It’s not the phone call from your dad that you expect after relaxing for two weeks in Stone Harbor on the Jersey shore.
Maggie is on the way to the hospital in an ambulance, Timm found her unconscious in a bathroom at a movie theater.
In my mind there are a lot of reasons people pass out places so I wasn’t concerned.
The next call 45 minutes later was the take your breath away blow.
Maggie has died.
I had to ask my dad to repeat that phrase 3 times before my brain would comprehend the words. They simply didn’t compute in my mind. I had just seen Maggie’s last post on Facebook. She couldn’t be dead. That made no sense at all.
Maggie came into our lives in 1989. My brother Timm had gone to Israel to study for a couple of years. While there he met Maggie. She was unexpected in our family. Looking back as you get older you realize that true love often comes in the most unusual places but at the time it seemed strange to me that my brother had found his future wife halfway around the world.
Maggie didn’t exactly fit the Rittler family mold. She was from New Jersey. Vegetarian at the time. She said “et” in sentences. She wasn’t a conservative. But for all of these differences (which were good for my family) she fit Timm.
Early Halloweens in our family I would grab a sheet, cut out two eye holes, and go trick or treating as a ghost. Minimum effort for maximum candy reward. Timm, on the other hand, would build a replica wooden airplane that he would fit in and wheel around Summer Hill wrapped in a scarf and donning a hat like the Red Baron. For him it was about the craft and creating.
So it was no surprise that Maggie would be the same. She was about the craft and creating. Her craft was most often words but could be so many things. Their home has been a project in craft & creating from the start. Each room uniquely crafted by Timm & decorated by Maggie.
But written words were where she excelled. At the viewings, on facebook and at the memorial service the most consistent words I heard were “I received this note from Maggie…”
The Unexpected Maggie
The first week after Maggie died was a blur. You don’t expect a sudden death. You don’t realize how many things need to be done. At least for Elise and I it was a gift. To do something felt good. It gave breaks from sadness that we needed while grieving.
At the funeral home, the funeral director gently asked questions about arrangements and plans. I was struck by one question in particular. He said sometimes when younger people die you will list “unexpectedly” on the death notice at the beginning to note that it was sudden. He asked “Would you like to put unexpectedly at the top of the death notice?” This stuck with me.
Maggie was full of unexpected things in our lives. To me the most unexpected thing was her ability to create unique relationships with each person she encountered.
Before Timm and I were both married our future wives were thrown together as roomates in my parents house at Deep Creek lake. They were quick friends and partners navigating life in our family. Their relationship grew over the years into a deep friendship. One of Elise’s favorite things about our frequent time at the lake was time with Maggie. Maggie was ever a deep encourager to Elise as she was to so many.
For my older boys, Caleb & Josh, Aunt Maggie was a champion and a friend. When they were both very young Maggie suggested, in that way that she did that left you no choice but to comply, that they refer to her as “Tall & Beautiful Aunt Maggie.” They happily complied and the title was soon shortened to TBA (Tall & Beautiful Aunt).
For Seth and Riley, and many others, Aunt Maggie was a moment maker. Maggie would create unique experiences. Most notable was the annual ginger bread house party that Maggie hosted for our kids and the other cousins at Christmas every year. Seth could hardly stand sitting through church on ginger bread house Sunday. If you know Seth you know the supreme importance of food in his life. Aunt Maggie’s ginger bread party was like a national holiday in his mind. A day to be preserved above all others.
And for me I’ve been given two sister in laws that I love. One on each side of our family. For me they aren’t sister in laws. Just sisters.
Maggie and I shared one particular trait that I treasured: we both created our own unconventional, non-conforming way through life. Over the years Elise and I learned not to be surprised by anything Maggie did. Maggie had a kaleidoscope like way about her. If you knew her for any length of time you saw her change and grow into different areas and interests. I loved that about her.
Even in faith we shared a slant. Profoundly influenced by Jesus but unwilling to simply be religious. Maggie inspired people to take chances, risks & challenge their views. It wasn’t enough to have an answer. Maggie was a thinker & passionate about her faith.
Maggie’s relationships were unexpected, deep & wide. As the week after her death unfolded more and more of these relationships made it so obvious that Maggie loved people.
There is the champion that is the victor. The winner. The conqueror. This champion is a noun. Maggie wouldn’t fit as this champion in a competitive sense.
But Maggie was a different kind of champion. This is the champion that fights for a cause, fights for people, fights for those who can’t fight for themselves. This champion is a verb.
In Maggie’s life you could so easily see this champion through her children. Maggie loved everything about Ellin, Emmett & Henry. And while so many of us fear our children not fitting in, Maggie feared that her children would feel like they have to fit in. She encouraged them to be their own people. As musicians, artists, fighters, poets, readers, soldiers. She embraced them for who they were.
And Maggie was the champion of my brother. Timm, the cabinetmaker, couldn’t build something that Maggie didn’t value and love. Maggie loved Timm and what he created. She followed him to woodworking conferences enthused about their artisan life.
What more does anyone want for their brother, son or father than an adoring wife?
Not the end
In the first few hours following Maggie’s death we were in shock. Wandering around Stone Harbor after dinner that Friday night we called friends & family. We shopped aimlessly; stunned. Not really doing anything. Waiting for more news. In my fantasy mind I was expecting a third phone call from my dad that would go something like this: “There was a mistake in the confusion. Maggie is ok.” That call didn’t come.
There really wasn’t any more news. Maggie’s death is still unexplained and unexplainable. In moments like this all the cliche things that people say when people die suddenly make sense. In all other contexts they seem trite and silly.
It’s been a month since i received that phone call. And our family moves on with a hole in it. I’m sure the hole will heal over time. But for now it’s just something missing that hurts.
Emmett shared profound thoughts with Maggie’s childhood friend Ginger:
I don’t understand all of this but I don’t think I need to right now.
I do occasionally get a glimpse of joy in all of this. Henry has begun sharing more and more conversations that I’m sure would have been quiet whispers between he and Maggie. Emmet, while stoic at times, has stepped up as a young man called by duty to help and be with his father, brother and sister. Ellin, the young woman, cares for those around her as her mother would: with confidence and grace.
And Timm grieves. In his own way. In his own time. I’m reminded of the scene in the gladiator when Maximus talks to his friend about his wife and son: “they will not return to me but someday I will go to be with them, but not yet.” This pain, while as real as it can be, is temporary. Someday he will be with his Maggie again.
And as for Maggie herself:
Even in death Maggie was the master of the unexpected.