grief


Graves at Old Holy Cross Cemetery

Image by Fritz Liess via Flickr

Last Thursday, the ghost tickled the crown of Rob’s head while he stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes. Not an “attaboy”. Rob performs housework without the need for warm affirmations or pats on the head. It was a “heads up”.

So, when the call came later that evening to let us know that his uncle had passed away, the ghostliness of the day made sense.

But it was hardly the only sign this month, lights have been on that shouldn’t have been and there was that incidence with the shadow in Dee’s room. For myself personally, it’s been this persistent feeling that someone was going to die soon. It’s caused me no end of anxiety. First with Dee’s class taking a field trip into the city during the icy weather earlier in the month and then Edie and Silver driving through the mountains to and from Vancouver on their vacation.

It’s not as if we didn’t know about Uncle Francis. He had lung cancer and recently went into hospice, but death comes in threes. It just does. What’s true for the rich and (in)famous holds true for we lesser mortals.

This morning I awoke from a bad dream about a dinosaur trying to bite me (long back story that I’ll go into another day) to see Rob sitting up next to me. At least, I thought it was Rob. The room was Devil’s Den cave midnight. I couldn’t see my own hand when I reached up and then had to bring my hand down to find Rob, who was lying down and asleep next to me.

It was frightening. I sat up and noted that there were dark shadows ringing the bed and then I lay down and went back to sleep.

Tonight, we returned home after depositing Rob’s mom and future step-father at a hotel near the airport. They are heading home on an early flight. A message was waiting on the machine from my mother. My Aunt Peach died last night sometime.

You might remember Peach. I’ve written about her before. She would have been 103 this coming March. She was my grandmother’s youngest sister and the last of the Fagan siblings alive.

Gran lived to 94. She might have gone longer but for the dementia. Uncle Fran and Auntie Anna were 102 and 104 respectively when they passed on. The ones that cancer didn’t get young lived to 75 at the youngest and if they didn’t have bad hearts 90 and beyond. Remarkably long-lived, my dad’s relatives. If Dad hadn’t queered the deal with his drinking and smoking, he’d have cleared 100 easy, I’m sure. He still has two siblings – though I fear for not much longer – who are in their mid-80’s.

Will one of them be the third?

I really hope not though I know many folks who would roll their eyes and say that living to extremely ripe to bursting old age is long enough for anyone, so what’s the big deal?

It is a big deal to die, regardless of when. Death is one of the milestones. It represents fruition – which is a big fucking deal – and opportunity, which is nothing to sneeze at either.

Aunt Peach always made me a bit uncomfortable as a child and teen. She was forceful and larger than life though I towered over her even as a 10-year-old.

The last time I saw her was on our visit to Iowa last spring. She was playing bridge. It took us a good twenty minutes to track her down. No one knew where she was though everyone in the nursing home knew who she was.

She gave Dee a doll and probably more of her interest than she’d given me since I was that age myself. She barely acknowledged Rob or my mother, who was with us.

There’s quite the family reunion going on, if I know my dad’s relations – and I do.

I wonder if they are waiting on anyone?


Gabe-birthday-part

Image via Wikipedia

Late in the day yesterday I flipped through my calendar of events for the upcoming week and realized that today was Will’s birthday.

Not “is”.

The dead don’t have birthdays and I have struggled to incorporate his deadness into the scheme of holidays and birthdays for the last five years.

Last night I decided to throw it all under the bus.

For some reason I will never know probably, Dee decided that her late father needed a cake last year. Her older sisters’ deceased mother gets cake and picnics, and she was feeling decidedly left out of the frivolity. Which is how she views it. Fun times. Cake and picnics are jolly events to a child. Buying balloons and pin-wheels to put on graves is the whole point of having dead family in the first place. Because she’s a child.

When I was a child, I thought cemeteries were part of the family history experience. I totally looked forward to Memorial Weekend, bouncing in the back seat of the station wagon as we tooled through the countryside from one graveyard to the next. It was fascinating and filled with interesting stories about people my parents and grandmother actually knew. The whole “dead” thing barely penetrated my consciousness.

“I just remembered that tomorrow is Will’s birthday,” I told Rob as we sat in the office last night.

