In my thirties, I recall saying, “Wait. What? I don’t get it. I should get it. When I was fourteen, one of my brothers died soon after birth. When I was twenty-one, my forty-one-year-old aunt died. People die. Grandparents die, but not my grandfather.”
Pepere Lebel loved me as one of those people the experts say we need in order to thrive, ones whose eyes light up when we enter the room, ones whose special smile aims straight to our heart. Psychologists know that even children raised with trauma can grow into happy, healthy adults if at least one person– a coach, a parent, a teacher, a neighbor, a mentor—cares.
It takes one person who appreciates that teal is your favorite color, that you’ve learned Frere Jacques in French and sings it with you, who gestures for you the difference between right and left and what it means when older kids say words like freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. That one person knows you prefer the theater to school and, so, invents improv games for you. That one person who, just like you, would rather be outside than inside. So you hold hands and walk out the door to go skating at the local ice rink.
To grow, we need people who see us, treasure us, who help us build pillow forts or teach us to sew even if they don’t know how, especially if they don’t know how.
My father’s father taught me the lyrics to all the Maine college songs while his age-spotted fingers danced across his piano keys as I dangled my six-year-old legs next to him. He winked at me and pointed to his earlobe which I was to pull to get him to blow Cherry Blend smoke rings from his corncob pipe in shapes I’d request. I assumed he’d live forever. He was supposed to know my children, bounce them on his lap as he did me. My grandkids would know him too; the unlikelihood of his ageing to the mid-100s evaded me.
And then one morning, he played nine holes of golf, strolled home, asked my grandmother about her knitting, ate lunch, sat in his chair and died. Just like that. Gone.
“What a way to go,” everyone said. But I didn’t want him to go at all. I kept thinking, “Wait. What? Death? I don’t get it.”
And now ‘tis the season for jolly. I still do not fully get death. I do get that we have all faced living deaths this year, death of togetherness, death of hugging that one person, or those people, death of jobs for some, death of assets for others and the real end-of-life death for many. I do know the richness in our memories of those beloveds, even with what we might call the poverty of Covid, climate crisis and political strife. I do know we become who we are through those special ones, the ones who assured us we belong here.
This holiday season, may you track down your one person, or more than one person and, if alive, hear them laugh on the phone, giggle with them on face time. If not alive, read their letters, listen to their old messages or their top ten tunes, or drink your coffee from the mug they gifted you. And may you be that person for someone because, even not fully understanding it, death teaches us what matters in life. As individual persons, we need love and a sense of belonging. As people, we need the gifts in eyes lit up and hearts open.