Originally published December 17, 2012
The most proven human building block is the pain called heartbreak. It forces our minds into a dark place called grief, but to a person open to its instruction, it can also strengthen character.
Grief is a toothache of the heart. It’s a pit of quicksand that tightens its hold the more you fight it. It is only when you grow calm that it lets you live.
Anita and Nathan Weedmark had grief forced on them. But they decided to turn their pain into energy and use it to help other people’s children.
The Weedmarks, who met in college years ago, were early devotees of the arts, and the arts fulfilled them in a way that money never could. After moving to San Diego, Anita, became accomplished at the piano, both as performer and teacher.
Nathan became a guitar instructor and an artist whose skill gained admirers widely. He developed diabetes at 32, but otherwise the years passed and they matured gently.
The couple was childless and poor, but content with each other.
I would call the Weedmarks residual flower children. That’s a compliment. I don’t mean the free-love dopers of the ’60s, but the best of those of that time who still believe that loving peace can somehow make peace happen.
They were both in their mid-30s when, surprise, along came a little blond bundle playfully called “Izabiss” by her parents, which was her first attempt to pronounce her own name of Elizabeth. She became a starburst of kindness, talent and purpose, and turned a sedate couple into a robust family.
They eventually moved into their present small home in Clairemont, which would be just about big enough for some garages in Rancho Santa Fe. But no one in a gated community could claim more. It was big enough for happiness.
The dry facts of their lives don’t capture the texture of these people, Anita and Nathan. They are kind and gentle souls, and that is not a cliché. That’s made clear by the soft tone of their words, the way they accept all religions that preach peace and the grace with which they accept the humble way they live. And that was how they raised their daughter.
Elizabeth’s generous spirit and accomplishments caused pride in her parents and happiness in a wide circle of friends who shared her love of drama, dancing, art and writing. No muse seemed beyond her reach. In plain talk, she was a nice kid with a lot going for her.
In her late teens, Elizabeth often lay in her bedroom journaling thoughts that all such girls harbor. She was a poet whose words sought meaning in flowers and sunsets, but she was also an emerging woman struggling with the hormonal mysteries of the young. She wrote:
The way he smiled one night
as we sat in my car lit by moonlight
it was joy and warmth and love
all mixed into one beautiful look
one of the most beautiful things
I’ve ever had the joy to see
(Ah, love …)
But, then, on second thought:
I’m better off without you
muddled become my thoughts
Speech become my trippings
when I’m with you
When you’re there I’m not myself
I hate not being in control
of what I say and think and do
and so for this I’m better off
At the beginning of 2006, Elizabeth was a 19-year-old student at Mesa College preparing to transfer to UC San Diego. She and her boyfriend, fellow student Gregory Wilson, decided to drive to San Francisco to visit friends, leaving on New Year’s Day evening to avoid traffic.
A winter storm was forecast for the Central Valley northeast of Los Angeles, but the two turned away from the warnings with the cavalier shrug of invincible youth. Nathan urged his daughter not to make the trip, but he wasn’t heeded. Promises were made to the knitted-brow parents to drive carefully and call frequently.
Anita and Nathan were anxious, but they pushed it out of their minds and went to bed. By morning they had heard nothing. They repeatedly called Elizabeth’s cellphone. Nothing.
At 1 p.m. on Jan. 2, about 18 hours after the kids left, a car drove up and stopped. The wording on the car door, Nathan recalls, spelled it out: San Diego County Coroner’s Office. A woman in white got out and walked toward their door.
As the woman gave the “cop knock,” Anita says, “Nathan lost it. He started screaming, ‘No, not Elizabeth! Not Elizabeth! Why did I let her go? Why?’ ”
When Anita opened the door, she says, the woman from the coroner’s office sort of blurted it out: I regret to inform you, your daughter’s been killed in an auto accident.
Anita went into shock and her mind started working as though on autopilot. Numbly, she asked a piano student present at the time to call and cancel her other obligations for the day. Other meaningless details occupied her thoughts. Subconsciously, she desperately pushed against the horror that was trying to force its way in.
The Weedmarks learned that as Elizabeth and Gregory made their way north on Interstate 5 that night, the rain turned into a downpour. Somewhere near Fresno, Elizabeth, a driver with limited experience, lost control of her car and crashed into an unattended vehicle on the shoulder. She died instantly of a broken neck and Gregory suffered severe head trauma. Hydroplaning was the suspected cause.
Gregory was in a coma several days, and his survival was in doubt. Later, he moved into the Weedmark house to be close to therapy and stayed in Elizabeth’s room. To this day, he is close to her parents.
When the coroner’s car and the woman in white departed, the parents were left in darkness: The light had gone out of their lives.
As soon as word of the tragedy got out, Elizabeth’s friends converged en masse to express love for their soul-sister, Liz, and to stand by her devastated parents.
