Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Growing Up With Grams

Dear Rachel,

Like many teens and pre-teens, you were kind of a brat and probably a little too smart for your own good. You were often sullen and self-centered, occasionally demanding, and once in a while just plain rude. In other words, pretty much a normal teenager. You seemed to have a problem with authority figures, especially female ones: You were always fine with me, but constantly at loggerheads with your mother, and sullen and sometimes downright nasty with Lesley.

You grew out of that, of course, as most kids do. We’ve often commented on the fact that, seemingly on the day you graduated high school, you somehow instantly became a nice person and a fine young woman.

But I knew it was coming long before that. I knew that there was a good person inside of you several years before you graduated.

During a summer visit when you were around 15 years old, we all went to meet my mother at the airport: you, me, Amy, and Lesley. Grams hadn’t been doing well; her health was failing, and in fact she had only another year or two to live. A lifetime of diabetes and heart trouble had worn her down. You hadn’t seen her in a while and, although we had told you that Grams wasn’t doing well, you weren’t really prepared.

They brought her off the plane and down the jetway in a wheelchair. She looked pale and wan, gray and old, and she peered about myopically, trembling and nervous, almost completely blind and barely able to hold her cane across her lap.

She was sickly-looking and when you saw her you burst into tears. The hardy, ebullient, robust Grams you loved so much was obviously gone, replaced by this frail, fragile, old person who needed a wheelchair to get around and who could no longer see well enough to identify her own grandkids.

You lagged behind as we started off toward the baggage claim area, and Lesley and Amy took care of Grams while I turned back to see if you were OK. You weren’t, of course. You were sobbing, tears streaming down your face; your makeup running all over. I hugged you and patted you on the head and made nonsensical Dad-noises that nonetheless soothed you. You looked up at me and said with a catch in your voice, “Grams is very sick. She’s gonna die!”

I don’t remember what I said to calm you down. No doubt it was something along the lines of, “Well, honey, everybody dies; Grams has lived a long life, and besides, she’s still got a few years in her.” Whatever it was that I said, you quieted down and stopped crying, and we were able to get everyone home. But you stayed very close to Grams during that last visit.

That’s when I knew you were going to grow up just fine, were in fact already in the process of growing up. I realized that you were thinking about someone other than yourself, that someone else’s pain was touching you. That you had suddenly encountered the notion of mortality and that you found the plight of others moving. That’s the mark of an adult.



Friday, February 17, 2006

Losing The Future

Dear Rachel,

Today is your birthday. You would have been 25 years old. You should have been 25 years old, a recent college graduate, just starting out. (That “would have been” really hurts. I have a real problem dealing with tenses these days.)

This is the time when you should have been jumping into your career, eager to get going with your life, ready to take on the world. This is – or would have been – the point in your life when you finally start to see some rewards for all that hard work you put in at school, when you’d be able to look at the world with stars in your eyes and an endlessly optimistic vision for your future. Who knows, perhaps you would have changed the world.

You did change my world, of course. And Lesley’s and Debbie’s and Amy’s and . . . well, countless other people’s. And always for the better.

The grief counselors point out that when one loses a parent, we grieve because we have, in effect, lost the past. When we lose a spouse, we grieve for the loss of the present. But when we lose a child, we grieve because we've lost the future. And that's the most painful loss of all.

I miss you. I miss you every day, of course, but even more today.



Monday, February 13, 2006


Dear Rachel,

I'm home sick today; a nasty cold that I thought I'd managed to kick last week. But it occurs to me that in addition to being home sick, I'm also "homesick." Not for some other place, really. I love Nebraska and I love our old house; there's really nowhere else I'd rather live.

I think what I'm homesick for is that life I used to have, the life we had together. I want that old life back. I want you back.

But I can't have you back, and that's why it just doesn't quite feel as if I'm really home. I'm so happy to be here in Nebraska, to be with Lesley, and to be doing what I do for a living . . . . And yet, it's not quite right. The Earth is skewed, tilted wildly on its axis, and nothing's quite the same any more.

