Remembering the dead with a smile – not dread
At some point, everyone marks a certain date. For me it is Nov. 17. Some years I dreaded it; now I just know it’s coming.I was 26 and on my way home to Annapolis for Thanksgiving, and had climbed in the Shawangunks of New Paltz, N.Y., that autumn day in 1984 when I stopped at the local mountain shop. A sign on the counter said my name in all caps: “Emergency – call home.” At first I hoped my folks just wanted me pick up my sister in the city, after all; but as the phone stayed busy I began to worry.Even 20 years later, it is hard to think about this part. With my mother waiting beside her, it was our friend Imelda, a trained nurse and the kindly wife of my father’s physician partner, who told me. I never thought I would scream in a room crowded with people.That was the day the world changed, and it has really never been the same. Death was no longer something that happened to other people. My father, 54, had gone from being here and big and healthy, our leader, to gone. An apparent coronary. Hunting on the Eastern Shore, wading out after a goose he’d shot, he tipped, and buckled, and sank sideways into the shallows. What went through his mind?At home, my cousin Debra and I could hardly even look at his running shoes. “They look like they’re just waiting for him to come back and put them on,” she said. Lucy, the youngest of four sibs at 20, half-expected him to pop around a corner and say, “Ho! Joke’s over.” Meg said it was like losing a limb. My brother tried to step in and take his place. For years, on a ski slope I would glimpse a tall person in blue and, for one instant, think it was Dad.At first it felt like knives all over me. Friends came over, and others called or wrote, and I will always remember that. Some pals took me out one night, and at a bar I met eyes with someone I knew. She knew my family, knew why I was in town; and turned away quickly.On a plane once, I talked to a young woman who had just visited home. “I’ve been having some problems at work,” she said, “and my father said … ” I froze; jealousy washed over me. I realized that others might have once felt similarly about me.It was four years later that I came to work in Aspen, and a nice boss asked what my “parents” did. I felt strangely surprised: How could the absence not physically show?For a long time I was eager to talk to others who’d suffered losses.And I related to some old friends in ways I never could have otherwise; was trusted with thoughts I would not have been told.”You’re in the club now,” a sweet friend who’d lost her mother to suicide told me. “It’s a terrible club, but you’re in it.” Certainly I learned much. In the past, I’d thought I shouldn’t mention people’s lost ones, that it would remind them. I never knew what a comfort and relief it is to talk about the dead.Now it is not the same: I sometimes hold back. But losses to friends can bring a choking empathy. I could barely speak to a friend at her mother’s funeral. She later wondered how long it will be that others’ losses call back hers. I think that they always will.I think of my father daily; yet now mostly with a smile.I have gone on in my life, been places, written a book, got married, was blessed with two healthy sons. I had hoped someday there might be another little Ted running around, and there is. But nothing rewrote everything like Nov. 17.Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Write GSPI as subject heading.)Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at email@example.com. (Write GSPI as subject heading.)
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