Monday, November 30, 2009

The Empty Seat at the Table

This past weekend, according to my highly unscientific FaceBook observations, many of my friends freed their Christmas boxes from exile in the attic and began the fun (if somewhat arduous) task of decorating the house for the holidays. I, too, spent the majority of Sunday afternoon decorating (and toasting the season with several glasses of egg nog, natch--compete with a dash of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum). I then wandered around my house, admiring my handiwork. I'm an over-the-top fan of faux pine boughs. My house now looks like a pine tree exploded in it--but in a nice way.

As I meandered from living room to family room to kitchen, adjusting a wreath here, straightening a candy dish there, I envisioned upcoming Christmas dinner. In the past, we've had as many as 24 people here. And since my dining room is approximately the size of a teaspoon, we've moved chairs and couches out of the the living room and replaced them with those 6-ft tables you get at Costco. It's the only way to fit everyone in. This year my younger sis is taking on the Christmas dinner challenge--possessed of a larger dining room than I, it is unlikely we will have to cart all her living room furniture off to the garage to accommodate the hungry hoards. And I'll be helping her cook--we plan to make a day of it, along with my mother, her mother-n-law, and her sis-in-law--cooking, talking, drinking wine, making candy, the whole bit. It will be the kind of day that, for lack of a more original phrase, makes memories.

And when we all sit down at the table that evening, it will be a wonderful time with family--it always is. Nevertheless, there will be an empty seat at the table. In a parallel universe, my dad is sitting in that seat. He's smiling, laughing, piling food on the plate, drinking tea (always tea--with milk and copious amounts of sugar). Perhaps he's even talking about that near-miss in '97, when (thank God) doctors narrowly missed catching a blood clot in his lungs that came this close to killing him.

But that's a parallel universe. In ours, my dad actually did succumb to the blood clot in his lungs. Misdiagnosed repeatedly for the last two weeks of his life, he died, 49 years old, on his bedroom floor in the early morning hours of April 2, 1997. It wasn't until the autopsy that his cause of death was discovered. There's a whole story there about the aftermath of this discovery, but even all these years later it is incredibly painful to talk about. Suffice to say that anyone who believes that bringing a lawsuit against a medical group is easy--or a way to 'get rich'--they need to talk to someone who has actually been through this particular kind of hell before they pass judgement.

So nearly thirteen years have passed, and with them, twelve Thanksgivings, twelve Christmases, the birth of seven grandchildren, and various other milestones that he never lived to enjoy. Knowing my dad, he would be scolding me right now for dwelling on what never-was, instead of what-is. He would wish for us to honor his memory by living to the fullest the years he never had a chance to experience. But it's hard. So hard. He was such a good man, with so much left to give. The rock of our family, really. And he was robbed by circumstances and human error of the rest of his life. Sometimes it is all I can do not to be bitter. It can be a genuine battle not to succumb to the somber certainty that life makes absolutely no sense at all, it is all random, and there is no meaning behind any of it.

So I fight the urge to be angry. The fight against anger has gotten somewhat easier as the years have gone by, though the pain of losing him is still as fresh as the day it happened. When he died people, with the very best of intentions, told me that "everything happens for a reason" and my heart would "heal over time." But it cannot fully heal--the scar left behind is deep and jagged and still bleeds. And as for there being a reason for losing him--well, pardon me, but there is no "reason" that could possibly justify the loss of a man such as him. I do wish that my faith was a strong as my husband's, who firmly believes the hand of God guides everything and there is always purpose. And perhaps as years go by I will finally find peace with what happened, but for now there is still a lost little girl inside me who still wants to blame God, rightly or wrongly.

Fortunately for me, these forays into bitterness and anger are few and far between. One of the gifts my father left me was strength. When I feel like I just want to wallow in the unfairness of his death, I am strong enough to (usually) pull myself out of it. I remember what was special about him, and I think about what he would want for me--and my mom, and my sister and brother, and the seven grandchildren he never got to meet, and his many friends. He would want us to live every minute of our day with enthusiasm and good humor, with arms wide open. The last thing he would want is to see me crying over my keyboard.

So this Christmas, like every holiday of the past decade, there is an "empty seat at the table." But thought my dad may not actually be sitting there, what he gave to us--his love, his intelligence, his strength of purpose--and what he wished for us--simply, to live our lives--is there in his place and in our hearts. And because of this, Christmas will be exactly what he would have wanted. A wonderful time with family.

Happy Holidays and love, Kim

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