Oscar’s Gift

How Losing a Loved One Can Bring Healing to Others

On a warm December morning I made my way toward town, turning right on McCurdy road. My heart was heavy for my good friend who had recently lost her brother unexpectedly. His death was unfortunate not only because of his young age of 46 but also because of the nature of the cause, which could apparently strike anyone at anytime. Oscar had suffered from a brain aneurysm and stroke and, as many others who have experienced such things, he did not survive. I had already been working tirelessly to recover from the pain of so much illness and loss of the previous two years the heaviness of another beloved friend grieving such a loss pressed upon my heart like a needle pressing against a partially deflated balloon. If it pressed too hard it might burst. There have been far too many young people these days that have suffered a similar fate and far too many loved ones grieving loss.

I had hoped to arrive at least ten minutes ahead of time but, alas, I got to the building right at 10 AM. Little did I realize I would have such a hard time finding a place to park; I worried I might not make it to the service at all. Then, to top it off, I could not figure out how to get into the building. The building sitting underneath several leafless cottonwood trees was familiar to me. I had passed by this place many times both as a child and as an adult; it is not far from where I live. I had never been inside the “Mormon church” but once when I was a small child. The pastor back then had become a friend of my father’s; I am unsure why we were there but I do recall this man attempting to get my dad to abandon the Catholic Church for this one. It would obviously never happen.

Every Christian church I have ever visited, including non-Catholic, has a distinct and unmistakable entrance but this was different. Each entrance I chose seemed to be the wrong one until I realized the chapel, if that is what it is called, was not directly accessible from the outside.

As I was looking for a viable doorway my friend Marissa’s husband was walking out of what turned out to be the front side door of the room in which the services were being conducted and let me know there was a seat next to him and Marissa toward the front. He insisted I sit with them. I felt a bit awkward sitting right up front, first because the opening hymn was about over and Marissa’s sister would soon begin to recite the opening prayer and everyone would see that I was late but mostly because I never knew Oscar. I felt unworthy of a seat in front when I was not even an acquaintance of the deceased.

It would not be until the end of the service I would realize this too was meant to happen this way. Had I not been late I would have found an inconspicuous seat somewhere in the back where I would have been distracted by those sitting around me. I would not have been invited by Eric to sit up front next to him and my dear friend and I might not have paid such close attention to the words being said about Oscar; those touching words by the people who knew him and through whose eyes I met and became friends with Oscar, if just for a few precious moments.

In all honesty the Mormon Church has always been a great mystery to me, as if its customs might be so foreign as to not resemble Christianity at all. In truth, as I sat in that service, I felt comfortable and welcomed in every way. I did not feel like a stranger to a strange religion but a friend of a grieving family who wanted to share their home and their son, brother, and father with all who might receive him.

Oscar was the oldest of a large family of several brothers and sisters. After the opening prayer one brother spoke words about Oscar and, especially, spoke to Oscar’s children about his belief that their dad still lives and one day they would see him again. Next, his brother Dan, with whom I graduated from high school, gave the eulogy along with his own memories of Oscar and the vision of his brother through his own eyes. Both of these moments were touching but my soul did not begin to recognize its true purpose for being here until his children spoke.

Oscar has three children: two sons, both in their twenties, and a fifteen year old daughter. The daughter Mikayla, the first to speak, shared stories of several experiences she had with her father, mostly funny, in which I was able to see the bond that was woven so tightly like a rope of love anchoring him to the place where his young daughter existed. Through her eyes I saw the love of a daddy’s girl who truly enjoyed his company despite being that age where hanging out with friends tends to rule the day.

His two sons next spoke about the unique relationship they each had with their father. I was deeply touched by the recollection of the talks Andrew, the oldest, would have with his dad while driving around the large city of Phoenix, talks that would last for hours. I envisioned these moments as I heard him speak. I did not see traffic lights or signs up close but a beauty that can only be seen from a distance. The beauty of a city is unlike that which I see on a daily basis on the trail as I run or when we ride into the mountains on a summer day. Cities are not beautiful up close but from afar. I imagined a night sky with the city lights emanating an orange hue blanketing the city and him driving along a road from which this could be seen. I imagined his father on the other end of the phone discussing UFOs and things happening in his life, perhaps questioning the meaning of life and asking his son how things were going in his life. Peppered in the middle were several “I love yous” and always the “I love you” at the end of the conversation.

