Ritual and Remembrance. (Memoir)

By Cole, Diane | Midstream, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Ritual and Remembrance. (Memoir)


Cole, Diane, Midstream


"So what will we do for Dad's birthday this year?" asked my son Edward, then eleven. A no-brainer, you think: bake a cake, blow out the candles, and huddle together in a family hug.

But Peter, my husband, had died the previous winter. Any candles we lit would be rituals of remembrance. And I could foresee no icing on any cake.

Still, there was no getting around the fact that July 26 would mark what would have been Peter's fiftieth birthday. It would come, just as it always had in the nearly three decades he and I had celebrated growing older together: on a steamy midsummer day, just two weeks after my own birthday. There also would be no avoiding the final milestone in this month-long cluster of sad anniversaries: August 7, which would have been our (or had Peter's death made it just my) twenty-third wedding anniversary.

And so Edward's question spoke to a real predicament: what would we do--or not do--for his father's half-century birthday? What could we celebrate on any of these days previously devoted to family celebrations?

Our choices, it seemed to me, boiled down to two. We could mope quietly by ourselves, unable to forget. Or we could gather together with a select group of friends, in order to remember.

I voted for the latter. Not because misery loves company. (I prefer solitude for tears, actually.) And not because I wanted an excuse to get blind drunk (though that idea did have its appeal). Nor was it solely for my son that I instinctively went for a plan that at least in theory held the possibility for fun. (The person who has fired of laughter is fired of life.)

As I conceived them, our get-togethers would not be parties or memorials, but rather acknowledgments of appreciation. First and foremost, for Peter, whose wry wit and rich baritone laugh would echo inescapably amidst the clink of glasses.

But also, for our friends, who had demonstrated their continuing concern and care, not jut by listening to our cries, and allowing us to weep. But also by giving us permission to laugh.

Gallows humor, in fact, had been one of Peter's great talents--and great gifts to all who knew him. His many years of coping with illness had taught him--and the rest of us, through him--the vital power, and the fine art, of comic release. For instance: One day, when he spotted a book optimistically entitled, Living to 100, Peter, who suffered from hemophilia, cancer, and all their attendant complications, had scoffed that his goal was living to fifty.

And so it was easy to imagine Peter's ghost observing, with a stoic nod of the head, on the day that he would have (should have) turned fifty: Nice party you have here. And then asking, with a Jack Benny-like shrug: So where's the ghost of honor?

"Now, Mom. You don't really believe any of that cheesy stuff about ghosts, do you?" Edward asked, shortly before the arrival of our dozen or so guests on the night of Peter's would-have-been birthday.

Did I? I myself wasn't sure. Ever since my mother's death, some twenty years before, I had waffled between the absolute "no" of rational-minded skepticism, and the urgent wish for absolute proof of the paranormal. Neither realm seemed to offer what I really sought: the comfort of a continuing connection. A presence more tangible than memory. A spirit less cloying (and yes, less cheesy) than a hovering apparition.

And so I heard in Edward's question a demand that I myself had been unable to satisfy: an answer that would settle the matter definitively. "Just say No!" Edward's tone seemed to beseech me. As if that pronouncement would shield him, and us, from a fairy tale hope that could only lead to the real life pain of disappointment.

"Well, Dad sure didn't," I said at last. My husband the agnostic, I thought.

"Du-uhh--," Edward snorted. "Can't you give me a straight answer?"

But how could I, when I couldn't give myself a straight answer. …

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