NOTIONS: It’s crazy, but I’m still thankful after all these tears

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It’s a Saturday night in late October. I am at ease, in the arms of a woman, among 700 swaying souls. We’re at a place called the Music Mill. We arrived a few hours ago with six friends, only two of whom I knew just seven months before. (You must forgive me, for I still measure time from March 5, the day my wife, Pam, died and my world shattered and started anew.) Amos Lee, a young singer-songwriter, is at the mike. He’s backed by a small band-a drummer, a bass player/keyboardist and a guitarist. And like the old Roberta Flack tune, he’s “strummin’ my pain with his fingers, singin’ my life with his words.” “Oh, Black River,” Lee sings, “Gonna take my cares away. Whoa, Black River, gonna take my cares away.”

You’re gonna take my bottle, my bible, my mess You’re gonna take all of my empty and my loneliness Gonna take all of that sadness inside of me Gonna take it all and set me free Oh, Black River, gonna take my cares away

Had you told me, ‘midst the black river of my death March, that I could find cause for gratitude this Thanksgiving, I’d have scoffed. But the universe, or the stars, or God (if you will), has a way of making life worth living even as destiny tolls the darkest hour.

And so I am thankful.

In the introduction to his classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Harold S. Kushner quotes 19thcentury rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov as saying “Human beings are God’s language.”

“That is,” Kushner says, “When we cry out to God in our anguish, God responds by sending us people. Doctors and nurses work tirelessly to make us whole. Friends come and sit with us, hold our hands without speaking, without trying to explain away our suffering or diminish it by telling us of other people who have it worse. And though we do not know it, that is exactly what we need: the reassurance that we are not alone and that we are people worth caring about.”

In this mourning of my life, I’ve been blessed with people: My two sons, who share my sorrow, and who’ve provided, above all others, cause to carry on. My colleagues, who kept our company running despite their loss of a leader and mine of a love. The generous spirits who gave of themselves in memory of Pam. The few who continued to call and issue invitations long after the mass of mourners had moved on. And the one who’s been there, in the lonely, dark places, when the words needed saying, and the tears needed flowing, and my spirit cried out, “Please, please someone hold me.” Hustling through the hubbub of the mundane, it’s easy to take for granted the humanity that’s happened-by birth or choice, randomness or design-upon our lives. Then we scrape the bottom of the barrel and little else matters. Amos Lee is singing again:

I’m in love with a girl who’s in love with the world Though I can’t help but follow Though I know someday she is bound to go away and stay over the rainbow Got to learn how to let her go Over the rainbow But sometimes we forget who we got Who they are and who they are not There is so much more in love than black and white Keep it loose child You gotta keep tight

For too many decades, owing to excessive fear of failure and sense of obligation, I’ve kept it too tight. I’m trying to keep it loose now-really, I am. A few months ago, my grief counselor told me about an angry patient of his who was quick to blame others for his troubles. One day, the angry man, selfabsorbed as always, ran a stop sign and caused an accident. Accustomed as he was to ire and fault, he expected a tirade. Instead, the other driver calmly emerged from his car, approached the angry man, asked if he was OK, and expressed compassion for how badly he must have felt to have caused the collision.

“That accident had to happen,” my counselor told his patient, “so you could learn there’s another way to be.”

I hope I someday would have learned, without losing Pam, that there are other ways to be. And I’m not, nor ever will be, grateful for having lost her. But I’m grateful to have learned all I have from her death, to have collided with some wise teachers who’ve opened my eyes to new realities, and to have heard Amos Lee sing:

I keep on laughing to keep from crying I keep on dreaming to keep from dying

I keep on trying

Ain’t gonna stop

Get right down to the bottom of

the barrel

And then you float back on top.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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