My father-in-law passed away last week. He was 84 years old. He was a World War II military veteran and a veteran employee of the Wisconsin Public Service. My husband used to tell me stories about how his dad would go out in the dead of winter when feet of snow blanketed the county to make sure his neighbors could see and stay warm. He was a Boy Scout leader and a member of the American Legion, a man who loved history and maps and fixing things in his basement workshop. He was a son, a husband, a father and a grandfather and he was deeply loved.
The night my father-in-law died, my husband sat in the dark of the bedroom. The house was full of kids and dogs and the commotion that comes with both and he needed some quiet to be with his thoughts. I went back at one point to check on him, to make sure he was doing OK.
“The memories keep coming,” he said, “Like waves rushing over me. They keep coming and coming.”
“I know,” I said, because I do.
When my Dad passed away a couple of years ago I could not bear the sadness. I was unprepared for the emotion that would wash over me, the memories like snapshots from my life’s photo album that played over and over like an emotional slide show that would not stop. I knew what he was going through.
We are so complex, us humans. In a moment, life changes. A father, husband, grandfather gone. In the blink of an eye.
We sat at long tables. There were 600 of us. Fathers and mother, grandfathers and grandmothers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers, we were gathered together to celebrate the end of the fall sports season. The principal welcomed the participants and then, with a slight deviation from the traditional pre-meal prayer, he welcomed the father of one of our varsity football players to the front of the room.
Two weeks ago he had a heart attack. Two weeks ago his number was called. Another moment of transition. Another moment when things change forever. But not the way he expected.
Somehow he survived. The paramedics responded quickly and within a few days he was on the road to recovery. He stood in front of the room full of 600 faces, waited for the rousing applause to die down and then he spoke, his voice shaking with emotion, of the power of family and friends and the support he had received from this school community. His son’s football teammates had stood by him as he faced the darkest days a son would ever face. The players dedicated the game to him and presented him with a football signed by all the boys on the team. A talisman of support, a reminder that he was not alone. While he struggled to get well, the whole school community prayed. And here he was. Just two week later, standing in front of us and sharing his gratitude at being given a second chance. A son, a husband, a father and someday, perhaps, a grandfather.
"Look around the room," they instructed us after he had finished speaking. For many this will be your last time together. Students will be graduating. Families moving on. Take the time to share memories of your time together."
Notice the moments.
In English class, my oldest was given an assignment to write about an object that has particular meaning to him. He wrote about a bamboo back scratcher that belonged to my Dad. It was one of the things he took from my father’s belongings. I remember when he handed it to me to read. He hadn’t discussed it with me ahead of time. In fact, I had no idea what he had written at all. His words were beautiful, lovingly describing a visit with this giant of a grandfather who had meant so much to him.
“My Grandfather,” he wrote, “was everything a young child could ask for. He was loving, smart and funny. He taught me how to play golf, fueled my imagination and most importantly made me laugh… When we left to go home, I had no idea that this was the last goodbye I would get to say to him. These are the things that I remember when I go to take that plain wooden tool out of the closet to reach that hard to get spot on my back. It eases the pain of the itch and makes me feel better. This object reminds me that I have to take advantage of every opportunity possible. You never know when it will be your last.”
How did he get so wise?
Keepsakes. Talismans. Remembrances of those we have loved.
In the cabinet in the kitchen is an assortment of antique bottles. My father-in-law collected them, delicately digging them up from the acres of farmland in northern Wisconsin. He knew where every one had been found and he had methodically researched each one’s original purpose. There were medicine bottles and beverage bottles and bottles that held alchemist’s elixirs. They were his treasures and on one of our visits back, he gave a number of them to me. Blue and green, brown and opaque, they come in all shapes and sizes. They are old and beautiful and unique and now, forever, they will remind me of him.