“The only way to take sorrow out of death is to take love out of life.” –Russell M. Nelson
Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Slater, there lived a beautiful princess named Otilia. She lived with her Prince Charming, Thomas, and her seven beautiful children. Her world required work and strength, but it also provided her with all the love she needed. Her life was full of laughter and joy, until one day, she was cast from her throne into a new world: a dark, treacherous, underground land called Grief.
Tillie sat, gulping, staring through the windshield of a car she didn’t know how to operate. Her head ached from crying and from the never-ceasing bleats of a lamb in the backseat, who was wildly running back and forth. She had to think, to come up with a plan, but the only thought she could formulate was that the lamb had to shut up. The lamb had to be quiet so that she could somehow find a way to do what must be done.
She needed to focus, to get out of the car and walk up the hill. To open the door of the cabin and say…what?
It had never occurred to Tillie to rehearse a speech in which she revealed to her seven young children that their father was gone forever.
As if on cue, she felt a tiny familiar nudge underneath her right rib. Eight children. Only this last one would be losing a father they never had the chance to meet.
How could death happen on such an ordinary day, and in such an uneventful way? Tillie had been helping Tom dock sheep, like she’d done every year for nearly two decades. On the drive home, Tom had been good-naturedly teasing her about how many sheep she’d let escape her, but that was his way—he always knew how to make her laugh.
“Whoops, looks like this little one got lost,” Tom said, maneuvering the car over to the side of the road. He opened the door and loped off after one of his tiny new lambs, who was stumbling along the roadside in a wobbly zig-zag. Tillie would never forget how he looked silhouetted in the sunshine—broad shoulders, dark hair damp with sweat and sticking to his neck where it poked out under his Stetson, long-legged strides. As healthy as any man in the prime of his life could be. He had tossed the lamb up onto one shoulder and spoke calmly to it all the way back to the car, where he placed it on the backseat. The little thing tucked her legs beneath her and lay on the seat, as docile as, well, a lamb.
Tom continued the drive with one hand on Tillie’s knee, until they came to the bottom of hill on which their cabin was built. There he again pulled the car to one side, and gave his wife’s leg a little squeeze. There was just a hint of a grimace on his face when he said, “I don’t feel so good.”
And that was it. Tom took his last breath, slumped over in the seat, and was dead. Dead. There were no dramatic final words, no coughing fit, nor even a scream of agony. At least not from Tom.
Tillie, instantly, started to scream. She pounded his chest with her fists, she shook him by the shoulders, she bellowed into his face YOU CANNOT LEAVE ME HERE, DON’T YOU DARE GO, COME BACK COME BACK COME BACK. But it was all for nothing, because Tom was stone cold dead and when Tillie finally stopped yelling and sat back in her seat, stunned, her sobs were drowned out by the BAAAAaaaa, BAAAAaaaa, BAAAaaa of the little lamb in the backseat, whose peace had been disrupted not by death, but by the anguish of the one left behind.
Though Princess Otilia had not lived a pampered, easy life before, she had never experienced anything like the land of Grief. It was suffocating and oppressive, and moving through it was like slogging through a waist-deep mud bog. She desperately, but carefully, searched for an exit, but was secretly panicked that there may not be one.
The next few days and weeks passed in a haze. Hubert or Roy must have eventually shifted their father’s lifeless body in order to drive the car up to the house. Someone must have reunited the lamb with its mother. Tillie attended her husband’s funeral and tried to force herself to focus on the row of small, bowed, dark heads sitting beside her. She tried to remember how much they needed her to be their mother, when everything inside her screamed that she should climb into the coffin and lay down beside Tom, because “til death do you part” hadn’t been nearly long enough.
Somehow, she rocked the baby to sleep, darned socks, fed horses, made Mulligan stew and started sewing a new maternity dress. She canned tomatoes and baked biscuits and fed the three-year-old bread and milk when he cried in the middle of the night. She did it all, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could go on shouldering everything without Tom, who from the time was seventeen years old had been her everything. Without Tom, it seemed, all the joy and color was gone from the Duncan Ranch in Slater, Colorado.
In her rare moments alone, she looked at the engagement photo she had of Tom, squeezed her eyes shut and prayed for a way forward without him. Tom’s family had already offered to parcel out the children, since no sane woman would keep all of them and run a ranch to boot. Tillie hadn’t yet given in, but she’d been tempted. She didn’t know how long she could continue to walk through this darkness, the chill of despair settling in her bones as she regained consciousness every morning and remembered, again, that Tom wasn’t laying in the bed beside her. Maybe if there was a little less “weight of the world” on her shoulders, the survival would be a little easier. But having already lost Tom, she worried that the loss of her children would turn to powder the pieces of her already broken heart.
