The place next to me is empty. The passenger seat in the car. The chair at the kitchen table. The place next to me in bed. Margaret, my wife for 52 years, was always there, through the rough times and good times. We built a family: a son and daughter, their spouses and children–our grandchildren and great grandchildren. We laughed together. And we cried, burying parents and Margaret’s sisters over the years.
I am not alone right now. Gratefully I have family and friends, a significant other, a creative partner in writing and developing programs for grandparents. Yet at times I still feel alone. And I wonder, “why the empty feeling?”
Margaret is always with me.
What I’ve come to realize, when you have loved and spent a life with someone, their influence on who you are and what you do does not end with their passing. What you gain from the relationship that you’ve had with your spouse lives on through all that you continue to achieve.
What does this mean?
What a great opportunity I have to figure out this mystery in my life and find peace, if that is what I want. It’s like solving an emotional and intellectual life puzzle—figuring out how to go on after loss. How does one’s legacy live on in you, after you have lived with them and loved them?
I honor Margaret with a strong, close family and by engaging with the world.
What is not empty is the contribution Margaret and I made to each other in life, in love, creativity and passion (both literal and figurative), and our commitment to each other. I realize that I can still create ideas and help people grow in service to themselves and their families. Right now 45 grandparents are participating in a story writing program I created with JCC Chicago. I wrote a book The Grandest Love.
In fact, I started the book right after Margaret died in 2003. It was therapeutic—I used writing and writing the book to process my grief and put words around legacy and how you’re remembered. While the book helps teach grandparents how to create their own legacy, it has a lot to do with remembering her.
From Margaret I learned creativity. She was full of desire to paint and make quilts and teach games to the kids and grandkids. I saw how and what she taught…you don’t get angry because you lose; You keep going—sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. She made me look at problem solving differently.
We built a life together.
I think of our early years together, when our children were young. That taught me so much about give and take in relationships and honoring each other’s dream. I worked four nights a week at the Max Strauss Center in Albany Park, the job that launched my path to running Camp Chi and ultimately leading JCC Chicago. I only made $2,800 a year. Rather than complaining—Margaret knew camping was my dream—she got a job as a secretary in the mornings to help. We were a great tag team. When she got home from work at noon, the kids were clean and had eaten lunch—fried fish was my specialty. There was a quick pass-off as I flew out the door and headed north from our tiny two-bedroom townhouse in Jeffrey Manor to get to my work, not getting back home again until after 10.
We built a life of excitement, wonder and creativity together, enjoying each other’s intellect. And, we didn’t “poopoo” or weren’t critical of each other. We tried to teach each other what life looked like from our own perspective. We invited each other to come inside and understand and appreciate it.
Even in her physical absence she is still part of me—the lessons we learned from each other, the family we built together.
And that’s what powers me now.
I have come to accept the fact that I can still create and grow on a powerful level. I can feel the sadness of the empty chair at the kitchen table, the empty passenger seat in the car, and the empty side of the bed. Rather than getting stuck in the sadness you can choose to reflect on the strengths and on what you still have. Life is worth living. You can still contribute to yourself and others.
And I know that Margaret is in my heart, cheering me, urging me to go on.