Saturday, July 14, 2012

Community Old and New

I've been doing a lot of thinking about community these last few weeks and especially in the last several days. When I was so miserable living in Chile, I discovered after the fact that a lot of it was due to a lack of community among Chileans and, much worse for me, between Chileans and other nationalities. It was only then that I grasped the importance of surrounding oneself with loving and supportive people in order to thrive; like the saying goes, no one is an island.

A few days ago, one of our oldest family friends, Tom Rizzuto, passed (damn you, cancer). Lifelong neighbors, Tom drove my mom to the hospital in a snow storm so I could be born. His wife Barb would accompany me to "special friend" day in elementary school. I still take her flowers every May Day, ring the doorbell, and run away. Their kids babysat us, and when I was older I babysat their grandkids. I can still remember a huge birthday party for Tom where they closed the culdesac to cars and set up barbecues and games and festive lights. All the neighbors opened their homes and us kids wandered in and out and under and over the many diversions in what felt like a backyard carnival. We stayed up late and I remember feeling welcome among the jovial adults. That must have been for his 50th birthday, so I would have been about 6 at the time. It's one of my oldest and fondest memories.

Tom's memorial service is on Tuesday, and the expected attendance is in the hundreds. My parents belong to a close-knit community that has always banded together during tough times and enjoyed each other during good times. They have Superbowl parties - so much more fun that my friends' Superbowl parties! - and New Years Eve parties and lots of parties in between. They go to each other's kids' weddings and parents' funerals. When someone is sick they drive each other to doctor's appointments, go to the hospital, go to the house, make food, pick up prescriptions, water gardens, clean houses, pray for each other. They remember birthdays and anniversaries and sometimes go on vacation together. I am so grateful to have had this community as an example of what friends can and should be, and to be a loved and accepted member of the community despite my wildly differing social and political views.

I won't be there with my community on Tuesday; just writing those words brought tears to my eyes. Instead I'll be in Redwood Valley, with a new community that had a chance to prove itself to me the day I found out Tom had died. At first I sat alone with the news. It wasn't unexpected but it was hard to process, especially since I felt so disconnected from what was going on. Then someone tried to joke with me and I said I'd just lost a family friend. "Oh, Elizabeth, I'm so sorry." I said thanks and that I'd like to be left alone, which he immediately understood and respected. Some time passed and I wandered out to the people working on a big natural building project. "I just lost a dear family friend," I said, tearing up. The three people out there dropped their tools and turned their focus to me. Alex embraced me with his muddy arms and held me tight for a long time without saying or expecting me to do anything. It's very hard for me to stay in a hug like that and I usually pull away but I knew I was safe and I just cried. One man I barely knew - a friend of the family helping with the project - took off his gloves, stroked my hair, and wiped tears from my eyes. Another woman I'd been getting to know stood by my side and managed the impossible: she spoke to me in a way that was truly comforting, not the standard empty phrases that always annoy me when I'm dealing with death.   As the day wore on and more people found out what had happened, everyone reached out to me in their own perfect way. I felt so loved and supported, able to navigate the complexities of grief in solitude without feeling alone.

Tom, you are missed. Thank you for being part of my community.


AmberAnda said...

What a beautiful, heart-felt reflection on community. It totally made me cry this morning. Your description of your family's relationship with Tom reminded me of the core qualities that make life so meaningful. Thinking of you and all those so touched by Tom's life.

Anonymous said...

What a perfect description of our community of friends and our love for each other. We have been truly blessed. It makes me so happy that all this has been passed down to our kids and their kids.
Tom's service was sad and beautiful all at once. It's hard to know he's no longer here, but comforting to know he's at peace.
Your new community sounds amazing. I'm grateful that you have found a place that surrounds you with comfort and support. You were missed yesterday, but we know you were with us in spirit. Love you much, Mom