461 · 27 November 03
Now our freezer is filled with cake. My mother made three, and one of your neighbors brought two, and at least seven other people brought coffee cake or banana bread or this applesauce cake that we can't seem to stop eating. There are two pies, and two lasagnas, and a quiche, and bags of vegetables, and cookies. It took us two coolers and four shopping bags to take it all back to Cambridge after the party. Our house has cards and flowers in every room. This food and beauty is how the people who loved you try to fill in the space where you were.
We filled your house with love. Everybody came, and we had the party you should have had while you were alive. Your families were all there together, the ones you grew up with and the one you raised and the ones around you and the new one you would have been a part of. You didn't get to meet my parents or my sister, but they met your brother and cousins and friends and neighbors, and your kids and their friends. They told us, in waves until we lost track, of hours on the phone with you, and your strength, and your pride. We filled your house with the people who knew you as well as you let us, and shared the pain of not knowing more. We didn't know what to call it, when we started telling people, so we just told them to come. And whatever it might have been, in any other building or hands or time, there in your warm house filled with food and so many people you touched, it wasn't a funeral, it was a celebration.
Wishing is belated nostalgia, and an itemization of what isn't possible anymore and maybe never was. We wish you had told us more, but then it's hard to really wish you less proud. We wish you had asked for help, but we can too easily hear your voice saying "This too shall pass" and imagine you believing it would, and I guess finally being right. I have my own list, too. I wish you had picked up the phone. I wish you had understood more, or maybe you understood perfectly and I wish you'd dreamed more. I wish I'd gotten there first. I wish we'd had more time.
But here we are, in these lives we're not done with, in the time that we have and you don't, left to assign meanings and try to move on. Without you, we have your stories. Some of them are noble, some are painful, and a few still sound crazy no matter how many times I hear them explained. We have photographs, and letters, and the decisions you made, and everything we'll now have to forever wonder, but these symbols and objects are only indices into how we remember. As we sort through your bills, and figure out what to do with your furniture and your years of meticulously annotated leftovers, it is the stories, which we already had, which live on most indelibly as your legacy. As we eat this food and watch movies to banish the Thanksgiving I doubt you meant your death to preempt, I am heart-wrenchingly, hope-regainingly, dawn-reappraisingly thankful for your life. Your life is your gift. I was only the recipient of too few hours of it, too near the end, but it's your great gift to me all the same.
And in return, although it's too late and too little, I make you three promises:
I promise not to forget. You are part of me now, like you are a part of all those people who came to say goodbye and all the ones we've talked to. So you have handed me a responsibility I accept. I will be a bearer of these stories, too. I will add to this family that has lost.
I promise to learn happiness from both your joys and your sadnesses. I have paced through the rooms of your house without you, now, and I have shared your memory with people who had more of it. To your own versions of your stories, I add the ones I have read in the spines of your books, and the ones I have traced from the angles of your shoes, and the ones the doctors knew. I don't know what you thought you were building, but without you your world tells parts of an unguarded story you would never have said aloud. Death has made you braver, and I accept your courage in trust.
And most of all, I promise to love your daughter. As we went through your address book, we discovered that you'd been through it before us, just weeks ago, telling everybody you knew about Belle and my engagement. We are awed by your happiness and belief. We don't have a date for the ceremony yet, but she and I have already made our promises to each other, and since you won't be there in person, there's no reason for me to wait to make my vows to you. So: I don't know what I can protect her from, like I couldn't protect her from this, but I will defend her against anything over which I hold power, and I will share any pain she suffers or chooses. As she lives, so now will I. We will do the rest of this together. She will be my emotional first loyalty as long as my heart can marshal love. I would not have chosen to trade places with you this way, but that is what time gives us. As you leave her, then, know that you leave her in my care. As you release her, know that I am entrusting myself into hers. You leave a hole in our hearts, and an empty place at our wedding, but you leave us your happiness for us. And so we will be sad, now and many times again, but we will be happy soon and forever. I don't know what you dreamed of being able to say about your life, or even your death, but hopefully it will be right or enough to know that you are part of great joys. To dream, at all, is to believe that there are greater joys after your life than before.
for DNE, 1941-2003