Aunts cleaned the kitchen and toddlers moved from room to room playing noisily and gleefully. The Lions won the football game — a Thanksgiving miracle! Even the weather was perfect. Fat snowflakes tumbled gently from the sky like the snow in a Christmas movie. The yard looked like a painting of a winter wonderland.
A feeling of peace and contentment suffused the house — a feeling that all was right in the world.
It sounds implausible, I know. Who has a holiday straight out of a Hallmark Channel movie?
I could hardly believe it myself. But, for the first time since my divorce nearly three years ago, I spent a holiday without feeling resentful, angry, bitter or just clinically depressed.
My oldest daughter was with my ex-husband that day, and I missed her, but for once I didn’t feel like it would be against moral law for me to feel anything besides sadness in her absence.
I’d chatted with her on the phone and we laughed. And after I hung up, I felt a twinge of wistfulness, but I didn’t feel a yawning, achy hole in my chest. I didn’t cry. I accepted that we had to be apart that day. Though I didn’t like it, I accepted it, and didn’t hate my ex for it and I was happy.
My 2-year-old even went to sleep at a decent hour without her usual amount of wailing or bed elopements.
I was wrapping up my games on Facebook, thinking about a restful night’s sleep, when the message popped up on my screen: “Mike died today. I thought you would want to know.”
So much for my perfect Thanksgiving.
Mike was a pal from my childhood church. We had been in Sunday school, vacation Bible school, catechism classes and youth group together. I graduated high school a year or two before he did, then moved away for college. I saw him occasionally at church on the Sundays when I was visiting home. Eventually, I stopped going to my childhood church even for visits. I didn’t see Mike again.
I did catch up with him just a few months ago, though, through Facebook and e-mail. I saw in his Facebook pictures a little less hair and a little more bulk than I remembered. The lines on his face and gray hairs in his widow’s peak hadn’t existed in childhood. But I recognized the sleepy eyes and animated smile.
The e-mails were pretty generic, from what I recall, comparing notes on jobs and children. Eventually, we were too busy or bored to keep up correspondence and the e-mails stopped. None of them were remarkable enough for me to consider keeping when I did my regular mailbox cleaning.
Mike wasn’t my first childhood friend to die. I don’t even know that “friend” is an accurate descriptor. He was one of the people whom I spent hours with in the basement of a tiny Lutheran church on donated farmland, just one of the people who learned the Ten Commandments and the catechism alongside me. He was one of a group who competed in snowball wars and Bible challenges, who sang Christmas carols at the nursing home, and gnoshed at progressive dinners.
Still, this news sucked the day’s peace and joy right out of me. At first I struggled to understand why. Mike died of a heart attack at the age of 41. He had three teenage children. His father died just a few months ago.
That’s all very sad, of course. But there was something else that bothered me.
Was it that I was reminded of my own mortality? Well, sure. The only thing I fear more than my children dying before me is that I will die while they’re still children and leave them motherless. But that wasn’t what I was struggling with.
And then I got it.
Every person I know who dies before me is one less person who will not attend my own funeral.
It’s not exactly that I’m worried about dying alone and friendless, it’s that I’m worried about dying without enough people to tell the stories about me. The me that Mike knew, the church-going, catechism-memorizing girl who liked to play tag in the cemetery, is a me that only a small group of people know. My children don’t know that me. My siblings don’t know that me. So, who is going to tell my children about that me?
All I can do is hope that there will be someone left to tell them. And tell stories of Mike.
— By Kelly O'Toole, Tribune community columnist