Gustafson: A passing embrace | AspenTimes.com

Gustafson: A passing embrace

Perhaps it's only natural to begin widening the scope of what constitutes "family" as life's little experiences stretch us beyond our immediate circles. I'm grateful for that larger embrace.

A recent loss brought about for me a lucid awakening, an unexpected sensation of belonging; the kind that likely existed before I ever took pause to notice how deep the ties truly were, but failed to see the beauty of until life's end.

It's been a surreal few months watching from my own mother's eyes as she has lived through losing one of her lifelong and very closest friends.

The deep mortal-awakening affects aside, it seemed at moments like frantically swimming against the ebbing tide as it drew back before the tidal wave came crashing down. Knowing all along that the end was looming, while trying to live without giving up or giving in, or even discussing the 10-ton elephant sitting patiently at the end of her bed while we all did our best to ignore it.

There's an initial sense of relief when an illness finally conquers the fragile body that it has been depleting — peace even, at first — a sense of comfort that all suffering has finally ended and that better times are ahead. But then the real grief hits, and it's not something you can wake up from — it's a gray sky on a sunny day, guilt in those momentary lapses when everyday routines sneak up and distract you from your grief.

Sure, I've spent time picturing my own funeral, haven't you? At least once? I've thought it through a number of times — not out of morbidity, just because I think about stuff that is going to happen someday — like a vacation or holiday or an upcoming meeting.

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Throughout the various stages of my life I've imagined different service scenarios. When I was young, much like early Facebook friending, it was all about quantity in the room. Later, it became about which of my life's "achievements" they might tout. But of late — and now after attending more services than I would have preferred; those of friends, family and some whom I simply loved and respected at various stages — I'm pretty sure the most important people in my life would be present at my own funeral — and that's all that matters. They are the ones who wouldn't miss it for the world and they wouldn't need to say a thing — it has all been said. For me that's a small, but significant group of people, and they are family, not necessarily biologically but the family that forms over time, one you may not realize that you have.

There were times, growing up here in Snowmass, that this community felt like one big hug, squeezing you in; safe and secure. But that too ebbs and flows.

All too often, we forget to reach out. Funerals and memorials give us that much needed opportunity to come together and remind ourselves — not just about that person who brought us all together, but to share in that which they created for us — a family connection — through those we mutually loved throughout our community, our purpose and our lives together. They are constant and comfortingly predictable; those whom we come to rely on.

Mary Beth Blake was a common thread for many in Snowmass. And many of the connections I most value, as well, also exist because she nurtured them throughout our lives together. She reached out daily maintaining her connections all over town. Pumpkin bread, if you needed a little help or TLC. And a full-on homemade spaghetti dinner or lasagna to feed a dozen, if you really needed a hand.

The figurative hugs she doled out, unlike the expression of neighborliness, were not loose in their levels of compassion. And because she understood grief all too well, she often shouldered it for others. Embracing an equalizing exchange, taking on some of our pain, sharing in the only way she knew how, her love and her own sadness in a powerful meaningful exchange; no words necessary.

Her tell-it-like-it-is mantra frequently cleared the air. And her laugh stayed the same, despite all the challenges she overcame. I can still hear it, just like it sounded when I was a toddler knocking my way around the delicate things she always had set about in a home I felt at home in.

She was family for me and my sisters. She was the first person I called in high school when my parents weren't available and later in life she was the first I'd reach out to when we needed extra help. She made herself available, at any hour and kept her cool, calming us in our greatest moments of need and concern.

That's the type of connection that I feel really defines the deepest essence of family.

Family, defined differently by us all, at its core might mean to be connected beyond proximity or obligation. It is more like a mutual understanding of what it means to be loved and cared for, as it is reflected back by another, passed along by any means, yet unmistakably reliable.

The heart of what I'm saying is that Mary Beth Blake helped form the bonds that allow me to feel at home in Snowmass Village. And despite our ever-changing backgrounds, those connections stay the same. We may only have a handful of people who helped to define us throughout our lives, those we could depend on — family.

Perhaps Mary Beth taught us all to remember to maintain those connections, and also to be careful not to wait, like I did, to tell them what they really mean to you — in a eulogy.

Let's exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.

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