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Travis Mayfield: My new relationship with my dead son and accepting his postcards from the stars

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Ellie and Curtis walking through the Arboretum

Tommy is dead.

I keep repeating that simple phrase over and over again.

Sometimes I say it aloud. Other times I say it in my head. Half the time I stop and then add the phrase and he is not coming back.

I know he is dead. I know he is not coming back. Yet if I do not continue to tell myself these facts I lapse into a space where for a few seconds my deeply damaged mind forgets and then when I remember it is like being punched in the face. The force of which can knock me to the ground. The pain of which feels as bad as the exact moment I felt my son take his last breath in my arms.

So I repeat it. To protect myself.

But I do it for another reason as well. I do it to begin.

Saying that Tommy is dead and that he is not coming back is how I am able to start to find a new way to have a new relationship with him.

If I don’t start there I risk being stuck. I risk living in a world of fantasy, imagination and deep disrespect for the memory of my baby boy.

I feel called to know he is gone and to honor him by unlocking how we can continue to know each other.

We lost Tommy 1-month ago Sunday.

His heart stopped after midnight on April 10th. We kept him on life support long enough that we could gather those who loved him and say goodbye to his body. But he really left us in the early morning hours.

I explain this because shortly after it happened a local illustrator Catherine Dair, creator of popular internet comic called Skip & Pip, was moved by our loss and she asked to draw a special comic in his memory.

The simple panels tell a story of deep loss and capture the question we all ask, why. It also offers an answer.

Simple.

Whole.

True.

“Why do those we love have to go away?” asks a bunny named Skip who has just lost his brother.

“I don’t think anyone has ever been able to answer that,” replies his husband Pip.  “But I can tell you what I think.”

“I think they are in such a hurry to explore the stars they forget how much we will miss them down here when they go.”

As the two bunnies look into the night sky a star shoots across the horizon.

“Did you see that,” asks Skip. “He just sent me a postcard.”

“I do believe he did, love.” replies Pip.

Dair was kind enough to send our family a print of the special comic. Over the weekend we had it framed and brought it home. I then sat with Ellie and read it aloud in her room. We cried and I asked if she wanted it hanging in her room. She said yes. We hung it above the rocking chair they used to rock and rock and rock in together. And which I rocked them both in as babies. Then we went to sleep.

Overnight that anniversary quietly clicked by as we slept.

When I awoke the next morning the first thing I saw was a series of beautiful photos capturing the Northern Lights visible for the first time over Seattle in years.

I knew instantly it was our first postcards from Tommy.

I knew it.

Without a doubt.

I wrote to one of the photographers I know, Tim Durkan, who captured some absolutely incredible images and thanked him. I thanked him for being awake and aware. I thanked him for sharing them.

I told him about the postcards.

I believe we will have a lifetime of postcards to collect. But these first are so special. We don’t want to forget them. Tim’s photos ensure we never will.

Tommy loved reading.  He learned it from his daddy.

I’ve been reading a lot lately.

About grieving and loss.

A friend gave us ‘How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies.’ It has offered us a clinical perspective on what we are feeling and the trauma our mind and body are undergoing. It hasn’t eased the pain, but it has helped bless us with some measure of self-awareness.

A caring member of the Providence Hospice team shared that she had read ‘Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents‘ and thought it might be something we would find useful.

I have been making my way through it in a slow and deliberate manner. I have said that finding a new way of being broken means willingly questioning everything I ever believed and honestly reappraising everything else. My spiritual life and the possibility of a transcendent new relationship with my baby boy chief among them.

A counselor recently gifted us with a copy of a booked called ‘Permission to Mourn: A New Way to Do Grief.’ The author Tom Zuba bravely shares the lessons he has learned after the death of two children and his wife.

Among Zuba’s many insights there was one particular notion that struck me. It is that we can believe those signs we see really are from our loved one. Zuba gives his readers and fellow grievers permission to stop questioning and simply believe.

So I did.

Several months ago, before Tommy died, on a walk through the Arboretum he and I got separated from Curtis and Ellie. We walked, talked and laughed.

We watched the cars drive under the stone foot bridge. We watched the water flow under the other stone bridge. We held hands and we put rocks in my pockets.

Since Tommy died I have found myself drawn to the path between those two bridges. It has become a scorchingly intimate place for me. It’s a place where I feel Tommy. I often talk aloud to him. Sometimes I don’t speak at all, but just hold my hand at my side and feel his hand in mine as we walk. Often I grab a rock at the very end and drop it into the storm drain where Tommy loved to drop his rocks. An offering of sorts. A ritual. A moment, unexplained.

Between those bridges something opens wide. My heartbreak breaths. Time, space, life and death fall. Love rises through tears.

Recently in speaking with a friend I compared it jokingly to the C.S. Lewis wardrobe. But even as I laughed I knew it wasn’t a joke. I believe that is exactly what that path, between those bridges really truly is. It is my bridge to my son.

Now I know it for sure.

Sunday morning Curtis, Ellie, Sadie and I were starting through that section of path on a walk. Ellie suddenly stopped. She bent down. She found a rock. She pressed it to me and told me to put it in my pocket. As soon as I did, she bent down to pick up another rock. That rock she held in her little hand as she ran up to Curtis and told him to put it in his pocket.

Put a rock in your pocket for Tommy.

Put a rock in your pocket for me.

Put a rock in your pocket for us.

All of you.

All of us.

Tommy is dead.  He is not coming back.  But we are alive.  You are alive.  And he is with us.  Always.  We have the postcards to prove it.

Editor’s Note:  Travis Mayfield is the Director of Digital Strategy at Q13 News and serves as the on-air social media editor for Q13 News This Morning.  Travis and his husband lost their 2.5 year old son, twin brother to their daughter Ellie, in early April.  Travis occasionally writes about grief, loss and Tommy in the hope of sharing his son’s love and attempting to help others facing their own heartbreak no matter its scope.