With another death, the family still living is all the more precious at holidays

     The author's parents, Bill and Diane. (Image courtesy of Michael Carolan)

    The author's parents, Bill and Diane. (Image courtesy of Michael Carolan)

    Their absences are so very palpable this time of year — the loved ones who would be sitting with us at our tables, whose hands we would touch, whose shoulder we would embrace if only we could.

    This year, my stepmother will be missed. She passed in April after a short battle with brain cancer.

    She was young — 73. Her parents lived into their 90s. Why shouldn’t she?

    More than 30 years ago, she and her five kids moved into the house across the street from us — me, my four siblings and our recently divorced father. The families became instant friends, and we conspired to get the two out on a date.

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    Just like out of the movies, it worked.

    They married a few months later and Diane and her kids moved across the street into our house. No truck needed.

    Taming an overgrown family

    We doubled overnight — from five to 10 — putting the six-member Brady Bunch to shame.

    “Here’s a story … of a lovely lady …” we sang on our way to their honeymoon. It was 1982, and who knew what the future held for our blended family? Dad and Diane had brought us all along with them: 10 kids, two dogs, two cars and a camper (the oldest sisters were driving by then). We sang our hearts out on that 12-hour ride across the Kansas prairies to the Colorado mountains. The popular John Cougar song on the radio “Jack and Diane” became “Bill and Diane.”

    At home, Diane organized: We needed two refrigerators, two washers, two dryers. There were lunches to make, band concerts to perform, church choirs in which to sing, high school football games to attend, family dinners that seemed to never end.

    On the weekends, the two telephone lines never stopped ringing. We were teenagers — some the same age, others with the same name — all volatile emotions, competing needs, forging alliances.

    Yet in Diane’s presence, we didn’t yell so loud; we were nicer to each other. She turned us into the respectful sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, that we knew we were.

    Christmas was her holiday. Out came the plates and the crystal, the garland and the elves, the red-feather bird ornaments and the Hummel figurines. There was the tree in the front room, another in the family room, still another — a Fuller Brush miniature — on the mantel. Picture perfect.

    Then the family crammed into the house — in-laws and babies and toddlers — with cots and foam bedding. Every chair taken, we sprawled out on the floor or divided into smaller groups, spilling into the living and dining rooms, out the front door and into the yard. You could hear us in Raytown.

    Diane had one rule: Wait for each family member to open his or her gift before unwrapping your own. Around the room we went. It took us to New Years.

    A bad prognosis; a test of faith

    When I heard about Diane’s diagnosis last winter, I was on vacation in Cozumel with my son, daughter and wife. It was an unforgettable narrow street on Cozumel where I got the news of her prognosis. Sadness overwhelmed me, and in such paradise.

    On my return to the States, I called her.

    “You are at the center of our family,” I said. “How are you doing? “

    “Everyone thinks I’m on my way out,” she said. “But I’m just sitting here living one day at a time. That’s all we have, you know.”

    She was gone fewer than than two months later.

    During her brief illness, her daughters and my father doted. The medications weakened her, made her lethargic. So they helped her out of her chair, made the meals — my father attempting to do for her what she had mostly done for him over the 30 years of their marriage.

    He had been there before. When my dad was 40, his brother died of brain cancer. Another brother had survived stomach cancer. His mother died of cervical cancer, his father of lung cancer.

    He was a cancer survivor himself. A rare tumor resulted in the removal of one of his kidneys. Add to that two triple-bypasses and knee replacements. There was a time that I thought he might go first. However, even before he lost his wife, he lost a daughter.

    Ten years ago, my baby sister died in a car accident. Our 10 became 9 overnight. Melanie Ann was 35. She was an artist, a wife, the mother of two beautiful children, 6 and 3. As a family we couldn’t fathom such a loss.

    But Diane told us that God had a plan for Melanie, a higher purpose that we knew nothing about, one that we had no choice but to throw our faith into.

    I found it impossible to believe. Yet there was faithful Diane, balling her eyes out with the rest of us on that impossibly sunny day a decade ago; Diane who continued believing in a higher order.

    When I told my 11-year-old daughter that Diane had died, she asked me why God always takes the good ones. It was more statement than question.

    “I’m not real sure,” I said.

    What I’ve come to realize this year of loss and remembrance is that faith is less about belief than about accepting all that is before us every day — our health, our homes, those whose hands we can still hold and who we can still draw so very close around our holiday tables.

    Michael Carolan teaches writing and literature at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. His father was born in Philadelphia. Michael writes essays for the Springfield Republican, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is working on his first novel, “Highway for Our God.” He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and two children.

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