By Anthony S. Layne
Mom and I were eating dinner. This morning she had bought a couple of 1″-thick rib chops thinking that they were four; since we had some potatoes that needed baking before they turned into something left behind by a bear in need of a diet change, I put the chops in a teriyaki marinade to go with them. Grilled teriyaki chops with baked potato and romaine lettuce salad (alas, no Caesar dressing, so I settled for Catalina). Yum.
As we ate, we discussed tentative plans for bringing the rest of the Denton Laynes over for New Year’s Day morning, as well as what to make with the beef stroganoff we planned for another family get-together. Then Mom said the words I’d been … not dreading, but not awaiting with eager anticipation, either.
“It will be strange Christmas morning without Bob.”
I concentrated on the remains of my chop. “I was trying not to think of that,” I sighed.
How strange a thing grief is. You think you’ve healed, and some sight, sound, fragrance or event comes from an unexpected direction to tear the scab off. I wept only once the weekend of my father’s funeral; yet several weeks later, as I was driving my cab, Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” came on the radio, and I began to cry. And yet, Fogelberg’s father wasn’t mine; while Dad could play just about every valve brass instrument made — before his emphysema started taking his breath, he was working on the French horn — he didn’t lead a musician’s life, so the association is rather tenuous.
Since Bob’s internment in one of the columbarium niches at Fort Worth National Cemetery, I haven’t wept; if my mother has, it was in her room when I couldn’t witness it. The room in which Bob slept, where he spent most of the last months of his life, have had almost all traces of his personality removed. The other day, we placed a box of clothing and blankets out for pickup by the Kidney Foundation; sitting on top of the pile, almost forlorn, were Bob’s sneakers and the flannel sleep shirt he wore almost every other day during the colder nights.
And yet, this metaphoric “cleaning Bob out of our lives”, if that’s not too harsh a description, doesn’t go all the way through. Last weekend we put out the Christmas knickknacks and hung the decorations on the tree; ornaments which Bob had received as gifts went on with ours, and a stocking with his name on it hangs over the fireplace.
Not only is there an elephant in the room, he’s staying for the holidays.
Bob wasn’t just a beloved son and brother, as if the word “just” were ever appropriate for such relationships. Over seventeen years, since we learned that Bob’s type-2 diabetes had been misdiagnosed and was actually type-1, Mom and I had gradually structured our lives around the encroaching and multiplying diseases that slowly disabled his legs and cramped his vitality into a 10′ x 12′ room … going so far as to wrench ourselves from our friends and family in Omaha and move to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, to be close to my brother and his family for additional help. (Arguably that move gave him five more years to be with us, so I have no regrets on that score.)
Four months after that terrible Memorial Day weekend. The last conversation I had with him — if that’s what it could be called, because he slurred his words and was a little delusional (“You’re the only one who understands” … words that still taunt and mock me). The first ripping anguish that sent me onto my knees beside my bed, weeping and begging God to “please help me let Bobby go!” The frantic race to get to the hospital, only to be stymied by a traffic jam — just as well, Ted and I decided, since it was something Mom didn’t really need to see. The intense guilt I felt accepting compliments for the help I gave the last few months, because of all the times I felt put-out and resentful when duty called me away from what I really wanted to do rather than help him (more than once, I complained to people, “Whenever somebody says, ‘Oh, you’re so wonderful to have done so much,’ I feel like a total fraud“). Watching Mom retreat into a semi-catatonic, helpless apathy (Mom? The rock of the family? … Good God, how she’s aged in just a couple of days).
Mom and I watching Ted drive away with Peggy and Aunt Kathy, the last out-of-town mourners to leave, and taking the first step into a new stage of our lives.
Was it only four months ago? Just now it seemed like last week. And just yesterday I wrote a cousin to say we only grieve a little.
Funny. Mom and I had spent years preparing for Bob’s death. What we didn’t prepare for was for our lives to go on without him. We knew that we would grieve. We didn’t think about the necessity of finding a mode de vivre after his internment, of building a common life without Bob’s illness as the unifying force.
You can’t force the pace of grief; all you end up doing is stuffing it back in a corner of your psyche, where it can find all sorts of nasty things to play with that can screw you up over the next few years. Nor can you hold on to it like a teddy bear; we cleaned out Bob’s room so we wouldn’t turn it into a shrine. You take each pang and each regret as it comes, and let it be until it subsides of its own accord.
Today we will go to Mass, and hear the angel announce to Mary the good news, and hear the Blessed Virgin’s words: “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). And we will profess that we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
And hopefully the elephant won’t have eaten all the Oreos while we’re away.