I interrupt my regular blog posts for a point of personal privilege: Today is the 15th anniversary of the death of my 32-year-old daughter, Emily Jones Shrader.  It is an anniversary that defines this day every year, but especially this year when we cannot believe we have not seen her for a decade and a half.

Grief is a harsh teacher. And the lessons never get easier.

It’s something that we all experience in our lives, but that’s not saying that any previous experience could have prepared us 15 years ago for the death of Emily.

The 15 years have resulted in several phrases being removed from our conversations: “there’s a reason for everything,” “cosmic justice,” and “it’s all part of the divine plan.”  People mean well, but they too find it hard to comment on the incomprehensible.  It’s just impossible to find purpose in the deaths of so many special people around us all, and the familiar bromides offer little help in making sense of it all.

But the phrase that has less meaning than any others is “time will bring closure.”  The truth is that there is no such thing as closure, because the advancing years only increase the intensity of our sense of loss.

We feed our days with memories of Emily, especially the one we remember from one late night drive when she was two and a half years old.  My wife, Carolyn, and I were talking about my sainted grandmother, a third grade graduate who was the wisest person I’ve ever known.  We called her “Ma.”

Emily was in her car seat in the back, and suddenly said matter of factly: “Ma sent me to you.”

We looked at each incredulously, because this was not anything we’d ever discussed (or even considered, for that matter), and said: “What?”

Emily said again: “She sent me to you.  When I was in heaven, Ma sent me to you.”

It brought tears to our eyes then and it still does, although the thought of my grandmother waiting to welcome Emily back gets us through an awful lot of difficult days.

Emily’s funeral was on Cinco de Mayo.  It was also her first wedding anniversary.

The world as we knew it changed that day, and we have to come to grips with the reality that it will never be the same again. 

Here’s my post from 15 years ago:

My daughter died Friday.

Those are the hardest four words I have uttered in my whole life.

Emily Jones Shrader was 32 years old and died at 7:40 Friday morning seven weeks after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

Emily was a remarkable person. She was vivacious, exuberant and charismatic.

She seemed to make every room that she entered a little brighter and crackling with energy.

She believed earnestly in karma and the cause and effect of putting good out into the world with no expectation in return.

She believed passionately in social causes like feminism, human rights, justice, and equality.

She also believed convincingly that all things can have a purpose, and in the midst of turmoil or an ordeal, she could always tell us how something positive would come from it.

But most of all, Emily believed in Memphis. She loved this crazy, gritty city with all her heart. She could tolerate almost anything, except someone running down her city or her University of Memphis.

Several years ago, someone asked me why I was so passionate about this city and why it mattered so much to me. I said: “Two reasons – my daughters Emily and Adrienne.”

As so many in their age group left Memphis, they stayed.  They were best friends and lived next door to each other and there was not a day that passed that Carolyn and I did not know how lucky Iwe were to have them here. But so was the city itself, because like so many of her generation, she was not interested in anyone’s race, sexual orientation or background. She was only interested in working with them to make Memphis better, so that more young people would choose to stay here for their career and that fewer children would grow up in poverty.

Emily’s favorite quote was by Ralph Waldo Emerson and it summed up her life: “To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children, to earn the approbation of honest critics; to appreciate beauty; to give of one’s self, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – that is to have succeeded.” 

The paperweight on her bedroom dresser bore a quotation by Helen Keller. It said: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”

That seems the perfect thought for us today, because that’s where we find her now.

Like so many unsung people in our city, she worked with the simple nobility that seems to characterize the real heroes of Memphis – the people without titles and without celebrity – who, without regard for recognition or for headlines, day in and day out simply try to make this a better place.

Tom Jones