“I know, ” he said with a tone and look that implied that he had been waiting to see whether I’d bring it up or not. Not is usually my go-to because I forget. The anniversary of my dad’s death was just before Halloween and if my mom hadn’t mentioned her plans for the day to me a few days before – I wouldn’t have remembered at all.

“Dee hasn’t brought it up, ” I said, “and I am kinda thinking of letting the whole thing pass, but what if she asks in a week or so? Should I pretend I forgot? I mean, I almost did, but she isn’t all that interested in him again.  Shouldn’t I just follow her lead?

“She had said that the whole thing makes her too sad, ” he said. “She doesn’t want to talk about him.  She changes the subject when his name comes up.”

“Or just gives you that look that says ‘what does he have to do with anything?’,” I replied.

And really, what does he have to do with anything?

She didn’t know him. That he was her father, doesn’t make him any more known or immediate to her. It doesn’t give him standing or influence. She’s decided that Rob is her father and it’s her right to do so.

And I remember Will telling me about his childhood. His dad died when he was seven and his mother never let him forget the guy.

“She was always telling me how I reminded her of him,” he told me. “I hated it.”

With good reason. His dad was a rat, fucking bastard.  Alcoholic.  Child and wife beater. Adulterer.

Seriously, why rub your little boy’s face in any resemblances?

He would be okay with Dee putting him into proper perspective in the scheme of her life. Because it is her life.

Someday, she will want to know Will – or at least have more spontaneous interest, but for now, birthdays for the (un)dead are over.

That is all.


Wreaths of artificial poppies used as a symbol...

Image via Wikipedia

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I was driving in to town at noon when the nation paused for two minutes of silence to mark Remembrance Day, or Veterans Day for you Americans.

Though 9/11 revived the near blunted American interest in honoring war dead, Canadians appear to have never truly forgotten. Poppies proliferate on jackets in the week before the statutory holiday and the day itself is one where many businesses close, cities and towns stage elaborate parades and/or memorial services and school children have the day off to encourage participation.

Silence was broken by a man reciting the John McCrae poem, In Flanders Fields, which is the inspiration for the poppies we wear and should remove immediately after ceremonies are through – I only learned that today. The poppies should be discarded and new ones purchased every year to ensure that money will be raised for the various organizations that support our veterans and their families.

After the poem and a bit of patriotic music that surely must have baffled the teenage demographic that listens to this pop station (I am likely its lone middle-age listener, a lingering side-effect of all the years I spent teaching pre-teens no doubt), the dj followed up with this:

And I will remember you
Will you remember me?
Don’t let your life pass you by
Weep not for the memories


 

P4114682

Image by Elisabeth Moore via Flickr

 

Jennier Petkov has the dubious honor of being the 85th most googled term this afternoon thanks to her stunningly self-absorbed Housewife of New Jersey via Michigan turn on a local news channel.

In case you’ve missed Jennifer, she’s the trending troll de jour due to her harpy-ish harassment of her neighbor’s dying grand-daughter, and her relentless campaign to mock the death of the little girl’s mother.

Mother and daughter carried the deadly Huntington’s gene. The mother passed away at 24 and the now seven-year old daughter is in the last stages of a disease that eats away brain tissue.

What would drive someone to mock and torment the terminally ill?

It’s the culmination of a two-year feud that began when Jennifer mistakenly believed that her neighbors had deliberately excluded her son from a birthday party. I believe there was a bouncy house involved. The Trojan War and WWI were bouncy house snubs, I believe.

Regardless, the battle was afoot and has trampled all over Jennifer’s neighborhood and with a little help front Photoshop, she took it to Facebook even.

Enter the press. And cue the clever pot-stirrer who uploaded this clip to YouTube:

My favorite part … aside from the head bobbing – their heads always bob – why? … is when the near speechless reporter asks Jennifer why she would do such a thing.

Her answer was basically because she could and it was fun.

“Take it or leave it,” she says as her final justification.

And here is where she is you.

Just like Christine O’Donnell is you.

And Glenn Beck is you.

And that incredibly pouty, spoiled football player’s wife on The View is you.

The feeling that personal entitlement is all and that change, or meeting half way, is for the weak, those who aren’t strong enough (or too cognizant of the interconnectedness of humanity).

