This Grief Story is written by Faith & Grief Facilitator, Bob Nelson
Growing up on the west side of Chicago in the fifties, certain truths were self-evident: one’s address determined safety; anonymity was security; wealth was centered in the suburbs where kids could play on something called a lawn; and most significantly, an impersonal universe does not barter in happiness.
The homestead, in which I was embedded, had an income above the poverty level. Anything I wanted was always filtered through cold, logical pragmatism. My father used to say, “spit in one hand and wish in the other, see which one fills up the fastest,” which was a censored version of the expression. I was taught a simple mantra: wanting was never the criteria upon which to decide anything. Toys were frivolous. I had some – perhaps many by other people’s standards – but I never had the expensive, popular toys. Some kids did.
On the other hand, I didn’t have to play with sticks from nearby empty lots. Some kids did. I never went hungry. I was always clothed, if not stylishly at least practically. I had all the school supplies I needed. True, I never had a number 64 box of crayons, but I did have my annual supply of number 48. I had gym shoes and did not have to take PE class in my socks. Like most kids, I felt a victim of deprivation. Appreciation is rare in the young.
In that phantom zone between infancy and adolescence, I would spend Friday nights with my sister, who was 8-years older than me. She was babysitting me, I guess, but it never seemed like that. I remember sitting on the sofa, underneath a quilt, trying to stay warm, watching television, and eating homemade popcorn. Maybe the rest of the family was there on those Friday nights. Maybe it wasn’t always Friday night. Maybe it was only once or twice. Maybe. Yet, in my consciousness is a distinct, visceral image of the ceramic popcorn bowl we used, and I know, popcorn has never tasted as good as that overly salted, oil-soaked, homemade popcorn. Even the kernels tasted good.
We watched the television shows that defined the time; The Loretta Young Show, G.E. Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I suppose some of them were not on Friday night, and some of the shows, if truth be told, weren’t even good, Inner Sanctum, Mister District Attorney–were not known for enriching the human condition. From the blending of all those shows, I formed my value system, my vision of love and family.
I remember very few specific shows. One I do remember quite vividly, if not accurately, involved a blind girl sitting on a sea wall, maybe it was a pier or a beach. She fell in love. She was to have surgery that could restore her vision. They were gonna marry if the operation succeeded. In the last scene, surgery behind her, she was still blind. The guy still wanted to marry her. She pointed to a seagull in flight; the surgery had succeeded. What I remember most was not the cheesy plot, but rather, the theme song, one of my sister’s favorites, was repeated throughout the show. The song was one of those romantic ballads that Frank Sinatra would sing. I still can hear my sister singing along with the soundtrack “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Truth should not be limited by accuracy.
On those Friday nights, I could be me. We laughed, we explored the deeper meanings of the stories, and we interpreted their significance. Sitting on that couch with our feet under a quilt trying to stay warm, I could act silly and lick the popcorn bowl or pick at the foam rubber on her house shoes, and I could cry. It was the only place I felt accepted.
That is what I remember most: That song with my sister and warming our feet under the quilt on a sofa.
The next memory of sitting on a sofa with my sister was thirty years later. Now I was the babysitter. My sister was in the final stages of breast cancer. My two-year-old daughter and I were watching her. It was late afternoon, time for my daughter’s nap. She used my right thigh as a pillow. My sister sat on my left side with her head on my shoulder; she reached over and stroked my daughter’s hair. Soon both were asleep. On the other side of the room was a poster of a sheet of music reflecting through a frame. The reflections of our heads lined up like notes on the staff, three separate notes, but we were all part of the same melody.
After my sister passed, I was left with relentless grief, a daily reminder of my emptiness. An impersonal universe will do that to you. That was how I felt when my wife and I went to the hospital for the birth of our grandson. We made it to the waiting room on the fourth floor just in time to watch the delivery door close. We joined my daughter-in-law’s parents. I was feeling a need for a quilt, on a sofa.
It was to be a simple procedure, a half-hour at the most. At the hour and a half mark, our anxiety was mounting. All four of us began pacing. We would try to comfort each other. “Just because it is taking a long time doesn’t mean anything is wrong,” we took turns saying. After more than two hours, the door opened, and we saw her being pushed down the hallway in her bed. She looked tired. Behind her, my son, smiling, in full aqua-blue operating room scrubs, was carrying his son, my grandson.
Soon, we were all in the room marveling at the baby. There are moments in life when happiness is so profound, smiles seem inadequate, and the heart seems to burst in one’s chest. This was one of those moments. The mother and child needed to rest. We left. As we walked down the hall, we laughed and hugged each other. On the elevator, the Musak played an instrumental version of “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” a song that resonated with profound significance to me. I whispered the lyrics.
Witnessing the birth of my grandson and listening to “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” I felt connected to the universe for the first time. Some might use words like spiritual or mystical to explain how I felt. Some might discount the whole process as a coincidence, but this experience was real. At that moment, I realized that we are all notes in the symphony we call life. There are no random notes. And if I listen, I will hear the melody because the melody exists. The melody existed, and the melody will continue to exist, and my sister, somehow, is less dead.
Bob Nelson is a support gathering facilitator in Richardson, Texas. The gathering meets at First Presbyterian Church on the third Thursday of each month and is one of five gatherings in the Dallas. If you would like to join us at a support gathering near you, please register for a support gathering here.