February 21 is the ninth anniversary of my first husband Brett’s death from brain cancer. It’s a day forever etched in my memory even as my twins – our twins, Rebecca and Casey – struggle to remember their father. They can’t really remember him, they weren’t even three years old when he died.
And yet, together, with my second husband, Steve, the father who has been in their lives longer than Brett, we will remember. We will do this by lighting a Yahrzeit candle this evening. For those unfamiliar with the term, this is the “soul” candle lit to memorialize a loved one in Judaism. I will share stories – times when I made Linzer Heart cookies and other favorite sweets of Brett’s; the way Brett wore his hair long and wavy when he played the drums in high school; how the floor of his first post-college apartment slanted enough so that he and his buddies rolled a beer bottle from one end of the living room to the other; how he used to pile his dress shirts atop the elliptical machine in our bedroom; the kindness of his smile that was widely felt; and later, the way he went to work in the midst of a snowstorm, cane and chemotherapy and cancer and unbelievable courage at one.
Rebecca tries to remember her dad by clinging tighter to her memory blanket, the one I had made for her and her brother soon after Brett’s death. It’s the blanket pictured here, the one she has slept with every night, year after year. And just before bed the other evening I found Casey dissembling the framed picture of him and Brett in his room. When I asked Casey what he was doing, he explained that he wanted to “see if Daddy was real behind the glass.”
At eleven, there is still so much the twins do not understand. I suppose Brett is somewhat of an apparition to them; they fill the holes of their hearts and curious minds with scraps of stories our family feeds them, along with treasured photos and video footage.
None of us need a specific day to feel what we feel. And while this loss is deeply personal, I understand, too, the sea of humanity any loss evokes. I was struck by such universal humanity reading the dozens of letters I received when The Denver Post published my essay A Valentine’s Tale: Finding Love After Loss .
I wish I could single out all these letters, but for now, here’s what one man wrote. He’s a retired firefighter who now drives a rail car for RTD.
“As a firefighter/paramedic I delivered babies and had people die in my hands. I don’t take anything for granted anymore, life is way too short for that. When I am in the most pain and have walked (sometimes crawled) through it, this is when those spiritual doors open for me.”
There is no restoring a person’s life. Some things demand acceptance. And yet human beings can move forward after a close loss. We have to. Living – the everyday act of showing up, taking chances, risking, loving children and family, being a friend – is the best way I believe to memorialize our loved ones. Living might not balance the scales (we will always mourn on some level) but as a dear minister friend reminds me, “it’s the living that makes a life worth something.” Choosing to live my life fully and set this example for my children is how I honor Brett.
In what ways do you remember lost loved ones?