“A widow’s refusal of a lover is seldom so explicit as to exclude hope.” – Samuel Richardson
I’m sure it looks like any other normal family dinner at a nice Italian restaurant – a mom and a dad with four kids, two girls and two boys, enjoying a fantastic dinner of pasta and salads and steak (and of course pizza for the little guy!) There is laughter and sharing and lively chatter and smiles.
But the guest of honor at this special table tonight is Gratitude; for a normal family meal did not seem possible even a few short months ago…
Nothing is taken for granted anymore by this hodgepodge group – for there are two empty chairs at the table tonight. These chairs can never be filled; forever there will be an important piece missing from every family meal, from every milestone celebration, from every family vacation and from every one of those times where you just want to share with your best friend, where you need the guidance and comfort of mom or dad, when you’ve just had an impossible day, when you just want to be a normal, complete family again.
Cancer is a terrible disease. It can and does strike anyone, even those who least deserve it, indiscriminately cutting short brilliant, loving lives, and robbing their families of so much more. Those left behind are befuddled, staggered, angry and confused, lonely, and afraid. What do we do now? How do we carry on without mom, without dad? Who will take care of us?
It has been over one year now for the Brunson family, who lost John, age 48, on July 3, 2012, leaving behind Kimberly, and children Claire and Emily; and over one year also for the Walko family, who lost Debbie, age 45, on July 8, 2012, leaving behind Joe, and children Jake and Trevor.
This past year has been numb, terrifying, sad, sometimes hopeless… How are we supposed to carry on?!?!
But you do carry on, because you must. You do begin to work through the sadness, through the tears that at first seem like they will never stop, through the heaviness that threatens to crush you at any moment. You work through it mostly because you have no other choice.
And you work through it because life is still good, so very good, even when the sunset is watched alone, through swollen, wet eyes. Deep down you still know this, it has just been buried recently by the grief.
And you work through it because these young people, they need you, they need hope, they have so much love and so many good things to experience, as Debbie and John certainly knew, and as they so would want their children to know.
And you work through it because so many people care. There are rides to school functions when mom is stuck at work, there’s someone to cheer on the boys at football and baseball games and take them out for ice cream after, someone to watch the kids when mom or dad just needs a break. There is a box of school supplies delivered anonymously on the front porch, gift cards in the mailbox, little notes to let you know others are thinking and praying for you, fantastic dinners cooked for us on busy days.
And tonight, complete strangers at an Italian restaurant share the gift of a great meal that no one has to cook, that no one has to clean up from, and that all enjoy – it warms my heart when it has been broken for so long. It’s a homemade chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven, stringy chocolate sticking to the plate, the kind mom always made when I came home bruised and battered…
I think back to the incredible events that led us here…
The phone call last Saturday was unexpected; patrons at the Olive Garden in Monroeville, PA read my blog, and passed on to the staff at the restaurant the story. The staff, in particular Chris Painter, wanted to do something nice for us, and offered me a meal for up to 8 people. Of course I immediately thought of the Brunson family, who are in just as much need as the Walko’s.
After my wife’s death I was compelled to start this blog, despite having never done something like this before, despite having never written with purpose before, to express and share my feelings, to heal, and maybe to help others through the sharing. “Grief shared is grief diminished”, I quoted.
A friend of Debbie’s from her church was reading this blog, and also knew about John, and thought that maybe Kim might benefit in some way from our shared experiences. Through mutual friends, my blog and email address were exchanged…
I did not know that Kimberly, who also lives in my community but whom I had never met, was reading my blog, and was feeling the same emotions I was in dealing with the loss of a spouse and the challenges of single parenthood and the running of a household and desperately trying to hold onto a full time job and keep the grass mowed and bill collectors at bay and the laundry pile manageable.
She read to herself for a while, but eventually had the courage to reach out to me, and we started communicating electronically. We actually met a few months later in a grief counseling group through the Hospice organization at Forbes Hospital.
It is amazing how much common ground we share and how much we have helped each other and our families through this tough time…
And our meeting certainly seems guided by a Higher Power, much like these “random” acts of kindness, like this beautiful meal.
And perhaps it is just simply Destiny – for our deceased spouses met before we did – they are buried right next to each other at Plum Creek Cemetery, plots 22 and 24 in Section 24, picked out long before our paths ever crossed…
I have this vision, clear as day, a vision of Debbie and John, young and in their prime, big hair and even bigger smiles as they introduce each other and share conversation and a beer or two, sitting on that beautiful hillside above Plum Creek, between the dogwoods and below the towering oaks. Bathed in The Light and The Love, they are whole, they are happy, they are aglow; laughter and honesty are exchanged easily.
But they also still so love their families, and don’t want to leave for their sake. As they look down at our pain, at our struggles, which they now understand is necessary for our growth, they still want to help, as was both their nature.
So they concoct a plan, to guide us, to help us to help each other, to help our children. The signs are so obvious that even two headstrong survivors, hearts shattered, souls torn and frayed and splayed open to the universe, and heads finally empty, pay attention.
And help it does; healing begins …
Debbie and John are certainly filling those empty chairs tonight, and they too, are most thankful for this generosity and further confirmation in taking care of those that they love tonight.
And right now, at this table, immersed in the smells of warm bread and steaming pasta, the tastes of rich sauces and red wines, amidst the clatter of dishes and the laughter of our children, captured in the knowing glances Kim and I share across the table, and in the tears of our wonderful server Cory (Cordell Smith, who stayed two hours after his regular shift, just to wait on us) when we tell him this story, I can’t help but think that maybe things will be okay.
Things happen that weren’t expected, and people drop into your life from outer space, bringing their special gifts, right when you need it the most. And you meet others who are going through the same thing, who have the same hurts and the same struggles and who truly feel your pain; and the sharing lessens the hurt, and it brings hope, it brings strength and renewal.
And I am grateful. So grateful…
Grateful for the small victories amidst the larger “tragedy”, grateful for getting through each day, grateful for those so willing to help, grateful for people like Chris Painter and Cory and the Olive Garden staff.
Grateful to the family and friends who have been by our sides through thick and thin.
Grateful to the special strangers who enter your life because they are supposed to.
And mostly tonight, so grateful for just a normal family dinner, something that never seemed possible ever again a year ago…
It makes you start to believe you can carry on; maybe even thrive again; dare, even love again…
And you do.
Grief and sadness knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger than common joys.
– Alphonse de Lamartine