As always, when writing about a family’s loss, permission was requested and graciously granted by Will’s parents so that I might share their story with you.
I knew I had to be in that room. As much as I dreaded the conference, I knew I had to be there. We were next door neighbors for 13 years. His dad had cut a gap in the hedge which separated our properties so my kids could walk across his backyard to get to their grandparents’ house. He was the middle of their three children and I had literally watched him grow up. So when their 11 year old son died suddenly, I knew I had to be the one in that room.
Will was a precious child . . . so loved and so cared for . . . so much like other boys his age . . . and yet so very different. He and his twin sister were constant companions and playmates, a relationship that would not have been possible except for her devotion to her brother. You see, Will couldn’t walk, so she chose to be by his side. And Will was nonverbal, but that never kept her from understanding him.
He loved the simple things in his life . . . his ever-present light-up music box and all his stuffed animals . . . his daily dose of Wheel of Fortune and the wonderful clicking sound the wheel made with each spin . . . indulging in his favorite ice cream flavor (which was anything covered in chocolate) . . . and all the hugs and kisses his family was willing to share. Like many boys his age, he loved being outdoors. Unlike other pre-teens who were beginning to stretch their wings, he looked forward to shopping trips with his mom and grandmother. To sum it all up, Will was a happy eleven year old who loved without reservation and who was unconditionally loved in return. In every picture I saw, the joy radiated from his eyes while his face was covered in a grin that spread from ear to ear. He most assuredly faced obstacles, but he never knew it—and his family never told him.
At the end of the arrangement conference his parents asked about clothes. What should they bring for their child? And I gave them my usual response—dress him just as you would if he was going somewhere. Then I followed with my observation that I never wanted to be buried with shoes on and everyone at “the home” knew they’d be subjected to a good haunting if that happened. That was when his mother looked down at her hands and after a brief pause said, “I’ve bought him underwear . . . because he was never able to wear anything but a diaper. And I bought him shoes . . . because he’s never been able to walk . . .”
I’ll be honest, in that moment I struggled. In two short sentences, she acknowledged the limitations her child had faced throughout his life—and that he was now freed from those limitations. I know that acknowledgement didn’t lessen the pain of his absence, but it did open a small window through which I was allowed to see their strength—and their grief—in the face of an unfathomable loss.
There is a monument in Salt Lake City Cemetery that was designed by the father of Matthew Robinson, a ten year old boy who spent his brief life blind and paralyzed. At his death his parents wanted his gravesite to be a place of inspiration . . . so his monument depicts him rising from the wheelchair to which he was bound on earth . . . joyfully reaching toward the heavens. When Will’s mother said what she did, that picture came to mind. Despite Will’s physical limitations, he was a beautiful boy . . . and it was a beauty that extended into the depths of his soul and washed over everyone around him. So rest in peace, little buddy. Even though you never realized it, you made the world a better place by just being here. And that will not be forgotten.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.