The family, that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our innermost hearts, ever quite wish to. – Dodie Smith (author of 101 Dalmatians)
This past weekend, my extended family made a trek up to the mountainous town of Waitsfield, VT, to say goodbye to a beloved son, father, husband, friend, cousin, or, in my case, uncle. Jim was quite literally a man for all seasons; energetic, boisterous, opinionated, intense, “bullish”, determined, loyal, and loving. He was not gentle, but he was a powerful presence, someone around whom people gathered.
I will not attempt to eulogize Jim, for the speakers this past weekend truly captured his spirit and his life, but I will share some remembrances about the weekend.
After a gruelingly long drive up in the back seat of the family SUV, regressing to adolescent singing, poking, eye rolling, getting annoyed and loving the togetherness, exhausted but excited to see everyone, we emerged to the chilly, clean air of the mountains, surrounded by family, hugs, support, laughter, tears, and a feeling that we were all experiencing a fragment of Jim’s last year as a retired man embracing a quiet life for the first time in his 60+ years.
Along with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, my family was joined by Jim’s cousins, in-laws, family friends from high school, college, and throughout the years. Family flew in from Africa, from Alaska, from Ohio, from all over, to say goodbye, to remember, to support, and to just “be” with the powerfully rooted tree of family that has become the backbone and touchstone of all of our lives.
We have all experienced losses over the years. We have celebrated lives and mourned deaths, we have gathered for weddings, graduations, new babies, and more, but our family is truly at its best when someone is in need. When someone we love is hurting, when we are all hurting, the far reaches of the Earth clench in, and we all retreat into the warm den of family. And just “be”.
For those who have never experienced the uplifting hug of 100 people, you most likely think I am exaggerating. I assure you, I am not.
For many of us in the younger generation, Jim was an occasional visitor, a sometime Cape May participant. He was not a fixture, but a surprise and always-welcome guest. Many cousins observed that while they did not necessarily have a tangible relationship with their uncle, his absence will be felt at a bone deep level. Our family has been fractured. The six siblings are now five and that can never be healed.
Watching our grandparents and parents in such pain, watching the pillars of strength of one’s life crumble in heartbreak is physically painful to experience. We found ourselves in shock and shaken to our cores, because those who have seemed unshakeable, were shaken. Those who we have leaned on, now leaned on us.
Despite the tears, this weekend was beautiful. A gorgeous sendoff for a wonderfully loved man. A burial, a service, a reception, many repeated and dragged out goodbyes, and then another ten-hour drive home, we all left this weekend a little more at peace than we entered it. A little closer to normal. And although Jim’s family and friends may not yet be ready to feel comforted, the family octopus with 100 tentacles is always there to pull us in and enclose us when we are in need, and my family will always be ready and willing, pushy sometimes, to help, to love, to “be”.