The day of Jeff’s funeral, a family friend offered to take pictures. I thought of hiring a professional photographer, but I was glad I didn’t have to: she is one. I knew we had to preserve the moment for Jake and Kate. Call it macabre, maybe. But funerals are healing, and an important process of grief. I didn’t want Jake and Kate to be exempted from that because they were too little to remember. Just like cemeteries, funerals are for the living.
It likely seemed unconventional — and possibly irreverent — to anyone who noticed her taking pictures that day. Some people asked me about it later. But, I reasoned that it was better to have pictures than not.
They showed up today, and the kids and I looked through them. Kate spent her time locating herself, wondering where she was in each picture, and wondering why she wasn’t in all of them. Jake spent his time asking about the logistics: “What were we doing here? Why was that happening?”
Mostly, I can talk about Jeff and about his death without completely losing it. I can recover faster when I do get upset. None of this is good or bad: it simply is. But tonight, looking at those photos with the kids… it was hard. I started sobbing. Noticing this, Jake ran upstairs to get me a stuffed animal, and Kate pat my back and said, “Calm down, Mommy. It’ll be okay.”
I am so thankful to have these heartbreaking photos. Here is Jeff’s funeral and burial… a story in pictures.
Jake had forgotten that it was his idea to shovel dirt onto Jeff’s grave. I reminded him of that tonight. He was proud of himself. And I was proud of him.
Kate remembers nothing. Which also likely means she doesn’t consciously remember Jeff. We knew that — she was only two when he was diagnosed, and not yet three when he died. She remembers him by the stories we tell. And while Jake has shadows of his own memories, the only way Jeff will feel real to him is through our stories.
I’ve become preoccupied with picturing Jeff’s mannerisms. His idiosyncrasies. Last week, I remembered how — when Jeff knew I needed a hug — he’d look at me and say, “Thomas! Bring it in.” He’d open his arms wide, and motion with his fingers to come on over. He’d give me a big tummy-to-tummy, both-arms-around-the-body hug. Because Jeff was tall, and I am short, he’d lay his head on top of my head. Jeff gave the best hugs. Last week, I had forgotten that snapshot of a memory. When I remembered, I felt guilty and scared. How could I have forgotten that precious memory?!
But writing – which turned out to be my dearest friend through all of this – has allowed me to preserve some of those snapshots. It not just the memory that I don’t want to forget, though: it’s also the feeling I had. The feeling of fun with Jeff. The feeling of being in love with Jeff. Even the feeling of being really pissed and angry at him.
I sometimes feel like grief is a contractual process: in order to feel halfway normal, grief charges its 30 pieces of silver. To join civilization again, I must forget some of the nuances. It’s not a conscious choice… I simply feel that, by living and by choosing to be happy, I can’t possibly hold on to every single thing of the life I once lived. I want to so badly. I want that life back. But I can’t have it back. So I choose the bittersweet version of what life will always be. I have joy and appreciation, and I also have longing and sadness. But I no longer have despair. I wish for everyone — and I wish for no one — to live like this.
All of us have come a long way since Jeff was diagnosed. Barb recently commented that we are so blessed to have each other: the entire time Jeff was sick, the nuclear family – Randy, Barb, Trish, Scott, Jeff, and me – we never once fought. We never once made it about anything more than what it was. We always pitched in. We always helped and didn’t ask questions. Under different circumstances, that could have been very different. But it wasn’t for us.
And all of us have come a long way since this time last year. I don’t remember chunks of things that other people seem to recall very easily. Last January felt like watching life through a moldy shower curtain liner. It felt like a too-bright day with no sunglasses. It felt like when my hands get so cold that they hurt to bend, except it felt like that all over my body. Jake was having nightmares. I was having panic attacks. Kate was getting ear infection after ear infection.
Life isn’t like that anymore.
I thought recently about how two years ago, Jeff was on his last snowboarding trip with his friends. Two years ago. Something about thinking it was two years — instead of one year — made it all seem so distant. Part of that was painful. But part of it felt freeing.
I want to preserve Jeff so badly. I want him to be here and to be sitting next to me. I want to hug him and put my cold feet on him in bed. I want him to come play with the kids and me in the basement on a Saturday afternoon, and bring two cold beers down with him, which silently communicates, “The kids are going to bed soon, and we love them, but it’s Saturday after 4pm!” I want him to put together plans for the next grilling adventure. I want him to complain about work and ask my opinion about e-mails. I want so many things. I want to not be a single parent. I want to have someone to help me clean up dinner and do laundry. I want someone to ask how my day was and defend me when one of the kids says I’m mean. I want Jeff back, for so many reasons.
But the rational part of me knows that the version of Jeff I knew is immortalized at 36, in pictures and videos. My life is going on, and I won’t know what it’s like to turn 40 with Jeff. I won’t have shared memories with him from here on out. That makes me sad. But I also know that, when I die, the pain of that loss will be so overcome with love… I don’t think it will matter. All of this is temporary anyway.
Who Jeff is now depends on us. He lives in our stories. I know that, when I look at our kids, they have their father in them. They are their own people: their lives are their own, and I hope they use them for good. But nothing will ever change the fact that Jeff Thomas is their dad.
I will always have pictures of Jeff. But the stories remind me how I felt. The stories bring him back to life.