The Long March of the Firsts

Choosing gratefulness over discontentment

Even with a few days left in March, it still feels like the longest month ever. Everyone is feeling the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and for some folks this is the most disruptive thing they’ve ever lived through.

It’s sort of a strange thing for our family, because as real and as life-changing as this disruption is, it still pales in comparison to what we’ve been through the last four months in the wake of Parker’s passing.

I don’t say that to minimize what’s happening now in any way, only to say that everyone is processing it differently. We are being affected by this pandemic in a bunch of ways, just like you are as well, and thankfully the three of us are healthy and able to be together as we are holed up in our house right now.

On the one hand we’re trying not to get too antsy as we long for things to return to “normal,” but then we realize that for us, there is no new normal to get back to.

A couple of days after Parker died, I got some mail addressed to him from a local college. It was a glorified postcard, trying to get him to look into their school.

It was incredibly sad to hold that piece of mail. It was incredibly sad to perform the physical act of throwing it in the trash. But I had literally just buried my son a couple of days earlier. What else was I going to do? Save it?

I had been preparing myself for some of the big “firsts” that we would encounter, but here was one I hadn’t thought of yet: the first time there would be mail in the mailbox addressed to him.

We knocked out a bunch of those big firsts in the first six weeks, including our first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first New Year’s Day, first trip to his gravesite, and his first birthday in heaven.

But the little firsts were almost as tough because of how relentless they were:

First time eating out as a family of three, first time playing golf without him, first vacation, first family game night, first time I saw a Red Sox spring training game on tv and realized I could never play catch with him again, first time in the car as a family of three, first time someone asked us how many kids we have and we didn’t know exactly how to answer, first time back at Red Lobster (one of Parker’s favorites), first warm spring day that used to automatically make you feel hopeful and happy, first awesome golf highlight that made me want to yell for him in the other room to come watch with me, first time driving to church, and on and on and on.

I’m not belaboring the point for effect. All of these instances ARE the point.

When you suffer a loss like this, there are a thousand firsts you encounter. Some of them you see coming a mile away, some sneak up on you and are in your face before you ever knew they existed.

Each one hurts in its own way; a fresh reminder of what’s missing and what’s not right.

It’s not supposed to be this way for parents and siblings.

Firsts are something we’re supposed to celebrate.

First day home from the hospital, first time eating real food, first few steps, first tooth that comes in, first birthday, first day of school, first lost tooth, first baseball game, first growth spurt, first crush, first plane ride, and on and on.

We celebrated all of those firsts with Parker, like we did with Kylie before him.

That’s the natural order of life, but in an instant our script was flipped and instead of celebrating firsts, now we’re trying to survive them.

What’s more are all of the firsts we’ll never get to experience with him. High school graduation, full time job, marriage, fatherhood, and everything that we hoped and dreamed for him and that he wanted for himself.

These are the things that kept us suffocated with despair in those first few weeks, but as we’ve been loved on and as we’ve healed, it gets just a little less difficult.

It’s still so sad to think about the future he could have had, and it always will be, but I’m trying to learn how to focus more on the experiences he DID have. While he was here, he loved us well and he knew he was loved. I’ve been saying that since the first week after his passing, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. To me that reality is more concrete and real than some future we hoped he would experience, so I cling to it.

He was loved, and he knew it. He loved us well. For these things I am so grateful.

Last night the three of us hung out around the fire pit in our backyard. Our first family fire without him. A couple hours before that we had dinner at our kitchen table for the first time. In the place where Parker always sat there was an empty chair.

Another week, another batch of “firsts” we got through together.

And yet despite how hard that is, and despite how tough these last four months have been, and despite how disrupted our lives are right now by this pandemic, there are always things to be grateful for.

That’s what we talked about last night at the fire.

We have a nice house to be quarantined in. We have our health. We have our faith. We have great friends and family. We have food. We have a lot to look forward to, and we have a lot of great memories to look back on.

We were all missing Parker in that moment, but despite the pain, we helped each other to choose gratefulness. I think that was kind of beautiful.

Earlier yesterday when I got the mail, there was another college postcard addressed to Parker from a different local college. As I held it in my hands, I felt sadness for a fleeting moment, but I was able to let the moment pass.

The first college postcard made me really sad. The second and third ones probably did, too. But now, fifty or sixty postcards later, they don’t usually make me as upset.

It’s not because his death is any less sad, I think it’s because in this specific area I’m learning how to choose gratefulness over discontentment. After forty or fifty times of pulling a college postcard out of the mailbox and getting sad about what Parker missed out on, I’m now able to (sometimes) see his name and think about the good memories we have and the fact that he can never be separated from God’s love.

I guess what I’m hoping for is that the rest of life will work the same way.

That as we get through all the firsts, we’ll get better and better at choosing gratefulness over discontentment, even when it’s hard. That we’ll spend more time celebrating who he was and the memories we have, and less time despairing the future here on earth that he’s missing out on and the future we have without him in our lives.

When you’re faced with hundreds of painful firsts, choosing gratefulness seems impossible. We’ve had days where we’ve been good at it, and days where we’ve sucked at it, but we keep trying. And it definitely helps when you feel the love and support of family and friends, so thank you all for that.

There might not be a new normal to get back to for us, even after this pandemic has come and gone, but there will always be so many things to be grateful for. So many.

I don’t know when or where you’re reading this, but whether you’re confined to your house in a pandemic or you’re free to move about the earth because things have returned back to “normal,” you can choose gratefulness over discontentment today.

It’s not always easy, but I truly believe you’ll never regret it.