Not long ago was the seventh anniversary of the death of my dad and his wife. The day before, my husband asked me what my plans were. In previous years I’ve tried to get out for a hike, somewhere outdoors. Last year, toddler in tow, we header to an easy walk just out of town. But this year we’ve just come back from a weekend away in the wilderness, and I had work to do while my son was with the babysitter, final submissions to the MFA program, work on my manuscript, some work on my website. So it was a pretty normal day.

After Sam woke up from his nap, we went for a walk to the neighborhood center. It’s about a third of a mile, and it took forever. Sam looked at leaves, looked for snails in cracks and crevices (none to be found on a dry day), picked flowers, considered climbing trees, and located a strawberry ready for picking as we went by the park. We were on our way to Glassybaby, the neighborhood votive store that has become a sensation. Sam watched the glassblowers through a window and I picked out a candle. I’ve watched people pick out their votives before, and wondered why it took so long. Now I understood. Each votive, even within a type, is unique as each is blown by hand. I lit candle after candle even after I picked the color I wanted (or rather colors, since it seemed to hold so many colors!); looked at how the candle flame played inside each separate votive, looked at the swirls of the glass, the gradations of color. I went back and forth and finally picked one. It was important. This was to be our memory candle for my dad and Kathy, for Sam’s Papa and Nana.

P was working late, so Sam and I went out for dinner. I watched Sam draw on his napkin and eat pad thai, his face laughing easily and with the same mischievous twinkle his Papa had. We got ice cream (on a Monday!) and walked home. I lit the candle. I played the recording I have of my dad’s solo in St. Mary’s 1997 production of the Bach Magnificat, and showed Sam their pictures again. I gave Sam a bath, put him to bed. We read two books, sang a song, said the Lord’s Prayer and an extra prayer to God that he take care of Papa and Nana in heaven. We talked about how Papa and Nana look out for him. Then Sam went to sleep.

The candle was an idea a friend passed along several years ago, something traditional in the Jewish faith. Jews call it a yahrzeit candle, the yearly remembrance. Candles have special meaning, too; the flame is like the soul, flickering, growing, changing, and ultimately gone.

I had a thought that I’d be unhappy with how normally this day played out this year, that I should have done something more spectacular with it. I like the idea of ritual, of tradition, of something that keeps me grounded so I’m not, as Tevye says, as shaky as a fiddler on a roof. I like the idea of knowing what to do, of having started it right away, of continuing it forever. Of doing the right thing. But of the many lessons death teaches, one is that you cannot know what to do. And that it is ok. And that it is ok that it takes a year or seven to figure out the right answer.

But I think of what I loved most about my dad and Kathy and think that family was the most important thing to them. My dad would think it ridiculous to change our family’s schedule. But he would be touched to be honored. He deserves to be honored. And perhaps the very best way I can honor them anyway is to go on with our family’s life. And then to light a candle, listen to him sing, say a prayer. There is sacred in the profane and beauty in the quotidian. All wise people have known this, and for those of us less wise, we can live it, anyway. 

Polson’s memoir North of Hope will be released March 2013, exploring grief, the wilderness, music and family. Pre-order your copy today!

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