A fresh load of laundry in my hands.
The top of the dresser in my bedroom.
These three things, that typically have no association with one another, came together today in an intriguing intersection of random encounters. The first one, the cross of flowers, I saw recently on the side of the road as I was making my way back from a park near to my house. You have probably seen one just like it somewhere while driving: a small cross made of Styrofoam or wood, outlined in flowers and with the name of some unfortunate soul who died in a car crash emblazoned across the face. Very often there are ribbons tied to the cross, and one or two mementos strewn at the base. I have seen so many of them now that I do not find them unusual (or, alas, particularly noteworthy).
The second item, the laundry, is easy enough to explain. I had carted a fresh-out-of-the-dryer-toasty-warm (and is there anything more comforting on a cold day?) load upstairs to put away.
The third, my dresser. It matters because there rests a shrine of my own, one dedicated to the memory of my first kids, Emma and Connor. This shrine has been on my dresser pretty much since the day after my son Connor died about two weeks after my daughter Emma, in August 2003. It assembled itself out of pictures taken and framed by one of the NICU nurses, a knitted blanket from a hospital volunteer, two olive wood crosses and a little clay, heart-shaped box also made by one of the NICU nurses (God will bless her for this):
The little box contains a lock of Emma’s hair, the only true relic I have of either of my children. Over time the shrine has melded into the background a bit, through sheer familiarity. I see it every day. I suppose it is a good thing that it no longer makes me cry as often as it used to do. I still pause occasionally to stroke the blanket, and every so often I open the box to look at Emma’s hair. Of Connor, I have only photographs and some little hats he wore in the isolette. It was while putting the laundry away today that all of these things came together in a bittersweet tangle of artifacts and memories. I set some t-shirts down on top of the dresser so I could open the drawer, and my hand brushed the blanket while my eyes strayed to the photographs above. For a moment I paused, not breathing, and the flowered cross flashed through my mind. In that little slice of non-time, I think I finally came to terms with the roadside offerings and my own unwillingness to put the blanket and pictures away. Years ago, when I saw a cross by the road or balloons tied to a tree or a sad-looking bedraggled teddy bear at the end of a set of skid marks, I often felt put upon. I could not fathom the sentimentality of it. I was even a little pissed off that strangers were inflicting their grief on passersby who had nothing to do with their pain and its cause.
Now I understand. I know better. These crosses of flowers, piles of stuffed animals, rain-stained ribbons are all we often have left when we lose someone who matters to us. It takes nothing away from me when I see a roadside reminder, and I cannot begrudge someone their time and effort to make an offering out of love. I have my own shrine to tend, right there beside the lonesome highway that runs through my heart.
There's a cross of flowers at the roadside
Where some fool bought it two years back
There's an orchard gone to hell
Beside a burned out one room shack
There's a thousand sparrows falling
In a thousand shades of black
I'm coming home
-“Cross of Flowers” by Jeffrey Foucault, from the album 'Stripping Cane'. I highly recommend giving him a listen.