Red Jell-O at Dawn

Red Jell-O at Dawn

From A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Red Jell-O at Dawn

Family means sharing inadequacies, imperfections and feelings with each other and still loving each other. But even when you set out to love, you may not always be a likable person. And when you’re not perfect, forgiveness for yourself and others becomes important. Then you get up the next day and start again. It is a process, like the opening of a bud. It is a flowering, a blooming and blossoming.

Bernie Siegel

When my youngest child, Andrew, was 11 years old, he asked if we could have a “ceremony” at the lake to commemorate the second anniversary of his dad’s death. I didn’t know what to think. He not only wanted us to watch the sunrise in silence at the shore of Lake Michigan, he also insisted that we eat red cherry Jell-O with bananas in it while we sat in the sand.

“Jell-O? At six in the morning?” I asked incredulously.

“Mom, red Jell-O with bananas was Dad’s favorite snack. We always made it together when I visited him on weekends.”

I still had hurt feelings that Harold filed for divorce two months into our agreed-upon year-long separation without any effort at marriage counseling. And I was especially hurt that he remarried the day our divorce was final. When he died two years later, I helped Andrew through the grieving process while trying to ignore my own feelings. Now we had to bring it all up again?

“Andrew, it’s supposed to be really cold tomorrow. Couldn’t you just think about your dad at home?”

“Mom, please, it’ll be okay. I just want us to sit there on the sand and eat the Jell-O and think about Dad. We can dress warm and we’ll take a blanket.”

I thought I’d done a good job of helping Andrew adjust to his father’s death these past two years as I tried to be the best “only” parent a child could have. But I wasn’t sure about this early morning ceremony thing at the beach. As he waited for my answer, the pleading look on his face told me how much his idea meant to him.

“All right, Andrew,” I said reluctantly. “We’ll have to get up at 5:15 if you want to get there while it’s still dark.”

“No problem, Mom! I’ll set my alarm. Do you think Wayne would come if I ask him?”

I wondered what Wayne, the man I’d been dating for a couple of months, would think about Andrew’s plan. Wayne’s wife had died just two months after Harold, and I knew Wayne was still dealing with his own grief. I didn’t know if it was fair to drag him along to Andrew’s strange beach ceremony.

That afternoon, Wayne stopped by the house while I was stirring the red Jell-O. Andrew launched into his plan.

“So, Wayne, do you want to go? The sunrise will be great!”

“Sure, Andrew, I’m glad you asked me.”

I shot Wayne a look that said, “Are you sure about this?” Then I said, “Do you realize it’s going to be only 20 degrees tomorrow morning? With the wind off the lake, the wind-chill factor will probably be below zero!”

Wayne smiled, “It’ll be a great adventure.”

The next morning as Wayne pulled up in front of our house, Andrew and I greeted him in our full winter gear. Both of us were wearing jogging suits under our heavy winter coats, hats and mittens. I had earmuffs on under my hat.

I tossed an old green bedspread into Wayne’s van then retrieved the Jell-O from the refrigerator.

A few minutes later, in the pitch dark, we arrived at Grant Park Beach in South Milwaukee, the only humans in sight. Naturally, I thought, nobody else in his right mind would be he re at this time in this cold !

Wayne and Andrew smoothed the bedspread on the sand about 30 feet from the jet black water. We snuggled close to the front of the bedspread and pulled the back half up around our bodies as a windbreak.

For a few minutes, Andrew’s “silence” rule made me uncomfortable. But then I looked at Wayne and Andrew and knew that they were both remembering and missing the person they had loved so much in life.

I knew Wayne was thinking about the wonderful relationship he’d had with his beloved Janet, his wife of 31 years. And without a doubt, Andrew was thinking about Harold. About the walks they took along the lake. About the plays and concerts his father had taken him to. About their trip to Florida just two months before he died.

I looked at them, concentrating on those warm, wonderful memories and suddenly my heart softened. Could it be that Andrew is on to some thing by having this ceremony? I wondered.

I pulled the green spread tighter around my neck and recalled a verse in Philippians 4:8 that said: “Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about.”

I recalled the happy, early days of my marriage to Harold. The bike rides, teaching Harold to ice skate, the two wonderful trips to Arizona to visit his sister and brother and their families.

I remembered when Andrew was born, in Harold’s 51st year, and how proud he was of his new son. Why, he’d passed out cigars the day he found out I was pregnant!

I recalled how scared I was when Harold had emergency gallbladder surgery a few years after we were married. I remembered how I laughed when he dressed up in a crazy red plaid sportco at and too-short, orange plaid pants for “nerd day” at the high school where he was principal.

Suddenly, the unhappy times in our marriage faded away and as I watched a line of pink and steel blue clouds inching their way onto the horizon, I felt as if a dam had broken. All the good memories that I’d buried the day Harold moved out of our home came rushing back.

I pulled the bedspread tighter around my neck and snuggled closer to Andrew, who had his head on my chest, trying to keep the cold away. The more I thought about Harold, the more I realized how much I missed him.

Even though it was still 20 minutes or so until the actual sunrise, the intensity of sunlight from below the horizon was filling the beach with an eerie sense of “almost” day. And I was filled with an eerie sense of “almost” peace.

Andrew motioned that it was time to eat the Jell-O. I took the lid off the container. When I placed a spoon into Wayne’s hand, I squeezed his fingers through bulky gloves. He smiled and I knew he understood what was going on in my mind and in Andrew’s.

And so we three ate red Jell-O at dawn on the shore of Lake Michigan in a wind chill that felt very close to zero degrees. But somehow I wasn’t shivering. And the Jell-O tasted good.

Just as the sun popped up on the horizon in a magnificent display of color, Wayne and Andrew stood up.

“It’s okay to talk now,” Andrew said.

Wayne put his big arms around Andrew and held him close. “I know what you’re going through, Son. I loved my wife very much, just like you loved your dad. And it’s a wonderful thing to take time to cherish those memories.”

I stood up as the full ball of wild orange sun now rested precariously and breathtakingly beautiful on the horizon line. “Andrew, let’s walk along the shore for a few minutes.”

“Good idea,” Wayne smiled. “I’ll go warm up the van.”

As Andrew and I walked hand in hand along the edge of the water, we talked about his dad. Andrew picked up pebbles and tossed them as far as he could throw.

“I love you, Dad!” he shouted to the wind.

It was time to leave. When we arrived back at our house, Andrew announced that he was going to fix his specialty, “French toast for everyone!”

Later, as we clinked our glasses of orange juice and toasted Harold Lorenz, I knew that because of this sensitive 11-year-old child, I’d not only been led into a strange world of ceremony and silence—I’d been given the chance to grieve openly for the first time and to “dwell on the fine, good things in others.” After that day, it seemed easier to praise God for everything in my life that is “true and good and right”—including a very special young son named Andrew.

Patricia Lorenz

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