One year ago, my beloved stepfather, Henry Newman, died after a difficult battle with pancreatic cancer. Two days and a year earlier, Ken’s cousin — Woody Hesselbarth — who we loved like a sibling died from a long time endurance of a rare lung cancer. It’s hard to know what to feel, what to say now that time has passed and still, it’s as if they died just yesterday, and it’s as if they’re alive. Because we saw both men just now and then — Henry once or twice a year, and Woody every year or so — it seems they’re still out east or west. I easily see Henry milling about my mother’s kitchen in New Jersey, bending to change the trash bag under the sink, and telling me that it’s no problem, he can take care of it. I easily see Woody in Colorado, sitting in front of the giant fish tank in a Ft. Collins restaurant while we joke about how huge the platters of Mexican food are before us.
Grief is a strange thing, completely eluding any sense of order. It’s not as if it was worse then and now it’s progressively getting better. A few weeks ago, I found myself thinking about Weedle, my friend who are killed in a car accident 14 months ago, and suddenly, I felt the sharp searing pain of her absence more acutely than I had felt it, even right when I got the news. There’s no accounting for what will come when in terms of someone’s absence or even the presence of memory.
I return often to the line in Theodore Roethke’s poem, “The Waking,” which Kelley Hunt and I made as the chorus in our song, “What Falls Away.” Roethke writes, “What falls away is always. And is near.” What falls away is always with us — the memory, the felt experience of knowing someone, the hole in the air they left, and if you believe (as I do), their very presence at surprising moments. Of course, as my mother-in-law told me when I asked if she could still sometimes feel the presence of my father-in-law, Gene, who died last February, “Yes, but a presence can’t touch you.”
What is left, I wanted to write today and say how much I loved and miss Henry and Woody, both men of astonishing goodness who gave me, Ken, our kids, their widows and friends and family so much love and presence throughout (and beyond) their lives. Woody, I hope the wild adventures you lived for on your bike or scaling peaks continue in some way. Henry, I hope you feel all the love we hold for you, still and always.
Top photo: Henry on our deck; bottom photo: Woody twirling Forest in the Colorado mountains.