10/22/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What I Wonder Now About My Son Who Passed Away

Anna Whiston-Donaldson

The following is an excerpt from Rare Bird, Anna Whiston-Donaldson's memoir about the loss of her son, Jack, who drowned in a freak flood at the age of 12.

It's tempting when children die to turn them into little saints, because their beautiful qualities shine so brightly in our memories through the lens of our intense longing. In downplaying their humanity, however, we can sometimes deprive them of their full personhood.

I know I run this risk when writing and talking about Jack, so I make sure I talk about his struggles with OCD, his squirrelly behavior in school, and his fondness for the word butt. I tell you he got frustrated easily. I want you to know he became so crabby each winter that in second grade I finally had him start sitting in front of a "happy light" January through March. And don't even get me started on how unenjoyable it was to help him write an essay. I want everyone to know that Jack was a real flesh-and-blood boy, not some two-dimensional paragon.

But then I wonder how to share some of the ways in which he was special, because while I don't want to leave the impression I'm trying to build him up into something he wasn't, I also don't want to withhold the amazing ways that Jack was Jack.

Like the way he wrote words ending in ing on tiny slips of paper and offered to sell them to his classmates for a penny apiece. How could our son invent something as funny and creative as what he called "Pocket Gerunds" and not have me tell you about it?

Then there are the many moments that show a depth of understanding that surprised us. Like the day 6-year-old Jack walked up to my desk, his eyes teary, a sad expression on his face. What was going on? Had someone been making fun of him at school?

"Hey, guy, what's up?" I asked.

"I wish people wouldn't choose transitory joy over what's important," he said.

Huh? What did a little kid know about transitory joy? What did I even know about it? And why on earth was it getting him down?

Turns out his class had memorized this poem:

The Flies and the Honey Pot
by Aesop

A jar of honey chanced to spill
Its contents on the windowsill
In many a viscous pool and rill.

The flies, attracted by the sweet,
Began so greedily to eat,
They smeared their fragile wings and feet.

With many a twitch and pull in vain
They gasped to get away again,
And died in aromatic pain.

O foolish creatures that destroy
Themselves for transitory joy.

And while Jack's classmates were enjoying acting out the hand motions of the icky stickiness and the doomed flies' futile attempts to escape, he was pondering why people make the choices they do.

Jack was a patient person, not typically given to excess in his desires or appetites. After eating one or two pieces of his Halloween candy, he'd stash the rest in his room, untouched, until I either ate it or threw it away. He saved up his money for "something big." He didn't sneak around trying to do things that were off-limits.

So I guess I could see how he could be upset at the thought of people focusing on instant gratification or fleeting joys. Jack had never been wired that way. But his statement seemed so mature for a child, because isn't childhood primarily made up of transitory joys?

It was surprising that even at 6 years old, Jack understood that people are easily ensnared by what appears to be sweet but is in truth harmful.

Looking back now, I wonder if Jack knew something that we didn't -- that his life here would be fleeting yet would somehow point others toward things that last?

Excerpted from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Copyright © 2014 by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Listen to Anna Whiston-Donaldson discuss her story with Momastery blogger Glennon Melton here:

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