Saturday, April 14, 2018
Still With Us, In a Way
Well, it's the weekend.
And we made it this far.
Family holding family up as no other can in such times, it's been a week of connecting with relatives over the tiniest of memories. The memories are what help.
But you have to be careful about memories. You never know when they can trigger an unexpected sequel. Memories sometimes have partners. Twins. They can come with company.
A friend of my brother posted a sweet video memorial of him on Facebook from a documentary this man and another creative had taped, a few years ago. Bit by bit, members of the family spotted it and shared it. Though the production itself was well done and thoughtfully framed for the current situation, it was the tiniest of details that got people talking.
A daughter of one of my cousins told me the gestures in my brother's goodbye wave reminded her exactly of her grandmother—my father's sister—and then...triggered those tears...again.
When I think of my brother, I naturally think of my dad. Since I lost my dad pretty early in my adult life, I learned quickly that if I went to see my brother, I somehow could feel like I still had my dad.
That's been years ago now, of course, so the passage of time tricked me into thinking I was free of needing a daddy fix.
Until the daddy fix was gone, too.
A month ago—having no premonition that this family loss was about to befall us—I had started reading a book called Option B. My original reason for that choice was that I had been inspired to read every book I could get my hands on by Adam Grant—though once I got the thing in my hand, discovered to my horror that it was co-authored by Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame, the one women's author* sure to elicit paroxysms of criticism from my business-exec sister.
That didn't stop me from reading the book, however. Something else did. The reason the book even exists at all is that Ms. Sandberg had the type of awful experience you wouldn't want to wish on anyone: in an idyllic setting where she, her husband and some friends had taken a respite from their surely hectic work lives, she discovered him dead from a massive heart attack only moments after she had last spoken with him.
The book unwinds her torrent of emotions as she attempted to piece together her life—and her children's—in the aftermath.
It wasn't far into that scenario when I realized there was a backstory chattering away at me from inside my own mind. It was that internal narrative, shouting so loud inside my own head, that distracted me from the words on the page. Uncomfortable, I had to lay the book down.
Why? It reminded me of my own husband's death. Decades ago.
Yeah, those kinds of memories don't go away.
And so a book triggers a memory of life's earlier episodes, and the sense of loss comes back anew. A wave of the hand, a nod of the head or the blink of an eye, and a three minute video transports us from the presence of the one we know, to the one we remembered. It's as if they were here—and then, once more, gone—all over again.
Of course, some of us take the less pragmatic, more hopeful long view of a life beyond life. And there has been plenty of talk about that among us, this past week. But I'm starting to see how life lives on in another way, as well. When I saw my cousin's comment about the video on Facebook—about how a wave of my brother's hand was so exactly like her grandmother's mannerisms—I realized what we were both observing wasn't her grandmother, or my father, but someone neither of us had ever met: their parents, my grandmother Sophie and that Polish mystery immigrant, my grandfather, whom we only knew as John T. McCann.
After all, where do we get those mannerisms from? Aren't they indwelt from the genetic makeup we inherit? The microhistory we share with family members, witnessed minute by minute over a lifetime?
And if Sophie and John would have seen the same film clip, some of those gestures might have reminded them of the generation preceding them—people my father's generation never got to meet, but ancestors just as much.
Some people take sides on the argument about nature versus nurture. Environment versus inheritance. Whatever it turns out to be, we've got it—and we're surely going to pass it on.
And—whatever "it" is—it will become that part of us that lives on after we, ourselves, are gone. And we, while we're still here, become the gift of remembrance to those who do recall that older generation and can recognize it in our eyes, our voice, our gestures. In a way—is it through our DNA?—those who have gone before us do live on. And gift us with that one way of remembering them.
I have no idea how that works, but I'm glad it does.
*To her credit, a surely kinder, gentler Sheryl Sandberg went on to found the nonprofit organization of the same name, OptionB.org, building a community of sharing and advocating for resilience in the face of many kinds of adversity.