“Mom, let’s go there!”
My first grader, Caleb, was pointing, from the back seat, at our neighborhood chopped chicken joint.
I pulled into the parking lot so we could grab dinner like we had done many times before. We were both excited to enjoy this simple restaurant ritual that we hadn’t participated in for almost two and a half years.
At this point my deepest grief had ebbed. It was not tender and bloody like a new injury: it had transformed into more of an ever present war wound that would flare up unexpectedly.
After bouncing from condo to apartment, waiting for our new home to be finished, we had been taken away from our comforting routine ever since the accident. Calder, Caleb and I would come here to order chicken, rice and broccoli when my husband, Chris, was away on business and I didn’t feel like cooking. It was a treat for them at ages six and four, and for me, too.
I had parked the car before thinking through the fact that this would be our first time to eat at our old haunt without Calder. All the “firsts” get to you no matter how small. They blow open the flimsy curtains you hung over the deep dark hole allowing an artic chill to run through you.
My two little boys had taken over this place many times, running around inside, laughing and being way too loud, often inappropriately, talking to all the patrons as well as giving a play by play to the chicken choppers while they worked. Bang, bang, bang the boys would delight at the sound of the giant cleaver whacking the board while the professionals chopped the chicken.
It wasn’t a five star situation so I usually gave them some freedom to find the table where they wanted to sit, get their utensils, and inevitably, once the food arrived, make a bit of a mess. This also allowed them to learn to clean up.
Excited to be back, Caleb couldn’t wait to get out of the car. Suddenly, the absence of my older son, Calder, caught me off guard the way I was discovering grief will, sneaking up from the place you have tucked it away, hoping it would form a scar instead of a scab that was easily reopened to raw. Unannounced it turned up and grabbed me by the throat. I tried to swallow back the tears, to reclaim the fun but I wasn’t winning. I was going to have to employ the sunglasses solution because Caleb had become a hawk-eye when it came to my crying and, frankly two years after the tragedy that took his older brother, he was well over my continuous tears, which seemed to have a will of their own.
As I stepped out of our green hybrid Highlander, I looked down to hide my strained face and breathe in some composure. There, at my feet, was a leaf shaped like a heart. I bent to pick it up. It was about two and half inches long and fit perfectly into the palm of my hand.
I showed the leaf to Caleb to see if he saw the same thing,
“A heart shaped leaf,” he said, “It’s from Calder.”
I was thinking the same thing about the leaf, but I was careful to not share with him that I thought Calder sent us the heart. I was also worried about setting up a psychological sibling rivalry with his deceased brother, or giving him a complex that his mother believed his brother was communicating from the afterlife and was completely crazy now. Of course, that ship had sailed. Caleb had witnessed years of crying, zombie-like behavior and open arguments between his struggling parents over family drama and parenting. What I didn’t realize was that Caleb was more open to Calder’s presence than I was. I didn’t know that children picked up on energy and additional senses before the age of seven more easily than over-thinking adults who had been educated and filled with anxiety at the possibility that we were less in control than we believed or not in control at all. A hard lesson learned by our family when Calder was electrocuted in our backyard pool by faulty wiring and a high voltage pool light.
Following the accident, it had taken months for Caleb to understand that Calder was not eventually coming back to us. I never considered that he may have seen his brother in his dreams or like I had through a pane of glass. We did continue having birthday cakes for Calder and we definitely spoke about his brother often, but I didn’t want to confuse things by suggesting that Calder was still with us to my younger son. Even though Caleb had attended the funeral and we had been to the gravesite, it was many months of answering his most consistent question, “When is Calder coming back?” Caleb had it in his mind that Calder was playing an elaborate game of hide-and-go-seek and would come out of hiding soon.
Unfortunately, I had added to his confusion. A local printer had made five foot framed poster of Calder holding his self-portrait and kindly gave it to us for a gift. Its size prevented us from hanging it in the living room, so I hung it on the wall of my home office facing the window, looking out over the driveway and garden.
One day, after picking Caleb up from school I pulled into our driveway. I could see the poster of Calder beaming through the window since the shades were open.
“There’s Calder,” I said, in a rare moment of cheerfulness upon seeing the huge print smiling out the window, like we were greeting him after a long day.
Caleb, from his car seat in back, put his face to the passenger window, with anticipation. “Where? Where is he?”
I was immediately doused in guilt that I had unintentionally misled my baby into believing his brother was back. It was like a punch in the gut. An unforeseen mistake I would have to add to the growing list of failures that racked me to my core.
To honor Calder, a short time later, we did a balloon release from our backyard, sending love off to Calder in heaven. Caleb and his cousins found it thrilling. (We stopped doing this once we realized it’s not great for the environment.)
It became trial and error, how to parent the surviving child while grieving the one who had sailed on beyond this dimension.
Now, age seven and two weeks, Caleb was chronologically older than his brother would be ever. Caleb, my youngest, was articulate and knowing in a way that often caught me by surprise.
His declaration that the heart leaf was sent by Calder brought me back from my tears. I looked at Caleb’s expressive eyes as he talked. He knew exactly what he was saying to me and at the same time he knew exactly what he was going to order inside ‘don’t forget the broccoli with extra sauce.’ He was happy. My sorrow released into the air around us. He was present in this moment of familiarity, food and a sign from his brother. That day we began talking about Calder still being with us in a new way.
So with the heart leaf tucked safely in my bag, we went inside. We had dinner together like we had done so many times before. The three of us.
Hearts started to, and still do, present themselves to me regularly after that day. They seemed to fall from the sky and surround me, when I walk in my neighborhood, on the beach where I meditate, at my feet wherever I go. These heart shaped leaves, shells, clouds, and cracks in sidewalks, appear like a wink that there is something more to reality than I had previously believed. They also opened my own path to recovery from the trauma of losing Calder. Each heart discovery gives me a direct connection to the love I have for him. I started to share the heart leaf story with friends, who in turn started to find hearts in their own lives, leaves, puddles, even a lightning strike curved into a heart. Luckily they always send me a photo letting me know Calder is near. I started to think of my friends, even strangers from social media who shared their heart finds with me, as ambassadors of love. It doesn’t matter where I am or on what continent, Calder’s hearts are ever present.
You can share your hearts and stories with me on Instagram @carlasloan or @the_heart_lady and follow our family foundation @ccawesomefoundation