On the death of a friend: A letter written after reading Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum

September 6, 2013

To the F. Family,

I’ve had at least 10 people recommend Behind the Scenes at the Museum to me in the course of my adult life. I was told it was funny, it was a great first novel, it was interesting. It is indeed all those things, but no one ever told me it was also tragic. No one said, “Terrible things happen to all the family members in this book.” Someone should have said that. Because then I would have been prepared for what happened when I finished the book. Because then all those feelings from so many years ago came rushing back.

When I reminisce about your family, that quote from Leo Tolstoy always comes to mind: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And I think that your family has always been the unhappiest I know, and always because of reasons beyond your control.

It’s been 22 years since John died. When I think of that time – going into my last year of high school – the school year should have started differently. It should have started with wonder and joy. Instead it started with a funeral that devastated all of my close friends. But it devastated you more. You lost a son, a brother, a nephew, a grandson. And eventually, I moved on with my life remembering John, but not having to live with his death every day as a family does. Not having to count missed milestones. Not having to think of what might have been.

You don’t know this, but the day he died, the day before I found out about his death, L. M. and I were out on the lake at my cottage, pretending to catch fish, but mostly smoking cigarettes and shooting the shit. When we looked around we could see a wall of rain coming across the lake, about a mile away, heading straight for us. We gunned the motor, but didn’t stand a chance. By the time we made it back to shore, we were drenched. I remember how surprised we were about the random rain because there had been no sign, and then only a few minutes later the sky cleared and it was as if it never happened. Except, the next day when I got home and the message on the machine said John had died after being knocked unconscious in a totally random jet ski accident, it had happened at the exact same time as that rain storm. It sent shivers up my spine.

And then, you had to lose his sister only a few years later to a debillitating illness.

And then in the fall of 2009, Evan died from the H1N1 virus, a loss that also pushed you into the media spotlight to share your loss with the entire country. He was 13 years old. At the funeral there were so many young people mourning the loss of their schoolmate, hockey team member and family member. And I was immediately transported back to the funeral for John. Both boys lost way too young without reason. They weren’t goofing off. They were just unfortunate accidents that became statistical numbers. To others. Not to you.

How is it that so much tragedy has come to your family, and missed so many others. Someone once said that we are only given what we can handle, and in my moments of personal despair, I realize that you are all much stronger than I am, MUST be stronger, to have suffered and survived so much.

My thoughts are with you always.

Libby

 

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