Recent family events have made me relentlessly aware of time's passage. In Illinois one Sunday we gathered with family and friends to recall our son-in-law's late father, hear brief comments from his children, and share unconcealed sorrow. Over the past two decades he and I had spent some time together at family events. Back in Wisconsin we heard reports about the declining health of my stepdaughter's grandmother in Michigan, who had been a widow for a decade or more, and within days, she too died. Granddaughter and her husband both wrestled with their own and with each another's grief.
That Sunday Sue and I left for Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, crossing Lake Michigan by car ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon. Over the past several years we had vacationed in Leland with Sue's siblings and their families and our Florida grandchildren and their parents. My wife and her siblings had grown up on the southern portion of that shoreline, the connection that had led to the annual northern outings in Leland. Sue's twin brother had spilled his wife's ashes into Lake Michigan there a few years earlier, as they had released their younger sister's ashes into the lake long before, and now his siblings, his children, and his grandchildren had gathered one last time to free his ashes there. This was likely a final physical visit to that past.
My brother-in-law had been in his late 70s. In recent years he had tended to his daughters and their daughters—all five between mid-teens and pre-school—and to his son and daughter-in-law. They all were close to him, their grief sincere and deep. I'd known him for forty-two years, but the youngest granddaughter had known him much more intimately. The dispersal of his ashes was a highly charged event.
Two days later we drove and sailed back home, each constantly reminded of family losses over our lifetimes. Memories resurfaced of past funerals and past burials and lost presences in our lives. I kept comparing the grief of the youngest granddaughters I'd witnessed on the lake with what I could remember of my own reactions to family losses.
My family has long been depleted. I have no memory of my father's mother, who died just after I turned five, but I do recall his father, who lived into my teens, and his siblings, whose families we visited annually—his older brother predeceased my father by many years, his younger sister outlived him by a decade and a half. My mother's family had mostly lived in the county we did, her father dying first, then my mother dying long before her mother, before my father, and before her three brothers. I knew my grandmother's siblings too and believe I spent some time with her parents and others in both generations, though my great-grandparents made little impression on me.
Some images arise as I write this—a farmhouse in the countryside with a woodstove in its center; a small church on a back-country road and my memory of attending a funeral there in a summer sportcoat and tie (undoubtedly tied by my clothing-salesman father); my mother's funeral, my grandmother's, my father's, my aunt's. I remember cousins, all younger than me, and know that in each family I'm related to by blood at least one cousin has died, sometimes two. There are later generations, of course, and thanks to Facebook I am often aware of those generations, can recognize them from their on-screen images, and vaguely know how my widowed aunts and step-grandmother are faring. We are now all widely scattered, and I physically see only my own children and grandchildren occasionally.
So, what am I doing here? The one constant in my existence—in everyone's—is the persistence of change across the passage of time. No matter who you are, no matter how interactive, how social, how engaged you might be with others, the heart of your circumstance is always solitary. The people who brought you into the world, the people who helped you adjust to living in it, the people you yourself brought into the world and the people they later brought into the world, the persons you may have partnered with throughout the passage of time—at base each and everyone of them is a single entity, a solitary being adjusting to who they are and to the constantly changing presence and/or absence of each entity they once interacted with.
Appreciating what you've gained across your time here is rewarding; accepting what you've lost is always challenging; recognizing the inevitability of losing everything you've gained, including yourself, is—eventually—unavoidable. Helping those who followed you to appreciate what they've gained and could still gain might help them better accept what they've lost when you and the generations before you are gone.