Death, Grief and Payback

Wow, this has been a very long six days.

Last Wednesday, as I watched the kids run amok at their weekly homeschool camp session, I got a phone call that I knew was coming, that I dreaded receiving, and that knocked the wind out of my sails despite all of the anticipation.

A very close friend of the family died.

She was 102.

Somehow I think people feel that’s supposed to make it easier. Hey, she lived a long life!

It doesn’t. It should, and it’s nice, but it doesn’t. Not when it’s someone that belongs to you.

I hadn’t seen her in quite some time, but my memories of her are vivid and full of laughter and warmth. She was like family to me. The threads of her family and mine have been intertwined like slender tendrils of strong silk from days waaay back in Barbados almost a century ago. She was best friends with my great-aunt and tight with my grandmother. Both of her grandsons are close to our family and another cousin is a dear friend whom I regard and cherish as a younger sister. Her daughters were close to my mother and aunt. One grandson and I had a long and good relationship and although it ultimately ended, after several years of not talking – which began to feel odd and forced and wrong – we slowly began to be friends again, ultimately resuming a closeness of warmth and respect and incredible ease and yes, a bond of love and forgiveness and understanding – because it is easy to be friends with someone when the whole family has friendships right alongside yours, and it is easy to be friends when the common bonds are still there. It is easier to be friends than not to be friends: he knows me and my whole family, I know him and his, we come from the same place and know the same things and being around them is like being home.

This family and these people have been moving in tandem with my family for as long as I can remember and then some, and now their matriarch is gone.  It was terribly important to me to be there for them in their time of sorrow. Our family experienced its own share of tragedy in 1991 when we got hit with the double-whammy of my great-aunt and my uncle dying within 7 weeks of each other.  The deaths were not even all there was to the story – my uncle had been experiencing an incredibly nasty separation from his wife, and the scandal causing it was continuing to rock the family and show its ugly face even at the funeral.  It was an awful dismal period of confusion, depression and helplessness, and I felt powerless to either comfort any of my family members or be comforted by them.

My dear and close friend was there for me at that time of upheaval in the most incredibly supportive and unconditional way imaginable.  Back then we didn’t have cellphones and text messages and Facebook; there was no instant gratification communication,although beepers may have just emerged on the scene.  It was pretty much the regular old landline, and I must have burned ours out with phone calls to his house (this many years later I can’t dial his new number by heart but that one is permanently etched in my brain) pleading to be taken away, anywhere, for a drink, a drive, a movie, some kind of respite from the savage anger and pain that was ripping through our household. And come he would, no matter the hour or the day or the frequency of my frantic calls, and we’d drive and talk, or go to a bar and sit eating while I imbibed obscene amounts of alcohol in an attempt to either numb or obliterate myself, sometimes chatting about the varied manifestations of grief rippling through the family, but more often talking about anything else under the sun that could help me to temporarily forget that my family was being tossed about in a maelstrom of pain that would ultimately do irreparable damage.

At that time we were not a couple, not yet. We had been as children briefly, when boyfriend/girlfriend were purely innocent terms that denoted a budding appreciation for the opposite sex.  And we would be again, after the shitstorm of scandal had calmed down and I could think clearly and feel something beyond anguish. But then, at that particular time, we were still just two friends from two families that had the other’s back, like tribal clans that fought side by side and weathered shit together.  I didn’t have to explain the intricacies of our family and our culture; he knew it because he lived it. With him I could discuss the madness or not, and know that either way he understood my pain and my family’s pain. I know he worried about me a bit because my two compadres at that time were him and a glass of something…wine, martini, screwdrivers, as long as it had alcohol and I could drink a few a night, I was good. He never judged me harshly, nor took any advantage of my frequent states of inebriation. He was just there, listening, making me laugh and forget, watching over me and shepherding me through whatever it was I had to go through, making sure I didn’t completely succumb to either alcohol or sorrow, and helping me to come out on the other side, where by then, he was awaiting me.

This week, a whole lifetime later, I got the unfortunate opportunity to try in some small way to return the favor. In some ways it was easier – this death wasn’t surrounded by the controversy that made ours so incredibly bitter, and so his pain was not tinged with the level of near-hatred that ours was.  But in many ways it was harder for me to respond in the way I would have wanted to: when my family went through its trials, we were both young and single, so we could deal with my pain by partying, hanging out, going to movies and generally doing as we pleased. Now, 20 years later, I was trying to show the same level of support but with a much larger gap to bridge: not only do I live farther away than I did then, but I had to balance my overwhelming desire, need even, to continue the long-standing tradition of inter-familial support with the task of being mindful of the family I’d since created. A husband and two small children made it much harder for me to just be up and out every time I wanted to be. And I did want to be; I felt I owed him that and I wanted to be there. Needless to say, the Tech Guru, who exercised incredible restraint and understanding at the sudden flurry of text messages and late-night calls, still wasn’t terribly keen on the idea of his wife offering moral support to a man who happened to be an ex. As he says, he trusts no one. And that I understand.

