The other night, while waiting in the grocery check-out line with my daughter, I looked down at the email messages on my phone and was stunned at what was waiting for me.
It was my Mom’s daily message bearing the sad news that my cousin Steve had died. Steve, that burly guy with the big heart who always made a point to find us and catch up on the latest at family reunions and other gatherings. I’d been planning to visit him just as soon as school started and things at home were a little more settled.
One of the last times I’d seen him was at Great Uncle Eddie’s 100th birthday party in April 2011. “How’s your Dad doing?” he wanted to know. Turns out Steve was struggling with the same wretched disease that has affected so many in our family, and he was curious how my father was holding out on the front lines of the diabetes battle.
When my mom shared about a month ago that Steve had lost his legs due to his diabetes, I was shocked, hoping I’d heard her wrong. This was larger-than-life Steve we were talking about, after all. From what I’ve heard, he was quite an athlete back in his college days. “Big Steve” they’d call him when comparing him to his younger, same-named cousin. It seemed a paradox that he, of all people, would have been in such a challenging state.
I wanted to go see him but part of me was scared. Would he even welcome visitors? How does one maneuver through life with such a loss? I wasn’t sure, but I felt an urgency to visit. I had something to tell him; the same thing I’ve told others when in a place of despair: You are loved.
My mother’s email wasn’t finished. A second blow followed right behind the first bit of bad news. Steve’s funeral had already taken place just a few days earlier, and it was here in town. This was the first we’d heard about it.
Feeling like I’d just been gut-punched, I paid the cashier in haste and darted out to the van as fast as possible.
I would have gone. I would have offered to sing, as I’d done at his mother’s funeral nine years ago.
I’m still grappling with the double whammy of 1) learning a loved one has died and 2) that the grieving gathering came and went.
And here’s what really feels messed up about all of this. Hundreds of pieces of information pass through my hands or into my eyes and brain on any given day. In our world of modern technology, we are more often than not in touch with a multitude of people in the course of a day and exchange numerous conversations with them.
But somehow, in all of that jumble of important information, I’d missed the message bearing news of the passing of a life. Other relatives and friends had gathered, and even though I was just a few miles away from the church, I’d missed the chance to pay my final respects in person.
The word bewilderment comes to mind to describe how I feel, though I don’t blame anyone for the oversight because I can see how it happened. That side of the family has many branches that shoot off in various directions. I get how my tiny twig could have been overlooked.
And yet, what am I to do with my grief? A part of me feels suspended, as if I’m dangling while trying to figure out where to put this unresolved sadness.
I know I will find a way, somehow. I know that I must. This is a life that mattered to me. Maybe no one in our extended family realized it, because though Steve was big, he also had a humility about him. His purposeful exchanges with our family always happened in quiet corners. But I was always glad to see him. Being around Steve brought my Dad close to me somehow, even when he was a long distance away. In fact, in recent years, the resemblance between them was remarkable.
I’m not writing about this today to draw pity. I know that won’t help a bit. But perhaps I’m hoping, somehow, that through bringing my sorrow to light, I can gather ideas on how to say goodbye properly. Because right now, I’m honestly not sure.
Q4U: Has anything like this ever happened to you? If so, how did you handle it?