Hearts And Souls: A Family Deals With Grief

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Stephanie Gertler Author: Jimmy's Girl, The Puzzle Bark Tree, Drifting, The Windmill

Oscar Wilde said "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." A sound theory that prevails as we are suspended in the moment, the past, and in what we believe to be our destinies.

On Saturday morning October 31 as my husband and I drove upstate for an overnight respite, my cell phone rang and my daughter's voice sang through the wires, "Hi Mommy" -- as though the words had far more than three syllables. Not that hearing her voice isn't always a melody for me, but there was a far more pronounced "lilt" in her greeting. And because I am often a good witch when it comes to those I love, I knew.

"We're engaged," she said, then recounting the details of the proposal: How Larry took her to Skinner Mountain where they had spent one of their earliest dates, secretly lugging champagne, orange juice, and glasses for mimosas in a knapsack (along with a ring). How they trudged up to the peak, and she was taken by surprise when he proposed despite their three years of cohabitation. And as always, I bit my lip and blinked away the tears of joy that wanted to trickle down my cheeks as she told her tale. I am reluctant to cry in any kind of "public," not wanting to appear vulnerable. I do my crying alone regardless of the reasons for my tears. And if there are people around, I seek a quiet place like a wounded animal.

That same afternoon, I received a call that my favorite uncle with whom I spoke at least three times a week and who is (was) in a small circle titled "a love in my life" went into hospice care, and was placed in a drug-induced coma where he could die peacefully and painlessly. I hadn't heard from him in two weeks, just messages from his wife who had said that things "are not good." His lack of calls had already flagged his demise for me. He never called me when his spirits or physical state were poor. I suppose I knew the truth that was to come, but I refused to believe.

And so, on Halloween when there are tricks and treats, worlds collided. The weekend spent in a conscious effort to compartmentalize. Emotions swinging wildly on a pendulum with such ferocity and velocity that it was hard to find a middle, and I didn't want one anyway. And then I realized, the truth was (and is) as Wilde said - indeed not simple: There was no resting place for the pendulum. I needed to deal and embrace both emotions at once: guiltlessly celebrating my daughter, painfully mourning my uncle (and yet the latter, until the moment he died, was not without hope and a childish belief in miracles).

Though I challenged Oscar Wilde because my truths that weekend were pure.

I cried from beginning to end at my uncle's funeral, and strangely required no place to hide in a room filled with hundreds of mourners - perhaps because I was as alone as every person there as they celebrated the life of this amazing and exquisite man.

But when I played Jesse Owens' "Will You Dance With Me for the Rest of Your Life?" as a suggested wedding song for Larry and Ellie the weekend after my uncle's funeral, I had to leave the room as tears came to my eyes when the music played.

On the heels of all this emotion, a brief vacation with friends in Miami where new friends were made and old friends embraced, there was a recapturing of life as I wanted to know it: laughter, sunshine, nothing "heavy." Each morning I took my coffee, sat on the terrace before sunrise, and called my voicemail, having saved the last message from my uncle not three weeks before. I listened to his voice, saving it for the 21 days guaranteed after each "press 9 to save this message." And then I called my daughter who was already planning the wedding. Both cleansed my soul as I started the day.

It wasn't but a day after our return to Manhattan that my sister, my brother and I met at our widowed 90-year-old father's apartment. We move him to a new apartment at the beginning of December, and so that Tuesday became the dreaded day we think about as parents grow older. Truly a day of reckoning as we decided what to keep and share, what to send along with him, what to donate to "good causes." We walked room by room, my brother carrying a notepad; floods of memories taunting me and daring me to laugh and cry. We tagged items in each room with colored adhesive dots I'd bought that morning at the stationer: green to "go with Dad," yellow to storage, white to donate, pink to go with one of the "children." All in code and placed strategically to go unnoticed so our father wouldn't feel displaced.

It was the dust and grime as I opened cabinets shut since my mother became ill that nearly screamed to me of my mother's last five years. She never would have tolerated such disarray and abject filth (despite the housekeeper who goes in weekly). My hands and nail beds were coated with a dark grainy soot At the end of the day, we three "children" went downtown to the vault where my sister and I had placed our mother's jewelry merely two days after she was buried. At the time, I argued with my sister that it was "too soon," that it was nearly sacrilege. My sister predicted what I felt was impossible at the time. "Women prey on older widowers like Dad," she said. And given that there is a woman like that already in our father's life, having the jewels in a vault is clearly more than wise.

A woman escorted us three to the vault five floors below ground level, heavy steel and glass redolent of one of the Diehard movies, and then to a room much like one for conferences. We placed the jewelry on the table - yes, making sure it was "still there," but for me, perhaps for all of us, recalling when she'd worn this and that. My brother pointed to a brooch and said that for him and his boys, it was her "signature" piece. It wasn't until later that I recalled her wearing it on the flowing cotton dresses she wore in summer. Honestly, for me, it was that the array of her minimalist collection was once on her flesh in days that were better simply because she was here.

Perhaps it was when the woman placed her hand on my shoulder as she shuttled us out through the heavy glass doors, after we'd put everything back in the vault, that put me over the edge.

"What a sweet family you are," she said.

A poignant statement because, if the truth is rarely pure and never simple, we have not been a sweet family, but we were in those few hours. I have always wanted us three to be a sweet family, and am determined to be if for no other reason but an homage to my mother and just because. If the simple and yes, pure, truth is known, we have all too often been fraught with dysfunction and mistrust. Historically, it was my brother with whom I grew up - the age difference enough between my sister and myself and subsequently the "two of us" (my brother and myself) to create two discrete and disparate families. And now, as the years close in our middle age, we are connected by this one woman whose personal items lie five floors beneath ground level as she lies six feet under. It is not the jewels, dishes, and furnishings that are her legacy.

And so, it was then as we three rode the cavernous elevator up to the main floor when I finally broke down - years of stoicism coming undone. Vulnerability unguarded. The day happened to have been seven months to that day that my mother had died, 15 days that my uncle had died, 17 days that my daughter had gotten engaged, and only six hours that my brother, sister and I had been alone in the apartment for the first time that I recall since we were in grade school. That apartment where we all tried to grow up, where our memories are all so different, where our experiences and histories are what make us, to a large extent, who we are now - and yet like the dots on the "items," we are all painted with different hues despite the same woman's hand that clearly touched us each so differently.

As I wept, my brother's face grew pale with what I perceived as disbelief, and my sister took a step backward. My sister (of late) knows my idiosyncracy of not wanting to be touched or comforted when I am upset. When was the last time, if ever, my brother had seen me that way? His helplessness was palpable as he whispered, "Are you OK?" My surprise when I wailed, "No, I'm not" was the aggregate of the last five years that finally brought me to my knees. It was inarguable even for Oscar Wilde: a pure and simple truth.

In the last five yet fleeting years there has been my marital separation and reconciliation, my mother's illness, my mother's grueling demise and death, my uncle's all too sudden death, my father's impairment and the ease with which he has already turned to another woman after 65 years of marriage to my mother. And now, the sweetness of my daughter's impending wedding day, and my prayers that as she follows life on a new path, there won't be too many stones in the road . My hopes that when the stones appear, she has the strength to kick them away with fierceness and passion. I want my daughter to know even in the moment when she walks down the aisle that love is beautiful, and life is glorious. One truth, as we all know, is that it's not always easy.