Monday, February 15, 2010

Finding Voice

After completing The Jim and Dan Stories, my writing didn’t abruptly stop, but the book had its own rhythm and timing and there came a point when the story was told. I continued to take notes and some stories came like aftershocks, too late to be included in the book. Soon, I put “The Jim and Dan Stories” aside and moved onto other things. The war in Iraq was gearing up at the time, and I had a lot to say about that, and so I let myself be consumed with writing political commentaries. I wrote a couple of small poems and went to my writer’s workshop, where I mostly gave feedback on other people’s writing.

“The Jim and Dan Stories” was published a year later using local resources. A few months after that when I was in my hometown of Hull, Massachusetts, I was interviewed by Susan, the editor of the Hull Times newspaper, about the book. I remember looking out from her large picture window onto the bay. It was a bright sunny day and a sailboat was going by. She was asking me some typical questions and taking down notes in a small notepad. Towards the end of the interview, she posed a question that caught me off guard. “What’s next?” she asked pointedly and put down her pen.

Writing a book is a bit like having a baby. There’s a point of conception, a gestation period, followed by hard labor and lots of aftercare. After you’ve had a baby, or have written a book, you feel pretty accomplished (having followed through with it) but you also don’t want to think about another one, at least not right away.

“I can’t imagine another story as compelling as what happened to my brothers and how it played out,” I eventually answered. Maybe I would put a book of poetry together (which I did), I suggested.

Back at home in Virginia, I wrote an update for my webpage about the trip. I began taking notes about my experiences following the book’s publication and the feedback I was getting. Even so, I felt uninspired, less alive than I did while I was writing the book, and as though I was a writer laid-off from my job. At that time, my muse was a lingering presence that manifested as a sense of weighty tension.

Three weeks after I returned home from Hull, the tension finally broke when Susan emailed me my first look at the newly published interview. In it she wrote, “The Jim and Dan Stories reads like a writer’s diary, a keenly observed, anecdotal account of small-town life nearly a half-century ago in Hull, and today in Floyd, Virginia …”

Susan’s descriptive naming of my style of writing was like getting permission to do more of it. Her words to me in the week that followed, as we struck up an e-mail conversation, were an encouraging validation as well. She said:

I don't think you need tragedy to find an audience for your work. Yours is an authentic voice and, whatever the subject matter, if you market the piece correctly, it will find an audience.

A downpour of writing soon ensued.

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on
October 9, 2006.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Grief: What to Make Of It

Remember when you were a kid and you made an ugly face and someone told you that you better watch out because your face could get stuck that way?

I recently came across the following description of grief in my journal: Grief is like the heat it takes to soften metal. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it will re-shape you. I think you have to want for it to re-shape you into something positive and valuable; otherwise it will only leave you hardened, stuck in a shape you will have to live with.

The writing I did after my brothers, Jim and Dan, died 5 years ago became the book The Jim and Dan Stories. Writing it was a form of active grieving and an attempt to shape something constructive out of loss.

Considering that Jim and Dan both worked in metal shops, I think my description is particularly fitting.

Dan would have been 55 today.

~ Orignially posted on Loose Leaf Notes on October 7, 2006.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What were you doing when it happened?

Death is a season rather than a single date. I hadn’t been home from the last funeral for even a week when the terrorist attacks on the U.S. took place--September 11, 2001. Two towers came down, one right after the other like my brothers did, killing over 3,000 innocent people. Now the whole country was in grief. Maybe I wouldn’t stick out so, like a sore thumb. From The Jim and Dan Stories.

The 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. is also the 5th anniversary of my brothers' deaths. My brother Dan, who was suffering with a liver illness, planned a road trip with our older brother Jim (a.k.a. "the weatherman"), thinking in the back of his mind that it might be a last chance for them to spend time together. They traveled from our hometown of Hull, Massachusetts, where Jim still lived, down the east coast, before heading back to Houston, where Dan lived and where Jim would fly home from. They went to a baseball game together, gambled in Atlantic City, saw the Vietnam War Memorial, and visited me in Virginia. It was Jim's first time visiting me and the first time he had been out of Massachusetts since he was in the Army during Vietnam and stationed in Korea. Two weeks after Jim returned from the trip, he died unexpectedly and tragically in a machine shop accident.

Dan missed Jim’s wake because he was too sick to attend, but he pulled himself together to make the funeral. My mother and I helped dress him that morning. Dan knew in his heart that as he watched his brother’s funeral, he was seeing what his own would be like. He died a month later in a hospital in Houston. My sister Kathy, sister-in-law Jeanne, and I were with him when he took his last breath.

