It's been a year since my stepmother died, and I tried to honor her at that time with this post.
Today I'd like to say something about my father. He's 74, widowed twice before he was forty, divorced after a long third marriage, and widowed again last year. He said last year that it was harder than he had remembered, maybe because he had had work and children to occupy himself the first two times he lost wives. Who knows? Loss is always its own story. My mother, baby brother, and first stepmother died as the result of sudden accidents, leaving husband, children, parents and siblings all stunned by the insistent totality and permanence of death. My stepmother died last year after an illness of several months, which is a completely different experience for those left behind. Not necessarily any easier, just different. I don't think the fantasy of "this is not happening" is one that we ever escape, whether confronted by the immediacy of crisis or the drawn-out saga of a tormented decline.
Nevertheless, my father called the other night, when I wasn't home, and left the following message: he had just completed a terrific Sierra Club work week in the Ocala National Forest in Florida; he had spent a couple of days with lifelong friends in Vero Beach and felt that he had successfully disabused them of their erroneous Republican views, but was fearful of their backsliding in his absence; and he was at Cedar Key, sitting on the porch and drinking a margarita.
I don't for a second think that he is done grieving. But he is an extraordinary example of the human capacity for striking out anew in the face of catastrophe. I don't know where he learned that. As a child faced with similar demands, I certainly never appreciated the example he set. And as an adolescent, I behaved as badly as I possibly could, at least partly in retaliation for the failure of my family to make up for the loss of my mother. As if they could have done that.
My first inkling that they might have done something right came when an older relative, newly a member of the family by marriage just as I was beginning college, told me that his daughter had dropped out of college after her first quarter. "Of course, she couldn't go back after her mother died, " he said. Hmm, I thought to myself. No one had told me that I couldn't go back to second grade after my mother died. How was it that I had never heard of this special dispensation for children of dead mothers?
Many years later, when Princess Diana died, much of the press railed against her husband for his stiff upper lip as he escorted their sons to various events connected with her funeral. What's wrong with those reporters, I wondered? Do they think that real life is loved a la' Jerry Springer or Montel? Have they ever heard about dignity, or self-control, or moving forward?
When my stepmother was dying last winter, my father did many things differently than I would have. His decisions and responses are not my own. But he always behaved with such quiet generosity toward others, keeping his occasionally stinging comments about those who were more burden than blessing within the confines of his own family.
So, in a post he is unlikely ever to see, I would like to say thank you to my father, and to his parents, and to my mother's parents, for teaching me how to respond to life's traumas. I am grateful that, as a response to the capriciousness of death, they've always chosen life. Not always easily, or even willingly. But always eventually, and always with integrity.