I wouldn’t defend Jennifer, but she is hardly an anomaly. The people bashing her today are Jennifer. Those who dedicated hate pages across the Social Mediascape to shame her and “give her a dose of her own medicine” are her too.

Jennifer’s mean girl ways are a timely find. Bullying is all over the news. Much hand-wringing and wondering why.

But there is nothing to wonder about. Bullying is part of who we are. It’s steeped in our culture of “take me or leave me”. The idea that we are free to impose, judge, forcibly coerce and bare our teeth like the Darwinian creatures we are is exactly what makes it possible for teens to mimic their same-sex fearing parents when they pick at their gay classmates until the whites of their bones show.

Sarah Palin‘s eye rolls. Rachel Maddow‘s contempt. Bill O’Reilly’s brow-beating. Jon Stewart‘s mockery. It’s Jennifer with a polish and book smarts, but it’s Jennifer no less. We are a nation of bullies. Our politics, our religions, our social fabric really is based on the idea that if the cause is perceived righteous – anything that has to be said or done to get the masses to line up and bleat is justified.

Just last evening, my oldest nephew pulled a “take it or leave it” on me. He’d spent the day before stirring the family crisis pot with teen angst and over-reaction that culminated in him “running away” for the night to make his point. When I talked with him the next day – after all the adults had made contact, assessed the actual facts and were on the same united page – he admitted that perhaps he’d gotten a bit overwrought,

“But it’s who I am,” he said, “and I can’t change it.”

I disagreed, and I still do. People are who they want to be. Their words and actions are who they are. Hurtfulness, manipulations that add up to bullying behavior aren’t justified by the ends no matter how heinous or righteous the cause. Jennifer was wrong, but the people who are harassing her right now are wrong too. They are bullies too.

Jennifer’s cause was the selfish preservation of face. She over-reacted two years ago but couldn’t admit it. She fell back on learned behavior that is not so different from what many people do on smaller scales in their places of work and within their families or social networks.

But any time words – or worse – are used to twist facts or to wound, it’s bullying. We Americans are mean girls at our core.  Hypocrites. Just like Jennifer.

“Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.” – author unknown

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The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Ken...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m not sure which is more startling. The fact that John Lennon would be just eight years younger than my mother today, or that the world is uniting to celebrate the birth of someone who’s been dead – and so basically ageless – for the last thirty years.

I remember when he died. I cried. He was my favorite Beatle for reasons that had nothing to do with anything rationale. I was sixteen. I liked the badder boys though they had to be brainy because I just couldn’t suspend my own intelligence to pretend that “badness” was enough. He wasn’t pretty. McCartney was pretty and the better looking the boy, the less likely he was to even notice me, so I disregarded them as a matter of expediency.

I would go on to prefer the George Harrison‘s of the world but only after several emotionally brutal lessons with the John Lennon’s of the world.

John Lennon was an asshole despite the whole “love, peace and Strawberry Fields” image he has today. He suffered no fools. He was a prick to his friends, a douchebag to his women and a questionable father.

But happy birthday.

Happy Birthday?

You don’t have birthdays after you die. It’s metaphysically impossible. We do the cake for dead people thing, but only for the kids. Dee goes back and forth. Some years she is totally down with a cake for her father and others, she prefers not because “it’s too sad”, and I am in total agreement with the latter. What could be more sad than deliberately stalking sadness and inviting it in for cake and ice cream?

But in the spirit of a rather morbid practice, here is my favorite Lennon tune:

 


Roadside Memorial Day

It had to happen. Roadside memorials being a bitch to set up and maintain and what with friends and relatives forever asking to see pictures of the latest anniversary or holiday grave decorating, a cemetery app was inevitable. It’s handy – literally – and Facebook update ready (I’m assuming because if one can’t update the graveside status for the FB peeps – what good is it really?)

And it’s creepy wrong on levels of levels. There’s so much that’s sick on both sides of this app – seller and buyer – that it’s hard to know where to begin.

It reminds me of prayer cards.

My Catholic experience with death and funerals includes holy “baseball cards” with pictures of the deceased, born on and expiry dates, a prayer of some kind and a cool religious icon on the front.

Which, I guess, is creepy too except that you didn’t carry them around and whip them out like the latest baby photos.


