I smelled cedar when I heard you died. Immediately transported back to that summer my family was building bidarkas in your wood shop. How Marci and I would go down to the river and wade up to our thighs in glacial runoff. Try to catch tadpoles with our bare hands. When our feet froze through we’d climb back up that steep dirt trail and sneak back into the building. Over and under beams, around contraptions and tools we didn’t know the use for. You’d find us giggling between an old truck and a dresser, ask us what we were doing. “Oh, we just came in for hugs!” Our standard response. And you knew we were bullshitting you, but you wrapped us up in big bear arms regardless.
You made appearances at all important functions and every quiet night around a fire pit you could. Always in your trademark hat, you listened contently and laughed loud. Always one of the first people I wanted to introduce my new partners to. “You have to meet Mike and Pat.”
The day you died I talked with your daughter and she said, “Good dads are precious.” And I think about how lucky we all were to have you. How you helped raise all of us, just like your wife did. Does. Is doing. There aren’t words for that kind of loss. It is not a sadness that sweeps over us like waves crash. It is not a heart cracking like a branch in the wind. It a simple and sudden hollowing out. An emptiness in a space you didn’t even realize someone was occupying. A piece slid out of a Jenga game and we all just hope it doesn’t come crashing down now.
That is the thing with death, isn’t it? We always expect it to end us, too. As if experiencing the hurt of losing someone is not something we were built to do. But it doesn’t have to only ache, does it? We climb back into our memories and let you wrap us in your arms again. We remember that belly laugh, that wide grin. We mourn the loss, yes, but in turn we celebrate the living you did. And oh, how you did.
I got the news of your birth while I was at work. Shrieked. Showed the friends I was with pictures of your tiny red face and your beaming parents. “Congratulations, Aunt Ruby.” It ran through my head over and over. What the responsibility of being an aunt means. What my own aunts mean to me. I think about the times I’ve called them crying. The times they’ve called me. All the talks we’ve had about how simple and beautiful and hard and devastating life can be. How resilient they are. How resilient we all are. What a strong family you have come into. After fifty hours of labor, I’m getting the feeling you’re pretty strong, too.
And you’re going to have to be. You’ll learn quickly how challenging living is. How exhausting just existing can be. You’ll learn all about heartache and suffering. But you are strong, just like your mother, and you will continue. We all do.
Perhaps I’m not the one to tell you of the joys of life. I’m just crawling back from the edge and you probably know more about them right now than I do. But I want you to know that I will always teach you of fierceness. If I can accomplish one thing in our relationship it will be to show you how hard we can fight for ourselves. And to never confuse that fight with toughness or stoicism. To fight with a passion and a fire and a caring so magnificent it cannot be smothered out by the hardship of existence. You do not need to be tough, you do not need to build impenetrable walls. You only need to learn resilience. To trudge forward despite how hard it is. Everything else is just background. Thrown in for interest and texture. You will learn, we will learn together, that everything is piled on our own foundation and we are the ones who build it.
I will not fill you with false promises. I will not overload you with ideas about who you should be or how capable I’m sure you are. I will not tell you you can do anything. I want you to show me. Even when you think I’m not watching.