Saturday, April 13, 2013

Empty Sandals

Why - Rascal Flatts (YouTube)

My daughters wanted his sandals.

The three of us stood in the long line that snaked out of the visitation room and down the hallway of the funeral home. After half an hour, we had finally made our way into the room but still had several dozen folks in front of us, patiently waiting to offer their respects to the family.

The memorabilia and pictures in the room seemed organized by category, as if his life were a series of chapters and segments, separate from one another. Perhaps they were. Around one table were pictures and keepsakes from his two years at UTK. A picture of him outside his fraternity house. A pair of cowboy boots. A fifth of Jack Daniels with some kind of scarf draped around it. Another table flashed back on his home life. A Christmas picture of him and his sister at the tree. Trinkets and toys from his childhood and youth.

But the table the girls stared at reflected his years as a lifeguard at their pool. They had seen him almost every day of every summer for the past four years. Every day, he wore the same pair of sandals. The sandals were infamous at the pool, because he would just leave them wherever he’d been sitting or standing when his time to hop back on the chair arrived. It drove my wife, who runs most everything around there, nuts, but the kids loved it.

No, the kids didn’t love it. They didn’t love the sandals. They loved him.

Nothing can or should prepare a parent for the day when their children first encounter suicide in a real way, when they witness the conclusion of a real and meaningful person in their lives.

My eldest daughter, approaching 13, you could practically see her brain trying to grasp the event intellectually. His suicide didn’t make sense, because she knew him, because he seemed happy all the time when he was at the pool, because his life was still in the beginning stages, and his body was healthy, because she saw in him the promise of growing up, and what could be better than that?

My second girl is 15 months younger but more empathetic, more emotionally raw. She cried all the way home when she found out, and then she went into her room and cried more in her room. “Why didn’t anyone help him?” was her concern. She lamented that she should have found more ways to make him feel important. “Did he know what we thought of him?” she asked.

The girls couldn’t decide whether to attend his funeral. They half-wanted to, but they were scared, and their fear was why I knew they needed to go.

We cannot shield our children from Death. We cannot protect them from her icy hot fingers. Death will walk amongst them, as it has and does amongst adults, and we cannot pretend her away. It seemed wrong to let their understandable fear be the only thing they remembered of this lost but beloved young man. His death was far more complicated than a single emotion or a single moment of overwhelming despair, and his life meant something to them, to so many others.

When we walked in and saw the line, I knew it was the right decision. When the funeral home chapel overflowed and we were placed standing in the back of a second side room, it felt right.

On the way home, and several times over the next week, the girls asked questions. Many were the kinds of questions you don’t want them to ask... but they do, you see. They’re asking those questions whether they ask YOU or whether they ask someone else or, worst of all, whether they just don’t ask them to anyone.

“Despair” is the absence of hope. I can’t help but wonder if despair begins with someone drowning under the weight of questions left unasked, with more water from misguided or cruel hope-starving answers rising above them until they can’t breathe or think clearly. The panic of drowning in one’s own despair must truly be horrifying, worse than water, even.

That’s what I wanted them knowing. We are loved by more people than we can know, by a higher power beyond our comprehension, by the ones closest to us who sometimes fail to express it sufficiently, or clearly.

In life and after we’re gone, no matter how our time comes to an end or what we do while we’re here, we are loved.

You are loved. No matter what.

"Why?" by Rascal Flatts was played at the beginning of the service as the casket was rolled into the room.

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