Familiar Stranger



As I was packing for a short weekend trip, I had a momentary thought–a rushed decision, but a decision nonetheless.  This time I wouldn’t bring the small photo I have of Steve that sits on my bedside table.

In this image he’s crouching down, cooking on our little mini Hibachi grill: the cheap, heavy rectangular black one we had in our no frills grad school years.  It was a very good evening, as some of our best friends were coming over for dinner.  I’m sure we were all looking forward to a relaxed Saturday night of companionship, food and conversation.

I have only a few shots of Steve where his expression is this open and at ease.  (He had a well-known reputation in the family for being highly photo-phobic.  We always knew there couldn’t be any dramatic build up to photos, with long waits for the photographer to pose and prepare his subjects.  Oh no–they had to use all stealth and speed.)

Steve loved being the one behind the lens, capturing beauty and highlighting his subjects’ finest qualities as he coaxed their images to the surface in his dark room.  But when it came time for him to be the subject, well…there was only one word for it: “agony.”

So the rare, relatively transparent expression I see in this small photo is one of my favorites.  In fact, I have taken it (“transitional object”-style) on every trip, big or small, since he went missing.  And it’s brought me comfort.  Steve on the bedside table in the cabins at the search.  (He had many visits there.)  Steve in the comfy guest rooms of our friends in Washington State and later in Virginia.  Steve on college scouting trips to Southern California where I propped him up in hotels.  He even went all the way to Alaska with us.  (He would have SO loved it there–both the company and the scenery!)

But this time, I started to pick up the frame and found myself setting it back down again.

I may decide to take him with me again someday.  But for this time, the need that had been fueling this behavior seemed very quiet.  So I just let it sleep.  Seemed right somehow…

So did it mean that I wouldn’t miss him at our little seaside getaway?  No.  I did miss him.  When I felt the cool, fresh-smelling sea air in the morning, I missed the simple pleasure of standing alongside him and breathing in…quietly appreciating the same perfect experience together.  I missed him later at the beach, as I watched a few brave dads play in the chilly water with their kids.  (He was one of those kinds of dads.)  I missed him as we celebrated my mom’s 85th birthday at a restaurant with wonderful food and the good company of my sister and daughter.  But there was no familiar, grounding male presence at the table.  No Steve.  (So strange when he’d been there for so many other celebrations over the years.)

This missing, though, was somehow in a different color, density, and level of intensity than it has been since he died.  “Longing” would have been too strong a word this time.  Because while longing takes a sharp cork screw and burrows straight into the core of your chest, the kind of “missing” I’ve been feeling lately is a much gentler, less violent emotion.  It comes alongside, almost like a familiar stranger coming to sit next to you on a park bench.  You are aware, affected, yet not overwhelmed by their presence.

I don’t imagine I’ve experienced the last of the “longing.”  But for now, this is how it is.   And Steve will continue to sit on my bedside table here at home, a witness to my attempts at healing, as I write my way through these seasons.