As the countdown begins for me to head to sunny Florida to celebrate Easter, I find myself torn between the excitement of seeing my family and the dread I feel over the month of April.
My stepfather’s birthday is April 11. He died on April 23.
It’s a lot for a single month.
A lot indeed.
As I have thought about it, I don’t think it’s the dates per se that get to me.
The truth is that Easter is hard because it is the only holiday when we are all together- my mom, my sisters, their husbands and their children.
In the same way a missing puzzle piece is most obvious when there is only one, I feel his absence most when the rest of us are together.
The parts of the conversation that would make him laugh.
The debates among my sisters and me that he would interrupt (to agree with me).
The eye rolls we would share over my mother’s head when the choir sang one song too many at church.
The chocolate covered hands of the children that would be proof positive that their “Grandy” (what they named him because he gave them so much candy) had secretly passed out Hershey’s Kisses when their parents were not looking.
There is a place for those moments in the scripts of our lives that cannot be ignored.
I think of getting off the plane for Easter break every year and him being there waiting for me at my gate (pre 9/11). Post 9/11, he would be at the closest spot he could possibly get without security arresting him. Even though everyone else waited for their loved ones in their cars outside baggage claim to avoid the hassles of parking, security, etc., he would never do that.
He wanted me to know how happy he was to see me.
And to this day I don’t step foot in an airport without thinking about it.
It was worth the hassle I guess.
And my thoughts go beyond Easter….
I think about receiving newspaper clippings about 401(k)s, books I needed to read, advice I should consider.
I think about getting handwritten letters on his official General’s stationary long after the rest of the world had switched to email.
I think of countless pairs of reading glasses tucked away in every drawer, of large Hershey’s bars stored in the refrigerator for late night snacks, of worn boat shoes stationed outside the back door of our house.
I think of his words of praise when I succeeded- and more importantly, when I didn’t.
I think of how much he adored his grandchildren, how proud he was of his children and how much he loved his wife.
But as sad as the loss makes me, when we are all together over Easter laughing as we recount stories of missed curfews, badly behaved pets and family vacations from hell, I am reminded that he is still very much alive.
He exists not just in our memories but in our present lives- in our chosen careers, our senses of humor, our beliefs, our compassion, our resilience.
And as I watch my niece and nephews grow up, I realize that his legacy will live on far beyond my sisters and me.
I grieved for each of them when they lost their Grandy. I wanted so badly for them to have someone who waited at airport gates for them too.
I think I grieved most for my youngest nephew, Max, because he never got to meet his Grandy. My sister was pregnant with him when Dean died.
But every time I look at Max, I cannot help but smile.
He is the living embodiment of Dean.
When we took Dean’s pictures from childhood and compared them to Max’s, it was impossible not to see it…. The hair, the eyes, the dimples, the mischievous looks in their eyes. The love of life that radiates from each of them.
There was no need to grieve for Max. Their bond goes far beyond any wordly connection that any of us will ever understand.
In some sense, I guess it is appropriate that Dean was born and died so close to Easter- a time when we celebrate the victory of life over death.
Because I know that he lives on- in this world and the next one.
May the message of hope that Easter brings allow each of you to feel and to see and to celebrate the life and legacy of your own missing puzzle pieces.
“He is risen… He is risen indeed.” -Luke 24:34