Mothering Jackson and His Memory

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, there is no “self”. He says “true self is non-self, the awareness that the self is made only of non-self elements.” According to this idea, we walk around every day experiencing artificial boundaries; we think we are separate from others and others are separate from us. But if we force ourselves to observe these boundaries with microscopic precision, we find that they do not exist. For example, a flower is not separate from the seed, the water, or the sunlight. Similarly, a flame is not separate from the wax, the oxygen, or the heat. Take away any of these components and the flower or the flame could never have existed. 

This is about the closest I can get to the idea that “Jackson is here with us.” In many ways, he is most definitely not here with us. I no longer get to touch him, hold him, smell him, or kiss him. In fact, it has at times felt downright infuriating when well-intentioned people tell me he’s “with us” because he simply is not; yes, I carry his memory in my heart, but that is different from carrying his body on my hip. Then I started reading about the concept of “interbeing”, or interconnectedness, and it has changed the way I relate to the idea of Jackson’s continued presence. While I don’t believe that his spirit is watching over us, I do believe that if I relax my boundaries of what it means for him to “be here”, I can feel him everywhere. 

Simply put, I am filled with this sense that I am not really separate from Jackson’s life; everything I do is touched by his existence. And I am not really separate from his death, either; I am a different person because he lived and because he died. Looking back over the last year, I see so much evidence of this: our Kindness Project, friendships we’ve forged, books we’ve read, tattoos we’ve inked, trips we’ve taken, and gardens we’ve nurtured. None of these things would exist in the absence of Jackson’s life and then subsequent death. Although I wish he was still here, I see that he is still here. His life and his death simply cannot be extricated from everything that came after, and his presence continues to manifest in new ways.

The notion that we’ve been changed by both Jackson’s life and his death can bring up complex feelings. We just came back from spending a very special weekend with another SUDC family we’ve become very close with and, although we could picture Jackson sitting at the table with us, we realized that it was an impossible vision. We both wished Jackson could have joined us on this trip, and recognized the trip only existed because he died. We are weeks away from meeting our next son and, although Jackson “should” get to meet his brother, that too is an impossible vision. We both wish that both our boys could appear together in a family photo, and realize that this new baby is only alive because Jackson is not. While we would of course reverse the tragedy of losing Jackson, it’s complicated to realize that special and beautiful things have also grown out of his death.

The impact of Jacksons life and death is not only complex but also evolving. He has not simply left a permanent one-time imprint on our lives. His impact on me and the world around us, is constant, ever-changing, ongoing, and in flux. As a sweet mama friend wrote to me on Mother’s Day, “Even though Jackson isn’t here, I know you are still mothering him and his memory.” Yes. There is something quite active about how I want to keep mothering Jackson and his memory because his impact on living, changing things by default means that he continues to live and change. This also means that Jackson will continue to impact this world in ways I have yet to see. I may not get to watch him physically grow or make new memories (I don’t get to watch him learn to swim, ride his bike, graduate, or get married), but I will watch his impact grow for the rest of my life. The quote on back of our kindness cards captures this idea exactly: “A life that touches others goes on forever.”

Like the very dandelion “puff balls” he loved to blow on, Jackson has scattered his own seeds in the wind, germinating his impact farther than the eye can see. Jackson has fed and clothed the homeless, furthered the education of refugee children, put hair on the heads of cancer-survivors, fed the birds outside our window, bought coffee for strangers, and contributed to critical research on SUDC. Jackson has also taught us and others about grief and love, brought people together who otherwise wouldn’t know one another, and changed the way we all look at life and helped us stop taking a single day for granted. It has become part of our meaning making to continue spreading his impact in these ways. 

What blows my mind even more is that, despite our urge to be active in the spreading of "Jackson", his memory and impact truly seem to have a life of their own. There is something “viral” about the way his memory is spreading, even when I am not actively spreading or cultivating it. I got my haircut last month and learned that after my sister chopped and donated her hair to “Wings for Kids”, another client came in weeks later looking for a fresh chop and our hair stylist convinced her to donate her hair in honor of Jackson, too. I keep learning about people who “pay forward” our kindness acts and pass along our website and podcast link beyond the “intended” audiences. It’s comforting and moving to know I can at times rest from spreading my son’s impact, and still have the ripples continue to propagate without my effort. Like a mother who actively nurtures a child and then sends them off into the world, I am learning how to balance actively nurturing his memory while allowing it to grow on its own. 

Thank you to all who have supported us in staying connected to Jackson in so many ways. If we’ve been the water nurturing the seed, you have been the sunlight that has further allowed his memory to thrive. The seed, the water, and the sunshine are all necessary conditions for the flower to grow and we are grateful for your role in remembering and honoring Jackson.

[For more on interbeing: Hanh, T. N. (2003). No death, no fear: Comforting wisdom for life. Penguin.]