It was my niece Chrissie, my only other family member who also lives in Virginia, who called on September 11th to tell me what had happened and to tell me to turn on the TV. I didn’t want to watch. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to see more death. And then it hit me. And then it sunk in.

The following is another excerpt from The Jim and Dan Stories:

Jim had his teeth cleaned a couple of days before he died. He left a “things to do” list on his night stand table. At Dan’s apartment, The Houston Chronicles piled up at the front door. The messages on his answering machine piled up too.

When someone dies, it’s like their life stands still and their belongings are frozen in time. All the details of everyday living that they worried about prove to be meaningless. They’re excused from all obligations. Their lives don’t wind down; they just stop.

The girl at the Pharmacy approached my mother cautiously, “Mrs. Redman, I thought you might like to have these,” she said. They were developed photographs of Jim and Dan’s trip that Jim never had the chance to pick up (probably one of the chores on his “things to do list”).

“Only Jim,” I thought when I heard he had taken pictures of clouds from the airplane window on his flight home from Houston.

“There are a couple of the World Trade Center buildings before they came down, taken from the highway. Can you believe it?!” my mother asked.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Love Apple - Noun: A Tomato

When someone close to you dies, you begin to look at life through the eyes they no longer have, or you find yourself doing things they loved to do because they no longer can. When I hear music that I know my brother Danny would have liked, I close my eyes and let it sink in, listening for him. I write checks to the Red Cross or give money to the panhandling homeless, because I know Dan, who died in 2001, did and would still if he was here.

My brother Jim was a weather buff who kept detailed daily weather records, photographed and videotaped storms, and volunteered at the Blue Hill Weather Observatory giving tours. Since he died, a month before Dan, I watch the sky more closely. When I see a particularly outstanding cloud formation, I want him to see it too, and I remember the story one of Jim’s colleagues at the BHO told about how Jim first fell in love with cloud watching. He was under one of his junk-box cars, fixing something, and complaining about it when he realized that he could watch the clouds from that position. From that day on he was hooked.

Today I ate a fresh garden tomato for my dad, who died this past November. It was a Big Boy, salted to perfection, just the way he would have liked it. I had practically eaten the whole thing before I realized what I was doing … enjoying it for him. It was sweet, plump, and red, like my dad, whose name was Robert Redman. I remember him sitting in his favorite kitchen chair by the red gingham curtained window, eating with gusto and smacking his toothless mouth. “Don’t you want one of these delicious tomatoes?” he asked me last summer when I was visiting him and my mom. He actually had gotten up at that point and was holding one under my nose in an attempt to entice me. I knew he was trying to pawn it off on me because there were others where it came from, in the patio, in the pantry, getting over-ripe. The boy in him, who grew up during the Great Depression, didn’t want it to go to waste.

“No, I’m not hungry,” I told him.

Today I ate a tomato for my dad. It’s the first summer he’s not here to eat his own.

Post note: You can read the WVTF radio essay I wrote about my dad HERE.

~ Originally posted on loose leaf notes on August 26, 2006.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Box of Kleenex

My sisters and I have an unusual family trait. We remember events by what clothes we were wearing at the time. On the day my brother Dan’s doctor at St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston told me that Dan would not likely recover from the liver disease he was battling, I was wearing a short dungaree skirt, a white tee shirt and a matching dungaree jacket. My hair was pinned up, and I had my favorite leather sandals on.

The doctor, who was wearing a white lab coat, spoke in an English accent, which gave his announcement a sense of formality and made the distance between his reality and mine seem more dramatic. A woman was with him, also in a white lab coat, holding a box of tissue. We were in the Intensive Care Unit, next to Dan’s room, and nurses in green scrub suits were walking by us.

I was trying to figure out where I could go to get away from what he was telling me. I wondered why he hadn’t taken me to a private room to tell me such devastating news. Dan only had a 2% chance of living … they weren’t going to perform liver transplant surgery with those odds, he said. The words 2% were the equivalent of a death sentence, but he spoke them as though he were giving me the fat content of a carton of milk.

If I was home I would have gone to my bedroom, shut the door and thrown myself on my bed. I wanted to hide my face in a pillow, but it seemed that the doctor and the woman with him were waiting for me to ask questions. They both stood silent, looking at me. I didn’t know how I was still standing because my legs felt like they were made of weak cardboard. I felt like I was holding up a body that I had ceased to inhabit. “Is that all you have to offer me, a box of Kleenex?” I was thinking. She held it out towards me like a box of candy, but I felt sick. “How could Dan be too well to be transplant priority one week and then too sick to withstand the surgery the next?” I was thinking.

