The morning of September 9, 2011, I was in a pretty good mood considering the night I had. I just survived a basement flood without significant damage to anything of importance. In fact, I didn’t just survive, I handled the entire disaster completely on my own. Chris wouldn’t be home from work for a while, the kids were more hindrance than help, and as I watched the water rising over the blockade of towels I had constructed, it was clear that waiting for assistance wasn’t an option. I transferred a room-full of both family heirlooms and random crap to a safer – drier – location, while simultaneously shoring up the dam of towels and holding my children at bay with television and junk food. All by myself. It took hours and I felt fairly heroic about the whole experience.
I had a lot of clean up work to do and by mid morning, I realized that it had been close to 24 hours since I had checked my e-mail or done anything online. Saving my heirlooms and crap had commanded all of my attention, and I had no idea that DC area flooding had destroyed more than just boxes of photo albums and antique furniture – that people had actually died. I didn’t know that 15 minutes away from me, an entire neighborhood had mobilized in a search for a 12 year old boy carried away by a flash flood. And I could never have imagined that the 12 year old boy would be my friend’s son.
When I finally picked up my cell phone, I saw that I had missed texts from early in the morning asking me if I had heard that, “Anna’s son died last night.” Assuming this must be a mistake, I turned on the computer and checked Anna’s Facebook page to see what she last posted. From what I remembered, it was a picture of her kids doing homework by candlelight after school due to a power outage. Instead I found a list of condolences so long that I finally gave up on scrolling to figure out WHAT had happened.
After that, my story is more or less the same one that you’ll hear from anyone else. Absolute horror. Terrible sadness. Inability to process the reality of the situation.
You will hear these stories from people who have never actually met Anna because of her blog, An Inch of Gray. Before the flood, many of her posts included sweet, funny stories about her children. Readers grew to know Jack and Margaret through Anna’s eyes, and I think they – we – grieved the loss of that little boy just as much as we would the child of a life long friend.
One of the reasons I first started reading Anna’s blog is that she’s a wonderful writer. She has a way of offering her own stories and thoughts without alienating those who are different. I could relate to her even though my children were toddlers and hers were in elementary school – even though I don’t identify with a specific religion and she often writes about her faith in God. While many of our life experiences have been different, she shares her own in such a welcoming way, without judgement of others.
I learned a lot about grief from my friend that year. Both online and off. She used her blog as a place to be brutally honest about Jack’s death and her life without him. As a writer, she was able to think things through on the page…and as a blogger she found community in sharing her story with others. While I was fortunate in proximity, and could talk to my friend in person, I found her blog posts to be just as disarming. The same open spirit was there, and comment after comment thanked her for everything from making people feel less alone in their own grief to just offering some enlightenment about what a grieving friend may be experiencing.
A year later when Anna told me that she had been approached to write a memoir, I could only think, “of course.” There was no question that if anyone could tell a personal story that would resonate with others, it would be Anna.
Two years after that, I was gifted with an advance copy of Rare Bird – and when I turned the last page, my immediate reaction was that I wanted EVERYONE to read it.
This woman wrote a book in which one of the main characters is God with a capital G, but I think that even the most ardent of atheists would find wisdom there. It’s a book about faith and we all have faith in something, whether it’s God or love or science. None of these are exempt from questions or cynicism, yet we have to believe – have faith – to keep going each day.
As a book about early grief, Rare Bird doesn’t preach or pontificate. It simply tells one mother’s story about a universal experience. Everyone eventually grapples with loss. No two stories are the same, but at their core, all hold hurt, anger and disappointment. They also include love, learning and hope. And life. In telling her own story without any claim to have all the answers or to even know what comes next, Anna has extended an invitation to acknowledge this and bear witness to a crucial facet of the human condition.
I won’t go too deeply into the details of what you will find in this book or why I think it’s so incredibly unique as a memoir (my own verbose style would require a thesis for that). There are so many wonderful reviews that have accomplished this far better than I ever could – all of which can be found as links on the Facebook Page for An Inch of Gray. Though as far as details and quotes go, I really loved this one: Rare Bird, Indeed.
The only thing that I’d like to add to the rest is that “this is NOT a scary book.” Anna has mentioned in interviews that she doesn’t want anyone to fear the actual subject matter of her story. There are no awful surprises or anything written for shock value. It can be hard to read at times, but the overall message is one of hope.
When I heard this concern, I was immediately reminded of a childhood favorite: There’s a Monster at the End of This Book. Grover from Sesame Street finds out that when you get to the last page of the book, a monster will be waiting. He implores the reader to stop turning pages, employing rope and brick walls – none of which work. And of course, there is a monster at the end of the book. But it’s just him. I had a similar experience in reading Rare Bird. It’s hard to read something sad. It’s scary to think about losing a child. But not reading a story doesn’t make those fears and feelings go away. There definitely is something at the end of Anna’s book. But it’s just you.
Seeing another mother survive my own worst nightmare puts flooding basements into perspective. I often place a bit too much sentimental value on things – but it’s stories like this one that help me remember what is truly important in life. “Anything of importance” is a subjective concept, but I think everyone will agree that people matter most. The love we have for our family and friends is an incredible gift – but it comes with inevitable risk. One of my favorite quotes from Rare Bird is, “grieving is the price we pay for loving him so very much.” They would never trade their 12 years with Jack for a life without grief.
I will continue to be thingsy and want my kids to just go to bed already so I can catch up on Homeland… I will think I’m a super hero for clearing out a basement during a flood… And from time to time, I will be jealous and feel sorry for myself. But I know what is truly important. I will cherish the time I have with the people I love. I will be grateful for all of the love, wisdom and grace that comes my way. And I will tell everyone I know that they should read Rare Bird because it isn’t a scary book at all.