This week I marked an anniversary I’d rather not remember, yet it’s one of those cataclysmic events that is never forgotten, nor should it be. It cleaved my life into before and after and became the yardstick I would use to measure all future tragedy.
It has been 20 years since my first husband, the father of our five children, died of a heart attack. He was 37. I was devastated. How could this happen?
Inexperienced, guileless, I believed this was the kind of misfortune suffered by others. Not me, not us, not ever, or at least not until we were old and gray and well worn by years lived long and hard.
Details of the day — the slant of late afternoon winter light, the pale countenance of a beloved man, the last words exchanged in a rush — are printed and sealed in my heart like an antique woodblock, an etching of a long lost existence. What followed in the emergency room is more of a blur, however. Did I phone my parents? Call my friend who was watching the younger children for me? Did I speak to his boss to let him know, sorry, Leo wouldn’t be coming in the rest of the day or ever? What did our oldest son, now a father himself, say or think or feel while pressed against me?
Those nebulous memories are there, somewhere, beyond my reach, even as others have remained so vivid. Makes me wonder, admire really, the power of the mind to protect, to insulate, to shield us from that which can be emotionally crippling.
Sometimes that balmy January afternoon feels like it happened yesterday. Two decades, pffft, wiped away just like that. I’m still a young, harried mother, squeezing in sports and schools activities into my work schedule. He is a rising sports editor. We have a mortgage on a huge house, car payments, a future that appears so promising. Then…
But mostly Leo’s death, so shocking, so overwhelming, is the nightmare that belongs to another woman, an innocent. It occurred a lifetime ago, in a world that seems as distant as Mars.
Eventually I learned to pick up the pieces of a shattered life with the help of family and friends. But truth, I would never be the same. Who could be?
So much has changed. The youngest of our children is 21, about to graduate from college. Another son, 24, is working in New York. Both own a framed black and white photograph of their father that has traveled everywhere with them. It’s the same photo that occupies a place of honor in my other children’s houses. One son named his daughter Lea after his father.
I remarried a wonderful man, and the family has added six granddaughters who Leo would’ve worshiped. There are moments — as I’m chasing them down or combing their snarled hair or watching them happily lost in play — when a familiar punch to the gut will leave me breathless with grief. There, still there, I think.
Too soon after his death I also discovered that one tragedy does not inoculate you from others. Within a few years, a nephew died, a perfectly healthy mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer, and a sister and brother-in-law were killed by a driver who had no business sitting behind a wheel. How much more?
Then again, that’s life, and mine is no different than others, no more charmed nor cursed. Sorrow tempered by moments of great joy, drudgery offset with soaring feats, sadness defeated by stubborn cheerfulness. And always memories, forever and always memories that two decades can’t erase.
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