I wanted to run, but I didn’t know where to go. Eventually, I found myself in one of the hospital bathroom stalls, where I locked the door and cried. I felt like a teenager back in high school when a bathroom stall was the only place we could get any privacy. We would go there if we had bad menstrual cramps, or to sneak a few puffs of a cigarette. But the innocence of those days was lost to me now.

The weight of what the doctor had told me was too heavy for me to bear alone. I was the only family member in Houston with Dan at the time. I thought about the phone calls I would have to make to the rest of my family. I worried about how I would get back to Dan’s apartment that night. Driving in Houston traffic terrified me, and I had no confidence in anything now.

Dan didn’t have the luxury of time, and so neither did I. I didn’t stay in the bathroom for long. I fumbled as I called my sister Kathy on a hospital phone, telling her that she had to come to Houston immediately because I needed her.

Once I knew that what I said to Kathy had sunk in and that she was on her way, we said goodbye and I hung up the phone. It was clear what to do next, the only thing I could, the thing I had done for a week before and would do for one week more; sit by my brother Danny in his hospital bed and just be there.

Post Notes: These are the countdown weeks leading to the anniversary of my brother Danny’s death 5 years ago. I recently came across the above as a sketched draft meant for The Jim and Dan Stories. Touching into the nerve that is exposed this time of year, I was able to finally finish it. The photo is a page from one of my collage journals (a photo of Dan is on the second page in the right hand corner). To read more about the summer my family lost Dan, and our brother Jim a month before, go to my website HERE, or click on the Loose Leaf category sidebar "Losing a Loved One."

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on August 18, 2006.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Remembering Jim and Dan

Joe paddled his kayak back to the house to get sunscreen. I was alone in the middle of the canal, drifting for a moment in my kayak when the realization hit me: It was 5 years ago on the same day that my brother Jimmy died. Like a wound scarred over is tough, I resisted the urge to soften, to dwell on his death and missing him because I’ve done so much of that in the past. It’s painful and doesn’t lead anywhere.

“Look at me now in a kayak, Jim,” I said to myself. Because he was an avid weather and nature enthusiast, I knew Jim would be as excited as a kid about the Osprey nest I was drifting near. As a single parent who never had any money for vacations, there was so much that he didn’t get to see.

But my wound is not impenetrable. The opening created by my thoughts about Jim grew wider over the next couple of days, especially on the drive home from our beach vacation when I was alone in my car, following Joe in the truck. I can never think about Jim without also thinking about my brother Dan, who died a month after Jim.

Dan was sicker than anyone knew. He planned a road trip to spend time with Jim, thinking in the back of his mind that it might be his last chance to pull something like that off. When Jim died unexpectedly in a machine shop accident two weeks after returning home their road trip, the first thing Dan said was, “It supposed to be me, not Jim.”

I can only imagine what it was like for Dan to experience his brother’s funeral and burial knowing in his heart that he was watching what his own would be like. I remember giving Jim’s eulogy from the pulpit at St. Ann’s chruch and looking out at all my sibling’s faces, especially Dan’s. It was drawn and discolored from the liver illness he was battling. He looked like he was straining to understand how Jim could have died and was hoping I would say something to explain.

I listened to Jack Johnson on the drive home, a musician that my son Josh introduced me to, after I had complained to him repeatedly that I needed some new musical inspiration and didn’t know where to begin. “Wouldn’t Danny love Jack Johnson,” I thought, and with that thought, the way opened for a flood of others that caused my best defenses to crumble.

I was so proud to have turned Danny on to The Dave Matthews Band, because it was usually him introducing me to new great music. One of the last and most vivid memories I have of Dan comes from our last family Labor Day cookout at my sister Kathy’s house. Dan wanted to share his new John Mellencamp CD, so some of us went up to the living room to listen. Kathy and I were dancing to “Your LIfe is Now,” and Dan just got soulful … See the moon roll across the stars …See the seasons turn like a heart … Your father's days are lost to you … This is your time here to do what you will do … Your life is now … Dan walked around snapping his fingers, swayed a little, and then stood still with his eyes closed and let the song sink in … Would you teach your children to tell the truth … Would you take the high road if you could choose … Your life is now.

After wiping away my tears, I looked up and saw the most magnificent cloud formation, dark and silver lined by the angle of the sun, hopeful.

“Wouldn’t Jim just love this cloud!” I thought.

