When There’s No There, There

by Bruce Maples

(first published in 2001)

My mother-in-law died this morning. She was in her late seventies, and had fought the spreading cancer for almost two years. It was time for death, and death came peacefully, for which we are thankful.

Her husband—my father-in-law—died about the time her cancer came back. I have known the two of them for almost thirty years.

As we get ready for the memorial service, I am thinking of my mother-in-law, of course. But I am also thinking of how different this is starting to feel.

It’s different when the second parent dies. When you lose the first parent, you still have the second one to serve as the “memory totem”—the one who still remembers with you, the one who was there. You still have someone that answers at that number you know as well as your own; someone who leaves the light on when you go home; someone who greets you at the door, and whose face connects with all those special times, all those memories. You even have someone to grieve with, to miss the first parent together.

When the second parent dies, though, all that is gone. The big fish you caught on vacation, the school play where you were a deciduous tree, your first date, your first prom—no one is left who shared that with you the way you shared it with your parents.

You know what else you lose when the second parent dies? You lose place. Before, there was still someone in that house you called home. Someone that held it together, kept that home, that place just as it was supposed to be. The books on the shelf, the pictures on the wall, that old chair, the scratches on the door from the dog that died years before—all of these kept just as you remembered. Your mother was the keeper of the place you remembered, that you made pilgrimages to like a religious shrine.

And now, that will be gone too. In a few weeks you will go through the house, deciding what to do with the collected evidence of a life lived long and full. You’ll give away some of it, keep some of it, sell some of it, and throw away the rest. Then you’ll sell the house, give some stranger the key, and that place, that home, will no longer exist except in your own fading memories.

That, to me, is one of the most pain-filled part of this loss. I don’t know why. Perhaps it reminds me that, in time, my own children will have the same experience. I have to come face to face with the fact that in time, all that I have spent a lifetime building, will be gone. Only those things I have passed on to others, only those things that live on in others, will actually live past my death.

I’ve known Grif and Barb for almost thirty years. That’s a lot of living, a lot of memories. Now that is just memories. Even while I grieve the loss of their presence, I know I have the memories, and I am glad for that.

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