Empty Chair

This afternoon, Nat and I were sitting on the deck of Dave’s mom’s house.   We had just sat down with our lunch, after a morning of cleaning out the garage, and repairing walls.  The two of us found our places at the patio table before anyone else came outside.  He said, “It’ll always feel like there’s an empty chair at the table.”  I said, “I know, it does, no matter where we are.”

We had always included the whole family in projects of this kind – the kind where we would need each others’ help – cleaning out someone’s house (often our own), moving, reorganizing.  Owen wasn’t always the first to volunteer, but usually came through with plenty of sweat and muscle, and often some great ideas on how to make things run more smoothly.  Even when he chose to do something else on project days, we knew he was there, so we didn’t feel so alone in our tasks.  We just figured he would come up with last minute help or ideas, and allowed ourselves to be thankful that we had all participated at the level of our individual capacities.  This weekend is different.

Nat and Dave did a great job this week, of clearing the house of most of its contents, pulling up carpet, and starting the repairs.  But, I believe they would have had more fun, if Owen had been there to make his odd, quirky comments, to make them laugh, to make them listen to music they didn’t know they would enjoy.  The heaviness with which we tackle our daily lives is still overwhelming.  We don’t go into projects full of the same energy and enthusiasm as we did before Owen died.  Nothing is the same, that’s all.  And, confronting this project as a part of Barbara’s passing, just amplifies everything.  How do we sort through her 77 years of belongings, when we can’t imagine doing the same for Owen’s 20 years of stuff?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a poem, called “Five Empty Chairs” which illustrated how different our lives are without Owen.  This is not a message that is unique to our family.  I remember sitting at the table with my mom and brother after my dad died, and how odd it was to see his chair there, empty, trying to eat breakfast or dinner, knowing he would never sit there again.  All families who lose a member go through this, and more.  There’s just something symbolic about the chair that belonged to that person, even when “their chair” was not the same chair on any given day. 

Since my own family rarely sat at a dinner table for meals, but ate wherever each of us was at the time we needed to eat (rather than when a meal was ready), I don’t have this same association with an empty chair, specifically at the dinner table.  My association with Owen’s empty chair is when these impromptu moments come up, like sitting on the deck for lunch in the middle of a project day…or sitting on our porch at home with coffee… or before a day of routine work, but with different schedules than normal…or on those rare evenings when I’m not sitting at the computer, and I wonder why he’s not in my place at the desk.  These are the empty chairs I notice, the ones that conjure up pictures of what-ifs.

I keep thinking about the empty chair Owen should be occupying in these days before Halloween.  This would be the chair he used to sit in while contemplating his plans for the holiday – his costume, who would spend the evening with him, what movies to watch in the weeks beforehand, and how he might design the carving of his pumpkin.  This would also be the chair he would sit in to figure out how much money he could spend on the holiday, this being his favorite. 

He might also have sat in this same chair to eat breakfast or a snack, but the contemplative times for us – are the ones that cause us to hurt the most, when we notice his empty chair at the table – when we think about what would be happening right now if that night at the River had not happened – that’s when we realize, he would most certainly be sitting with us.  Sudden, unexpected deaths are like this.  They cause families to wonder and imagine the what ifs…forever.  And, the injustice of the situation, makes the empty chair all the more visible.

Tonight, after dinner, all of us in different places throughout the living and dining rooms, as most of the furniture has been removed, Ruby said something that reminded me of the song by “The Who” – Who Are You?  I started singing it, and Nat chimed in.  He asked what were the numbers of the freeways we traveled so often in San Diego.  Dave and I named them for him, and asked why.  He said, “Because I remember driving down the freeway that went to Balboa Park one day with Owen, and that song came on the radio.  We sang it together, and for some reason, I’ll never forget the picture of us singing in the car together on that particular day.”  Another empty chair, Owen’s passenger seat, with Nat driving the two of them somewhere fun.

Song for the night:  Who Are You?  – The Who



~ by Linda on October 21, 2007.

2 Responses to “Empty Chair”

  1. Without a doubt, the empty chair is so familiar to those of us who are grieving. Amazing how a chair can come to be the personification of a person. There are 2 like that at my dad’s house. His kitchen table chair at the head of the table, and his recliner in the family room. It’s so funny, whenever I sit in his recliner, and go to get out, it raises all the way up and tilts as though it had evacuated me. (It’s that kind of recliner.) But no matter what button I push, it always does this, after I’m out and in the other room. My mom and I like to think it’s my dad playing a trick on me, pushing me out of “his” chair. It is amusing.
    At any rate, few things are sadder than an empty chair that will never be filled in the same way again. Oh yes. we all sit there occasionally, but it will always be “his” chair.
    I understand…Lonnie

  2. Thank you for finding the words to say what I also feel. I’m also grieving as I lost my wife about a month ago. I just try to take it a day at a time. I’m sorry for your loss too, I pray you find peace too.

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