When Someone Great Is Gone

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My father-in-law and our youngest

In the early hours of the morning, our family got smaller. My dear, 88-year-old father-in-law passed away peacefully at home with his nuclear family close by. It was three weeks to the day the oncologist told him he had perhaps one to six months left. But Jim was always a little impatient and ready to get on to the next thing, so he left us sooner rather than later. He was not one to dawdle and he hated to be late.

I first met him at a restaurant for a family dinner when my husband and I had only been dating a few weeks. That night is largely a blur to me except for the memory of Jim sitting next to Steve at the table. At one point, I looked over and saw he had his arm around the back of Steve’s chair and was leaning in close to talk to him. I knew then that Steve was a keeper. With a loving, engaged, affectionate father like that, how could he not be?

Jim loved to tell a story. At parties, he’d be in the center of a crowd holding court. Sometimes he would tell the same story again, but he’d tell it with gusto as if it was the first time you were hearing it. Not too long ago, he began a familiar tale and we must have given him a collective facial groan because he immediately said, “I know you’ve heard this before but I don’t care. I love telling this story.” And so he did. It was the story of the day my husband was born in a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland. He got to the point in the story where events in the labor room were gaining momentum and he recounted again the nurse saying to the doctor viens vite and then he reminded us again (although we already knew) that viens vite means come quickly. Jim shared dozens of stories with us over the years. And having traveled to more than 100 countries in his life, he was a man with myriad stories to tell. Every painting in the house he shared with my mother-in-law, every piece of decor he’d hauled or sent home from other countries had meaning. He surrounded himself with tokens and trinkets relating to memories.

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Jim and Marlene in their custom painted golf cart

He loved to buy mementos and gifts almost as much as he loved opening them himself. I’ve never seen a grown man relish gift opening the way Jim did. Christmas will never be the same without him. Each year on his birthday, he requested homemade butterscotch pie, and my mother-in-law would dutifully oblige to create the dessert she says requires every pan in the kitchen. I decided today that henceforth we shall continue to celebrate Jim’s birthday on April 17th with butterscotch pie. Steve and I will also be carrying on Jim and Marlene’s tradition of grog, toasting with a drink at 5 p.m., because it’s important to celebrate every day with the people you love.

It’s hard to overstate the impact Jim had on my life. After a successful career at Caterpillar, climbing up in the ranks to land as Vice Chairman back in the 1980s, Jim enjoyed sharing what he loved with people he loved. He put not only his two children through undergraduate and graduate school, he also paid for graduate school for his children’s spouses. That wasn’t enough, though, so when our sons were born he created educational trusts for them, which have allowed them to attend private schools for children with learning disabilities that Steve and I might likely not have otherwise been able to afford. Jim shared his love of travel with us too by taking us on incredible vacations to England, Norway, Alaska, the Galapagos Island, and the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Then, as if all his generosity hadn’t been enough, he and my mother-in-law flew the six of us to Tanzania last December for a glamping safari because they wanted to hear our stories even if they couldn’t be there to share in them themselves. Because of his generosity, I was able to stop working when our oldest was born and to stay home to raise our sons, to be there for them for whatever they needed, from occupational therapy to dyslexia tutoring. So much of what our little family of four has and is comes as a result of Jim’s kindness.

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On one our fabulous family vacations

His show of love and affection didn’t, however, just arrive through financial means. He was loving and supportive always in all ways. He regularly read my blog and when he came upon one he really appreciated or that really spoke to him, he would send me an email. After one post I wrote detailing the struggle I was having trying to decide if or how to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, he sent me this message:

You are being too hard on yourself. Have a birthday party and pay attention to your therapist. You are loaded with good qualities.

My father-in-law gave without expecting anything in return. He never offered unsolicited advice. He never said an unkind word to me or my sons. He was a tall man with a heart that must have taken up 5 feet in his 6 foot frame. He lived his life his way, which was never halfway. I admired that and often dreamed of being able to emulate it.

On the occasion of Jim’s 80th birthday, I wrote him a letter and told him how much he meant to me, how he had changed me and my life, and how grateful I was to be part of his family. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could offer to the man who ostensibly gave me a life greater than I ever dreamed I would have. It breaks my heart to know I won’t hear another one of his stories or get another one of his hugs at the end of the day but, dammit, I am one lucky lady to have been part of his final inner circle.

We’ll see you again someday, Jim. You might have to wait a bit, though, because we want to make it to 88 too. We’re not ready to viens vite.