If I were going to write a memoir, that’s what I’d call it and then subtitle it with – Lather, Rinse and Repeat.

I bring this up for two reasons.

The first is that my blog reader is crammed with Eat, Pray, Love crap as the Julia Roberts adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book is opening or has opened.

The reviews are mostly “meh”. No surprise. The novel itself isn’t much. One review pronounced it too “talk-y” as in the character constantly describes how she feels and her observations about every freaking thing. As if a movie about a writer documenting her journey to enlightenment should be somehow more visual than word-packed.

My favorite review so far was written by Helena Andrews at The Root. It took up the theme of Gilbert’s book and named it “white girl problems”. Couldn’t have found a better genre for it.

White girl problems are essentially the non-issues the pale and the privileged focus on in the absence of actual adversity.

When I attempted to read Eat, Pray, Love, Will was just going into hospice. A book by a woman bemoaning her serial monogamy – that horrid pretty girl issue of having always been someone’s girlfriend or wife – while I was losing the only man I’d ever had a long-term relationship with in my entire 41 years didn’t go over well.

Sucks to be her, I mentally eye-rolled as I put the book on a shelf never to be cracked open again until I decided that some of her syrupy half-wit might be useful when I was writing comps for my education masters about six months later. I knew Gilbert was a poser but my professor didn’t.

Andrews though draws this awesome comparison between “white girl problems” lit/memoirs and a line from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. There is a scene where the Mad Hatter observes that in the real world, Alice has lost her “muchness”.

“You were much more … muchier.”

White girls in the real world then are searching for their muchness.

Gilbert’s muchness turned out to be the exact thing she thought was her problem – love and being in a relationship – because her journey ends when she meets the man she is now married to.

So much for issues.

Which brings me to my second reason, and it is related to the loss of muchness. My memoir. The one that’s pretty much written and is screaming to be edited and shopped.

I can’t.

I know. I have been saying that for a while now, but I am sure of the reason behind my reluctance. And it goes beyond my belief that books about overcoming tragedy by being plucky, witty and boot-strappy are so common place that they’ve become clichés onto themselves.

Rob followed a link to a widow blog and the author was describing her experiences at a Blogher style convention for widows complete with keynote speakers, author panels and how-to workshops. A couple of her encounters with people who’d mined literature from their experiences and turned them into books and/or workshops had left her feeling removed and as though she was possibly doing widowhood and grieving wrong.

And then I knew why I haven’t finished my memoir.

I can’t give people their muchness back. I could write a memoir, package it and sell it out of workshops and conventions, but a person’s muchness comes from within not from without.

I felt/still feel sometimes as though I didn’t do widowhood right. The way I felt, and the things I needed to do for myself, were often so out of step with other widows, books on grieving and even memoirs of widows that I wondered how I could be so far out in the weeds when everyone else seemed to know where the paved road was.

I can’t do that to someone else. Lead them to believe – even inadvertently – that I know the way.

Especially since I really don’t believe there is a process to grief or a one size fits all way to navigate the first year or that the whole honoring of someone’s memory should even be numbered in the top twenty of a person’s priority list.

The blogger mentioned how pleased some of the authors seemed with themselves, their lives and this opportunity to basically headline a conference. And I can totally understand her and them.

It’s amazing when people read what you’ve written and tell you it meant something to them. It would be easy to let that dominate and forget that the subject matter makes you more responsible to your readers than that of a fiction writer.

If what I write inspires someone, wow, but if it makes someone feel inadequate, wrong, or persecuted by the fates? Ouch. It would bother me the same way that the kid in my 3rd hour English class who’d given up because he’d never gotten a grade above a D used to bother me. Even though that wasn’t really my fault, I had to fix it. It was my job.

Memoirists open their lives for reasons that are far different from that of a fiction writer. It’s more than telling a good story. My story and opinions as a blueprint for grieving would be a responsibility like the one I took on as a teacher. And it would mean never fully closing the door. The pain would always have access of sorts to my now. A liberty that it doesn’t deserve and that I don’t owe it.

Besides, I’ve written my story – here and in a hundred different places all over the webosphere via comments and guest posts.

Purge, Pack and Move would be an awesome title though.  Sigh.