At a later “celebration of life” ceremony, musicians lined up to perform for the memory of the girl. Anita says that then, and later, people would walk up and press checks and cash into their hands, urging them to take time off to rest and heal. Nathan and Anita thanked them and put the money into a special account.
Nathan says of his daughter: “She was so good at everything she tried. But as good as she was, it didn’t seem she had a lot of ego invested in it. The thing about her that we’re left with is how empowering she was. Whatever social circle she was in, she tried to pull in others and make them feel that they belonged.”
He adds: “At her funeral, we were surprised at how far-reaching she was. Not only did the president of the college speak, but so did her high school janitor.”
Anita remembers: “One day, Elizabeth said, ‘Mom and Dad, I need you two together, just for five minutes.’ She posed our hands together, one atop the other, and photographed them. On our anniversary, she gave us this card, and she had done this drawing (of the hands together). After she passed away, I realized this was her message to us to stay together, because a lot of people who lose a child, the grief just drives them apart.”
So, then, Elizabeth was gone. The house was not only empty, it was barren. Only Anita and Nathan lived there with their grief, so large a presence it made the small house seem even smaller. Anita taught her piano, Nathan taught his guitar and created his art. Nathan coped with his diabetes, and together they watched the days merge into one.
So, how do you get a grip on grief? It seems inextricably a part of memory. When people say they’ve “moved on,” does that mean the memories diminish?
Nathan says: “In a way, you don’t want to lose your grief because you don’t want to lose the memories.”
Anita agrees and adds, “About a year after she died, I realized I’d gone hours and hours without thinking of my grief and missing her.” She laughs softly at the recollection. “And I just started sobbing, and I thought, ‘Oh no, is this what’s going to happen? I’ll just forget about her?’ But I’m not going to forget her. I talk about her practically every day.”
The Weedmark house has not been scrubbed clean of Elizabeth, the way some well-meaning people are quick to recommend. When you phone the house, it is Elizabeth’s voice-recording that answers. Her bedroom is as she left it that New Year’s Day almost seven years ago. Her posters are still on the wall, the bedspread is the same and notes about school work are still pinned to the bulletin board. With that room just down the hall, Anita and Nathan will soon share their 40th wedding anniversary.
Another Christmas is coming around, and that brings its own memories of Elizabeth curled on the sofa in her red “Christmas pajamas” exchanging presents with her parents.
Nathan says: “We didn’t have expensive presents, so we made a game of packaging them elaborately, just for fun.”
Anita adds: “My students would bring me small tree ornaments, and Elizabeth as a child would place them on our tree.” Anita has maintained that tradition.
I’m mindful of Queen Victoria, who wore black and was semi-reclusive for decades after Prince Albert died. But the woman still ran an empire. The queen did what worked for her.
“People handle grief in so many ways,” says Nathan, now 62. “Grief is not really depression, but it has a lot of the same ingredients. It can be incapacitating. Some people can’t handle it.”
This is how he and Anita, now 59, handle it: Remember the checks people pressed into their hands when Elizabeth died? Anita and Nathan decided to memorialize their daughter by using that money to assist other people’s deserving children. Each year at the end of May, they host a musical fundraiser in which friends — anyone, actually — come to their home to make music, eat and reminisce.
The event is called “Lizfest,” and much of the music is by the best artists in San Diego. About 150 people come and go in the small home and yard. They also leave money to replenish the fund for deserving kids. In six years, the Weedmarks have raised and given out about $15,000, mainly through the San Diego Center for Children and the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, Elizabeth’s high school alma mater.
Certainly, as philanthropy is measured, that’s a modest sum. But this is not the Ford Foundation. These are people who live plainly for their art, and are — by Anita’s acknowledgment — “poor.”
They believe that by teaching music, they are furthering the skills that Elizabeth admired and making it possible for others to have the joy of accomplishment forever denied their daughter.
Their most recent gift of $1,000 was given to a teenage performer struggling financially. Of that sum, $300 came from the Weedmark’s personal funds.
Nathan and Anita will go on hurting. They can’t not hurt. They will live their normal lives: working, laughing, cooking, making music and making love. But when each day is done, and they’re alone with their memories, she will return. Quietly. Izabiss.
Some of you may say, “I don’t understand all this.” But those who have loved deeply and lost, they will.
The artist Edvard Munch once said — and the Weedmarks, artists as they are from their fingers to their souls, will understand it — “What is art? Art grows out of grief and joy, but mainly grief. It is born of people’s lives.”
In her last Christmas, one week before she died, Elizabeth gave her parents a card with her own inscription:
Merry Christmas to the best parents I could hope for.
I love you guys so much and appreciate you,
and I should say it more often.
Thank you for being so kind and generous and wise
and always there for me.
You really are, aside from being two wonderful parents that I love and admire,
two beautiful human beings. I love you!
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org