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The luckiest ones

 

Maybe I’ll Come Back As A Tree

IMG_6482This week has been another lesson in the first Buddhist Noble Truth…life is suffering. Last Saturday we learned that we lost a friend unexpectedly and far too young. I was barely at acceptance of that heartbreaking reality check when the shooting at the STEM school happened, directly affecting several friends with children who attend that school. Of course, this came less than a month since the day that all Denver-area students were forced to stay home when a woman flew to Colorado and purchased a pump-action shotgun with the intention of carrying out a Columbine-style mass shooting as our community was preparing for the 20th anniversary of that tragedy, which also directly affected people I know. And then yesterday I spent part of my day at a memorial service and reception for a family member. The precariousness of life, and our need to live in the now (and hopefully zen) moment, pervaded my every thought this week.

This week also precipitated meaningful conversations between my husband and I. We’ve discussed additional life insurance, funeral plans, urns, wills, and making the most of our time on this rotating sphere. He and I are on the same page about most things in life, and this holds true with our thoughts about death. We don’t want to be buried or have our ashes stored in a box or decorative vase in someone’s home. We don’t want a traditional funeral.

Yesterday we were in the car on our way to the interment when we started discussing urns.

“I think I will get a crazy, fun urn for my ashes, like Carrie Fisher did.”

In case you weren’t aware, Carrie Fisher had her ashes placed in a large, Prozac-pill-shaped urn. Cheeky and appropriate for her, I admired her bold choice.

“Maybe I will make a box for my ashes? It will give me a reason to learn tongue-in-groove joints,” Steve mused.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like the guys at the woodworking awards on the Parks and Rec episode who were pictured in memoriam with the caskets they built for themselves.”

“Exaaaaactly,” Steve replied.

“I just don’t want you guys spending money on an urn I wouldn’t be caught dead in. I need to find something that suits me that you can carry me around in until you dump me wherever you decide to unload me. If you keep me around the house, I will come back and haunt you, I swear.”

Later, a friend told us he plans to be put in a Cafe du Monde chickory coffee can. Seems perfectly reasonable and cost effective to me.

This morning, morbid as it sounds, I did a search for funeral urns. Actually, the Google search entry was “crazy fun funeral urns,” and it turns out I wasn’t the first person to search those terms, which gives me hope that I am not the only weirdo out there.

One of the results from the search was for this biodegradable urn by Bios. This urn has a place to hold ashes and then a separate area with a tree seed and the medium to grow said seed. While not particularly crazy or fun, this urn does something more important than hold ashes. This urn gives back. It creates something from nothing, life from death. And it leaves no waste. That’s a win/win in my book. Reflecting on my personality, wishes, and thoughts about death and the circle of life, this might be the most suitable urn for me.

Oddly enough, this search for urns has brought me a measure of peace in an otherwise emotionally difficult week. I told Steve he is not to hold a funeral or memorial service for me, but if he and the boys would like to host a party in my honor that would be marvelous. Hopefully it would involve friends, family, flowers (no lilies, please), food (none of it gluten free), and include a toast to my memory carried out with a Polish vodka shot for all. Now that I’ve shared this here, you’re all honor bound to ensure he carries out my wishes.

Life is suffering. There is physical and emotional pain, aging, and death. Yes. This week has been rough, but that’s what life is, a struggle to grow and persevere despite the inevitable, to leave a mark no matter how ephemeral. I think I will buy one of these urns. There’s something about going to seed that germinates hope where sadness once took root. Maybe someday I’ll come back as a tree, reaching for the sun, stubbornly continuing my growth.

Ripping the Band Aid Off Slowly

Sunset over our big backyard

We spent most of our weekend cleaning out the home we lived, loved, laughed, and lazed in for thirteen years as we witnessed the growth of our young boys. The home lists for sale this week. I like to think of myself as a thinker more than a feeler, a pragmatic philosopher and not an emotional romantic. I am, after all, the self-proclaimed Queen of Rationalization. But everywhere I looked in that house this weekend I saw the breadth and depth of a time in my life that I sped through, head down, focused on the step in front of me like a marathon runner on Mile 20, telling myself I could get through if I just kept moving forward. All the moments, all the memories crept back in as I tried to harden my heart and make conscious decisions about what to pack and what to deposit in the gargantuan roll-off in the driveway. In a word, it was, well, suck. There was an overwhelming, unwelcome deluge of emotion. And it kind of pissed me off because, Christ, dislodging over thirteen years of your life isn’t difficult enough without tears weakening the brown paper boxes you need to move? As I worked, my head tried to distract my heart. It’s good to clear through all this junk. We’re lucky to be doing this consciously and over time. We were long overdue for a cleanse. And this slow, intentional adjustment has been good for the boys. They are so happy in and committed to their new habitat. Still, the goddam tears welled and I cursed while I imagined Luke lying on the kitchen counter under a tanning bed of bilirubin lights, Joe sculpting his own sandbox Pangea in the backyard for his plastic dinosaurs, Steve sprawled on the basement carpet causing “stormy seas” for the young sons who were passengers in his imaginary boat, and me sitting on the back patio on a spring day with a coffee and a constant soundtrack of meadowlark songs. This is suck.

