After the shock, after the denial, after the acceptance and the struggle but before the end, there was the question, will you remember me?
Twenty-two years ago, in the final weeks before my husband, Joe, passed away, we quietly talked about the future for our family without him and how he would not be forgotten.
Holding back the tears while holding on to each other, we offered each other the gift of strength. He imparted to me the confidence and the security I needed to raise our two young sons, aged 14 and 7 at the time, and the permission to enjoy and savour all of life. I promised that he would always be a part of our lives, that we would honour him with love, respect and continual devotion. He was only 42, and he was being robbed of a lifetime of riches.
The years have passed. Our younger son, for his wedding this summer, created an invitation that included a memorial card to his father stating how much he will be missed on the big day and that he is always in our thoughts. The little boy who was dressed as a clown for Halloween when he last saw his father has cherished, revered and protected his memories of his father's love. His older brother recalls every baseball game, family trip and special outing shared with his father.
I have been blessed to see our sons grow into fine young men, and even though I am happily remarried, I remember Joe and treasure the youthful love we shared over our 20 years of marriage.
I never tried to be a mother and father to my children; my vow was to be the best mother I could be.
What makes memories last? How does someone remain alive long after they have left us? I did not deliberately set out with a plan to be a custodian of Joe's memory. Our priority before he died was to put in place all that we could to ensure our children's lives would be happy and full. With the support of our family, our dear friends, doctors, rabbis and counsellors, we gradually started the preparation for the years ahead without a father and a husband.
In Joe's last year, under the cloud of cancer, we participated in life-affirming activities: family celebrations, vacations and, most of all, quiet intimate moments together. We built our memory bank with videotapes. Joe wrote letters addressed to our children to be given at their first birthdays without him and my younger son's bar mitzvah.
While that was all part of the construction for remembering a life, most important was the architect who created indelible memories for all of us.
Slowly we began to tell stories; we needed to connect. At his grave, the boys would update him on the Blue Jays, share tidbits about people in their lives or silently process their innocent grief.
Life as a family of three became natural. We talked about Daddy and shared the anecdotes of his life. We changed the kitchen table to a shape where only three chairs would fit. How could we look at an empty chair? Our family was recreated and we journeyed through the years knowing that despite our tragic loss, life was to be viewed through positive and hopeful lenses.
I never tried to be a mother and father to my children; my vow was to be the best mother I could be. When I remarried 10 years after Joe's death, my husband honoured Joe's memory and enhanced the boy's lives in myriad ways. The house was filled with male chatter and our outings to sporting events and concerts were fun and spirited. My sons gained a loving parent to help guide them and champion their aspirations.
We chose to mark the fifteenth anniversary of his death at our synagogue, where Joe had found the inner peace that shepherded him through his painful journey. We gathered together and slowly, one by one, family and friends started telling stories about Joe. They were hilarious, they were unique and they were poignant. Eventually someone remarked that this was like a wake, only 15 years later. His presence was palpable, his memory enduring.
Joe is remembered for enriching the lives of so many with small but meaningful gestures - taking time to talk with children, generously giving to friends and family, listening attentively. Perhaps most unforgettable was his ability to laugh - to laugh at situations and to laugh at himself. He brought joy to our lives because he saw the joy in life.
Deep in my heart, I know that the question Joe asked me can be answered emphatically with a yes. We do remember you. The essence of who he was lives on in his children and in the hearts of those whose lives he touched.
On his grave is the inscription: "Happy is the man who is rich in good deeds for he shall be honoured in life and remembered long after for his goodness."
Eileen Chetner Wunch lives in Toronto.