Editor’s note: Today, we bring you this guest column by Sasha Vliet, daughter of Wichita community leaders Marni and Richard Vliet, a developer who died earlier this month.
The holidays approach.
The cheer has begun.
And we are in mourning.
On Dec. 9, my father, Rich Vliet, passed away.
We left the house for the first time six days later to watch my sister’s boys perform in a holiday pageant. When the children sang “Joy to the World” onstage, my mother, sister and I sobbed in our seats, holding hands, remembering our loss and the joy in my father’s heart.
I am not sure if it’s the fact that my sister, Whitney Vliet Ward, was born on Christmas Eve, or that my parents were married a few days before Christmas, or that we have been so surrounded by the support coming from many friends and family members, but love is on my mind.
My parents met and married quickly. My mother, Marni Vliet, remembers falling in love with my father in the time it took for them to drive from 29th Street to 21st Street. They spoke in the car that day of adulthood and challenges and the way we must all make our way toward our eventual selves, and my father was so clear-eyed and positive. So unencumbered by the hows and whens and so able to be in the moments and confident in steps taken that she knew she wanted to start each day with him.
They celebrated their love through a Dec. 19 ceremony in 1970. Their love gave them one baby in 1971 when doctors thought they might have none, and then another, in 1973, who came despite a troubled and heart-stopping labor and delivery.
My sister and I had the good fortune of enjoying close proximity to the fierce love between our parents. We watched them sway to music together. We watched them share ideas and complete projects together. We watched them find successes and tackle challenges, using each other as sounding boards and strength-providers. We listened as they told each other the details of their days, and we cried when they sang together songs from their past.
There was nothing my father enjoyed more than to watch my mother try on new clothes following an afternoon of shopping. He had his favorites. And even though the dresses and heeled shoes made him smile, his favorite outfits were the ones that allowed our mother to be comfortable. “Doesn’t Mom look cozy,” he’d say, pulling her close.
Now, I struggle to see beyond the cloud that surrounds us as we come to turns with the empty space that occupies our hearts. And one of the memories that stands out to me is what I heard in the dark hours of an early summer morning one summer when I was five: I had awakened in the night with a start. Unable to fall back to sleep, I tiptoed to the hall and stood outside our parents’ bedroom, my fingers wrapped around the small brass knob of their door. The lights were off. My sister was breathing heavy with deep sleep in her bedroom at the other end of the hall. I wanted to step into the safety of their room, to climb into the space between them and feel the warmth of the bed our parents shared. But I stopped and listened, wanting what I heard even more than the warmth I was sure to find. Our parents were talking in hushed voices, the sound of their exchange brushing back and forth between them like rushed whispers of wind toying with clothes on a line. And then they burst into laughter, and the moment stretched out into a long line of trilling release. Even then, with so much left to learn about life and love, I knew I had tiptoed upon something extraordinary. I had to wonder what made them laugh with such abandon. What did the darkness bring to them that would take them to such joy?
There were other nights when their laughter awakened me. I felt comforted by that sound. I knew, no matter what we were going through as a family or what they had to contend with as a couple, that as long as our parents found laughter when the rest of us were sleeping, we’d all be OK.
During the last hours of his life, my father gave us bits of wisdom, moments of splendid articulation, reminders of the past, tokens of his character that we will hold forever. The four of us cried and moaned together the night before he died, when my father told us we would all let go with grace if the night didn’t bring real change. But again, what stays with me is the sound of love between my parents. They made room for laughter and for joy, even then, even in the midst of great suffering and sadness. And that was, and always will be, our center. It was centering for them, and it is centering for my sister and me now as we look to them and their love to help get us through.
This will be the most difficult holiday season this family has experienced. There is no doubt about that. But as we recognize and reabsorb again and again what it is we have lost, we will do well to recognize and reabsorb what is at the heart of human experience: delighting in what life has to offer and the love all around us. We will all do well to do that.