It was clear from the words spoken by all of Oscar’s children that he had a special relationship with each one and the love they had for their dad was palpable. The thing that penetrated my heart, more than anything, was the bond they seemed to have with each other. I looked at those young faces and felt many things. Having lost my own dad when I was only twenty-one and often wishing I could have had a relationship with him as an adult I hoped for these young people. My heart held many hopes in those moments but the greatest was the hope of gratitude for the time they had with him, which has been the greatest comfort of my own these past twenty-two years.

After the children were done speaking, two of Oscar’s best friends shared with the rest of us their memories of him as a friend. It seemed as the service progressed so did the pain of loss. Yet at the same time was a progression of joy. The irony of the whole thing still stumps me. Each person who shared memories elicited both laughter and sadness and as time passed within this service the emotions ran the gamut. Through these two friends I now saw someone other than a father or brother but a person who gave of himself freely in conversation, charity, and in friendship.

I began to think about my own friends and how they might feel about me. Am I being the best friend I could be? Do I give of myself as selflessly as Oscar gave to his friends? What words might my own friends say about me when I am gone? What if I left this world tomorrow, would I have touched people so much as to evoke the gamut of emotions? Would my life and the memories of me have the power to pierce the hearts of perfect strangers with a gentle hook and cord drawing out the emotion in them that I was feeling at that moment? An idea struck me like the proverbial light bulb going off in my brain. Why do we not honor our friends by speaking of them in this way while they are alive? Why do we wait until death to proclaim to the world how the people we love have touched our lives? I vowed at that moment to figure out a way to share with the world all of the amazing qualities of my best friends while they are still here to listen and know they are loved.

Before leaving to the services that morning, Marissa and I had a conversation about how she had originally intended on doing the eulogy but did not feel she could remain composed while speaking of Oscar’s life, as she had been distraught on so many levels. I was pleasantly surprised to find out she would be giving the closing remarks. I know she was concerned that she had been overcome by emotion at times while she spoke but it was during these moments of raw emotion when I saw and felt her love for her brother that Oscar’s gift really made its presence known to me.

As Marissa spoke of her older brother and the love she had for him I could not help but think of my own brother, from whom I have been estranged for over two years by now. I have felt the breadth of emotions that go along with estrangement, particularly when one feels she had no blame in the matter. It began with something I still feel was a silly misunderstanding and one that can only come from the depths of irrational insecurities but ultimately led to many hurtful words and actions, some of which might be irreparable.

My loyalty to my brother was strong and even though he allowed his wife to cut me out of the lives of his family, which I knew ultimately would mean his life as well I refused to betray his trust. As my oldest sister bounced in and out of the hospital toward the beginning of the estrangement I wished to salvage the relationship with my brother and hoped to shed some light on my interpretation of the situation by sending e-mails of explanation. It was a lesson I had to learn; for people can only see what they are ready to see, read what they are ready to read, and feel what they are ready to feel.

As I desperately tried to show my brother what I thought was really going on and why the things I believed to be such nonsense turned into such heartache, I was inadvertently driving a deeper wedge into the relationship between me and the one person in my life I had always counted on and who I had expected would always be there if I needed him. I held out hope for the relationship until my sister’s funeral and my attempts at repairing our broken relationship during the time of grief of her services were shunned in such a way that the final nail of the coffin in which our relationship was being laid to rest pierced the most tender spot in my heart creating a trauma I had never felt before and I hope to never feel again. Unbeknownst to me at the time this experience marked the first brick in the construction of a complex maze surrounding my heart. The maze consisted of twists and turns, some leading to pain, others to acceptance and then others to extreme anger.

