Bittersweet Summertime

Written July 8, 2013.

The new ordinary in our family seems to be living life fully, but with an empty space.

By a quick glance of social events that filled our calendar during the week of the Fourth of July, it looks like our life is back to normal.  In the past eight days, we had get-togethers on six of those days.   We swam at the pool, went to pot lucks, watched plenty of fireworks, had a bonfire, stayed out late with friends and family on several nights, and even made a trip to the Mississippi for the first time this season.

My daughter on the Mississippi river, taking in the sunset and breeze.

My daughter on the Mississippi river, taking in the sunset and breeze.

In the midst of enjoying summertime, though, is a sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken void that we all feel.  It’s negotiating life where my brother, Mike, isn’t around anymore.

It’s the void of a husband being gone, the void of a dad who isn’t there to guide and play with his two kids.

My nephew, Daniel, hanging out at a bonfire at our house. (photo taken by my 6 yr old)

My nephew, Daniel, Mike’s son, hanging out at a bonfire at our house. (photo taken by my 6 yr old)

It’s all the times Mike pops into our heads, all the times something happens and we think, “I wish Mike was here, he’d sure love this” or “I wish Mike was here to help with this.”  It happens over and over for me.

It happened on the third of July.  We headed to Rick and Gina Jones’s annual party, where many in my Kramer clan now happily gather each year.  On the way to the party, my husband showed me a jacket that he found in our van.  It was Mike’s jacket with the “Scenic Helicopter Tours” logo, from one of his former jobs.  The last time Mike hung out at our house, he forgot it.  I couldn’t believe that less than a month later, it was already too late to give him his coat back.

Later on that night, we piled into back end of the Joneses’ 1950 (or so) Studebaker truck.  Wind in our hair,  rumbling of engine and gravel below, we took a slow ride to Dover to watch fireworks.

A whole mess of kids piled under blankets along the back window.  It felt like a scene out of Charlotte’s Web, piling in the back of a the Zuckerman’s truck to take Wilbur to the county fair.  Little kids that normally ride in vehicles tightly strapped in law-abiding car seats simply plunked down on the wood floor and peeked through the board sides at the gravel road passing below.

Good food, a ride in the back of a big old truck, and the first fireworks display of the season?  It was grand.  All of it brought back memories of Mike as a high schooler and stories of hay rides on summer nights.

Bittersweet is the word that comes to my mind.  We are in the peak of summertime goodness, and in a way, I feel more of an urgency about life: a need to soak it up, live it fully, not miss out on an opportunity to see the people I care about and do the things that matter.

Throughout my day and in every activity, I have a very real and tangible reminder that life is precious and cannot be taken for granted.

So on Sunday, we had our usual family brunch at my mom’s, then a collection of adults and kids hit the pool for an afternoon of swimming and soaking up summer sun.  Even though we had plenty of water time the day before on the Mississippi, the cool blue of the pool still beckoned on a hot afternoon.

On the Mississippi: Our very proud two-year-old after her first tube ride with her dad. "I no fall off, Mom!"

On the Mississippi: Our very proud two-year-old after her first tube ride with her dad. “I no fall off, Mom!”

After the pool, we headed back to Mom’s for fried chicken and sweet corn.  She happily cut the corn off the ears in long smooth strips for anyone who asked, even for children over 40 and fully capable of doing it themselves.  It’s one of her hidden talents, shearing off the corn in long strips that are completely irresistible.    Pool and sweet corn felt like a little essence of summer on a Sunday afternoon.

And on Sunday evening after supper,  a bunch of us gathered around the table at Mom’s to read out loud some of the cards that came in the mail for Mike.

In the past when a friend had a loss of a loved one, I always felt like any condolences I might give would be totally inadequate.  Being on the other side this time, I fully understand and appreciate just how much a few kind words or a good memory means to a family who lost someone they loved.  Sometimes it’s hard to open up another card that says “In Sympathy,” but it’s so helpful to know that many people share in the loss.

It was amazing and touching to pick up cards from people that nobody had heard from in ages, and to hear that they were thinking of our family, had great memories of the person Mike was, and had been touched by all of this.   The ripple effect of his life very literally reaches across the whole country.

We began writing a few thank you notes, but barely made a dent in the stack.  Realistically, looking at the collection of cards and the list of food that came in following the accident, we very well will be working on thank you notes for a month of Sundays, even with 10 people helping.  It’s a little overwhelming, but hugely touching.

That’s life right now.  Splashing in the pool and corn on the cob intermixed with lumps in the throat and some teary eyes.  A bittersweet summer.

A Footnote:
Tricia later gave me Mike’s jacket, a very unexpected huge surprise and honor.

A few weeks later, we planted a tree in Mike’s honor in the backyard of their family’s new home.  As an unexpected surprise that evening, Tricia presented everyone in the family with a jackets from Scenic Helicopter Tours. When the owner had asked if there was anything he could do, she asked for a jacket for the members of the family. He made it happen. As Tricia put it, we now have “jacket hugs” from Mike whenever we want them.

Decked out in our new Scenic Helicopter Tours jackets...hugs from Mike.

Decked out in our new Scenic Helicopter Tours jackets…hugs from Mike.

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