Post Note: To learn more about Jim and Dan, go HERE. The above was originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on July 28, 2006.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sibling Grief: A New Book

I’ve been trying to understand the unfathomable depth of blood ties that rose up in me and my family members when Jim and Dan died. In looking closer at the sibling relationship, I realized that siblings, who have the same mother and father, are closer biologically than any other relationship. The only way to be closer is to be a twin. ~ From The Jim and Dan Stories

When I lost my 2 brothers in 2001, I was overwhelmed with grief. I might have wondered if the degree and length of it was normal if it wasn’t for the fact that I had 6 other siblings who were obviously as stricken as I was.

Losing a parent is painful, but it’s something we expect to eventually have to deal with. Losing a child is unthinkable, and every one understands the heartbreak of losing a mate. Why did losing my adult brothers, who didn’t even live in the same state as I did, feel like an amputation, as though I had literally lost a part of me? I suspected that there was more to sibling loss than our culture lets on.

In my search to better understand the unique aspects of sibling grief, I found “The Sibling Connection,” an online site hosted by Pleasant Gill White, Ph.D. Ms. Gill is not only a counselor who specializes in grief and loss, she is also a survivor of sibling loss herself. When she was 15 years old she lost her 13 year old sister.

Within minutes of reading the information shared on The Sibling Connection, I better understood the magnitude of the sibling bond and felt supported in my grief: When someone has been a part of your life since birth, your identity is based on having them there. They form a part of the field or background from which you live your life, and as such, they are essential. They make up part of the unbroken wholeness that defines who you are. This relates to the concept of birth order. When the first child is born, he or she develops certain characteristics and talents. Other siblings will most likely choose other characteristics to develop in order to differentiate themselves from each other ... siblings actually loan each other their strengths …

The Sibling Connection provided me with my first introduction into “bibliotherapy,” using books on grief to access one’s own feelings. Because the site included a list of grief and loss books, I emailed Ms. White and then sent her a copy of the book I wrote about losing my brothers, “The Jim and Dan Stories.” She reviewed the book for her January 2004 online newsletter and listed it on her site.

Last week I received this in an email: Do you remember me? I am Pleasant Gill White from the Sibling Connection. I wanted you to know that your book inspired me to write one of my own. It is called Sibling Grief: Healing after the Death of a Sister or Brother ...

After we re-established our connection, she sent me a copy of her new book, which arrived today. Not many books can cause me to cry on the first page of the introduction, but this one did: My sister did not know that she was dying and we were not supposed to tell her. But one dark night, as I sat in a chair, leaning on her hospital bed, I thought she was asleep. Out of the silence, she began to speak. “Promise me you will keep on singing,” she said quietly. “Promise me you will go to college,” Ms. White wrote.

And this insight on page two is worth the price of admission: In some ways our siblings never age. If they die when we are adults, we feel the loss of the child they once were. If they die when we are children, we grow up and feel the loss of the adult they would have become. It’s true that when my emotions about Jim and Dan surface, I’m often grieving the loss of our childhood together and them as the children I remember so well.

After they died, I was profoundly changed, but I didn’t look any different to others. I experienced not only an identity crisis, but a sense of alienation in my own community because no one in my immediate surroundings, apart from my husband and sons, knew my brothers. Here’s what Ms. White has to say about the feelings of alienation that may come with the loss of a sibling: When adults lose a sibling, they often feel abandoned by society. The sympathy goes to their parents, but brothers and sisters are supposed to "get over it" quickly so they can comfort the parents or replace the lost sibling. This is one of the reasons why adult sibling loss falls into the category of "disenfranchised grief". Bereaved individuals are encouraged to feel guilty for grieving too long.

A large component of Ms. White’s book deals with using creativity as means of healing. Although I never related to the standard stages of grief that I read in other books, I resonated with Ms. White’s “Five Healing Tasks,” which are: 1. Learning about sibling loss and the grief process. 2. Allowing yourself to grieve. 3. Connecting to other bereaved siblings. 4. Telling your story. 5. Finding meaning in the loss.

A sampling of intriguing headings found in the book include: Bridging the two worlds, My scrapbook Life, How children grieve, Sibling rivalry beyond death, Seeking a new identity, The energy of grief, and The best gift.

Drawing on hours of research, counseling others, and personal experience, Ms. White’s contribution to sibling loss is a valuable and insightful life’s work. Like her online site, her book offers a wide range of resources, personal stories, and even poetry. I highly recommend it for anyone who has lost a sibling, and I thank her for writing it.

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on July 17, 2006.