But this wasn’t just about an ex. Actually it wasn’t about an ex at all: God knows there are other exes that I’m sure have suffered loss and while I wouldn’t be so callous as to say I don’t care, it would never occur to me to offer more than the most casual of condolences, since anything beyond that would reek of insincerity.  But this…this was not about an ex.  To say that would be to oversimplify things and relegate it to the romantic relationship, in which case any number of other women could have done what I was trying to do. But this was about more than an old flame. This was about an entire family. This was about a bond that goes back to days well before I was born or even thought of.  This was about respecting the rock of support that this woman had been to our family in times of need, and paying her back by supporting her kin. This was about being there for someone, a good and wonderful person who, yes, is also an old flame, who had been the difference between sinking and swimming, literally and figuratively carrying me through some intensely rough times.  The fact that we’d had a relationship was not the reason for my desire to lend support, just as it wasn’t the reason he lifted me out of the madness so many years ago.  If we hadn’t ever been involved, I would call him a cousin. He is, for all intents and purposes, family, and his grandmother was almost a second one to me.  His loss is mine and my family’s too, and I was not the only one from my family pitching in to try to see to it that they knew that they still had our love and support as they have had all through the years.

The worst of it all is that it is not over.  The arrangements are over: the viewing was yesterday, the funeral was this morning, and in a befittingly gloomy day with bursts of torrential rain, Geraldine Mae Bishop was finally laid to rest.  But I know firsthand that it is the days ahead that may be the hardest.  In the first few days after a death, you’re busy making arrangements and phone calls and dealing with offered condolences.  You are busy, and yet within that busyness is the expectation and the allowance for you to give vent to your grief.  If you suddenly dissolve into tears, people are understanding.  If you experience a momentary sharp pang of loss, friends rush to your aid.

But once the funeral is over, and the repast is done, and the memories are shared, and the people go home, there is no more distraction from one excruciating fact: a room now sits empty, the life force that used to inhabit it gone back to the life force from whence it came. And it’s when you’re sitting in the house alone, with phones that have gone silent and the expectation that you will go back to life as usual as the rest of the world has done, that you sit with the most intense grief. Outward expressions of grief now seem a tad inappropriate to both the grieving parties and their supposedly supportive spectators. And while life must eventually resume with work that must be performed, dishes that must be washed, and bills that must be paid, there is something almost cruel and downright unfair about being asked to return to normalcy within a mere week of the death of a close relative or friend. That week is so wrapped up in distractions that your true grief won’t even emerge until well after those days are over. And normalcy? How can anything be normal, when a great part of what made life normal, is gone?

It will not be easy: God knows as much as I would love to, I cannot just zip off on a moment’s notice to check on the family and hang around indefinitely as I would have in earlier days, but still, I will try to be there in whatever way I can manage, whenever possible, as long as I’m needed.  Dionne Warwick said it best: that’s what friends are for. Friends that are like family deserve even more. Friends that are like family that threw out lifeline after lifeline after lifeline when I needed it so desperately, deserve all that I can possibly give. The task is to discover what that all is – and it may require pushing the envelope, so to speak.  But in this, I feel I must. I know what it is to walk that road of grief and confusion and occasional guilt, a road of questions with no answers and thoughts of what you could have done differently. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me. And I do believe that God will be with him and his family. But I also believe that just as God himself sent an angel of hope to be a tangible source of comfort and compassion in my time of need, it is now my charge to be the same. I have been down that road and in that valley, and even with faith, it is a winding, dark and often lonely one.

I cannot allow him to walk it alone.

I will not.

Aunt Mae, aka Gran

Here’s to you, Gran. You were a fiery, wonderful woman of compassion, strength, wisdom and great humor – all the things I strive to be. Now you are a spirit of the same qualities, flying free and unburdened. It is in great part your strong legacy of unwavering support and enduring friendship that inspire me to offer the same now for you and yours. We love you, and we miss you.  Walk with God –  and rest in well-deserved peace.

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