Good Life

Learning to live: Stories can be passed down like heirlooms

Editor’s note: The Learning to Live column is written monthly by a community member involved in the collaborative partnership formed to encourage meaningful conversations about loss, grief, growth and transformation.

Let me tell you a story. My father died in 1994. It wasn’t an easy death, he wasn’t an easy man. The official cause was septicemia, but I know it was chagrin. He was on dialysis — his kidneys failed him after years of chain smoking and diabetes.

Dad had spent a lifetime as a fixer of machines, first working on airplanes in World War II, later as a maintenance man, tending huge complicated buildings as a plumber, electrician, carpenter. He was mortally insulted by the notion that his life now depended on a machine.

He railed against fate and willed himself to die. And he did, after a relatively short stay in the hospital in a cold winter. He was 73.

There was no putting affairs in order, no wisdom dispensed, no last expressions of love and affection. Just the phone call from my sister, who, as the nearby sibling, shoulders most of the burden of caring for our parents. I was sad, and I was angry, too.

There was a wake at a funeral home, a short service at a church, a burial at a cemetery. The loss was made more painful by the emptiness (for me) of the rituals. But a few days later as I knelt at the altar rail of the church I attended in my town, I felt a presence pass by me — at once fleeting and indelible — and for a brief second, in suspended time, the veil between the worlds was pierced.

I experienced what I knew to be “the peace that passeth all understanding,” a flickering of the mystical intensity that consumes the lives of saints and visionaries. In that instant, I recognized my father’s hand on my shoulder, letting me know that everything is all right. And since that moment, I have been reassured by the knowledge that my father loved me so much he wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.

I don’t tell this story to convince anyone of anything about grief or death or love. I tell it to preserve something precious, something that changed me and also saved me. The experience is a gem, the story is its setting.

A well-crafted story shows off the experience to best advantage, but more importantly, keeps it from getting lost. Like an heirloom brooch, it can be treasured by future generations,

Next month, State of the Story, our homegrown personal narrative storytelling series, will feature stories on the theme “Growing from Loss through Grief to Transformation.” All are welcome to join as we share our treasures with one another at 7 p.m. on March 22 in the Attic at The State Theatre.

Pamela Monk, a founding member of State of the Story, is a teacher, writer and storyteller on the journalism faculty at Penn State.

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