Say It Like Pepper

Whenever we misunderstand tone in our family, we say to each other, “Say it like Pepper”. It means, “reframe my tone and imagine it differently”. So how many times does this apply to other experiences in a family? We are tied together for eternity, but we register and process love, forgiveness, joy, and loss so differently. It’s quite confusing, and even maddening at times, to attempt to feel our lives in each other’s voices.

“Modern Family” is a huge watch in our house, mainly because I am the Cam in our family. In fact, on more than one occasion we have pulled up TiVo only to listen to Cam quote my exact words from the preceding week. I say this without reservation or shame. He’s my hero. My emotional, ridiculous, brightly dressed and pressed hero.

Which brings me to my story (trust me, it circles back to funny Cam; hang in there): My cousin, Eric, died last summer. 49 years of Type I very brittle diabetes took its toll, and his last few years were filled with suffering. From the month we realized his illness had irreversibly progressed, our family buried our Grandmother, Eric’s Mother, and an Uncle. All 3 were buried in the cold autumns prior to Eric’s last 3 years. Ending this string of loss with the first loss from my generation was HARD STUFF.

My extended family grieves very privately, so in a Germanic style, they decided we’d grieve this one separately. Quietly. Let’s just keep this one to ourselves. Because after all, how would one begin to express the hole left by FOUR of us? All were ill, but STILL…FOUR in four years…it was just too much.

And back to my point about being Cam in an extended family of Not-Cams: My family will skip writing an obituary and I actually own a book of thousands of obituaries. Just mentioning his name will bring on a deafening silence, and my response was to cry louder…and Louder…AND LOUDER. I hired an artist to paint the cousins in our family barn with Eric represented as a tree growing up through the middle. I insisted we dig through old boxes until we found the barn photos. I insisted we name the painting as a group. I have been GLORIOUSLY Cam-like since June. It’s been wild, but not pretty.

In my final foot-stomping fit, I decided to skip the family reunion. (1) It’s in the Fall, now known as our season of grieving. I’ve grieved like a champ. SKIPPING IT. (2) If Eric won’t be mentioned, SKIPPING IT. (3) Did I mention I miss Eric and our marathon phone calls? SKIP.

Eric put his own heavenly foot down this morning. As I blared “Free At Last” in my car, his car passed me with his state plate, driven by a red-headed stranger who could pass as his twin. I knew Eric had something to say. I pulled into a parking lot, let the ugly tears fall, and contacted my soul song minister (?you don’t have one? you should get one…very helpful in moments such as these). She gently asked me to open my heart to what Eric might be trying to say to me.

It didn’t take long for Eric’s wishes to become apparent: Eric wanted me to say it like Pepper. These past months, I could SAY everyone grieves differently, but I could not FEEL it. I wanted to suspend Eric into that hallowed space between the departure and the burial, and join hands with those I love. I had decided my unique, very tough-minded family was just being…tough. But Eric, the kindest soul to inhabit this earth, lead me to an entirely different conclusion.

My job is to bring joy and laughter, and he pressed into the feeling that if I would allow us to LAUGH together, it will give the space for us to safely CRY together. Or not! If I wanted a union of our hearts, I should accept it may not be a union of my design. Again, things I could say, but not FEEL until today. Show up, do my job, and allow the rest to be. It was clear Eric was not going to stop until I sent in my RSVP.

I texted my attendance, and received an expected deafening non-response. Somewhere, free from his pain and interminable troubles (about which he never complained), I could sense Eric doubling over in laughter. What he lacked in insulin he made up for with happiness. From the great beyond, Eric sent me a heavenly high-five. No response from my family means I was heard. No response means they are doing it their way, and will always allow the space for my way too. THAT is saying it like Pepper. I did not get MY response. I got THEIRS.

Every family needs a Cam (ONE IS ENOUGH). There needs to be a place to route feelings too big for the average bear. Feelings so wildly hard, they need a road map and a badge. Someone has to have the guts to get out in front and say, “THIS IS GOING TO SUCK HARD! Follow me.”

I was meant to be the Cam. They were meant to be Not-Cam. Eric is gone. And perhaps this will all be OK after all.

Wisdom Comes Suddenly