What Makes a Story?

My grandma sat sobbing at the dining room table. My uncle had just passed away a few days earlier, and my grandma was overcome by the grief of losing her oldest son. She hardly spoke that week. My uncle had died unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot that began in his knee and traveled to his heart, blocking an artery.

My parents were devastated as well. My mom had never been sadder. Like any kid, I had always thought of my parents and grandparents as indestructible superheroes. They can take on anything, not let their emotions overcome them, and have the almighty wisdom to know how to handle any situation.

Of course, no human is indestructible. Most kids find out gradually over time that their parents and grandparents are just like them: human. I was no exception. Over the years, I noticed my parents get annoyed, struggle with a problem at work, and make mistakes, just like anyone else. I would see my grandma send a birthday card two weeks late. Nothing hugely problematic, but small hints over time that told me these super people in my life were indeed super, but were also just regular people.

But those small moments were just gradual declines down a sloping hill. Seeing my grandmother sobbing, unable and unwilling to even attempt to stop, was like dropping off a cliff.

Everyone has a story, and that story can usually be told with just a few different events across one’s entire lifetime. In my grandmother’s case, she and her family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 because her father was an Anti-Hitler journalist wanted for treason. She sailed to the United States by herself in the early fifties as an eighteen-year old with only twenty dollars to her name. She traveled the country for close to five years on Greyhound buses and rides from strangers. She eventually settled in the mountains of Colorado, taking up a career as a palm reader on Western Slope radio stations. Her best client was John Denver, a singer and resident of nearby Aspen.

Overall, it tells a pretty good story. Most of it happened earlier on in her life, but I think she was content to let most of the exciting stuff stay in the first half while the second half held all the relaxation and “settling down”. This moment of her oldest son’s passing, though, wasn’t just a sad moment; it was potentially a new and dark event ad

ded to the story of her life.

The passing of a son is almost always monumental and unfortunately, notable. The local newspaper covered the death and questioned the doctor who had administered my uncle’s care. Friends of our family were well aware of the event and inquired years after the fact. Unlike the passing of an old-age parent, which can often be the natural end to a

hans
My uncle Hans, 1964 – 2012

good story, the passing of a middle-aged son often signifies a noteworthy event that can reframe the entire narrative of the parent’s life.

But on that blistering cold December day just four day before Christmas, in that kitchen in Carbondale, Colorado, I don’t think my grandma was worried about how that event would alter her story. She was devastated by the loss of one of her closest friends and feared his absence would hurt for years to come.

Of course, it was painful. No one can avoid pain, not even Superwoman. Negative events will find some significance in everyone’s story at some point or another. There’s not stopping them. But what we can do is cram the interesting, adventurous, and positive events into our own stories.

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