Undeveloped Film

There are three rolls of film in canisters sitting on the table near the door, where they have sat for at least a month. No one develops film any more, unless you're willing to have it shipped out. What if they get lost in the mail?

The film was found inside a camera case in my dead stepson's bedroom. The camera was there too, with an unfinished roll still in it. We took the rest of the pictures in our living room; candid shots of a blended, broken family.

No one has any idea what the pictures might be of or when he might have taken them. It's probably from a trip -- so maybe the trip to Alaska when his cousin was born and he was a teen.

We won't know until we get them developed. I've never felt so simultaneously excited about and scared of pictures. They are obviously from a time before I was ever in the picture, but I know my beloved is going to have a fresh round of mourning when we do see what they are. Regardless of the time and place that they were taken, they will give a glimpse of the world through his son's eyes.

Grief is so nonsensical at times. I have a wish born on the wings of magical thinking that somehow I will be in a picture, with him. I only got a year with him, and there are no pictures of us together. There are pictures where we are both at the same event, but never in the frame together.

It reinforces the idea that he's not really mine; that I was never really a part of his life. And yet I have to move forward and create this life and blend our families with a member forever missing. There's an empty spot at the table, someone missing from all the pictures -- a hole in all of our hearts.

It's been 14 months since we got the call; the call that no parent ever wants to get. It was late, past midnight, and I was in that in-between awake and asleep state where everything could be real or not. I heard my beloved's cell phone ring, and groggily thought, "It's really late. That can't be good." Then I heard him say, "Hi, sweetie, what's up?" and I knew it was his daughter.

And then I heard a sound that will haunt me forever. Primal. Guttural. These words don't do it justice but it's the closest I can come.

I jumped out of bed and found him crumpled in the tight entryway to the kitchen, phone to his ear and screams and wails coming from his mouth. I don't know if I wailed too. The shock was all-consuming.

My teen daughter came out of her room, fear and concern etched on her face. I told her, and her first instinct was to go care for her younger sister. They both came out of their room a few minutes later and joined us in that tiny space and we all held each other and cried. It seems that metaphorically it's where we still are -- in a heap of love and hurt, comfort and pain, and utter disbelief.

A few weeks ago we had the honor of taking part in an amazing project that another family on the other side of the world has taken on called The Good Grief Project. When I first heard of it I was stunned by the similarities in our stories: a father named James, a son named Josh, both lost in vehicular accidents at the age of 22. I clicked through to the application form and filled it out in a sort of trance, holding nothing back in my responses to their questions.

Jimmy and Jane, delightful and quintessentially British, were here filming for two days, a whirlwind of activity that to be honest sent me into a bit of a grief tailspin when they packed up and left. I don't regret it one bit, but talking about it was painful. I have always believed deeply in the healing and helping that comes from sharing our stories even when, and maybe especially when, they hurt.

It's only recently that I've allowed myself to really feel the full magnitude of the loss and contemplated the fact that a horrible tragedy befell us literally weeks after we embarked on making a life together. The last day we saw Josh was when he helped us move in together, and five weeks later he was gone.

We didn't get to say goodbye. He was here, and then he wasn't. We weren't even allowed to identify his body because of the grim nature of the accident. There are realities surrounding death that we don't usually talk about, particularly violent death, but the associated trauma, in my view, can't be fully released until we do.

I think the experience with Jimmy and Jane has allowed me to find my voice and pick up my pen. I call myself a writer, yet this is the first time I've been able to write about Josh in any depth. Penning his obituary was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever undertaken, the memory of which still brings a tear to my eye.

Everyday I see inspirational quotes on writing in my various social media feeds, and this one:

"Write hard and clear about what hurts." -- Ernest Hemingway

Has elicited a heart pang each time I see it.

This is my attempt at doing so; a start, for it is always going to hurt. We are building a beautiful life together, and there is so much joy in doing so, but it will always be accompanied by a deep longing for our boy to be here too, and for all the photos that will never be.