I received an email one day from a parent in my daughter’s class. She is grieving for a family member and stated how it’s never something you think you will have to deal with until it comes and then . . . well . . . everyone handles it differently, in their own way.
As for me, I shut down. For a good long while I functioned, but getting up in the morning- in the first days, simply standing up from the couch because I couldn’t bring myself to go to bed – I couldn’t tell you too many decisions that I made in those first horrific days after. It took a good deal of effort to remind myself to breathe in and out and to force feed the food. I only just now, more than a year after losing my wife, Andrea, can eat lasagna because we had so much of the oven-baked Italian food.
There are a few things that I can tell you happened. In those first hours, days, weeks even, you have certain people who you absolutely want and need to talk with. My sister-in-law, my parents, of course, Andrea’s best friend (now one of mine, one of my dearest friends from Dallas who I’ve adopted as my baby sister, even though she’s not much younger than me; those are the people whose emotions and tears helped me understand that I was feeling so much pain. It took me awhile, but I came to the conclusion that it was okay to let it hurt for awhile. In those days, with those people, I wanted to hurt.
But there were the others, people who I know wanted to speak or talk and I couldn’t. In the wake of losing someone you just cannot take the time to talk to everyone. It isn’t easy’ it’s horrible, in fact. Some are sincere and longing to help you and that’s an amazing thing to see, but you cannot bear to even deal with them. There are others who are so hurt themselves they call you because they simply want you to make them feel better.
The thing about all those days is the fact that you already feel the pain and emotion and angst every second of the day, and for me it was every second of about three or four straight days with no sleep. I couldn’t. Every person who called wanted to know what happened, how it happened, how I was, what the kids said, how they’re handling it, all of that. Every call took me back into that hospital and carried me into the room and made me hear her ribs crack, the doctor tell me to make a decision of whether she lived or died and the world turn black all over again. At a certain point I quit answering the phone.
But here’s the memory the aforementioned email sparked. The day Andrea died our parish pastor, a monsignor in our Catholic church took the time to come straight to my house. He runs our parish. He isn’t a man with just a few things on his plate, he is insanely busy, hard working, intense, and he took the time to come over to our house, just to make sure we were okay. With him was the principal of our school. She looked as distraught as the rest of us; she’d only been principal for a short time and here she was dealing the the loss of three students’ parent. She brought stacks and stacks of sympathy cards, all homemade by the students, in every grade. Andrea, you see, had volunteered at the school and had talked with nearly every grade; she did health fairs as a pharmacist, did lice searches, strep tests, flu shots, all of it. The principal talked to the teachers and to a grade they made the cards whether they knew us or not. But so many already knew my wife it was almost heartbreakingly lovely to see the thoughts poured out with construction paper and crayon.
The biggest two things, though, and this really did make me – a pseudo-strong, bullheaded, stubborn Midwestern man – cry. Hannah had just gone back to school as did the rest of the kids. So much time had passed that I had missed a tuition payment or more. I went to the school and they informed me, “Oh, your tuition is paid through the rest of the year.” I couldn’t fathom how, thinking they’d forgone it (which the parish couldn’t afford) or that some scholarship had come through. I knew we were in trouble, I’d lost Andrea’s income. At this point I’d also been told that my salary was being cut by more than 1/3. I must have looked totally perplexed because the principal came out and said, “I was told to tell you your tuition was paid by your graduating class of St. Mary’s High School.” My high-school graduating class. Some of these people I’d not spoken with in years, maybe some since high school itself, but our story was passed to them, and it was paid. I walked out in silence, totally thankful and totally bowled over by the kindness.
That same week, Hannah, my middle daughter, came home, excited, happy, and tearful like I hadn’t seen her in that first few weeks. Her class had been working on a project that whole time we were trying to figure out how to live. The class had been studying Japanese culture and in particular the story of Sadako Sasaki. This little girl had been exposed to radiation from the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. She started working on her own project – the Japanese tradition of making 1,000 paper origami cranes in the hopes it would grant her wish. She never finished it, passing away before it was done, but her friends completed the task and put them in her grave with her. Hannah’s class, studying that tradition, had started the origami thinking they would give them to a family or a shelter for someone who needed their spirits lifted. The kids were in the middle of the project when Andrea died. It was those kids who came to their teacher and said they wanted to finish the task as quickly as they could and give the cranes . . . to us.
So here’s the thing: when Hannah came home she had a big, clear tube, decorated dazzlingly beautiful as only 6th graders could do, with a thousand beautifully colored and neatly folded cranes. They also made a portrait, stringing the cranes together to make a picture with hope, love, grace, all those amazing words in them. The day Hannah brought those cranes home, I can honestly say I was at my lowest. I had lost my wife, was losing my home, was losing my job, more or less, and I saw no hope. Even my Mom, a woman with a strong faith found herself looking at the sky saying, “I know you probably have a plan, but how much more can he take, really?” We took the story they sent with the cranes, and in the skeptical fashion only my depression could have mustered said, “What can it hurt, really?”
We made our wish. It wasn’t something impossible or supernatural. “Please help us find a home and a way for us to stay here in California.” That was it. With the salary I was about to have we couldn’t survive in California. I honestly didn’t see a way out, we were within a day of packing up the truck and moving to my hometown in Nebraska.
So did it work? You tell me. That same week, we found out the kids could get Social Security from Andrea’s years as a pharmacist – a decent amount for each child. A property management company I’d talked with before the changes in work contacted me and said they had a home, the owner would work with me and my credit or other issues. I could move in as soon as the paint was dry, if I liked it, and the rent was in my budget range. I had put out feelers for a new job. Within days of the wish the man who is now my current boss called me and offered me a job doing the thing I love and went to school for. We were able to stay in California, we had a home, I had an amazing job, and we are able to survive.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we’re wealthy. We still struggle, things aren’t rosy all the time. But a kindness – the thoughts of young children, the generosity of those who grew up as children with me, lifted me out of a hole. You have no idea what that meant to me. It may have been a little thing to them, or maybe they sacrificed for it as well, but I felt it. It literally was like we were lifted up by a thousand cranes. That lift, something probably so simple to all those people, was one of the most important moments in our lives.
The cranes are in the living room, in a prominent place. The enclosure holding all 1,000 and the framed picture there when I walk in every night. Even today I look in there and see them, and I feel myself lifted . . . just a little higher.
So my challenge to you is this: Do you lift up like those cranes? When you get the email or request asking to help with meals for a sick family are you too busy or do you make extra food to feed them? It’s somehow fitting that the best way to live came from some 11-year-olds. These kids had no reason to help us, at least not many of them, but they did, without question. What are you doing to lift others up?
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Dave Manoucheri is a writer and journalist based in Sacramento, California. A father of four, two daughters and twin sons, his blog, Our Story Begins is a chronicle of their daily life after the loss of his wife Andrea, in March of 2011. Follow him on Twitter @InvProducerMan.