I think that's what upsets the griefstricken so much. We look around and everyone seems to be living their normal lives, and the sun rises and sets, and dogs bark, and kids play in the street. It's as if nothing were wrong. We want to scream, "Damn you people! Don't you see it? Can't you feel it? Don't you know that the Earth is spinning out of control? Don't you even know that the end of the world has come and gone?!"

The world ended, and almost no one noticed.



Friday, February 10, 2006

Learning To Fly

Dear Rachel,

You (and Amy, too) learned to fly at an early age. That is, being shuttled among sets of parents fairly regularly (summer visits, etc.), you both soon became familiar with airports, with finding the correct terminal and gate, whom to ask for help, and all the rest. By the time you were seven or eight, you were a seasoned traveler.

And every time Les and I took you to the airport for that trip back to San Diego (and later, Virginia), I got another few gray hairs. It wasn’t so much saying goodbye to you, knowing that I might not see you again for months, although that in itself was painful. I just hated seeing that plane take off with you on it. Some 75 tons of complicated airplane (with about a million rivets, each one supplied by the lowest bidder) would roar into the sky carrying you away from us and toward . . . well, toward home, we always hoped.

I almost couldn’t watch. I’d beam my thoughts to the pilot: “Look, you’ve got my little girl in there. You watch your ass. I don’t care if you were out late last night, whether you’re having trouble with your wife or kids, or anything else. That’s my baby sitting behind you. She’s just a kid, and I love her more than anything. For God’s sake, please be careful!”

And he—or sometimes, as the years went on, she—was careful. You flew a million miles, never got stranded, never had a problem. You were as comfortable in an airport as most kids would be at the local skating rink. For you it was a chance to read a book or magazine, get some sleep, do your nails, and listen to some music. (And in years to come you flew to Europe, South America, and Russia, all without a problem.)

For me, it was agonizing. I worried about you from the time you left your mom’s until we met you at the gate. Then, on the return trip, I’d worry about you from the moment you boarded the plane until we heard from you or Debbie that you were home safely.

All those hours of worry for nothing. How terribly, tragically ironic.

Or maybe it’s not really irony after all. Maybe it’s just plain old fear, the same fear that every parent battles when sending a child out into the world, into the unknown. Of course, as it turns out, it’s all unknown, even the parts you think you know well.



Thursday, February 02, 2006

A House Is Not A Home

Dear Rachel,

I’m pretty sure we’d talked about the man who owns the house next door… He doesn’t live in it; actually, no one does. The house has been empty for at least 20 (some of the neighbors say closer to 30) years. It just sits, dark and brooding, with no occupants other than an occasional squirrel that manages to find its way in through an attic vent.

The house is showing its age, but it isn’t dilapidated or unsightly. Mr. S. comes by every day to check on it, and a crew arrives every couple of weeks to mow and trim. Every year or so a painter paints the fence—our side as well as Mr. S’s side—and every few years the entire house gets painted.

I have to admit that it’s nice having such quiet neighbors.

Mr. S. is a bit odd, of course. After all, why would someone hang on to an empty house? It’s a very nice house in a wonderful neighborhood; if you’re not going to live in it, why not sell or rent it?

But he won’t do that. The house is a shrine of sorts to his son. Many years ago, Mr. S. bought the house for his son—I don’t know whether he’d intended it as a loan, or whether it was a wedding present, or whether there was some other arrangement involved. In any case, the son died of cancer before he could even move in.

Since then, the house just sits. Mr. S. won’t rent it out, he won’t live in it, and he won’t sell it. He simply keeps it more or less tidy, driving by in his old Caddy to check on it every day.

Until last May, I didn’t understand Mr. S. at all. He was obviously a little odd to begin with, and the death of his son (and then, years later, his wife) seems to have put him over the edge. He’s not crazy, but he’s more than a bit off-center. When you and I spoke of him and of his house, I’m pretty sure we just decided the guy was “weird but harmless,” and let it go at that. After all, how could someone let a death drive him to such a state? People die. It’s terrible, of course, but it happens. “OK, it’s sad,” we were saying in so many words. “Now get on with your life.”

I guess it’s easy to come up with quick, facile judgments when you’ve never felt the pain of the person you’re judging. I understand Mr. S. a little better now. There is no pain like this pain. If he wants to keep an empty house as a shrine to his son, then let him. I can understand how he feels.