klevens
August 1, 2005 concert in memory of Simon (photo: Kay Beaton)

Kylie and Miriam with Jason (I'm guessing) and Jenny
selling CDs (Photo: Kay Beaton)
So, we've just passed the ninth anniversary of Simon's death. Add eight years (since the concert) to these children, and you get Miriam at almost fourteen, Kylie fifteen, and Ari and Jason at eighteen ready to enter Oberlin College (their parents' and my alma mater) in the fall.

And here's a very cool thing. Having noticed in an email update from Two of a Kind a few weeks back that the Heitler-Klevens family was headed for Europe, I popped them a message. They were in Paris when we were in Paris. Miriam and I met up with them for dinner just last week, on August 8. Ari and Jason, who still look so much alike that I need a yellow T-shirt and a white one to keep them straight, will have to let me know if I identified them correctly in these photos.

And so the years cycle.

Delightful addendum

Photos from this year's encounter, both taken on the plaza of the Centre Pompidou in front of the Calder sculpture. The photo credit in each case, I think, will be obvious.

Jason, David, Mary, Miriam, and Ari
August 8, 2013 Paris

Jason, Jenny, Mary, Miriam, and Ari
August 8, 2013 Paris