There was one final ill-conceived attempt at reconstructing a bridge that had barely a smolder of ember in the several places it had been burned. There would be no beautiful Phoenix rising up out of the ashes of this bridge. Instead, this attempt did nothing more than help to pulverize the remaining rubble of a relationship haunted by assumptions, drama, and misunderstandings. The betrayal I felt was creating a canyon within my heart, which scraped at the beautiful landscape of a once-strong relationship between brother and sister. In my pain I refused to see my own reflection and instead retreated into one of those corridors in my heart for composure. As I began constructing a heavy armor around my heart and soul I vowed to never allow myself to be betrayed like this again. As sure as this shield began to form, my armor of loyalty began to erode.

During the time of the estrangement I have suffered loss and heartache like none other; the estrangement itself served as a reminder that family is not always love and we must seek out friends for comfort because, oftentimes, it is those who are supposed to love us the most and the most unconditionally that are actually the source of the deepest suffering of our lives. Sometimes the suffering stems from the love we have for our family, which presents itself in the grief of death or illness. Other times it stems from the betrayal by a brother who would fail to recall the good things in favor of dwelling on the bad to justify driving a dagger at a time when there should be only comfort and forgiveness. The moment I felt this energy from a person I loved so dearly and so much so as to refuse to see or acknowledge his faults over many years all I could think was that he hated me. My heart shattered into a million pieces while my psyche broke in two. It was at this moment that the loyalty ceased completely. For there could be no loyalty to a brother who could betray me so deeply at a time when I needed so much to know that love existed in the world. The horrific heaves of my sobs at losing not only one sibling but two will forever be imprinted in my mind and forever tucked away in that maze around my heart.

Or will it? As I sat there listening to my dear friend talk about her beloved brother and how close they were I couldn’t help but think of the closeness I once had with my own brother. It had been a couple of months now that my heart started feeling tired. So tired. The invisible hands that were turning white from the prying of anger’s stranglehold on my heart were becoming weak, as the anger was slowly dissipating. It has been a battle for sure.

My mother had inserted herself into the situation, which just drove me apart from her, especially since she seemed to expect that I could fix it somehow. How does one fix a relationship from which she was banished, especially when she, herself, is broken? What does she do, crawl on her hands and knees and beg to be “un-cut”? Is she supposed to forget who she is altogether and promise to be someone she is not so she might never be cut again? For it was ultimately her personality for which she was expected to apologize that apparently triggered the entire nightmare. And she actually did apologize for who she is, which only made her feel worse about the whole thing. So, no, the “fix” my mother expected of me would be nothing more than a weak Band-Aid even if I were willing to compromise myself for the conditional love of a brother.

Still, even though I had written off an entire family — my brother’s — because I just couldn’t bear the pain of all I had endured I eventually came to realize the estrangement is unsustainable. Something has to give. The question became, “is it my responsibility?” Even as I write this I physically feel the remnants of the trauma in my heart. Will it return to its steady cadence and normalize once this is resolved? Can it be resolved? So many questions. Believe it or not many of these questions, the history, both good and bad, and the love, especially the love, all presented themselves as a montage in my mind as I sat there becoming friends with Oscar through the eyes of his siblings, children, and friends.

By the time Marissa was nearing the end of her closing remarks her tears had become my tears. Her brother had become my brother. I did not hold back my tears; I just let them flow as naturally as the spring waters run off the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I did not care if I never knew Oscar personally and that it was altogether irrational for me to mourn a stranger in this way. All that mattered was that Oscar’s life was remembered and that he was obviously an incredible person. The only thing left was to make sure his death had not been in vain.

As I sat there drowning in my own regret and sadness I thought about the conversation I had with Marissa the night before. I am the type of person that believes everything happens for a reason and that death is just a part of life. When someone tells me, “it was just his time”, I believe it and agree. But not everyone sees it this way and telling someone who has just lost a loved one something like this is not always helpful. What can comfort someone when they have lost someone so dear to them, especially when they had precious little time to prepare? I don’t have those answers but I do know that we all want to know our loved one’s life meant something and his death had meaning. For me, Oscar gave me a gift that I could never possibly repay and I can only hope that when my time comes I am able to give someone a similar gift.

