Swimming with My Son

by Pam Roberts

On this wintry early morning, I am standing outside on the stone terrace. Below me, in the distance, the lake is mostly hidden in white puffs of mist, and the hills beyond appear dark against a lightening sky. I inhale cold air into my lungs and breathe out my own soft mist that briefly clouds and then disappears. Here and then gone, I think, like my son.

I am in the Berkshires, at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, to attend a Grief Shifting program led by author and medium Sue Frederick. I lost my young adult son to illness a year ago, after a lifetime of his living with the challenges of a progressive neurological condition called AT (ataxia telangiectasia). I have plodded through the first year of loss, and the beginning of the second year doesn’t seem much different. I am here because I am in a funk and I need the shift that the name of this program promises.

On Friday evening, we begin by sharing our grief stories. We go around the circle and tell the group about the death of the beloved who is the reason we are here. Almost half of us, 30 participants in all, have lost a child. It is painful and powerful. I am especially struck by the words of one mother of a son lost to a drug overdose: “I loved my son his whole life and I love him more now.”

On Saturday, I arise at 5:30 am after a sleepless night, my heart full and my mind overstimulated from the stories of the evening before. Per the habit I developed when I took my yoga teacher training at Kripalu six years before, I head for the sauna. Back then, I found that starting the day in the sauna was the best way to keep my body happy for the long hours of yoga. I rest there in silence, waiting for the sweat to clear me and guide me into the day and a gentle, early-morning yoga class.

Jurian Hughes, a longtime Kripalu Yoga teacher, begins the class by chanting, and tells us how meaningful chants have become to her. She sings one of my favorites, Aad Guray Nameh, sharing the words and inviting us to join in. Along with the voices around me, I start hesitantly, and, through the repetitions, gain in confidence and volume.

“You can harmonize if you want,” she says, and the woman next to me sings with a voice and harmony so beautiful that it brings tears to my eyes and renders me silent with emotion.

At the end of the class, as we lie in resting pose, Savasana, Jurian chants again, and I feel the words and tune building in resonance and filling me. There was a time when I listened to chants at home and in the car. Then I stayed with my son Thomas during several hospitalizations, and I forgot about chanting. Now the familiar and beloved sounds settle into my heart.

I think of my son. Lying on my mat on my back, a blanket covering my body, the lights dimmed, the chant repeating, I think of my son’s hands, how contracted they had become. I remember how I had driven him and his golden retriever service dog in his van one Saturday to the drugstore to buy a new electric toothbrush. When we got it home, it turned out it was too narrow, with on/off buttons too small for his curled-up fingers to operate.

“It’s okay,” I say. “We’ll take it back and exchange it.”

And so, a short time later, we do. This time we study the options more carefully. The display is clumsy. There are samples of some of the products, but they are attached to cords. You can’t remove the sample to hold it—to make sure, of course, that you won’t stash it in your bag and run. But the cords don’t stretch far enough into the aisle to reach my son in his wheelchair, dog at his side. Instead, we look a long time at the pictures of the several offerings. We think that one of them, which we can only see but not hold, will work, and so we make the exchange.

That night, as Thomas gets ready for bed, we unplug the new toothbrush from the wall where it has been charging. He tries to grasp it at the sink but it falls from his hands. It is not suitable.

“Maybe we need to look online,” I say. “They didn’t have many different choices at the store.”

He picks up the older one that still works, but it takes considerable effort for him to push the button on, the reason we had hunted for a new one in the first place. I put the new toothbrush back in the box and stash it temporarily under the sink. Not long after this, Thomas has his first hospitalization. The toothbrush is still under the sink.

On my back on the mat in the yoga class, as the chanting surrounds me, this memory comes unbidden, and tears roll down my face and slip onto my shoulders. What my son had to endure! And with what grace and goodwill he did it.

During our morning program session, Sue reports that the deceased son of one of our participants woke her up very early with an urgent message for us. “Tell them!” he urged her, “tell them that the human experience on earth is only a short part of the journey.”

Later, Sue instructs us to think of a joyful memory with our deceased, in order to prepare for communicating with them. Elevate your energy, she tells us, by inviting in light and joy.

