Chick Wit: An empty seat at the Thanksgiving table

Posted: November 20, 2011

This Thanksgiving will be wonderful in some ways and sad in others. On a holiday that's all about food, this one will taste bittersweet.

Because we just lost our friend and neighbor Harry. He died the other day at 90, in his home, next door.

I was out of town when it happened, though when I came back, I noticed that his light wasn't on at night - usually a warm yellow glow through the dark branches of the trees, jagged and bare now, like black lightning.

His house was dark, and I suppose it should have tipped me off that he had passed, but it didn't, which is the paradox of death. It always comes as a surprise, even when it's expected. The shock arises from its very gravity.

I felt that way about my father's passing, 10 years ago. I knew and I didn't know, both at once. I was completely prepared, and I wasn't prepared at all.

I still feel that way.

Harry didn't look well at his last birthday, when Francesca and I went over, bringing him a gift sweater we knew he'd never wear because he loved his old cardigan. It was only a few months ago, but his sharp blue eyes had lost a little focus, as if his brain had loosened the reins. He was using a walker for the first time, this man who used to stride two miles around the block at a clip, tall and upright, waving a handkerchief at passing cars - as a warning, not a surrender.

Never a surrender.

Harry had no wife or children, but lived alone and liked it, signing his e-mail Harry the Hermit. He had his ham radio license and kept in touch with friends all over the world. Francesca wrote a column about him a few years ago, and the three of us celebrated Thanksgiving together, for as long as I can remember. She called him her honorary grandfather, which he loved, his thin skin flushing with pride.

Harry was a delight to have at a holiday dinner, a former engineer whose conversation was peppered with references to politics, nature, and an ancient tabby cat he adored, named Spunky. Francesca and I used to worry about how Harry would survive when Spunky died, but it turns out he didn't have to, and that's bitter and sweet, too.

Francesca cried when I told her the news over the phone, and we both talked about how we can't imagine being at the table without him. We remembered the Thanksgiving we tried to fix him up with Mother Mary, and how my mother broke the conversational ice:

"So, Harry, how many times do you go to the bathroom at night?"

Harry answered, "Mary, more times than I can count."

He never missed a beat, either.

We'll miss him for that, and for so many more reasons, and we're both feeling sad, and happy, and, well, bittersweet.

But we'll give special thanks for having known Harry, and for having him as long as we did.

Life is all the more precious because it doesn't last forever. We learn that over time, and not just in an academic way, but at soul level.

We live that lesson.

At the same time we're with each other, we're losing each other. Time isn't a piece of string with a beginning and an end, not when it's a lifetime. Then, it's an overlay on the present, so that the past is with us always, as is the future.

We're always taking the good with the bad.

We live the pain of the loss at the pleasure of the meeting.

The day I lost Harry, I remembered the day I first saw him, walking on the road. He took me up to his house and showed me the wiring he'd rigged through the trees for his ham radio and the pulley system he invented to feed his fish in a little pond. All of it his own design.

He didn't want a funeral, and I think I know why.

He designed his life, and his death, too.

He was loved by many, including Francesca and me.

And for him, we are thankful.

For each other, we are thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

You will taste the bitter, but may you savor the sweet.


Look for Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella's new book, "Best Friends, Occasional Enemies: The Lighter Side of Life as a Mother and Daughter," coming Tuesday. Visit Lisa at scottoline.com.

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