This Family's Story Will Give Hope to Anyone Grieving
Thirteen summers ago, my family and I went to the fireworks show in our small New Jersey town. We were so close to where they were shooting them off that we had to lie on our backs to see. The lights rained down upon us, bits of paper falling onto our faces. I started to panic. What about the kids' hearing? What chemicals were we breathing in? I looked at my husband. His face told me he had the same concerns, but we were in it now, so we might as well go with it. The kids squealed when the ash landed on their little bodies, and our middle child reached out her chubby hand and yelled, "I so happy, Mommy!" And I knew she was, and I was, too.
Four months later, my husband was diagnosed with a carcinoid cancer, a rare form we were told was "manageable." Nine months later, he died. In his final weeks the doctors kept saying he'd pull through, so I told my children the same thing. In May, while he lay in the hospital in a medicated coma, I assured them we'd be fishing in the Poconos by August.
The morning their father died, I called the kids to the couch and made sure I was touching each one. When I gave them the news, my oldest screamed, "You're lying!" The other two, sobbing, said, "You said we were going fishing! You said we were going to the Poconos!"
Relatives and friends took over the house, bringing food and flowers, wanting to do the impossible, which was make us feel better. Then, finally, it was just us, sitting at the table in our new configuration. We left Dad's seat empty. It was mid-June, and summer loomed ahead. The family in 2015.
"You guys," I said. "The most horrible thing that can happen to a family has happened to us. There's nothing I can say or do to make that less true. But we have a choice. We can pull down the blinds and stay here and just be. Or we can be thankful for our friends and family and each other. We can go to the beach. We can still have a summer. We have to decide how we want to live."
Hayley, 11 years old, said, "I choose the second thing. Let's have fun. But can we still think about Dad, too?"
Allison, 13 years old, said, "Of course we can think about Dad. But he wouldn't mind if we had a summer."
Christopher, our baby, was 5. He said, "Let's not stay inside with the windows shut, except when we have to."
We agreed. Let's stay inside only on days we have to.
It turned out that sadness didn't last whole days, just parts of days. Allison watched videos of her dad late at night and cried body-wracking sobs. Hayley stormed around, making demands: "What are we going to do now? What's for dinner? Can we go to the mall?" Chris lay in bed with the 8 x 10 of his dad carrying him on his shoulders. He would weep, not wanting me to remove the photo, but also not wanting to look at it.
We didn't bother with blind optimism or denial—we were all keenly aware of what we had lost. Instead, we approached every hour with the aim to take from it the best we could. One day we were in the car when "Hey Ya!" by Outkast came on the radio. It seemed to be everywhere that summer and was impossible not to dance to. So we did: Windows down, radio up, we sang loud and bounced hard. A few blocks from home, a neighbor on the corner watched us pass with a look of abject horror. Here we were, so publicly happy, though my husband, their father, was only six weeks gone.
The neighbor didn't understand how joy could exist in the midst of tragedy. To be honest, neither do I. But it can. It did. And we were grateful.
Kathleen Volk Miller is coeditor of Painted Bride Quarterly and a professor of English at Drexel University. She is currently writing a memoir.