Early in the morning of Sunday, July 8, 2001, the sheriff drove up to our house and the chaplain told us through the screen door that our twenty-four year old son Peter had been kicked to death by bouncers in Atlantic City.

When they came in, they asked for my address book. “In the kitchen . . . second drawer from the door . . . on the left,” I managed to blurt out while clinging to my husband. Somehow, without conscious thought, I came up with the right names, the names of nearby friends who were home and who came immediately. Then the sheriff and the chaplain left.

The address book also went away. Friends took it to call other friends. Useful that first week, it’s taken on new significance in the five years since.

I feel a little like my address book these days. Worn out around the edges, smudged, sometimes difficult to read, cluttered with outdated information, yet full of treasured memories. My life is no longer tidy. To lose a child is to drive a stake through life marking forever the before … and after. Nothing is, or ever will be, quite the same. The five years since that event have been a squiggly line of then . . . and now.

Most every page of the address book is now a mess. It’s no longer neat or even alphabetized.  I simply haven’t been able to keep up with changes in names and addresses of friends. I’ve erased fair-weather friends who couldn’t bear our grief and have since grown distant. I’ve added some friends, mostly bereaved themselves, with whom we’ve developed kinships.

New also are about a dozen of Peter’s friends, often erased and rewritten with their frequent relocations. Next to many of the names I’ve scribbled info I want to retain: When was the baby born? When is the anniversary of the wedding . . . or of the death? Did I send a holiday greeting? (I’ve sent few these past four years.)  Did we receive holiday greetings?

Peter’s friends link then and now. Many came from all parts of the country at the time of his death, some have come since, and we visit them when we travel. We’ve served as host couple at their weddings, become godparents for their children, and one couple named their baby Peter.

Through these friends, we’ve learned volumes about our grown son who moved away from home at age eighteen. These contacts will wane with time, we realize, but meanwhile we cherish the glimpses into their lives that give us hints about what our would-be twenty-nine year old son might be doing today.

As one must, I too have re-invented life in the wake of loss. Then, I was working full-time, thankful for the numbing routine and a bit fearful of staying home alone. But I lost heart in my profession, and, faced with long judicial processes in another state, I was fortunate to be able to retire early.

Now I fill my days with quieter activities of gardening, biking and birding.  I used to make extraordinary efforts to stay in touch with many old friends, frantically seeking validation that my son had lived and had mattered, that I was indeed still living, and that I was an okay mom in spite of Peter’s tragic death.

But I’ve gradually let go of those who didn’t respond and those who seemed to be saying, “Isn’t she over it yet? Aren’t they back to normal yet?” I’m more selective now, taking care of myself yet trying to be a more sensitive and loving companion to friends in crisis. Helping others gets my mind off myself and makes me feel like good can come from sad experience.

After five years, the ache of longing is still present but gentler. I don’t always listen to sad music. Silence is all right. My husband and I are kinder with each other. We pay more attention to our surviving daughters. I pray more.

I can look at a young man on a park bench with dark hair and wire-rim glasses, resting big hands on his knees and listening to a head set. I can stare at him, will him to look at me, and think merely how much he resembles my son without shedding tears of why oh why isn’t he Peter?  Of course, my eyes sometimes still water, but rivulets do not as often stream down my cheeks.

Now I understand grief to be a timeless process of letting go of the anger, the trauma, and the pain of my son’s untimely death. It’s getting back to before in new ways, remembering the joy that Peter gave us for twenty-four years. Now I look at pictures of Peter and feel myself smile right along with him. I burst with pride as though he were still alive. I constantly sense his enthusiasm for life and tackle my own projects with renewed energy he left behind for me.

Mostly, I feel quietly resigned: Something happened over which none of us had any control, and there was nothing I could have done to prevent my son’s death. I’ll always be the victim of a senseless crime, but I don’t have to behave like one.

Still, I can’t part with the address book. On the “P-Q” page is Peter, my son. There, preserved for history, are his work and home addresses, his college email address, phone numbers for his London office and his cell phone. I like to look at them. They probably wouldn’t work any longer, but I don’t want to scratch them out. I don’t want to forget them.

Eventually I will replace my address book. It’s just an object, after all, not really all that important. I’ll probably choose one this time with birds on the cover, more my current world than Monet’s garden. I’ll get reorganized so I’ll be better prepared to send the notes or make the calls on significant dates when friends are celebrating . . . or hurting.

But when I bring it home, I’ll take a moment first to write in Peter’s name, his addresses, and every one of his phone numbers. I won’t forget. And I’ll feel good for keeping him in my book.

Mary Westra 2010

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Mary Westra

Mary Westra

Mary Rondeau Westra grew up in Northeast Minneapolis. She graduated from Macalester College and taught French for eight years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. When her two daughters and son became teenagers, she went back to work, launching a 10-year career of fundraising for arts organizations. She retired from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2002, shortly after the murder of her son, Peter. She became a Master Gardener and museum guide and started writing. Mary continues to be inspired by Peter. Over the years since his murder, she has reached out to other parents of children who have been murdered — writing them letters or picking up the phone. She stays in contact with a number of Peter's close friends from childhood and Middlebury College. And every year on July 8, she and her husband, and any family or friends who are present, wake up early and go down to their dock on the lake, sitting together to mark the hour that Peter lived after the attack in Atlantic City. Mary and her husband, Mark, live in White Bear Lake, Minn. They bike and hike together, watch birds, play golf, and Mary tends the garden; they spend time with their adult daughters, and Mary has begun to knit for her first grandchild, born in 2010.

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