How do you make the unthinkable, the unbearable tolerable? How do you move past the loss of your child? And how do you relearn how to smile on his birthday?
One family in Pennsylvania found the best way is to gather your community together to celebrate his life with everyone who knew the little dark-haired, Pokeman-toting, always smiling boy.
Every year, on his December birthday, the community gathers to send fireworks heavenward, to smile and see folks, and to remember. And strangely enough, Owen’s community has grown over the years to include new friends that didn’t know him, but grew to love him anyway through his family.
Oh, the Weather Outside Doesn’t Matter
Last year was colder than it’s been for a while, but the freezing temperatures didn’t seem to deter anyone. They gathered in the street, as they have for the past twelve years, stamping their feet, clapping mitten-covered hands and marveling at how much the neighborhood kids had grown. They were celebrating Owen’s birthday. He would have been 20th that month.
The annual fireworks party is a time to gather, to heal and most importantly, to remember. The driving force has always been Aryn. Petite with long hair somewhere between light brown and blonde, she is dressed in knit cap, ski jacket and boots. She looks like many of Owen’s friends home from college for the holiday. Mom to five children, Owen was her first-born. A storm during a camping trip felled a tree, and Owen was lost when he was in first grade.
Using the word “we” comes naturally to this close-knit community. We are in this together. Healing and remembering go hand in hand and it is an ongoing process. It never ends, but Owen’s family reached out and wrapped themselves around us, and we responded in kind.
While some might shy away at any mention of Owen’s name, Aryn drinks it in. Always remember, never forget. We have the t-shirts and the scholarship and the elephant drinking fountain in the park, and the color green. Owen’s favorite animal was the elephant. We all remember. As a writer, I do my best most times to detach myself from the story, but not this time. This is personal for all of us. We are truly in this together. We all still have our green Never Forget tee shirts from over a decade ago, and we wear them regularly as part of that promise.
I remember a sometimes silly Owen who would take my daughter’s eyeglasses and hat. Riding in the backseat to school, they’d trade and laugh at how different and how alike they looked. Both sported dark brown page boy haircuts. Maybe a little short for a girl, maybe a little long for a boy, but it suited both of them perfectly. I remember two dark heads pushed together in concentration with sidewalk chalk, or lazily swinging back and forth on our old white wicker porch swing. There is joy in remembering.
The Importance of Remembering
Back outside, we were glad the wind from earlier that week died down. It was time for the fireworks. Owen’s dad and brother are annual masters of the ceremony, setting off one blazing, sparkling pyrotechnic after another to appreciative oohs and ahhs and applause. When the occasional green firework goes awry, we laughed and credited that to Owen.
The lanterns were passed around, and we gathered in small groups of three and four to light, inflate and send skyward. Each one was cheered on as it slowly rose and soon, we all watch a line of glowing lanterns drifting up and away.
Owen’s family thanked us for coming, as they always do. We shared hugs and smiles with people we don’t see every day. We shared a connection through this time spent together once a year as we stopped and remembered and healed, just a little bit more. It was Owen’s 21st celebration last night and every year this time we tuck away this day to celebrate his life .
If you happen to hear a few stray fireworks round about mid-December, do me a favor and think of Owen. His mom would like that!