A Thank You to My Beloved Community

In a heartfelt recount of attending the Appalachian Studies Association conference amidst profound grief, a mother shares the painful yet transformative experience of losing her only son. Through encounters with poignant Bible verses, the wisdom of authors like Ron Rash, and the concept of "blood memory" explored by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, she finds solace and strength in her Appalachian community. This narrative captures a journey of resilience, the power of shared heritage, and the unspoken bonds of support that sustain us through our darkest times.

I woke up this morning at 7:19 AM, a heavy sigh escaping me as I rolled back over in bed. “Seriously, you still want me to go?” I mumbled into the quiet of the room, feeling Pixel snuggle closer under the covers, seeking comfort in my warmth. As I drifted off last night, I asked God to wake me for the conference without an alarm if that was His wish, and apparently it was and I started to argue. Just then, my phone chimed—a daily ritual that presents a Bible verse meant to provide solace or guidance. Today’s verse, from Joshua 1:9, implored strength and bravery, a command that felt almost ironic in my current state. “You really have no idea how exhausted I am,” I whispered to the empty room, doubting my ability to face my own reflection, let alone the day ahead.

Attending the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) conference at Western Carolina University seemed daunting, more an obligation than an opportunity for enrichment. Yet, amid my reluctance, it felt as though a confluence of divine nudging and Aidan’s memory were propelling me forward.

We buried Aidan on Monday, and yet the vivid memory of him, just over a week ago, lying on our living room couch, wracked with coughs, pierced through my attempts to avoid reality. “Mom, can I please miss school to go with you to that Appalachian thing?” His words haunted me, pushing me towards something beyond grief’s grasp.

No sooner had I stepped out of the shower than JJ texted, his words a mix of concern and duty, informing me he was on his way home—his colleagues had urged him to take another day. With a heavy heart, I prepared myself, finding a strange solace in the routine. And, as the day unfolded, I was unexpectedly glad I did. Being among people who shared a passion for our region offered a temporary balm, a reminder that while the pain may not subside, the lessons learned and the love shared will endure.

The paramount lesson I’ve absorbed from the passing of my only son is the enduring presence of community in the Appalachians. This year’s ASA conference theme, “Beloved Community,” resonates deeply, but today, my focus is on expressing profound gratitude to my Haywood County community and those beyond.

I never initiated a GoFundMe or Meal Train, yet the flood of support—financial aid, meals, cards, and kind words—has been staggering, surpassing mere ‘overwhelming.’ I had lived under the radar, or so I thought. While some may not know me personally, your collective compassion has enveloped me during this heartbreak, making each gesture unforgettable. I apologize for my silence—I haven’t been able to respond individually, overwhelmed as I am. But know this: I have read EVERY SINGLE message, each one a balm to my grieving heart, and for this, I cannot thank you enough.

Your actions have shown me the strength in vulnerability, the grace in accepting help. I’ve always prided myself on my fierce independence, a trait that has, at times, strained my marriage with JJ. Yet, in this crucible of loss, it’s been this tight-knit mountain community that has taught me to embrace my own vulnerability, allowing myself to be cared for, to be loved.

This lesson, this profound gift from each one of you, is reshaping me, forging a new existence from the ashes of my old life. It’s a life I didn’t choose, but one I am learning to navigate. My journey has always been private, shielded from public eyes—even during my mother’s critical illness in 2019, my father’s horrible accident that same year, or the solitude of my divorce. But the weight of my current grief demands to be shared; it’s a burden too ponderous for one heart to bear alone.

Today, at the conference, I encountered Ron Rash, and I seized the moment to ask him how he transformed his grief into the narrative of “Saints at the River.” To my surprise, he shared with tears that his son was once struck by a car in his own driveway, yet survived. “You will find a way to survive,” he assured me, his empathy palpable, “I’m so sorry about your son, I remember him.” His words, while few, resonated deeply, underscoring the universal struggle to articulate comfort in the face of unspeakable loss.

I share this to convey that it’s perfectly acceptable not to find the right words. Grief, especially of this magnitude, is a raw, uncharted territory for the heart. It’s a fear so primal, so harrowing, that words often fall short. As I grapple with this reality, feeling the initial shock gradually recede, I am bracing for the moments of solitude I once cherished—aware they will now be the times when grief strikes hardest.

But I draw strength from the resilience of the countless women before me, fortified by the knowledge that, through this journey, I am not alone. Your support has been my anchor, reminding me that even in the deepest solitude, the spirit of community, love, and resilience will be with me.

Tomorrow, I plan to return for the concluding day of the conference, carrying Aidan’s spirit alongside me and JJ. Each sighting of a banjo tugs at my heartstrings, evoking a mix of cherished memories and profound grief. Interacting with new faces has become a journey in itself; with some, I retain silence about my recent loss, while with others, the words spill out involuntarily, like an unexpected drop from a squirrel’s grasp. My sense of self wavers, as my identity has been profoundly shaken by this tragedy.

The keynote speech by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle this evening resonated deeply with me. She delved into the concept of “blood memory,” the idea that the wisdom and culture of our ancestors flow through our veins. This notion brings me comfort, offering a tangible connection to a community that has enveloped me in support during my most vulnerable moments, mirroring the ancestral ties that bound them.

Oh, my Beloved Community, it is your strength and prayers that now buoy me through this darkest chapter. I hold onto the hope that the new memories we forge together will perpetuate this legacy of mutual support and empathy. In our collective mourning and remembrance, there lies a profound beauty and a flicker of hope. May the blood memories we cherish and pass forward weave a future that honors our past while forging new paths of solidarity and understanding for one another.

 

Thank you, once more, though words fall short of expressing the depth of my gratitude. I love you all.

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