Another Jimmy- Jimmy Norton
In our post How To Write a Beautiful Condolence Card to Someone Who Has Lost Child we share some of the cards and letters that moved us deeply. Add one more to the top of the list! One of my co-workers, Kathleen, recently shared with me perhaps the most beautiful words of sympathy I’ve ever read: a poem written by John Savant, an English professor, for one of his close friends and colleagues who lost a young son in a fire in Sacramento in 1978.
Jimmy Norton died in 1978; he was the oldest of three boys and living at a special home in Sacramento for severely autistic children. The home accidentally caught fire and Jimmy perished in the flames. John Savant is the poet. He taught English at Dominican College in San Rafael. My father met John in 1970 when my father began his tenure as a professor. The poem was written for Jimmy’s parents, Larry Norton and Sally Norton. Larry was also a professor at the Dominican. Mr. Savant and Mr. Norton were two men that my dad befriended and our families soon became close and lasting friends. Mr. Savant sent me a used copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet when I was going through a difficult time. I still have Letters in my library bookshelf, next to Mr. Savant’s book of poems, where I found this.
For The Parents of Jimmy Who Died Young
By: John Savant
But in the pain of passing, what we know
is what it is we love. And what we love
loved in its passing, in our passing too
who live by counting, count by measured deaths.
Tomorrow what we loved, if true, will be
loved even more-not in the poverty
of present things, but in the grace of pain
that shapes like light about our memories.
For pain is what remains when present loves
pass on; and pain saves our remembering
from dumb animal numbness, from the loss
forgotten in the robin’s eye, whose chick
has fallen. Now you cry as though your cry
defied the limits of philosophy;
your eyes embrace a nothing darker than
the rimming, final lights of any plan
you can imagine. But imagine this:
that as the sea steams into light, and leaf
comes drily home, what keeps their passing firm
and worth the passing is the scar they leave
flaming and beautiful upon the mind.
And this you will finally know: that pain,
like love, defines our presence here.
We are what we have suffered—suffer what we love.
I’ve been thinking.
“Loss” is deeper and bigger than just death. Loss of a marriage, a job, a friendship, loss of one’s way or will. A dear friend of mine lost his freedom and spent two years behind bars for one bad decision to help a buddy move some dope many years ago. He kept that a secret for eight years: embarrassment, uncertainty of how I would react—just a few of the doubts racing through his mind. He finally opened up because “You’ve been so open talking about Jimmy, it gave me the confidence I could share with you my worst thing. It’s nothing compared to you losing Jimmy…”
Of course I immediately dumped him as a friend. Not.
When we lose a child, that loss resonates and reverberates with those caught in the waves of our grief. It brings to the surface their bad thing and the losses they suffer in whatever shape or form those may take. Our loss can work as a “door opener” for others to share theirs with us. Of course they assume their loss is insignificant compared to ours. But is it? Their loss—their bad thing—eats at them, haunts them, tracks them, wakes them up, weighs them down. They need and want to talk about it—if we let them.
By sharing and opening our hearts about our loss, we help others share theirs with us. We help them lighten the load of the loss they carry. Compassion and vulnerability. Loss can bring us closer to those in our gravitational field, and others spinning outside of it.
A most fundamental and pure of the universal truths: We all suffer.
John Savant got it right.
We are what we have suffered-suffer what we love.”