Sunday, May 17, 2020

Our stories keep loved one's memories alive

Santiago, Chile. December 1962.

Death of a loved one can be quite a personal thing for those who survive. To make meaning of someone else's life, we tend to remember that person through our own lens. We default to telling that person's story by focusing on his life only as it touched our own.

In so doing, we are telling our own story as much as the story of the one we loved.

I chose the pronoun "his" deliberately. Two days ago, as I write this column, my father, 91, died peacefully in his sleep in his assisted living apartment in Minnesota. As we scurry to plan a virtual memorial service, we also search for ways to grieve his loss. I joke with my daughter that partly I grieve by taking a half day to repair the rot on a piece of outside trim at my house.

"My dad would want me to take care of this," I say, but the truth is that the work gives me a few precious moments to focus on my father's life and my memories of life with him.

"Death steals everything except our stories," Jim Harrison wrote in his poem "Larson's Holstein Bull."

So, to grieve and to celebrate a person's life, we tell stories upon their death. Our challenge is to ensure that in our effort to remember, we don't lose sight that that person's life extended far beyond his connection to us.

We will never know the full details of all anyone experienced during his or her life.

In my father's case, we have his stories of being a foster child in Brooklyn, New York, separated from his mother and three siblings shortly after the Depression. Or of the track meets he won in high school in spite of having to practice early in the mornings before school because he had to work each day after school during traditional practice. We remember the stories of working on a farm upstate each summer and the family who took him in, a family he introduced us to years later after he'd married and started a family of his own.

We have his diplomas, his books, his track meet clippings, his photos from the field when he mapped soils as an agronomist. Through these, we think we get a sense of what he found important enough to save, a sight he found important enough to capture.

We notice his copy of "Don Quixote" and of the small bronze statue of Miguel de Cervantes he kept on his bookcase for as long as we can remember and we recall what Cervantes wrote about the love a father has for a child - that it "puts a blindfold over his eyes" so he can forgive his child's defects and celebrate his charm, intelligence, wit.

My father might have examined my wood rot repair carefully. Like anyone else, he would have noticed my imperfect work, but he would have nodded thoughtfully, uttered "not bad" and I might have felt a moment of triumph.

No matter how we try, it's our own stories that keep a loved one's memories alive. When loss hits with such a palpable crush and creates a void that in the moment feels impossible to fill, that seems the right thing do. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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1 comment:

Phil Clutts said...

I'm sure I speak for many, Jeffrey, in extending my condolences for your loss.