Anniversaries generally mark happy occasions – an exchange of vows, a remembrance of life given, a marking of time passed in friendship or intimate relation. To celebrate an anniversary, the greeting card aisle of my local drugstore provides an array of missives available to send to a loved one in order of kinship obligation. There are cards to send to your mother and father, sister and brother, husband and wife, niece and nephew. Some are funny, others are more serious and still more are in need of an English major’s aid.
For those awfully prosaic lines remarking upon a loss, you will have to go to the section on sympathy where kinship relations are again reiterated in an array of sentiment that marks the finality of death.
Anniversaries are for the living, not for the dead.
Today is the silver anniversary of my father’s death. His presence is in my visage and my laugh, even though its edges perhaps are defined by the outline of my mother’s people. Death came by his own hand, marking for those who survived a passage that can be grieved surely, but not mourned. Suicide is a theoretical conundrum, presenting the aggrieved with an opportunity for sympathy, but denying them the understanding that usually comes with it. This understanding produces the work of mourning. Simple, open, compassionate. Suicide provides the opportunity for dis-ease because the aggrieved cannot know, cannot communicate the details that bring closure in the wake of death. At the end of the day, people want to know what happened and if you can be honest, you tell them. But what can they say really? Death requires explanation. In the end you both know that there is simply no hallmark card, no home training for such an event.
Over a decade ago, I allowed myself to say goodbye to him. I stopped marking the before and after of his coming and going. I let myself be okay with remembering if I wanted, and forgetting if I chose. It gave me peace to connect the dots of my life in a pattern without a full stop in the middle. I became whole again.
But on this silver anniversary, I remember him with love and affection. I allow myself to mourn. My grandmother once said that time heals all wounds. I know now that she is right, but it does not help me miss him any less. So I introduce you to my father, “Flip”: avid reader, drunken seaman, serious diagnostician, great compounder of medical remedies, passionate dog lover and rescuer, nervous stutterer, confirmed genius and yes, a terrible father in many ways. I love you nonetheless. I love you still.
So many of us have known several deaths by hands no longer willing to put off the desperation of loneliness and despair, or by hands staving off the pronouncement by a family physician of an end to life as we know it. These anniversaries are experienced as unmarked territory. This is a love letter for those who must find a way to mourn for loved ones who have left us of their own accord, those who cannot be named or marked, and in some cases, recognized as ancestors from whom one can draw strength and confidence. But we should remember them anyway because they have made their mark upon us and I, for one, am glad of it.
One day in my very small town, I will walk the hallmark aisle and there, among the Anniversary greetings, will be a card for us. And it goes something like this:
I am deeply sorry for your loss.
Take courage in what you do know, worry not about what you don’t.
Allow yourself to forget if you need to,
But remember that it’s okay (and sometimes hilarious) to cry in public.
And know this:
Someone else is finding a way to remember too.
Someone like you is thinking of lighting a candle or writing a line of prose.
But most of all: congratulations!
Every anniversary means that you have survived; that you will survive.