Conversation of the Week: Remembering Jeremy

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Smoke’s best friend in his kindergarten class moved away suddenly. The week after he left, I talked to Smoke about it indirectly, by asking him each evening who he played with at recess. He seemed to be coping by reconnecting with old friends, and making a few new ones, though none of his recess friends were in his classroom.

By the end of week two, I figured we were over the hump. I figured that, but I didn’t want to push too hard. And then Saturday evening, as Smoke was getting out of the bath and drying off, he was giggling over some remembered joke that Jeremy had made. Like most kindergarten jokes relayed secondhand, I couldn’t follow it.  Smoke seemed surprised by his own memory of Jeremy, and a pained look crossed his face.

“Every time I think of Jeremy I almost cry,” he told me. He was almost crying.

“I can see that,” I told him. I wanted to fix it. “Do you want me to see if I can find his phone number? Or would you rather I focus on making play dates with new friends?” I asked. Getting Jeremy’s phone number felt like a long shot. For all I know they’ve moved to Tennessee. Besides that, I had called Jeremy’s mom once before to invite him to Smoke’s birthday party. She wasn’t especially friendly, and just as we were hanging up I heard a male voice in the background shout “Who was that?”  I was hoping Smoke would opt for the latter.

“How about you focus on both?” Smoke asked. For a moment I thought he was brightening. I hung up his towel as he pulled on his skivvies. But as we walked towards his bedroom, the tears returned. “I feel like all that I have left of Jeremy is a memory.”

Seriously? I have no idea where he learned to talk like that. I scoured my brain trying to come up with Lifetime movies I might have inadvertently exposed him to.

That was last week, and every so often I think that I’ll try to get a hold of Jeremy’s parents.  But I’m pretty sure that I’m only avoiding what Smoke already knows is true.

Tall Smoke


Reasons to Love Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

I recently discovered Michael Rosen’s Sad Book when a Facebook friend shared this image, which is the first page of the book.

From Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake
From Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

I was intrigued. Within 48 hours I held a copy in my hands. Here are the reasons why I love it.

1. It fills a need I didn’t know I had. As a contemporary parent, I’ve been turned on to the importance of emotional literacy. I know that I’m supposed to talk to my sons about feelings, to help them learn to name specific feelings. I’ve seen handouts like this one, designed to facilitate this kind of learning.

Image Source:
Image Source:

I haven’t done much of this for two reasons. First of all, I struggle to name my own feelings with that kind of specificity. I don’t feel like a qualified instructor. Perhaps more importantly, I find these handouts a little boring. But the Sad Book takes a single emotion and blows it up. We get to see how sadness manifests in multiple ways. Some of pictures look like sadness; others look like anger, like joy, like beauty.

When my son saw the first page of the Sad Book, he let out a giggle and said: “That guy’s happy!” His initial reaction was the perfect segue to engaging more deeply with both the text and the idea.

2. It doesn’t tell a story. My main complaint about children’s literature today is that so often the illustrations surpass the writing. Many children’s books tell stories that may be serviceable enough, but they only hold a child’s (and a parent’s) attention for as long as it takes to get through the book. They don’t stick with us, or invite multiple readings.

The Sad Book alludes to the story of the author’s loss of his teenage son, but it doesn’t tell that story directly. In short, it’s not so much a story book, but an essay on sadness. This is right, since the point isn’t to make the reader feel sad, but to invite us to look at sadness from an outsider’s perspective.

3. Quentin Blake—who knew? Quentin Blake’s illustration style holds some history for me, since Roald Dahl was my favorite author as a child, and Blake’s sketches illustrate most of his books. I always thought of his style as just that—sketchy. I liked his pictures well enough, but they never struck me as particularly impressive. (I was too young then to appreciate that sometimes simplicity is the hallmark of craft.) But look at this:

From Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake
From Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake


The Sad Book strikes me as the best possible showcase for Quentin Blake’s work. His illustrations here manage to balance comedy, tragedy and horror, often times all on a single page, capturing the complexity of the feelings that Rosen describes. Also, if I were an artist I could probably explain this better, but the way he captures light and shadow breaks my heart a little bit.

So that’s my pitch. I think that you should read Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

Just to offer an alternate perspective, Kellie, my partner, hates the Sad Book. She thinks it’s too sad.

Grief: Where Does it Come From and Where Does it Go?

When I was around twelve years old, I remember having an evening when I couldn’t stop crying. It was June, and my family had finished dinner. The sky was still just light enough to glow. My mother and I loaded dishes in the washer. I’d been fighting angst all evening—some strange source of pain that I couldn’t name—and suddenly it all burst forth from me in tears.

A gift that my mother gave me—in that moment and many others—was a curiosity about emotions and how they revealed themselves. My outburst didn’t seem to make her nervous. She didn’t leave the room or stand there staring. Instead, she put a hand on my shoulder and offered theories. Maybe I was sad because it was the end of the school year and I would miss my friends in the summer. Maybe I was simply on the cusp of change, and frightened.

Two weeks ago, my son’s preschool closed forever. He started there when he was two and has seen many of the same faces every week for the last three years. It’s the place where, at two-years-old, he would cling to me most mornings, hiding between my legs until he summoned the courage to join his friends; the place where he fed worms to chickens and dug in the dirt; the place where, after he fell from a branch and injured himself, a fire truck arrived, and several kind EMTs gave him a stuffed donkey to hold as they bandaged him; the place where he’s created countless projects out of cardboard and googly eyes. Over the last few months he’s come to love his school especially. On weekends he asks me to count the days until he sees his teacher and his friends.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.
This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

The friends, they still exist, and the teacher is having her own baby, but the place we’ve known is empty now, and I’ve wondered how my son’s grief would come out. At the goodbye party for his teacher, we all ate cake and played hard. On the last day of preschool we said our goodbyes a bit louder than normal, but neither of us shared tears. And even at the yard sale, where all the toys they had played with over the last three years were sorted and labeled with price tags, my son was simply intent on purchasing the blue light saber before someone else got it. We got it, and therefore no tears.

I’ve never liked goodbyes. I prefer to mark endings privately, quietly, and perhaps I’ve passed this to my son.

Yesterday morning, my son woke up with his left eye swollen half closed. We couldn’t tell at first if it was an allergy or pink eye, so I gave him Benadryl, and tended to it with a warm washcloth. I gave him extra attention at breakfast, bringing him juice, kissing his forehead, wiping his nose.

After breakfast, when I insisted on a walk in the sun, he curled in a ball on the couch and screamed. He didn’t want to go anywhere! He had a stomach flu! He was serious! He wanted to stay home all day! I was serious too. The day was getting warm and the birds were singing. I had enrollment forms to drop off at the local kindergarten three blocks away, which was across the street from the bakery. I promised him a cookie, but he wouldn’t budge. I insisted. I chose his clothes and dressed him, uncurling him from his ball limb by limb. Outside, my partner carried him, and he screamed some more because the sun hurt his eyes.

But the sight of the bakery case with its many trays of cookies calmed him and he wiped his tears. “Can I have a breadstick too?” he asked. He sat on the bench outside his future kindergarten and ate his cookie first. My partner asked for a bite of his breadstick and he told her “I’m sorry but no.” He walked home on his own feet, half himself again.

I wonder about my own grief and where it will land—in my left eye or my right ear, or will it just stretch out through my body through the week?