Learning from Death

I’ve been sitting on this blog entry for a couple of days now debating the wisdom of posting it. My big fear has been reducing the impact of such great posts as the cover reveals by Jessica and Erica and the wicked review of Any Duchess Will Do by Lisa. But the romance community, thank the gods, is a family. At the urging of several of you, I’m not going to abandon this entry for the sake of saving myself a few tears.

You see, three people died last week that had, in some ways, a profound impact on my life.

Obit-Esther-Williams-4One of them was Esther Williams, the grande dame of 40’s bathing beauties and film-based mermaids everywhere. No, we weren’t related. She was the movie star my mother and I watched faithfully every Sunday afternoon, skipping her movies only when there was a Shirley Temple film playing. Ms. Williams gave my mother and I common ground. Ms. Williams was in that very small class of people that my mother and I bonded over despite our generation gaps and I will be forever grateful to her for that.

My mother called me when she heard the news about Ms. Williams and we reminisced about the days when mom and I would sit and enjoy these movies together. This before my mother’s drinking habit took control of her life and things became a tad uncontrollable. This past week Mom and I talked about the unpleasant days a little too and how glad we both were that she’s been sober now for decades. But the thing was, Mom and I actually talked about things she could remember. You see, my mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and conversations about the present are almost painful as she struggles to recall things that happened only days before. But she remembers those childhood movies well enough and it makes me smile to know that she’s happy in those memories and not dwelling on what she’s losing now, in the present day.

The second death was a not-so-local-to-me restaurateur and lovely old soul, Ms. Marie Catrib, who had been residing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For those of you not familiar with the geography of the state, Grand Rapids is on the west side and I live in the metro Detroit area, on the east side. I first met Marie when I attended university classes in The Great White North of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Marie opened the local downtown deli the year before I arrived on campus and it fast became the place to go for ethnic food that was wholesome, as local as you can get in a place that snows 8 months of the year, and reasonably priced.

Turkish coffeeMarie taught me that waiting in line is worth it (it didn’t hurt that she handed out freshly baked cookies to those of us waiting). Marie also taught me that sometimes trying something a little different isn’t such a bad thing. I was never food shy as a kid, but I had never been exposed to Middle Eastern cooking before leaving home. Marie introduced me to hummus, baba ganoush, baklava, Turkish coffee, and bean sprouts. These things have become such regular staples in my dietary life that I hadn’t really thought about how important they were until I began reflecting on her passing. Had I not met Marie, it may have been another decade before I’d truly had good Middle Eastern food when I finally moved back to the Lower Peninsula after completing my degrees.

The third death was not unexpected, though sadly without warning. The patriarch of my husband’s family passed away late Tuesday night from complications related to pancreatic cancer. When he was first diagnosed, we were told his passing would be quick if it wasn’t gotten under control immediately. I don’t think any of us realized exactly how quick that would ultimately be. Thankfully, his passing was peaceful as these things go, and if we suffered for lack of sleep for a few days because of the back and forth getting funeral plans under way, we were ok with it. It seemed like it was the least we could do, you know?

The CabinHis name was Tom or Uncle Tom to almost all of us in my generation. The terms “old coot” and “prickly” frequently applied to the man, even inside out family. Outsiders may have thought him a redneck farm boy and in many ways he was. His neck was red from working the land. Honest work with his hands. He was an arborist by trade, who built playground equipment for needy kids, constructed great portions of the family cabin out in the Michigan woods, and despite his grousing about creating a “hotel,” managed to supply my mother-in-law (his sister) with one of the nicest hunting blinds I’ve ever seen. Tom and I didn’t see eye to eye on almost anything except his nephew, my husband. And still, Tom was a good man. At the very least, he and I both agreed that we loved my husband more than measure.

What Tom taught me was that there’s a great deal of pride from humble hard work. He once said to me that he couldn’t understand how people wouldn’t want to create things with their own two hands. He insisted that the “hard way” wasn’t really the hard way of you learned something while you were doing it.

So while I’m sitting here occasionally worrying about having to relearn how to outline instead of just pounding out a novel like I can whip out technical documentation, I can at least take heart that Tom was right. I’m learning the patterns of stories and how to play with them from the beginning. It may be the hard way, but sometimes the hard way gives you better results. No knowledge is wasted.

As we were making our way to gather with family once we’d heard the news of Tom’s passing, my husband said to me “The last words Uncle Tom spoke were ‘I love you.’” And in thinking about the last time I was able to visit with him, the last words he spoke to me were the same: I love you. I’ll miss you, Uncle Tom. More than you’ll ever know. Thanks for teaching me something about writing.

***

To ensure I don’t end on a completely sad note, my friend Shawn shared this video with me at the perfect time after all these sad days. I hope it brings a smile to your face, like it did to mine, even through the tears.

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7 thoughts on “Learning from Death

  1. Pingback: Learning from Death | Jennelle Holland

  2. Hi Jennelle, to say this post was timely is an understatement. I’m in Doberman rescue. And while I’d never breed my own dogs (they’re all spayed and neutered), we do get in pregnant females sometimes. This morning, a Dobie I’m fostering had 3 stillborn puppies, and I’m just reeling with sadness. I named them Gabrielle, Hannah, and Isabella, and today I’ll be taking them out to our land to bury them. I had a couple songs in mind to play, but when I heard this Delta Rae song, I knew it was the right song for the “girls”. So I will play this song for 3 girls who never had a chance in this life but who I hope to meet in another…

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