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The Summer People Died

I didn’t see it as a trend when the summer began. I only saw the grief we all felt when our friend Kim’s mom died. It still hangs there, a tiny bit further away now, but always present. Since then, another dear friend lost her mom, a neighbor’s mother died, and one of my oldest friends succumbed to a long illness. Another friend is slowly losing her partner, and a woman in my neighborhood was killed last week by a drunk driver. Early in the summer, we even had to let go of our wonderful dog Tairiq. It’s too much. Too many endings. It has been a summer of trying to make sense of loss and sadness.

As with all hard situations, we almost automatically try to find the lessons, the messages. We know we need to let go, move on, and love our people for all they were to us and to the world. But we also miss them, long for them, and pray—in whatever way each of us has of doing that—that we will all be ok. In many ways, when we lose someone, we think of ourselves. We think of our pain, of the emptiness left behind. We wonder how we are possibly going to function when someone is gone.

Even when the idea of being strong and reaching for someone else’s hand is deplorable, we can, we will, and we do.

When I first lost my mother 30 years ago, I imagined that my life would never be quite the same again. And, of course, it wasn’t. With her gone, it was a world without all of the things that she brought to it. I tried where I could to hold on to her humor, her empathy, her optimism, the twinkle in her eye. Still, there was no her here. But another feeling began to slip in all those years ago. I suppose I was thinking about my own mortality, but it felt deeper and more tender than that. It was as if, suddenly, every moment was precious. When someone dies, we realize that our responsibility to them is to live.

It was actually when my brother died, 10 years before my mother, that I learned my first big lesson about what happens when someone makes his or her departure. When I was told, on the telephone, that he had drowned, I literally fell to my knees. A few days later, holding his clothing, reading his poetry, looking at photographs of him, I cried so hard that I wondered if I would be able to keep moving forward. I did, but it was only a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other thing that propelled me for a long time.

Eventually, I was less sad, just as I was finally after I lost my mother. Part of me didn’t even want to feel better, because somehow it meant leaving them behind. But I did. I survived. With time, the ache grew closer to the surface, so I could remember to soothe myself. The message was this: we are meant to continue, to move, grow, love more and again, and to connect. Even when the idea of being strong and reaching for someone else’s hand is deplorable, we can, we will, and we do.

In that same way, without much ado at all, this odd, hard summer continues to slowly wind its way toward Labor Day and the coolness of fall. And my world is smaller now. No chats with Carole about politics and the Giants; no Tairiq staring at me with the corduroy cat in his mouth. No laughing and reminiscing with Leigh about how different our lives were when we met in the early 1970s. No visits to Dianne’s to hear her mom Dodie tell stories about her famous fudge.

But my world is also larger, simply for knowing these people, for having let myself love them. And I’m larger, too, in the knowledge that I can survive and thrive despite grief or loneliness. I hold that resilience close now, sometimes tenuously, but always with enormous gratitude.

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