Presence. A personal experience story by Karen Burkland
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Wednesday, March 09, 2016
By David Peters
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We were afraid to be alone - my mother, my sister, and I. My father had just passed away; dropped dead from a sudden massive heart attack at the age of 48. My mother was 44, my sister was 18, and I was 14. It happened at a nearby high school where my sister and my dad were taking an evening Parks & Rec fencing class once a week for fun. My dad had been athletic, energetic, health conscious, and fit. All regular check ups, diagnostic tests, and stress tests had come back clean not long ago, and yet, this had just happened. In a split second, our lives were irrevocably changed, and we were somehow thrown into a whirling storm of shock, disbelief, and grief that no one had known to plan for.

The first week after was chaos. The phone was ringing off the hook. There was call after call from the hospital, from doctors, from relatives, from friends, from neighbors, from former coworkers, from potential funeral homes, from florists, from the coroner's office, from the cemetery, from the gravestone carving place, from take out restaurants to feed all the visitors streaming in and out of our house, ... Our home was command central for what was like the opposite of a last-minute surprise wedding that had to be thrown together and pulled off in less than a week.

The second week after, it was silent. There was nothing else to do - no more plans to be made, no one else to call and notify, no one to else to console and restate "We don't really understand what happened. He seemed to be so healthy." The house was quiet, and we sat there in a trance, still disbelieving and not really knowing if we should break the silence, cry together, or just lie alone in our beds staring at the ceiling, wondering what the others were doing in other parts of the house. Even though it was just 1 person that had left our presence, the entire house seemed empty. The silence was deafening.

Then there was a tap at the door. It was my aunt. She just quietly came into our house and joined us in sitting around and doing nothing. We ate in a trance, slept whenever, and roamed aimlessly through the house. My aunt washed dishes, folded clothes, read magazines on the couch. When my aunt had to go, my uncle came over. After school hours, my cousins came over and did their homework at our place. And then my aunt came back, sometimes with a different aunt, sometimes with a different uncle, sometimes with my grandma. Slowly, we noticed that our extended family had somehow arranged their schedules and created shifts to make sure that the 3 of us, my mom, my sister and I, were never alone in our house over the next two weeks. Someone was always there when we fell asleep, and sometimes, a different someone was there when we woke up in the morning. Long before, we had already stopped thanking them for coming by to check in on us, because we had said it a million times already. It was ok; they already knew we were so so grateful to have their support and their presence. Their presence was worth 1000 times more than anything else they could have given to us.

Over the next few weeks, my sister and I started having to go back to school again, and my mom went back to work again. Somehow, a new normalcy emerged, and coming back to a sometimes-empty home became bearable again. 21 years later now, it is still painful to write about it. I will never never say that I am glad that it happened, but it did serve as an opportunity to observe that in times of darkness, love finds a way. Even now, I constantly dread with great fear when bad things happen. But I do know now that family will always be there, and I will be there for them.

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Tags: love, presence