Surviving spouses have the responsibility to fan the flames of memory. For me, it’s an honor to serve in this role – a caretaker to the treasure chest of remembrances.
I enjoy sharing with our daughter the common-day details of her father’s life (“He liked every fruit except rhubarb”) along with the more substantial facts and figures. (“He was awarded a full, four-year scholarship to CUNY.”) As she grows, I hasten to add “despite missing 43 days of his junior year for no good reason” to his high school academic record as a sort of an inoculation against creating a cultlike father figure. It’s difficult enough losing a parent at the tender age of 10; it’s important, I think, to ensure that a dollop of humanness remains attached to the tidbits of legend that are being handed down.
For me, remembering is much easier than envisioning the actions of a man now almost gone half a decade. No crucial (and sometimes even inconsequential) decision is made in our household since his passing without someone inquiring, “What do you think Alan/Daddy would do?” In the months following his death, the answers came without much deliberation: “Math curriculum over the arts, no doubt” or “Craftsmen-style light fixtures in that hallway; we even talked about it.” However, time’s passing – and my husband’s absence as a practical matter – turns that question on its head.
For example, since he died, I have waded into the world of animal rescue. While he loved our pets, I doubt he would have been pleased with my decision last summer to harbor 20-plus homeless cats and kittens in the garage. I would bet a tidy sum that had he found, upon his return home from work, several tabbies using his bicycle tire as a scratching post he would have stormed into the house, his voice thundering. And, rightfully so. Whether to surrender a part of our home to a clowder of cats would have been a decision we should have made as a couple.
But the fact that he is no longer here alters the equation. And while his absence does provide me with free reign over the domicile, it’s more important, I think, to acknowledge that my interest in animal welfare would probably never have taken root if he were still alive. I believe he would be pleased to know that a civic purpose and passion has greatly enriched my life.
I could be wrong, of course. But does that really matter now? Perhaps not. Hand me that adorable calico.
My intent here is not to sound cavalier. A surviving parent is not only responsible for keeping the past relevant but also molding a new life structured around the precious shards of memory that remain. Alan’s values and our memories of him now tumble, alongside subsequent life experiences, within the kaleidoscope that forms our world view. As time passes, new stones have melded with his to form new patterns upon which to reflect.
In fact, a new twist of the kaleidoscope has recently occurred in the appearance of a serious suitor. The standard question has been trotted out by my closest friends, in a slightly different guise: “What do you think Alan would make of him?”
For me, it seems futile to try and best-guess a response that will never be forthcoming. But my friends are evaluating the situation from their own grief point, asking, in a cosmic sense, whether Alan would approve of this new union. The best I can do is base my decisions using the values we honored as a family: Is the new suitor principled? Trustworthy? Willing to help guide a teenage girl toward her final steps to adulthood?
More notably, does he love me and is he willing to partake in opening the remembrance box to celebrate a past in which he did not take part?
That task is not for every man. But it seems that it is for this one.
I feel blessed and excited to gaze into my kaleidoscope to see a new pattern of living emerge. If Alan’s death has taught me anything, it’s that every day is a gift, and you need to make room for a new precious gem in your life while you still can.