The phone rang at about 10 this morning. It was my mother-in-law, Judy, who immediately got down to the business of what was to be a terrible phone call.
“Starr is dead.”
The news was so quick and so abrupt it took several moments to process what I had just heard. This didn’t seem possible. My father-in-law is a healthy and active guy. He hikes the Grand Canyon. He eats right. He stays active. There’s no way this can possibly be true. But it’s true. He had a heart attack in his sleep and never woke up.
I met Starr 11 years ago when I turned up on his doorstep for the obligatory I’m-the-guy-dating-your-daughter-and-things-are-getting-serious-enough-that-I-should-meet-the-parents dinner. I had been warned that he might try to scare me off by acting a little odd. Sure enough, he greeted me at the door with a copy of “Emily Posts’ Guide to Weddings.” He handed it to me and said, “read up.” What I would learn later is that Starr wasn’t acting a little odd to put me off. Turns out, Starr was just a little odd, no matter what. My dating his daughter didn’t really enter into the equation.
I have many reasons to be eternally grateful for Starr and the life he lived. There are the obvious ones, of course. He is the father of the woman I love. Without him, many of the greatest joys of my life wouldn’t have happened. He also quickly became a willing and effective co-conspirator at Curtis family gatherings. When all the family togetherness would get to be a bit much, Starr would offer a convenient excuse to run off somewhere, be it a local pizza place or a Krispy Kreme with the hot light still on.
But there are more subtle ways that Starr’s life made mine better. When I was first dating Julie, I couldn’t understand why a poised, intelligent, and accomplished person like her would go out with a goofball like me. But after spending some time with Starr, I started to understand why. His off-kilter personality helped increase Julie’s tolerance for the unusual. When I came along, it was nothing odder than what she had seen before.
It was once fashionable to make fun of one’s in-laws, to claim they were nasty or boring or otherwise objectionable. I have always considered myself lucky to have in-laws that I truly enjoy being around. In April, Starr and I drove from Oregon to Arizona with two obnoxious 3-year-olds in the back seat. Starr turned out to be the ideal travel companion, full of fun, intelligent, and interesting conversation… and he always let me choose the radio station.
We left Arizona in early May, and that was the last time I saw Starr. I don’t really recall what I said… probably “thank you” for driving with the kids, maybe I thanked him for the generosity and hospitality he always showed when I visited. At the time, it was a trivial exchange, nothing worth really paying attention to.
Had I known it would be the last time I spoke with him, I probably would have tried to convey more. I would have thanked him for the kindness he showed me as a newcomer to his family. I would have thanked him for infusing his daughter with a sense of whimsy that delights me every day. I’m sure I would have told him I loved him. It’s not something we said to each other much, although it was pretty much implied.
Tonight I also mourn the loss my children will feel once they fully understand what’s going on. Nate and Will are just shy of their 4th birthday and are just starting to understand how fun a grandpa can be. Just last week, they were asking when they would get to see Grandpa Starr again. I wish they could have gotten to know him better. I wish they would have gotten old enough to be allowed to play with Grandpa Starr’s hand crank electric generator. I also wish Eliza were old enough to have some memories of her Grandpa Starr. I take some comfort in knowing that they did get to meet and that they liked each other very much. I only wish that relationship had a chance to grow and blossom into something even more beautiful.
At times like these, the Mormon prohibition on alcohol seems especially cruel. It really would be handy to have something that would both loosen the tongue and deaden the pain. For whatever reason, this seems like the kind of death that should be marked by people sitting around a bottle of whiskey, each offering a toast in memory of Starr. Alas, we’re Mormon and we just don’t roll like that.
But in that spirit, allow me to raise my (pretend) shot of whiskey into the air and say the following:
Here’s to Herbert Starr Curtis. He was a good man. He did good things, things that made people happy. And in the family that remains, he has left a legacy of beauty and joy that will continue to make others happy for many years to come.