Coming from a family of mostly older people, a family in which my mom has always been closest to me in age, death has never been a foreign experience for me. I was 5 or 6 when my paternal grandpa’s third wife, the one whom I always thought of as “grandma,” died. I remember standing in front of the window in my house in a black dress with red and green flowers, and I remember sitting in the chapel next to my aunt, a few rows back from my parents, not understanding why I couldn’t cry. I knew I was sad that Grandma Mollie wasn’t there; I am sure my parents told me something to the effect that I would never see her again. But I didn’t understand death. And how could I cry if I didn’t understand why I was sad?
Since then, I’ve lost many family members, and definitely understand death. However, I believe that death and loss are different, but I didn’t understand that until recently.
Last November, almost two decades later, I sat in that same chapel. This time, I was in the front row next to my mom. This time, I was doing all I could not to cry, but failing miserably. As I listened to our rabbi, to my dad, and to my aunt all talk about my grandpa, I was dreading my turn. Public speaking is probably what I’m least comfortable doing in the world. I had planned to sing a song, Annie Lenox’s “Into the West” from the third Lord of the Rings film. To the extent that I’d ever put much though into my grandpa’s death, I had always figured it was something that would be sudden. Something that would make Avril Lavigne’s “Slipped Away” appropriate. My grandpa was always invincible to me…to everyone. The idea that he could get sick was totally foreign to me, and the idea that he wouldn’t recover from something was beyond alien. It still is. He was a fighter. So when I had spent the last month and a half flying back and forth between New York and Florida, while it was an absolute shock that he didn’t pull through, his death really wasn’t sudden. And suddenly, I had to have a new song. I don’t believe in heaven, and I’ve never been a religious person. But I’ve always liked the idea of Valinor; that the Elves don’t actually did, but rather, they move on to another land and they will see each other again. And so that’s how I decided on my new song. Yet as I sat there, waiting for and dreading my turn, I listened to these stories about my grandpa. I had heard some of them many many times before, and others were new to me. And they all had a common theme: my grandpa always did what he felt was right, and he always put others before himself. And suddenly, stepping up to that microphone wasn’t about me being afraid to be judged on my own words. They weren’t really to put myself up for critique by the people who had attended the service. They were about honoring my grandpa, and they were about sharing who he was to me with those people who had come to remember him and celebrate him. And as I stood up on the podium listening to my mom, it wasn’t about the song anymore, but its message. So when it was my turn, I didn’t sing the song. I shared my grandpa with everyone as he had always shared himself with everyone. I, as someone who always needs to have everything I do meticulously planned out, absolutely winged it, except I wasn’t scared anymore, because in sharing who my grandpa was, I felt like he was sharing his strength with me. I think that is when I truly began to understand loss. Death is when someone is no longer there. Loss is when you are keenly aware of a person’s presence after he or she has died, knowing that he or she is physically gone, but his or her morals are within you and the lessons he or she taught you will always remain.
I’ve become very sensitive to death and loss since my grandpa died. I rarely comment on celebrity deaths on social media. Posting a “RIP so and so” seems callous and trivializing. A kind of “going with the flow, it’s trending so if better talk about it too” type of thing. My grandpa would have said that that mentality made it so easily for Hitler to take control in Germany. In this instance, however, I have something to say beyond RIP Robin Williams. I was watching the special episode of Charlie Rose that was aired tonight that was a conglomerate of all the times Robin had been at that table over the years. Robin Williams meant something to me. I’ve seen very few things he’s been in: “August Rush,” “Aladdin,” and my very first exposure to him - “Mrs. Doubtfire.” As a kid, the latter was just a funny movie, but when I saw it again when I was older, I realized it had an important message. No matter what the personal cost, it is vital to do the best you can for those whom you love. Even if they don’t know that you’re the one behind it.
Make sure you don’t have any regrets in life. Knowing what you’ve done that you would have regretted not doing is equally important, which is something I learned when Dan Wheldon died. I think Robin himself put it best: “Life is extraordinary. I don’t want to miss it.” I only wish that he had continued to feel this way, and I hope that I never feel like there is a reason to feel otherwise.
Robin, thank you not only for teaching us to laugh, but also for teaching us why laughter is important.
I spend countless hours each night, seemingly torturing myself, watching videos of Dan or videos about Dan. I’ve probably gone through more tissue boxes these last 10 months than I went through my whole span at college. I suppose it’s part of the grieving process…part of acceptance. Yet it never seems to get any easier. I still sometimes hope that, even though I’ve had many amazing experiences at the races I’ve gone to this year, I will wake up and Dan will still be alive. I don’t think I will ever be able to fully comprehend what happened that day, even though I am able to process it logically and intellectually. I don’t think that the events of October 16, 2011 will ever seem real to me. #MentionADateYouWillNeverForget has been trending on Twitter. I wish I could say that date would me something happy and special in my life - some kind of momentous occasion. For the foreseeable future, it’s not though. My mom made a dentist appointment the other day for October 16, 2012. Two months away. In two months’ time, maybe I will stop counting the months and start counting the years. Or maybe not. It took me several months to stop counting the weeks. But even if I stop counting the months, I’ll still think about Dan every day as I watch all the videos on YouTube that immortalize him. I’ll still think about him every night as I lie awake in bed, unable to sleep. I hope that one day I can go a day or two without thinking about Dan, but I will never forget him. And more than anything, I wish we could have him back.