 

Buddy and the boys on his last camping trip

Towards the end of the day yesterday, Steve brought me a box. This particular box had been sitting on a shelf in his office for six years. The box contained the ashes of our sweet Lab/Springer mix, Buddy. I’d like to say we’d held onto the box and his ashes out of a soft-hearted inability to let him go, but the truth is we’d always planned to release him back onto the open space where he occasionally stole an afternoon frolic by jumping our fence, an act that left me in a pickle with toddlers in the house and a dog too far away to capture with a shout. Time got away from us. We never seemed to find the perfect moment. It was too cold, too muddy, or the concern over rattlesnakes was too great. Or we were just too damn busy. And so Buddy languished in a plain, wooden box for years, buried only in good intentions. Yesterday, as the acknowledgment of limited time in this space surrounded us, we decided it was time to say goodbye and set him free at last.

 

Small memorial service

So, on a cloudy, cool, dry day (devoid of snake business), with the exhaustion of moving and daylight savings time mellowing us out, the four of us hiked out onto the open space a ways behind our house, found a lone yucca plant that looked like a spot where Buddy may have once relieved himself, and said our final goodbyes. I watched as the lighter ashes swirled and drifted in wind, the heavier remnants of his bones spilling onto the soil. It brought me a beautiful peace in the midst of all my sadness, a sense of closure not just to our time with Buddy but also to our time in this house that holds so many of our memories. While I intellectually appreciate the idea of ripping the band aid off wounds quickly, I guess I have always been more of a slow, painful band aid puller, someone whose penchant for overthinking causes long-lived and painful goodbyes that I suffer without a peep, wearing a poker face and telling anyone who inquires that I am fine.

We all grieve in our own way. We spent years mentally preparing our sons for this change. They have at times over the past few months expressed their sadness about leaving. We’ve made sure to let them know that sadness is to be expected. We’ve talked as a family about the last memories we would like to make in our old home. All the while, we’ve been pointing our noses in the direction of our new home, creating a space we love and can fill with new hopes, dreams, and memories. There have been times when I wondered if all this dragging on was a wise choice, but after our memorial service yesterday I no longer doubt our decision. We’ve had the perfect amount of time to make our peace with change and to allow our hearts to grieve and to grow. We are ready to say goodbye. And while there certainly will be tears shed in our last few hours in our old house, it is now our old house. Let’s hope it sells for a lot of money. I could really use a trip to Maui!

Some Questions Cannot Be Answered

A horrible event gripped the Denver community over the past week. A ten year old girl went missing on her way to meet friends just a couple short blocks from her home on her way to school. As soon as it was determined that her whereabouts were unknown, an Amber Alert went out for her. Now, seven days later we know she is gone forever. The details of what happened in her last few hours here on earth are unknown, but the disturbing end she met is obvious. When the news broke that a body had been found (“not in tact” was the terminology the police used) less than ten miles from where police had found her abandoned backpack, I knew. I think we all did. The unspeakable would be spoken to her parents.

Before I became a mother, I thought these stories were sad and tragic. I could keep perspective about them, though, because I didn’t have parenting experience myself. Now that I have children of my own, though, children who are around the age of the young girl who senselessly murdered this week, the pain is visceral. My heart breaks for her parents who will undoubtedly go over and over in their heads what they, in retrospect, wish they would have done differently that day. They will ask themselves myriad unanswerable questions. Why hadn’t they walked with her to meet her friends? Why didn’t they realize sooner something was amiss? Why did it have to be her at all?

You’ve heard the expression “the truth shall set you free.” Well….the truth is that life is filled with mystery, uncertainty, chaos, tragedy, and barely imaginable acts of horror that can never be explained, much less understood. Yet, we continue to try to find meaning where there is none. There is no way to fix the loss these parents feel. There is no way to bring Jessica back. But, I find some comfort in my own life in accepting that some things in life are out of our control. I wish I could tell Jessica’s parents that they did nothing wrong. They were doing everything right, giving their daughter the freedom to grow and become independent, and the unbelievable happened because sometimes things happen despite our best intentions. Some questions in life cannot be answered. And, any question surrounding what happened to this sweet girl is among those questions. I hope her parents find some peace someday, the kind of peace that can only come when we accept that we are not in control on this big spinning ball. We’re just not. Control is an illusion and we need to let go of it.