Today would have been my ex-husband Ed’s 53rd birthday, but he died nine months ago—at the beginning of 2020—back when we didn’t yet know what a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year it would be. While there are still four months remaining for this year to redeem itself, Ed is never coming back.
Ed’s birthday, falling on September 1st as it always did since 1967, marked the end of summer. I really thought his death would be the end of Ed’s role in my world, in my brain space, in—even—my heart space. True, we did divorce 18 years before his death, but we’d had two kids together and the continued parenting of those kids kept us bumping up against one another, in large and small ways.
But then, endings are always also the beginning of something else.
Today there’s a definite chill in the air in Minnesota when, just last week, it was too hot and humid to sit outside for any length of time, unless you were by water. Ed loved water. That’s what I spoke about at his memorial service when the pastor invited attendees to get up and tell memories about Ed. But no one came to the front. Minutes passed and still the pastor waited, patiently. Too patiently.
I’ve always been the kind of student who would answer a teacher’s question—even if I was wrong—just to end the silence in a classroom. That’s why, I think, I got up to speak about Ed—to end the silence.
My 27-year old daughter had already read her prepared memories about her dad; her 24-year old brother does not like public speaking—so she’d interlaced his memories with her own. Ed’s widow was too broken apart to speak. Ed’s youngest brother had already read a kindly embellished version of Ed’s obituary. The rest of Ed’s family had been mostly estranged from Ed—or he’d been estranged from them—for the better part of the prior 13 years. I don’t know that they had much to say. Did he have friends who were holding back, I wondered? He’d never had a lot of friends when I knew him best: high school, college, and the first decade of my post-college years.
So, it fell on me—I guessed, to speak on Ed’s behalf. I assumed I was his longest-known friend in attendance at his memorial service that came just three days after he unexpectedly died when his heart stopped during an endoscopy. There was more to it than this, of course; his health had been poor, his organs were—quite possibly—floundering, but none of us had expected him to die; not yet.
Up in front of that funeral home, I spoke about how Ed had loved the lake. While there are definitely more than 10,000 lakes in Minnesota, where I live (where we lived), when you speak of “the lake” in Minnesota, you’re referring to the lake that is most special to you, especially if you are fortunate enough to have a family with a lake cabin. We both had that good fortune—at the time when were together, we—along with many other family members—owned the lake (two different, but geographically close, lakes) where our grandfathers had once built cabins. By the time of the funeral, however, both cabins had consolidated ownership under aunts, uncles, or cousins, that were not a part of our immediate families. By the time of Ed’s death, neither one of us had the good fortune of having a lake anymore.
The older I get, the more I understand that life brings us a series of small endings that lead up to that one large ending, the one we’ll all reach one day.
But even without owning the lake anymore, I talked about the lake at his memorial. I told everyone how Ed was the happiest when he was fishing or swimming—at least when I knew him best. Later that evening, I would wish I’d talked about how Mozart, my parent’s springer/lab rescue dog, would dive down alongside Ed, who—with his snorkel and wetsuit on—would point out clams for Mozart to retrieve. I remember Ed laughing heartily; I remember his huge smiles on those days when Mozart retrieved a clam. It was something to see. Ed loved dogs and babies (which may explain why we had two babies before I turned 25, before I even knew I wanted babies).
While, I didn’t talk about dogs and babies at the memorial, I did tell the attendees about Ed’s smiles when he was near water. Well, maybe I did tell everyone about how much Ed loved those two babies of ours, now in their twenties. Whatever else I said about Ed, I had the definite feeling that I’d gone on too long—like I’d been leaving one of those exasperatingly long voice mail messages I used to leave Ed before we had cell phones; before he could see he’d missed a call from me and he’d know he had to call me back to see what I’d called about. He always called back—as I always called him back. Neither of us wanted to miss out on a message about one of our kids.
Ed loved those kids so much, but that love couldn’t save him from his drinking. Addiction is a disease, you know. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad disease that sometimes takes people before their time.
So, after I’d run on too long up in front of those people, at least half of whom I didn’t know—the other half, I surely hadn’t seen in years—I abruptly wrapped up. I sat back down and, no one stood up after me. Even so, the pastor waited another uncomfortable length of time. But I couldn’t break the silence a second time. My power, if I’d had any, had been spent. And I couldn’t bring Ed back with my words, as much as I couldn’t stop his drinking.
But today, on what would have been Ed’s 53rd birthday, I feel myself wanting to speak up for him again. I want to say that Ed was often a really good person, even though some of the time he wasn’t. He had a really nice smile, a warming laugh, and he loved dogs and children—especially his own two children (our two children), the ones still shedding their grief, the ones so fervently missing him today.