She is mischievous. She is generous. She has a laugh that makes me laugh. Man, what an awesome laugh! Ha! I’m actually laughing now to think of it. There is a radiance to her that can fill a room. Her luminous red hair is indicative of her fiery personality. She is always the coolest, the most popular, the most beloved, but rarely puts on any airs about it and remains gracious and benevolent to those who seek out her attentions. She has the sort of sass (inherited from her mother I suppose) that often makes you feel as though she was gently teasing you while simultaneously embracing you with both arms and whole heart.
She would not mind my saying that she has inherited the stubbornness of Langston clan. She’d be okay with my telling you that she was my closest cousin. She would not mind my mentioning that she reminds me of the wife in the show Friday Night Lights. She would not mind terribly (hopefully!) my mentioning how we used to torment our Sunday School Teachers. Oh man!
We were maybe ten or so and our teachers were Betty George and Frank Reynolds. Tish would, with my encouragement, lay into them with a litany of questions.
“So what’s the deal with Dinosaurs?”
“Okay, if God knows everything, didn’t he know that Eve would eat the fruit?”
“If people in parts of the world who have never heard of Jesus die, do they go to Hell to suffer forever?”
“Well, Jesus made water into wine so what’s so wrong about drinking?”
“Did they really think that Heaven was in the clouds?”
And on and on. Plus, she was the Pastor’s daughter, the Pastor being my dad’s brother Norm. It must be awfully hard to be a Sunday School teacher sometimes.
She became a bit of a sorority girl (which is fine) and I took on the mantle of dark, brooding, outsider poet. I was an ARTIST! Ha! But at the Valley Movie Theater, the first job for both of us, she would pepper me with questions about what it’s like to go to poetry readings in the city. She would make me recite my (very questionable) poetry. She would laugh and clap her hands and say “Atta boy,” in her sassy way that made me feel as though she was both poking fun at me and embracing my newfound passion.
In my sophomore year in college, I was in the midst of planning a big arts festival. My friends and I had worked on it for a year and raised up thousands of dollars to rent a huge theater for a couple days. On the first day of the festival, June 7th in fact, my dad called me up and he was crying on the phone. Keep in mind, I’ve only known my Dad to cry two or three times in my whole life. The sound of his broken voice turned me inside out.
Dad explained that, while driving to the airport early in the morning to fly to Romania, Tish had been in a car accident and had been killed. The reports people make about “the rest of the world growing small” or “the ground falling out from your feet” or “everything becoming quiet” are all very accurate. The whole universe telescoped in on the sound of my father’s voice, full of tears. My mom came on the line and sobbed. My aunt Susie and my uncle Norm were not put together enough to talk on the phone. The rug had been pulled out from under their entire lives.
The next days passed like a bad dream. I stayed at the festival, even performed, but everything seemed so far away. When people spoke to me, their voices seemed muted. The whole world was under water.
My aunt Susie and uncle Norm had to go identify her body. That pain, that anguish, completely overwhelms my reckoning. I can imagine many things but the excruciation of losing a child is beyond me. Strangely, my aunt experienced a small relief when she saw Tish’s body. “Oh,” she said, “That’s not Tish.” She knew instinctively that this broken vessel was not her daughter.
As a Pastor, my uncle Norm is familiar with death, having performed hundreds of funerals. He even performed the service for his own father, my grandpa Tom. I wasn’t there but my dad told me what stuck with him most. “I remember Norm speaking about how people, while they live, are gifts to us, that it was a gift that he got to know Dad.”
But on the morning of Tish’s funeral, he was a complete wreck, a bereaved and broken mess. What father, who had lost a daughter, wouldn’t be? Even an inkling of that heartbreak brings tears into my eyes. He had another Pastor buddy on stand-by to step in at a moment’s notice if Norm couldn’t keep it together.
Through some enormous inner strength, some divine inspiration, uncle Norm steadied himself, dressed himself in his Sunday bests and arrived at the church, Bible in hand. The more that I consider this spiritual fortitude, the more miraculous it seems to me.
The church was overflowing with mourners. They had to put speakers outside so that the crowds standing out there could hear. There were so many to whom my beloved cousin was a gift.
After some hymns, I read a poem. There were prayers. And then uncle Norm stood up before that vast congregation. He told us about a book Tish had written as a little girl. It was a book of questions she had written. The questions were about what her life would be like.
A picture of her as a little girl flashed on the screen.
“Daddy,” he read, “Will I have lots of friends?”
As he answered, picture after picture of Tish with her friends were projected on the screen. “Yes baby,” he said, “You will have lots of friends.
More pictures of her as a little girl were projected.
Little Tish: “Daddy, will boys like me?”
Pictures of her with all her boyfriends.
“Yes honey, there will be a lot of boys who love you.”
One by one, he answered each of his baby girl’s questions about what her life would be like. The entire congregation wept audibly. For some reason, the tears of her brother Paul effected me most deeply. He has such a big heart.
Another of Norm’s funeral services springs to mind. It was for a girl in our church (who was very pretty and for whom I had a big crush) who had succumbed to suicide. Uncle Norm said something at her service that I will never forget.
“The grief that you feel right now is good. It carves out a deep, empty hole in your heart. But that empty hole in your heart is your cup. This is your capacity for joy! So when you grieve, grieve deeply.”
Uncle Norm has a penchant for awful puns, is a pretty decent tennis player, laughs easily at parties and is a good husband, father and grandfather. He is also a very wise and thoughtful spiritual leader. I didn’t know how deeply his beliefs ran until that day he lead the funeral for his own daughter. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
Afterall, it’s one thing to stand up in front of a bunch of people each Sunday morning and say that Heaven is real and that there is, literally, such a thing as everlasting life. It’s quite another thing to say it about your own flesh and blood.
With this blog, I may sometimes give off the impression that I know a thing or two about death, as though I’m an expert or I understand more about it than you. I hope not. I am as small and as clueless and as helpless as you and most likely more so. I have never been in a war to see thousands die at a time. I have never known someone on death row. I have never had a spouse die. I have never had a child die. I have not seen the slow progression of my best friends passing away. But, so far, Tish is the closest person to me that has gone on.
It was a little more than ten years ago when she died. I started this project partly in response to that dark anniversary. So! I dedicate all of these entries, past and future, to the memory of my beautiful cousin Tish. The entirety of these scribblings are a thanksgiving for the gift of having known her.
And now, I address my beloved dead:
Tish, I so wish I had known you even more. I wish I knew more about your inner life. I wish we had spent more time laughing. Hopefully, my regret for wasted chances will open my eyes to the opportunity I have to enjoy my friends and family now. I just should have randomly called you up more often for no reason.
I wish you could have met my wife. You two would have gotten on famously. I wish you could see our house and hang out with our friends in New York. I wish you could have met your niece, you brother Paul’s daughter, Gracie Tish Langston. She’s so beautiful. She’s just so insanely beautiful. I miss you so much Tish. I miss you. I miss you. I wish I could hear your voice again.
Wherever you are, whatever you are, whoever you are now, I miss your laugh so much! And thank you. Thank you! For having let me hear it ringing out in the first place!