Sunday, July 12, 2015

What’s in a name?

DSC02178 (1400x932)I began exchanging light conversation with the fellow in the next seat, 30,000 feet above the midwestern prairies.  ‘headed home?  ‘how’s business?  ‘vacation plans?  ‘got any kids?

I hesitated.

It was only a week since the funeral: I didn’t want to burden a stranger nor get emotional trying to talk about it.

How many children do you have?

(Deep breath) Two, but I’ve just lost one of them.  He was surprised, then sympathetic. 

We talked for a moment about the loss and it’s impacts, welcome human concern, then moved to another topic.  It went okay for a first try.

It shook me, though.

One of the most difficult things that I had to resolve during the early weeks was how to talk about William’s passing.  I didn’t want to be manipulative nor to make others uncomfortable.  It took practice to be able to give a few short sentences and a reassuring smile that made casual conversation okay with colleagues and casual friends.

A key was recognizing the importance of his name.

The doctor asked his name, first thing, in the delivery room: I was too choked to say William Patrick Hampton clearly when I looked at him for the first time. 

My parents always told me to listen for how it would sound at graduations, at sports nights, growing up. 

I repeated it as we filled out his paperwork at the funeral home, fearing that each time would be the last.

Historically, names referenced lineage and professions as well as identifying individuals: many Dutch names contain origins and physical traits.  Today, names confer identity and a place within  society, document marital and professional status.

As a parent, I always used his given name, William.  He shortened it to Liam in high school and used that variation familiarly in the service and  in college.  It was sewn onto his uniform (to be removed before donating to charity), and framed in artistic Samoan script above his doorway.

The name is important.  A recent Times article describes how Vice President Joe Biden copes with the recent loss of his son: its striking how he uses Beau in every quote. 

Similarly, I’ve found that saying his name gives William presence and legitimacy when I talk to others, even though he’s gone and his story is frozen.  It remains a gateway to telling people how I remember him and his life’s meaning.

You’re not being manipulative if you’re stating reality, I’ve been counseled. 

How many children do you have?  Two, William and Laura.

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