Last Thanksgiving afternoon we arrived at the La Quinta Inn in Caldwell, Idaho, road weary in the way all parents of small children understand.
Hauling as many bags, stuffed animals and miscellaneous snack packages as my arms and shoulders could bear, I stepped up to the check-in counter.
“I have a reservation for Wattenburger,” I said, “W-A-T-T ...”
A smile crossed the clerk’s face.
“You’re Bill’s son-in-law?” she asked.
She had met Bill Tatum.
It didn’t come as a surprise anymore. Every employee and patron of every establishment Bill frequented got to know Bill, and vice versa. Given two minutes he would learn their hometown, parents’ hometown, name and number of siblings and weekend plans — and he’d share in kind.
Bill, faithfully married to the same woman since the Carter administration, could have taught a course in speed dating.
“I think he’s excited to see you,” the clerk said with a laugh. She was referring to all of us, my wife, equally loaded with luggage and travel accessories, and our two children, oohing and ahhing at the lobby, pool and vending machine.
Indeed, he was excited to see us. Bill, who had checked into a room adjacent to ours the day before, wasn’t good at sitting still. He had probably made a dozen trips to the lobby by then and knew the hotel staff like family. Our arrival meant grandchildren to tease and people to introduce. That was his hobby.
We finished our check-in, met up with Bill and my mother-in-law, Laurie, and had a warm and joyful holiday weekend with family that lived in town. The food was good and the kids got along. We watched movies and played poker. We shared stories and laughed, and Bill was the best at both. His laugh, high and uncontrolled, infected us all.
It was the last time we saw him. He had a heart attack days later and we rushed to the hospital in Bend hoping for the best, but he never regained consciousness. Family and friends gathered and said goodbye, but we wouldn’t hear his voice again. A week after Thanksgiving I wrote his obituary for the newspaper.
Though the pain was slowly numbed through the frigid winter that followed, the one-year anniversary of our last holiday together is reminding us how fresh the wound really is. We will remember Bill in every season, but his December passing will always shade the holidays.
There is much more to share about Bill’s life, but there’s not room here. We’re still writing his obituary every time we get together and talk about his life and his love for other people. We will add a chapter this Thanksgiving, and another at Christmas. We will make each one better, forgetting the unimportant but elaborating on the details.
I write this fully aware of the fresh and powerful pain in many lives this holiday season. I read the daily obituaries and know that each person is mourned, whether young or old, after a long illness or taken suddenly. In most cases, it seems too soon.
We become acutely aware of who’s missing when there’s an empty seat at the holiday dinner table, whether it’s just for one year or forever. We should use the opportunity to share stories and keep their memories alive.
I don’t know what the coming year will hold for us in the slow process of familial grief. I do know that we are fortunate and honored to carry on the memory of Bill Tatum.
Daniel Wattenburger is the managing editor of the East Oregonian. Contact him at 541-278-2673.