The beginning of the school year can be emotional for any parent, but it is wrenching for Anna Whiston-Donaldson. In 2011, on his second day of seventh grade, her son, Jack, drowned in a flooded and raging creek near their home in Vienna, Va.
Whiston-Donaldson worked out her feelings in real time on her blog, An Inch of Gray, where she had posted funny things her kids said, quips about her marriage, her thrift-store finds and, of course, pictures of her kids on their first day of school.
Now, nearly three years after 12-year-old Jack died, she is publishing “Rare Bird,” a memoir about her emergence from a cloud of shock and grief.
“I’d much rather have Jack than a book,” says Whiston-Donaldson in an interview. “But if I’m going to have a book, I want something good to come out of it.”
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Perhaps, she says, her story will offer help and hope to those in mourning and “soften the hearts” of those who cross their paths. Her message, she says, is universal: “Everyone grieves. Everyone in life is going to experience profound disappointment. We all have the opportunity to walk beside someone in crisis.”
Sitting at the table in her sunny kitchen, Whiston-Donaldson is candid and self-deprecating. “I try to be real and honest,” she says. “But I’m not an expert on grief. It’s just my experience.”
She turns more tender, her voice softens, when asked about Jack. “He would have been awesome in high school,” she says.
In recent months she has found it difficult to watch his friends grow older while Jack stays locked at age 12. Reminders are everywhere.
A dresser with his clothes sits in her bedroom; his baseball bat and helmet are in the garage. Her home office offers a snapshot of a creative, nature-loving child – on a table stands a Taj Mahal Lego set he built, on a shelf is a spaghetti jar filled with the cicada shells he collected in 2004.
Playing in the rain
Her book is filled with anecdotes about Jack, but she did not intend it to be a tribute to him.
Her book is sad. But it is also eloquent and affecting in its self-awareness. This is a “story of a woman who has suffered profound, crushing disappointment, whose plan didn’t pan out, whose heart has been broken by life, and who is wondering if she’s alone in her pain,” Whiston-Donaldson writes in the introduction.
The portrait Whiston-Donaldson, 44, draws of her life before the event is one of suburban idyll – a happy marriage to Tim, a patent lawyer; two healthy children who said their prayers before bed; a fulfilling part-time job at her church bookstore. The day her son died, with the power out from a storm, her children were happily doing their homework by candlelight – a scene so “Little House on the Prairie” that she felt compelled to share it on Facebook.
Then came a knock on the door. Did Jack and his sister, Margaret, then 10, want to come out in the rain and play? They got a “quick ‘Go for it!’ from me,” Whiston-Donaldson writes, and ran outside. “I don’t know how many times I’d told them of the crazy fun my sister and I had tromping through the flooded dips and valleys of our own yard as kids, but I do know I had told them,” she writes. “I wish I had never told them.”
The last time she saw them together, her children were walking down their driveway. Margaret returned less than an hour later, alone.
Some of the book’s most harrowing scenes describe her frantic efforts to find her son, racing along the side of the creek in her car with Margaret crying in the back seat, and the immediate aftermath of his death. Even more brutal is her chronicle of the two years following the accident, as she tries to accept her loss.
With the book’s publication comes the realization, she says, tearfully, that “I’m one year farther from being with Jack.” She’s still grieving, she says, but “I feel increasingly less stricken.”
She draws comfort not only from her writing, her faith and her community – online and off – but also from her experience and that of her family.
“I was raised as a free-range kid and I survived,” she writes in her book, and she is trying to instill that sense of adventure in her daughter, who has gone whitewater rafting with the Girl Scouts. And despite it all, Whiston-Donaldson says, “I still like rain.”