Published in the Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments Essay, Mar 27, 2008
The first dish that arrived was baked chicken, breaded and full of flavour. Then came soup – hearty vegetable and beef with the grease left in to make it extra rich. A variety of lasagnes followed, at least four of them. (One neighbour even called to make sure we all liked mushrooms.) More chicken arrived, this time with rice and gravy, followed by homemade macaroni and cheese. (For the kids, she said.) And of course there were desserts – cookies, butter tarts, Nanaimo bars, and a wide variety of muffins. One neighbour even brought over fresh-baked bread, heavy and dense with whole grains – an entire meal in itself. Fruit plates, vegetable plates with dips, and rolls arrived. The freezers were full, the fridges overflowing.
One neighbour dutifully ploughed out our long driveway and parking area, even after only a few inches of snow had fallen. Others just stopped by to offer condolences and to tell my mother that she had only to call if she needed anything at all.
My father’s fairly sudden death at only 67 prompted this outpouring of generosity. He had so much living left to do, so many memories left to create.
His oldest grandchild is not yet 4, too young for Grandpa to have left a lasting, clearly defined mark on his child’s mind. He might be able to retain some memory of him if helped along with stories, but the two-year-old and the baby will only know their grandfather from photos.
My father was outside playing on his tractor, pushing snow around and having a whirl of a time only a few weeks before he died of cancer; he was singing songs with his grandsons only the day before.
Perhaps that is why so many neighbours, many of whom barely knew my rather – he rarely stepped foot inside the tiny church, the centre of our rural community – brought food or offered assistance. I suppose we, the living, feel such helplessness in the face of death, so undiscriminating, that we want to do something, anything, to offer support. Few can offer ploughing services, but many can offer food.
Those who live far away sent flowers – grand pink lilies, potted daisies, shy African violets. People who didn’t even know my father, who had never met him, sent cards and notes to tell me their thoughts were with my family and me. Some drove long distances, over two hours each way, simply to give me a hug and offer their condolences to my mother. Others, who knew my father but who had never met me, lined up for ages to tell me how he had affected their lives.
I have never been one to send sympathy cards. I always mean to do so, but somehow it always slips my mind. Or once in a while I do manage to write a note but then find I am out of stamps, so the letter languishes for months in a pile of clutter or stuffed deep and forgotten in my purse. I never placed much importance on sympathy cards. How could a few words from me, likely stock phrases anyway, lend any comfort to people who have lost someone close to them?
Well, I have discovered that somehow, condolences are important. They do provide comfort. All the phone calls, the notes and cards, the flowers; all those who came to the visitation to simply shake my hand and introduce themselves or who offered a hug and a story about my father, somehow, made me feel better. And although she is tired and emotionally drained, I know my mother feels the same way.
Perhaps their words and support help to normalize the concept of death. The idea of having life and all it entails and then, suddenly, not having it is difficult to wrap one’s head around. Knowing that others understand this loss has helped me realize that I don’t have to explain it, because it is inexplicable. I don’t have to make sense of his death, because death is just something that is. It happens to all of us. Through their support and sympathy, friends and neighbours have enabled me to focus on my father’s life, which was the incredible thing, rather than the fact that he is gone.
My father was not religious, nor am I, and I do not require words of eternal life, heaven, or angels to make myself feel better. We did not have a funeral for Dad; he made it clear he did not want one. But somehow just knowing that he touched the lives of others, either directly or through me or my family, is enough to help me come to terms with his death. If my father now only exists in the minds, the memories of those who knew him, then the fact that others are affected by his death or simply by my loss must surely mean that in those thoughts he lives on.
I have learned a little bit about mourning, and I am thankful to all the people who offered their support, no matter how small. The next time someone I know loses a family member, I will be sure to send at least a note, if not a savoury chicken casserole.