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A death in the family

May 6, 2010

My childhood was enriched by my parents’ complicated marital tendencies, as I’ve mentioned before. Divorce and remarriage brought me dozens of step-relations, most of whom were, and continue to be, delightful additions to my life.

One of the most delightful of them all was killed in a horrifying accident on Sunday.

He was–well, this is difficult to explain. My mother remarried when I was four, and she and my first stepfather stayed married until I was seventeen, so that particular stepfather was the main paternal fixture of my childhood. (Per our custody arrangement, I saw my dad once a year for five solid weeks. He was an excellent absent father, but that is a story for another time.) My first stepfather, my de facto father, had a sister, whom I considered my bona fide aunt, and it was her husband who died. What does that make him? An ex-step-uncle, once removed?

Never mind. For simplicity’s sake, and because this is how I thought of them, let’s call them my aunt and uncle.

They lived in a house in the middle of Denver that somehow felt like a farm. They pooled backyard space with their neighbors, with the result that several houses shared a tennis court and a vegetable garden and, if memory serves, a hill we sledded down. This is a sensible, communal way to live, and I’ve often wondered why more people don’t adopt it. My aunt is a cheerfully quiet woman who made her own jam and made her own soap and scandalized my mother by nursing each of her two sons until they were old enough to walk. “He just went over and…unbuttoned her shirt!” my mother would stage-whisper, while my aunt and one or another cousin placidly snuggled on the sofa.

My uncle played a mean game of tennis, though you’d never have guessed how good he was by looking at him. He was portly and gentlemanly, forever in schlubby clothing, with a stupendous, anachronistic mustache. He looked like Teddy Roosevelt. When photographed, he posed with nineteenth-century dignity, presenting a magnificent, old-fashioned mien. He was one of the kindest people I have ever known. When I was a little girl, we visited my aunt and uncle often. He spoke to me–to all children–with serious and purposeful intent, as if we were worth listening to. He was never condescending. His death made the front page of the Denver papers, and has been reported on for several days running; there have been editorials and cartoons and interviews in his honor, because he was as beloved by his colleagues as he was by those of us lucky enough to be related to him, by blood or by proxy.

He and my aunt were, in the best possible way, old hippies–not only did they make their own jam, but they did pro bono work, went abroad to volunteer, reused things and fixed things and built things themselves. And though I never gave it a moment’s thought when I was younger, I now realize that their relationship was extraordinary and rare. They seemed not only to love each other, but also to like each other, in the manner of true friends who were perpetually and mutually delighted in each others’ company. I have known exactly two other marriages like theirs. Two, in all the hundreds of married couples I know reasonably well. Most of the married couples I know are happy. Most of them are devoted, faithful, and true. But only a few–two–seem to me to have what my aunt and uncle had–a low-key, total affection that cannot be manufactured or faked. “They didn’t make a big deal about it,” my mother said the day we both found out about my uncle’s death. “They never showed off or acted deliberately lovey-dovey. They were rock solid, though. They just–were.”

I hadn’t seen my aunt and uncle in decades. A stupid feud with my ex-stepfather marooned me from that side of the family for nearly twenty years: last year, a rapprochement facilitated by (of all things) Facebook led me back to them and to several step-cousins once again. My aunt wrote me an email in which she said that they’d always been sorry to lose touch with me. They were dividing their time between Denver and a farm they’d bought in Hawaii; the farm was a tremendous amount of work, but they welcomed it. They were growing macademia nuts and keeping bees, and clearing brush and hauling out trash and restoring old buildings. This July, my uncle was set to retire, and they were planning to move to the farm full time.

He was killed when the tractor he was using to mow a field on the farm flipped over, crushing him to death. My aunt found him. She’d gone out around dusk, wondering why he was late for dinner.

All I can think of (and yes, I know, it’s rich, coming from me) is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, a poem anthologized a thousand times over, perhaps ruined for you (as it almost was for me) by its ubiquity, as well as by the ponderousness of its first few stanzas. So skip them and cut to the final verse (though the whole poem is here–I couldn’t truncate it despite my original intention. Consider it a small gesture of respect for the scant legacy of Mr. Arnold.) “Such a depressing poem,” my very happily married friend said, and she’s right, in a way. Love can’t save us, and kindness won’t protect us. But love and kindness are all we have. The last stanza–that beautiful last stanza–proves it.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2010 11:49 pm

    Oh, I’m so sorry. I haven’t commented here before, but have been reading and enjoying your writing for awhile. As I read this beautiful post just now I started recognizing who your uncle was. I live on the Big Island and the accident has been all over our newspapers too. Small world. An unfair world, sometimes.


    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 6, 2010 11:55 pm

      I’m amazed at the coincidence–your knowing him–and at the smallness of the world. I realized I forgot to say how funny he was, how witty and deadpan, but never at anyone’s expense. I’m still stunned. Thank you so much for your comment.

  2. Sarah permalink
    May 7, 2010 10:04 am

    I am sorry for your loss. It sounds like many many others join you in remembering your uncle. He sounds like a wonderful man.

  3. More Tennyson, Less Arnold permalink
    May 7, 2010 12:18 pm

    The problem with “Dover Beach” is that it deliberately undercuts its own exhortation. How can “Oh, love, let us be true/ To one another” be of any comfort if the world “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor help for pain”? With one hand, that bitter old Arnold offers a tiny bit of recompense for our vulnerability, and with the other hand he snatches it right back. It’s a truly beautiful poem, but Jesus it’s depressing.

    And your aunt and uncle are proof that he’s wrong. Love *can* save us, and kindness *will* protect us. Not from death, of course, but they will gird us against the kind of despair that causes a man to write “Dover Beach.” And they will save you, too.

    But you knew that already.

  4. terri c permalink
    May 8, 2010 1:14 am

    So terribly sorry for this loss; I live in Denver and of course have seen the coverage. Hoping your aunt and all who loved your uncle will find comfort.

  5. (another) karen permalink
    May 9, 2010 8:54 pm

    so sorry for your loss.

    thinking of you and your (extended) family,

  6. May 10, 2010 12:09 pm

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing their lives with us.

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