Everybody, meet Noah: Roberta King’s new memoir, “He Plays a Harp,” is a family love story

 

BY TERRI FINCH HAMILTON
PHOTOS BY T.J. HAMILTON

Beans for tacos are simmering in a crock pot on the counter as Roberta King and her husband Mike Miesch sit at the kitchen table talking about Noah.

They do this a lot.

Their son Noah died eight years ago at the age of 17 from pneumonia, a complication of a life with cerebral palsy.

But the essence of Noah is all over the place in their pink and white beach house in Muskegon.

His photo is on the refrigerator. His shoes are lined up in his bedroom closet. A couple of his favorite books are still on his bed.

Noah comes to life, in a way, every time his parents talk and laugh about him.

Now, everybody can get to know this kid who had curly blonde hair, a love of Jimmy Buffet and a mischievous streak that once compelled him to pull the school fire alarm.

Consider King’s new memoir, He Plays a Harp,” your introduction.

Everybody, meet Noah.

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He once splashed in the Gulf of Mexico with dolphins. He owned one of Jimmy Buffet’s guitar picks. He loved SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons. He appreciated a good hunt for the perfect Halloween pumpkin.

King’s book, published by Principia Media, is mostly a story about how Noah lived.

But it starts out with how he died.

You’ll likely be crying by page 22, when King tenderly, but matter-of-factly, writes how she and Mike gently told their boy goodbye as he died:

“Don’t be afraid, Noah. It’ll be good in heaven, love. You’ll be able to breathe again,” I told him. I thought he might like to know that because his labored breathing and coughing bothered him.

“We’re here with you right now, and we’ll be with you always. Don’t be scared.”

… As Noah journeyed forward to his death, Mike and I held tightly onto each other and to him. Finally, as he drew his last troubled breath, we let the most amazing kid we’d ever known go where he wanted to go. Home.

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It’s the most private of moments. Sad, but somehow beautiful. But King would rather laugh with you than cry with you, and much of the book captures the funny family moments that she and Miesch hold dear.

As King and Miesch savor wine and tacos, a bouquet of cheerful daffodils on the kitchen table, there’s lots of laughter.

Remember how Noah would ask what’s for dinner? He’d keep asking, repeatedly, ignoring his mom’s answers until she finally named his favorite — spaghetti.

Remember that time Noah took a huge dump in the airplane bathroom? Miesch carried him from their seats in coach to the bathroom in first class, because it was closer. The stink, his parents tell between fits of laughter, would make your eyes water.

“It was a first-class poop,” Miesch quips with a grin.

“I like talking about Noah,” says King, vice president of public relations and marketing at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. “It keeps my memories fresh. It keeps him alive.”

“We bring him back,” Miesch says, “with our memories.”

While King’s account of Noah’s final moments brings her readers to tears, the stories of Noah’s life were hardest for her to write.

“His life stories made me cry more than anything else,” she says. “Those were the tender times I spent with him.”

She knows some people might shy away from a book they know deals with the death of a child.

“We have a societal discomfort with death,” King says. “People don’t want to read about it.

“But death is pretty short,” she says. “Life — even if it was short, like Noah’s — is filled with experiences. For it to be a complete book, death has to be part of it. But not all of it.

“I told the things I thought would help people get to know him. To understand why he’s so beloved.”

She pauses, and smiles.

“He was so cute,” she says.

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He was also severely disabled. Noah was never able to stand, walk or run. He used a wheelchair since kindergarten. His clenched and shaky hands made it difficult and awkward for him to feed himself.

“Not only does death make people uncomfortable, but disabilities freak people out, too,” King says. In her first draft of the book, she “sugarcoated” Noah’s severe disability, she says.

“Then one of my test readers said, ‘You wouldn’t know that Noah was disabled,’” she says.

So she included more stories about the struggle to get Noah ready to leave the house. The complications of family vacations. The challenge Noah had making good friends.

As she wrote, she felt closer to her son.

“One thing the writing did was help me remember things I had long ago tucked away,” King says. “Then, suddenly, all this good stuff came out. I’m grateful for that gift of greater memory.

“I feel like we were really close all of our lives,” she says, “but I feel even more connected to Noah now than any time since his death.”

Miesch, maintenance manager at Pioneer Resources in Muskegon, says the book is a gift to him, too, preserving his son’s story.

Noah’s bedroom is a place of comfort for Miesch. It remains just the way it was when Noah went to bed there each night.

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Miesch walks down the hallway and shows how Noah’s sailboat comforter is still on the bed, and his SpongeBob pillows. Noah’s copies of “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Jungle Book” rest on the bed. His shoes are neatly lined up in the closet.

“His shoes never wore out, because he never walked in them,” Miesch says. “I haven’t wanted to change his room. Once something is gone, it’s gone forever.”

He’s quiet for a minute.

“It’s a way I try to hold on,” he says. “When I go in there, I think about Noah.”

Miesch created the cover art for “He Plays a Harp” years ago, when he and King were dating.

“It represents something like a bigger universe,” he says, walking into the living room to get the original oil pastel art, in a carved black frame.

“When we die, we go somewhere,” he says. “It speaks of that bigger picture.”

The book’s title came from King’s struggle to answer the question she often gets asked: Do you have any children?

Sometimes, to avoid the discomfort that can follow “My son died,” she fibs, and pretends Noah is still alive.

When a woman once started asking about Noah and his interests, King blurted out, “He plays a harp.” No idea where that came from, she says.

She wonders why there isn’t a special word for parents who have lost a child.

King keeps a plastic bag of Noah’s clothes in her dresser drawer.

“Every so often, I’ll open up the bag, just to smell it,” she says. Then she closes it fast, so the air can’t dilute the scent.

Noah had a good smell,” she says.

One more thing to know about Noah.

“Through the book, people are getting to know Noah, who he was,” King says. “Maybe people will read it and be less fearful of people with disabilities, when they realize they live a normal family life.

“It’s kind of a love story,” King muses. “A good family story, about how families cope, that situations like ours are real.

“But mostly,” she says, “I wrote it for myself. I wanted a record of his life. I didn’t want him to pass from this world forgotten.”

For more information and a schedule of book signings and events, visit robertafking.com.

King’s debut reading will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 3 at the Scolnik Center for Healing, part of Muskegon’s Art of Loss and Hope event.

She’ll also read from and sign copies of her book at a launch party at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 4 at the Richard App Gallery, 910 Cherry Street SE in Grand Rapids.

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