My most intense grief occurred in a hotel room in a city far from home. When we arrived in Portland immediately after learning of Roger’s death, Randy and I wandered the streets in our madness, sorrow, and desperation. Where was he? we asked as we walked through the city. How could this happen? What did we do wrong? Overwhelmed and exhausted by grief, we took solace in the anonymity that hotels provide. Emptied of everything, our forays outside the hotel provided temporary relief from the impossible feelings of disbelief, rage, sadness, and guilt swirling in our heads.
That was three years ago. Now I have been wandering the streets of Las Vegas, looking for Roger still, and discovering why he loved this strange and complicated place. This whole city is an unreal reality created with all the opulence, sequins and sparkles of the most exotic fantasy stage set. The place is also crowded with characters from all over the world, and people’s emotions are on full display in the casinos and in the taxis. No wonder my son the storyteller loved this place.
My guide for this remembrance visit was Roger’s girlfriend, Lara. She took me up in a helicopter to experience the Las Vegas Strip from the air. We indulged in some fine food and drink, of course. And we watched Steven Universe. Many times, I hugged his photo, re-read my grief journals, and held his Magic: The Gathering cards in my hands. I feel Roger’s presence in my head every day, but these activities brought him even more fully into my life.
Lara pointed out how Roger was fascinated with the “backstage” of Las Vegas, wondering how the magic was made. Why were certain design elements chosen? How could one hotel feed so many thousands of people every day? Where did the employees park? Roger’s lifelong training in media literacy led him to continuously analyze, notice and reflect upon how texts, performances, cultural artifacts, and political institutions were constructed. As a writer, every idea and phrase he composed was the result of his carefully-considered choices.
Hand in hand, Lara and I grieved through the performance of Le Reve, the Cirque de Soleil’s spectacular water fantasy at the Wynn. It was Roger’s favorite show. Only months before he died, I remember him explaining to me the bizarre combination of music, light, staging, swimming, and exceptional acrobatics. At the time, I was skeptical about it. Based on my experience with him, I was certain that The Fantasticks was Roger’s favorite show, followed closely by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. He loved both of these dramas. But now, I finally understand why La Reve was most meaningful to him.
La Reve is the closest experience I have ever had to a waking dream. You feel like you are experiencing something inside your own head. Watching the show, I felt like I was literally behind Roger’s eyelids. The show is a jaw-dropping spectacle of amazing performances. There’s the hint of a plot but the show is built on visual metaphors that illuminate the themes of love, adventure, darkness, and wonder. It’s sense and non-sense throughout, in the ways that dreams are little fragments of life, light, and color, moments of wonder and awe. The spectacle was overwhelming. My senses were overloaded. It makes perfect sense that my adventurous and sensitive son would revel in the sensations of this show. After the show, I realized that La Reve’s waking dream helped me appreciate the unreal reality of my life without my son.
Grief changes you. It fragments the sense of self. My life has seemed unreal to me for three years now. I still long for a “rewind” button. I crave the opportunity to stand with my son, to hug him, to see his sparkly blue eyes and smell his amazing smell. A Roger-size piece of my heart is gone, and I feel the hole it has left. I also understand that this impossible set of feelings is the result of my love for Roger, and so I am learning to accept and honor grief as my companion. I know I will never be made whole, but the Roger-sized hole in my heart is something I am learning to treasure.