I think of Chenay Bay in St. Croix. I picture Thomas and his younger sister, Victoria, and their father and I all there, on this island where we visited my mother annually for the first 18 years of Thomas’ life. Every winter we made this trip, knowing that the break from the New England cold and the opportunity for Thomas to be free in the water of the pool or of the Caribbean Sea was healing for him and for us all. As the kids grew older, we went down over the school’s February vacation, extending our stay beyond the school break so that we were on the island for more than two weeks. Chenay Bay, with its shallow, calm, turquoise waters, was Thomas’ favorite spot. Thomas and I had often imagined ourselves there at times in his life when he was anxious or unable to sleep. And when he was in the hospital, Chenay Bay was a relaxing and happy place to go to in our minds. So I go there now.

Sue gives us questions to ask our beloveds. “Why did you have to go?” is first.

I let my pen move along the paper. I see Thomas’s words bloom on the page.

“Things were getting too hard in this body,” I hear him say through my pen. “It was time to go. It is not your fault that I died. You helped me have a peaceful death.”

Sue feeds us more questions. “How am I doing?” she tell us to ask our deceased. “Do you have anything you want to tell me?”

The pen keeps writing my son’s voice to me. “You were a great mother and still are! I like that Shiloh (my son’s service dog) is now a therapy dog.”

“Write that book about us!” he says. “Spread the word about the healing journey that we are still on together. Give Victoria more attention. Take care of yourself and live your life. It’s okay to move on.”

 “I will not forget you and you will not forget me.”

I am so moved. I read these words over and over. I feel his absolution. It is not my fault that he died. My doubts and regrets and blame lift, the anguish and guilt that I’ve been chewing on during this year since he passed begin to lessen.

And my favorite: “I will not forget you and you will not forget me.” Sue has told me that she feels that Thomas and I knew each other over many lifetimes, and he has previously taken care of me. We communicated without words, she says, telling me what I already know. Thomas has burned up his karma in this lifetime, she says. He won’t have to suffer like this again.

That night, exhausted, I fall into bed early. I remember my sadness and the memory at the morning yoga class. I think of my experience of communicating with my son and of Sue’s counsel to use our pain to step into light and joy.

I realize that things have shifted.

I call up the image of Thomas that appeared in my mind’s eye several days after he died. Thanks to Sue’s guidance to trust our higher selves and not let our rational minds reject signs, I now feel confident that this image was sent to me by my son. In this image, my son is buff, handsome, smiling broadly, radiant, and in perfect health. I realize that this is who he always was inside that challenging body and who he still is, my son.

I imagine us at the river behind my house, with its steep bank and shallow, gently flowing water. The river is calm and soft. The sun is bright and warm in the blue sky. A gentle breeze barely rustles the broad, heart-shaped catalpa leaves that hang over the water’s edge.

Thomas and I are swimming in the river. Shiloh joins us, alternately paddling next to us and then scrambling out of the water to sniff and scrabble along the muddy slope.

“Come, Shiloh, come on in,” we yell when he starts to stray into the brushy undergrowth. “Come!”

Thomas and I smile knowingly at each other. What a goofy, adorable dog!

We swim upstream in gentle strokes. I turn on my back and float. Thomas pushes forward, completely underwater, so that I can’t see him until he surfaces up ahead of me, like a loon who pops back up suddenly at a spot you can’t predict.

In my reverie, Thomas and Shiloh and I swim together in this river with the steep bank that was inaccessible to my son when he was alive. Now, even in the midst of winter, it is a fine time for swimming. It is a fine time for healing.

Pam Roberts is a writer, artist, and Kripalu Yoga teacher, also certified in Yoga of the Heart Therapy for Cardiac and Cancer Patients. She leads yoga classes, art workshops, and Spirit of the Written Word writing workshops for people affected by cancer and for the general population. She is working on a memoir about grieving the loss of her son.

© Pam Roberts; published with permission. To request permission to reprint, please email pam@pamroberts.net.

Find out about programs with Sue Frederick at Kripalu.