Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Is it better to let the past be?

The headline was 20 years old, and it hit me squarely in the heart.

Local Teen Dies After Accidental Shooting

To understand we go back over 50 years to a classroom of 11th grade history students and a small, intense teacher with a moustache and an outrageous sense of humour. During class one day while passing my desk he bent down and whispered, "Stay after class, I need to talk to you about something." 

The "something" turned out to be a weekend job, babysitting he and his wife's four children, 12 y-o Margaret, 10 y-o Jeff, 8, y-o Kate and 6 y-o Jo. I was 17 and the five of us slid into a relationship as as easily as if I belonged there. Before long I was spending more time with them than I was at home with my own dour and disapproving-of-each-breath parents.

We camped and hiked and climbed together, took road trips, painted, swam. When I finally graduated and left home to go away to school it was much more my "second" family that I missed than my own. We kept in touch through letters, no internet back then.

Margaret married, and was widowed when her husband was killed in a road accident. Jeff finished college and moved to Alaska, where he married. He and his young wife called out of the blue one evening, having driven well out of their way on the way from Alaska to Arizona. They were a few blocks away, I rushed to meet them, and they spent the evening with us, along with their beautiful baby boy, who was just at the crawling stage.

The letters came and went, and in the early 90s the "second mother" I loved so dearly wrote to tell me of some disturbing symptoms she was having, and of diagnostic tests. The news, when it came, was devastating. She had ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, and it was rapidly progressing. They refitted the house to accommodate her wheelchair, hospital bed, roll-in shower, Jo moved in to care for her, Kate and Margaret serving as backup. She lived 13 months after her diagnosis. I still have her final letter, asking me not to grieve, as she'd had a wonderful life and was not afraid of death. She thanked me for my love and friendship, and for being such a good "big sister" to her children.

Margaret wrote a few times after her mother's death. While struggling with her own family problems she had let her mother take over the role of correspondent. It was a difficult period in our lives too, with Tony so ill, and the loss of both my father and Tony's mother. Contact dwindled away.

A few nights ago I decided to see if I could locate Margaret or Jeff as I feel a longing to know how they are. I found a reference to Jeff pretty quickly, in a 20 year old newspaper but from headline to end of story it was like being kicked in the heart by a mule.

The lovely baby boy Jeff brought to meet us was killed at age 17, shortly after his grandmother's death, shot by accident when a friend dropped a pistol belonging to his father that he was showing another boy.    

While they have had 20 years to process their grief, and perhaps come to terms with it, it's yesterday for me. It's not something I'm good at, letting go.  Death is one thing when a person is 90 and has had a full life, it's quite another when it takes a 17 year old boy poised on the brink of every possibility.  And in my pain I'm wondering if it's not better to let the past be?

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