Carol is a professional storyteller. Performing for live audiences was a vital precursor to writing her first book. The sudden loss of her son in 2003 inspired the memoir, Freedom to Fall. Carol lives in Denver and Costa Rica.
Ten years ago my son, Christopher, died rock climbing in Yosemite National Park. Looking back, I pause to reflect on where I’ve been—the pathway leading up from despair, learning to keep my bond with Chris alive—a journey founded in love.
On that fateful day in May 2003, when word came in the night, I could feel Chris’s loving presence and knew that he was with me. But that sense was fleeting, coming between spells of shattering grief. The overwhelming reality was that Chris was gone.
It wasn’t a given that I could keep the bond between Chris and me alive. I had to cultivate it and to believe in it. Most especially, I had to learn to let him go.
Releasing Chris came in many guises over many years, only as I felt ready, and with frequent backsliding. Mainly I took tiny steps. But a few noteworthy stories emerge as illustrations, steps I took that first arduous year, setting a precedent for the years that followed.
The idea of letting go had its inception in the time before Chris died, for that had been my orientation towards motherhood. To learn to release Chris, knowing he was never coming home, was in keeping with my deepest belief about parenting.
I had believed in relinquishing my children a little at a time, encouraging them, as they were ready, along the pathways of their own callings. Chris, like my daughter, was temperamentally a free spirit, making my job easier—
When Chris was in college, he would call me on his climbing trips to surprise me, for I never knew when he would leave or where he might be. After he moved to Breckenridge Colorado, I’d drive up and take him out to dinner. When we met at his house, he would show me his photo album with his latest climbing pictures. Some of those pictures scared me.
One night as we dined by candlelight, I told Chris that the parent is supposed to go first, not the kid. Chris replied that when it was time for him to go then he was going to go. It wasn’t about how long he lived but about living his life and loving every moment of it.
I said, “Chris, you can have a quality life while protecting the length of your life.”
“I know I don’t know everything,” he answered. “When I’m fifty, I might think something entirely different.”
During Chris’s final days, he told a climbing buddy that he was grateful that I didn’t try to stop him from climbing, even though he knew it frightened me.
“Children are not ours to keep” I wrote after Chris died. “They come through the night, light our days, and are gone. Some die following their dreams. Chris had his gaze on the stars. Deep down in my heart I knew he was going, and I never tried to stop him.”
Another way of learning to let go came with the effort to return to my own life apart from Chris, not just in the motion of it, but with the intent to live again—
For a while I had been dreaming of feeding the homeless. One day I made a chocolate cake, got in the car, and began searching for some homeless people. Some folks were standing in front of the “Jesus Saves” shelter in downtown Denver. I parked the car and handed over the cake. “Thanks Honey.” “Are you coming again tomorrow?” It was my happiest moment since Chris died.
I began taking homemade treats to the homeless every few days. The problem was that I would just hand the food over. I wanted more interaction, to see faces up close and exchange words. To solve this dilemma, I began cooking meals for a crowd, setting up a card table on the sidewalk next to the shelter, and serving folks one at a time.
The first time, some remarked that I was one of Heaven’s angels. “What made you do this?” another asked in amazement.
“I thought you might be hungry.”
“Aren’t you afraid?” asked another. When I said that I didn’t see anything to be afraid of, he said, “I know there is nothing to fear, but most people don’t know that.”
It was better than I had hoped for. To be up close, see faces, and communicate.
Another day at the shelter, as I set up my card table with pots of steaming hot chili and cornbread, a circle formed around me, like old friends eating and chatting at an afternoon party. Many said, God bless you” and “You be careful.”
It was a simple thing—to step out and feed those with whom I shared a raw vulnerability, where every word exchanged was nourishment for my soul. By putting one foot in front of the other, I was stumbling onto the discovery that with Chris gone, it was possible to go out there and live, with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
On the first anniversary of Chris death, I journeyed to Yosemite, the place that had claimed his life. I stayed in the climbers’ camp, where Chris had stayed, and met with the climbing ranger who was first on the scene after his fatal fall. On the anniversary day, I hiked Half Dome, circling the 4000 foot giant by trail, from where I scattered Chris’s ashes. Standing high up in the elements, in the deep ethereal blue, surrounded by the granite wonders Chris had so loved, I made a symbolic gesture of releasing Chris to God.
It was never a given that I could grasp the eternal bond between Chris and me. I had to learn to let go of him, allowing him to be what he had become. Wondrously, each time I let go, I could feel the essence of our love, which encouraged me to keep going. Over the years that sense took root, becoming a daily reality.
Looking back, I can see that with each gesture of relinquishing Chris, a foothold was gained. As I stand at the ten year mark, Chris is with me—a beam of light shining through the sadness.
Excerpt from Freedom To Fall —
When a child is born, you hold that bundle of preciousness to your heart, and every day thereafter, you let go a little more. When a child dies, you unfurl your hands and blow, for the child, endowed with Spirit, is now truly free.
Through days of mourning the loss of Chris, I seek the guidance to release him. Each act of unleashing is an act of love. To encourage the freedom of our children is the greatest gift we can give. It requires seeing them, not as we wish them to be, but as they really are, and nurturing the heartbeat that is them.
There is order and beauty in the universe. Our children deserve to pursue their freedom—to die even—when God calls.