Princess Otilia stumbled her way through Grief, using her sense of touch, rather than sight, to understand her surroundings. One day she bumped into something cold and hard as iron—a Terrible Idea. The Terrible Idea stood just inside a door and was lit from behind by a tepid light from another world. Princess Otilia burned with desire to leave Grief, but she would have to face Terrible Idea to do it.
Terrible Idea had a grotesque face, and what it asked of Princess Otilia was unfathomable.
What really aggravated Tillie was that her grief was so lonely. Oh, the children were sad at the beginning of course, but for the little ones especially, the sorrow seemed to fade quickly. It was with a sharp stab of pain that she realized that not only would her youngest child never meet his father, but that June, Bill, and Frank would grow up with little or no memories of him.
As for the older boys, they helped plenty with the ranch chores, but Tillie sometimes heard them laughing. They joked and pranked each other just as they had before, just as if their father hadn’t dropped dead of a heart attack or who-knows-what in a car with a lamb. It lit a fire in her when she heard that laughter. It was disrespectful. Tillie, for one, would never laugh again. There was nothing funny left in the world for her.
Then one night, as Tillie laid supper and the children assembled, Hubert cleared his throat.
“Ma, there’s a dance in town tonight, and Roy and I were planning on taking the wagon and going.”
Tillie was speechless. She wanted to scream in Hubert’s face now, to explain to him how absolutely inappropriate it was for him to even suggest such a thing, when his father was dead and he would never be coming back.
But rage took effort, and Tillie’s was quickly extinguished by a tidal wave of depression. She jumped from the table and ran back to her room in tears.
“Look around you,” said Terrible Idea. “You’re alone here. Your children are gone, it is just you. I can help you. I can lead you into a new world. It’s not as bright as the old one, but it is much better than this one. You only have to give up one thing. Just one.”
Tillie snatched the framed photograph of Tom from the dresser and held it to her chest, not caring how her tears fell over the tarnished silver frame.
“Tom…” she moaned. Her children had forgotten him. They were moving on with life, and she was the only one who still cared. Her grief was mixed with her memories of Tom, and together they were like wet cement. She stood knee-deep in it, and, she realized, if she didn’t walk away from the whole dang thing, she would be stuck, forever.
The thought sickened her and she tried to push it away, even as it took hold. A part of herself she had never known before began to manifest itself. It was so strong it scared her, and it accepted no nonsense.
She gasped, because she knew now what she had to do.
Princess Otilia took one last look around Grief, took a deep breath, and reached out for Terrible Idea’s hand.
Tillie slowed her breathing and tried to temper the intensity of her sobs as this unfamiliar, strident identity began to take over her mind. She looked herself sternly in the mirror.
“Woman,” she said out loud to her reflection. Her voice sounded gravely and harsh. “You get ahold of yourself now. These kids need you. These kids are gonna grow up, and they’re gonna go to dances and you can’t be crying your head off about it every time. You do what you need to do to survive, and you do what you need to do to keep these kids. You have yourself a good long cry tonight. Let it all out. Because after tonight, you’ll shed no more tears.”
Terrible Idea held out a box with a padlock that had no key. Princess Otilia took the box and turned her back on Terrible Idea. Then she reached inside her dress and took firm hold of her feelings for Tom. Resolutely, she pulled, and Tom came out by the root, cracking her heart in places where it broke the surface. Pushing through the pain in her chest, Princess Otilia stuffed Tom into the box, snapped the lid shut, placed the lock, and pushed past Terrible Idea into the next world.
Quickly, before she had a chance to lose her nerve, Tillie grabbed her photo of Tom and tossed it into a trunk in her closet. In went the rest of his clothes from the closet, his work boots, and his Stetson. She would have locked in his scent too, if she could have, but that would fade, eventually. She closed the lid, and never opened it again.
Tillie was right—Frank, Bill, June, and the baby born a few months later, christened Jim, never did know their father, both because they had no memories of him, and because he was never spoken of within the Duncan household. He became a specter, and the older children who did know and love him learned quickly not to mention him around their mother, and grew accustomed to never talking about him amongst themselves.
Princess Otilia’s new world wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t as bright as her old world. There wasn’t as much love. But her children were there, and Princess Otilia decided that was enough.
Tillie kept her bargain with herself, and never cried about Tom again. She never sought love again, but devoted her life to her ranch and raising her children, all of whom she kept alive and healthy through the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War.
In 1983, Tillie visited Tom at his gravesite for the very first time, but only because it was there that she was laid eternally to rest, reunited with her husband, and her memories of him, at last.
Author’s Note: This story is a re-imagining of true events in the life of my great-grandmother, Emilie Otillie Rentschler Duncan.