The marking of the anniversary of her death for me is bittersweet.
The source of the bitterness is clear.
It comes from the fact that another year has passed without seeing her again and from the deeper acceptance that no future visits to Chicago, morning phone calls or holiday meals are ever going to happen.
In a fundamental way, our loved ones like helen live on in our memories after their physical passing.
The memories of the tenderness we shared are part of the sweetness.
These memories are many, and, like a kaleidoscope, look different at two or three or twelve of fifteen years’ distance than they did at the moment they occurred.
I remember the first time we met in the fall of 1998 in the two-bedroom apartment Dunreith and Aidan shared in Easthampton.
Helen was reading to her oldest grandson in his bed, and, while she looked up to greet me, it was apparent that he was the primary focus of her attention.
I remember the first time we spent a full day together the Sunday of Dunreith’s graduation from Smith, how we all got dressed up, ate the fancy brunch the college provided, and spent hours and hours waiting for the two seconds after Dunreith’s name was called to yell and clap.
I remember the pride dancing in helen’s eyes as we all ate dinner together to celebrate her daughter’s accomplishment.
I remember the same pride and joy radiating from helen’s core as she and Marty walked Dunreith down the aisle at Look Park. Helen started an impromptu, acapella version of “Here Comes the Bride” as she took the final steps before passing her only daughter to me.
I remember the hours and days she spent helping us prepare to leave from Western Massachusetts to Chicago, where we moved so that I could attend journalism school and pursue my dream of becoming a writer.
I remember the quiet confidence helen showed in me as a husband and father as Dunreith, Aidan and I became a family, the blue sweater she and Marty got for me when I got my first full-time job with benefits in journalism at The Chicago Reporter, and the deep-down laughter we’d share during our morning chats.
I remember the pleasure helen derived from extracting every last morsel of succulent meat from the lobsters we bought near Kezar Lake in Maine, her delight in nature, her boundless appetite for learning, her love of poetry-she could recite verses on end that she had learned many decades earlier-and her generosity that knew no limits.
I remember how Aidan called his Babci the perfect grandmother-he was right about that-and how she was able, with each of her seven grandchildren, to be fully and wholly with them and only them.
I remember her sense of occasion, how she’d make trip after trip from the kitchen to the table at 11 Ridgewood Road, only sitting and joining us at the feast she had created for all of us after everyone insisted she do so.
I remember the thoroughness of how she cleaned spaces, removing everything, making it immaculate and then putting it back just so.
I remember helen’s composure and her strength, her fierce loyalty and seemingly effortless elegance.
I remember how she gave and gave and gave to her born and chosen family until the very end of her days.
I remember these moments, and, with each passing year, feel even more grateful to have had the good fortune to have know helen as long and as well as I did.
Dunreith and I talked about some of those memories today.
I played a recording of Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle in that good night,” a poem that helen had quoted to me after Marty’s death to describe what she saw of his experience right before his end.
We talked about helen with Mom today via Skype, and again this evening as Durneith and I clinked glasses filled with Peruvian pisco sour and toasted to her memory.
She would have been here with us, Dunreith said, pointing at one of the empty seats at our table. And not for a short visit, either. She would have stayed a month.
My wife was right.
And, with her statement, she reminded me of how people who are no longer with us physically live on not just in our memories, but in our understanding of how they would have reacted in situations we encounter now.
When we spoke about helen’s zest for travel, I offered that she would have relished decoding Spanish words, given that she had tried to do the same with Hebrew words when she visited Dunreith in 1986.
Dunreith told Aidan how excited Babci would have been at the expansive set of experiences he has had and the independence he has shown in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, in the lush green of New Zealand and the major cities of Australia.
When we spoke with Dunreith’s brother Shaun on Skype tonight, he talked about how his mother would have given him rides to physical therapy during his post-surgery convalescence whenever he needed them.
She would have been right there, Shaun said.
This calling forth of helen, this application of our memories of her warm, soothing, adventurous presence to our imagining what she would have done today and tomorrow, doesn’t change the fact of her death.
But it does help us get through the pain caused by the reminder of her absence.
It does bring her close to us.