When I first arrived in at my new place in Asheville mid April, I met a new friend – an articulate, sociable, industrious, healthy and accomplished retiree in the community where I live. A few weeks ago, I happened into a conversation with this person and learned that, like me, he too had lost a family member recently.
I shared how my 81-year-old mother and I had worked very hard together to make her impending death the best transition that it could possibly be, both of us knowing full well that the outcome we were moving toward was, indeed, her death – which knowledge only barely, I think, prepared us both for the final separation.
My friend also shared a tenderly compiled scrapbook chronicling his son’s life from early childhood through his teens and on into adulthood. The numerous pictures spoke volumes: the curly-headed boy smiling with his family, the dreadlocked teen playing with his sisters, the mature athlete excelling in extreme sports, the affectionate uncle hanging out with both his nieces (shown here), the professional young man traveling the world, playing golf with his dad in Ireland… This person was obviously a larger-than-life character, someone who embraced living fully with each and every day he was on earth.
Amid the tastefully intimate collection of photos, mementos, magazine articles, obituaries and memorial program was a Father’s Day card given by the son a few years ago. A section of its hand-written personal message struck a chord because I recognized some of the same sentiments I had written to my own parents when they were alive:
“Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington – I got to see them all, but not without your enthusiasm and support. A lot of fathers of my friends don’t talk to their children or don’t have much of a relationship with them. It’s very sad and every time I meet someone on the road who is out of touch with their parents, I feel so fortunate. I have a father who is curious and active in participating in my life. I want you to know how much confidence that gives me and how lucky I feel.”
As I wiped away the tears, I hoped this card with its precious message could somehow comfort the grieving father, who surely knows that the connection he shared with his son – transcending so many of the material world’s distances, distractions, trials and trivialities – made both their lives richer and fuller.
This experience came to me at an amazingly relevant time because just the night before, I had come to an important decision to embark on a journey that will undoubtedly reconnect me with my own parents.
As children, we tend not to listen to our parents. It’s one of the universal ways we learn to think for ourselves. But when our parents are gone, we wish we could know all the things they were trying to tell us, and we wish we could hear their voices speaking to us again, if only just one more time.
Over the months since my mother’s death, I have made countless decisions about which things to keep, and which to sell or give to special family friends. Now that I’ve sold the family home and moved to a new state, the suitcases, boxes and tubs have dwindled to one particular group of clear plastic containers that I have carried with me for many years – within them, thousands of pieces of paper. And it has slowly dawned on me that what I’ve dismissed as a packrat obsession with all things written is now actually the key to hearing my parents’ voices once again: I have kept every single card and letter either one of them ever sent to me.
So, on July 24, 2013, the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, I plan to begin to re-read the letters written to me by my parents throughout my life. And, as you can probably guess, I will write the story of what I learn.
We can never know the full extent of suffering of those around us. Nor can we comprehend the depth of another’s joy.
My new friend Steve’s son, Joel, died in an avalanche two years ago while fully immersed in the outdoors sport that he loved the most, backcountry skiing. In a memorial to Joel, Steve shared part of a familiar quote from Kahlil Gibran, which had been shared with him by a sensitive 18-year-old hotel clerk where the family was staying to attend Joel’s funeral. I think it contains great comfort for those who are grieving – which, when we have lost a parent or a child, I believe we do to some degree for the rest of our lives.
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”
In honor and remembrance of Joel, an indomitable spirit.