Earlier this year my friend Chloe wrote a book about being raised off the grid in the mountains of Lindrith. A central theme of the book was her closeness with her family and the love of her brothers and sister. As I read the book I felt a longing for that closeness with family that we once had. I made a decision a couple of months ago that our family has to heal, all of it. Ever since my dad passed away in 1995 I saw the tightly woven fabric of our family beginning to fray. Even then there were breaches forming around the edges and even toward the center. Brother started arguing with brother, sister with brother, and sister with sister, and even nephew with uncle. Despite some of them already having been estranged from one another I managed to stay close with all of my siblings until just a few years ago when another brother and I had a bit of a falling out. That one did not last long, thankfully, as even though he is one of the most stubborn people I know he is also one of the most forgiving and, it turns out, thoughtful.

Every year for the past several Christmases, until everything went to pot, I tried to give all my siblings a meaningful gift, something from the heart. One year I framed a photo of my dad overlain upon an image of his favorite place in the mountains with the poem written by my sister just after his death. Other years I have given books written by relatives or artwork done by yours truly, however amateur. For the past two years Christmas has been strained all the way around. This year I was drawn to The Soulful Child: Twelve Years In The Wilderness, my friend Chloe’s book, as a gift not only to rekindle my joy in giving something meaningful to the people I have always loved the most, but also to hope beyond hope for healing of the family I once knew.

I asked Chloe to sign each book in a special way, knowing at least a small portion of my story, the need, and my desire for healing. As I wrapped each book I included with it my utmost intention and desire for forgiveness, love and understanding. I have not yet given my estranged brother his book. I could not give it alone, with no explanation or words. Something more was needed; a peek into my heart and mind. How I would do this was beyond me. If I was to write something I needed inspiration; the desire for healing alone was not enough. For me to open my heart and write I need something deeper, something more personal, something precious.

That something came unexpectedly, in the form of a Mormon service for a man I never met but who was surrounded by love not only in life but also especially in death and indeed it was the love of family. It was the inspiration I needed to write something which must be included with the gift to my brother. It is a hope beyond hope for healing. It is the knowledge that life is fragile and short and all that matters is love. Love and forgiveness is all we are meant to be. Yes, resolution requires more than a simple gift and I know there must be some form of reckoning of my part, but a simple gift is a start.

During her closing remarks Marissa talked about two things she found among Oscar’s possessions shortly after he died, one of which she had shown me the night before. Just before she had shown it to me Marissa was trying to make sense of the whole thing. It was difficult to find words of comfort but then she showed me this thing he had written and kept nearby, likely as a daily reminder to himself. It is a bulleted list of questions he asked and answered. It says:

· What am I supposed to do? Work hard & be a great example

· Where am I supposed to go? Home

· Who am I supposed to be with? Among those who love me

· How am I supposed to get there? Effort and desire

· Why am I here? To change my world

· When will I know the truth? It’s in front of my face…now!!

These are my questions about life…

…and the answers

I read this and thought, “Here it is. This is how you find peace in his death”. I have my own interpretation of these words and I leave it to you, the reader, to interpret it in your way. But I know you will find comfort in these words whether you knew him or not.

Final Note: When I saw the paper with Oscar’s questions and answers I thought, “Wow he had nice writing!” When Marissa shared it with those attending the service she brought this up as well and said he always had great writing and that it should become a Microsoft font, called the “Oscar” font. I agree.

Here’s to you, Oscar. I wish I had met you but I got to know you for a bit through the eyes of the people who love you so deeply. Thank you for your gift. If it does not ultimately bring healing to my family, know that it is bringing healing to my own heart. Rest in peace.

In Loving Memory of Oscar Salgado Jr., 1971–2017

©2017 Marcie Martinez, All Rights Reserved