This is the time of the year for obituaries — you may have noticed how they’ve swelled in our pages the past couple of weeks.
My condolences to the families of those who have passed. Like you, I am also grieving; my grandfather, Richard Williams, died Jan. 7 in Spring Hill, Fla., far from his ancestral home in the coal-laden hills of western Pennsylvania.
I’ve never known a stronger man, and I’ll never measure up to his shadow. “Pappy” had a razor wit and would laugh endlessly at the worst puns. He was a preacher, a carpenter, a farmer of pigs and rabbits and cows. He’d been a miner early in life and was missing several fingers — and he never tired of telling his grandchildren and great-grandchildren that he’d lost those digits digging for gold in his nose.
His voice was iron. His hair had been shock white since his 30s. He’d walked a million miles and made friends with everyone along the way. He quietly dealt with family tragedies and personal setbacks and poverty, never complaining.
He taught me to bait a hook. He let me drive his ancient red tractor back and forth across the fields. He gave me my first sip of coffee. He would never back down in a squirt gun fight. He always let me wear his huge work boots.
Until his stroke last year, I’m not sure Pappy ever missed a Sunday in church. He’d go each week to leave all his sadness in the pew and leave with a pocket full of joy. Six days a week he’d wear greasy coveralls, but Sundays demanded a suit and tie.
He was at the same time one of the simplest and most complicated people I’ve ever known.
In the end, I grew too scared to call him often because every talk could be our last. Who is really ever ready to say goodbye?
Like his wife of 58 years did two years ago, Pappy waited for the holidays before passing. I find myself thinking about that a lot — it’s actually a well-documented phenomenon.
This isn’t based on anecdotal evidence. Study after study has shown that adults who die of natural causes — of age and cancer and respiratory disease and heart attacks — go in greater numbers just after the holidays.
Perhaps the most comprehensive was done a few years back by the University of California at San Diego, where sociology professor David Phillips evaluated more than 57 million death certificates. The data spanned deaths between 1979 and 2004 revealed that 42,325 more people died of natural causes during the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day than they would normally. Deaths spiked up even further on the two holiday dates.
Doctors are split on exactly why this is the case, whether people wait until their families are gathered, or hang on for one last Christmas, or whether stress, seasonal sadness, holiday diet choices, hospital staffing levels, or colder temperatures have a hand.
In any case, it’s a phenomenon that leaves January a desolate month for many families, including mine. It goes a long way in describing why it’s sometimes regarded as the most depressing month of the year (a “misery index” created by Google and based on Web searches claims March and October are the actual low points).
All I can suggest is that we try to be strong like Pappy was and get through it together.