Sunday, December 20, 2009

Turkey and Mashed Potatoes

My brother Jimmy died in the summer of 2001, and my brother Danny followed him just a month later. Jim’s birthday, November 22, sometimes fell on Thanksgiving Day, and so Thanksgiving and the days leading up to it remind me and my family of Jim. Below is an excerpt from “The Jim and Dan Stories,” the book I wrote chronicling the grief process in the first 6 months after losing my brothers, titled “Thanksgiving."

The leaves are falling as fast as the words in my head are spilling onto paper. A squirrel scampers by and a sense of urgency fills the air. I must get this all down. Tie this together. I must think harder to recover memories of Danny and Jim that I can lavish in. I have an impatience to do it all now. Death is a real motivating force. It teaches us that we don’t have forever. Understanding our own mortality is an opportunity, urging us to re-set priorities.

After seeing death close up, it’s hard to write shopping lists or want to sweep the floor. I want to keep writing checks to The Salvation Army with Dan’s name on them, keep pasting Jim’s weather pictures into colorful books. I want to meditate on death and be of service to others.

It’s almost Thanksgiving and my family will gather together at my brother Joey’s house in Hanover, Massachusetts. “Jimmy always brought the mashed potatoes,” Joey’s wife Nancy said with tears in her eyes when she and Joey passed through here with Dan's cat Winslow. Jimmy never missed a holiday gathering, a family birthday party, a basketball game his daughter was playing in, or any family event, which I know will make his absence on Thanksgiving even harder for my family to bear.

When Jimmy was visiting me in Virginia this past July, he talked about his machine shop job and even that metal milling machine, the one that would kill him (I should have been taking notes). He also talked light-heartedly about a lone wild turkey that would visit the bird feeder outside the shop where he worked. A wild turkey is a rare thing where Jim lived, and it was probably the first time he saw one. After Jim died, I was at his house looking through some photographs he had taken. I saw a close-up of a turkey at a bird feeder and knew it was the one! I looked up “turkey” in an animal totem book and learned that the turkey represents a give-away, a sacrifice, or a gift, to Native Americans. I couldn’t help but look at the turkey and see an omen in it, or at least a good totem for Jim.

A turkey would be a great totem for Jim for another reason. His birthday was November 22 and would sometimes fall on Thanksgiving, as it will this year. I remember as a girl “Jim’s birthday on Thanksgiving” was the only time I was not interested in cake, not after all the turkey and fixings! I was always confused back then about why his birthday wasn’t always on Thanksgiving.

The words are winding down (for now) as memories of past Thanksgivings drift through my mind. Like a favorite dream I am trying to reconstruct, I superimpose those memories over the harsh reality, which is this: There are empty chairs at the table this year, and never has emptiness been so concrete.

Note: Originally posted on November 25, 2005.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Grief in the Long Term

Even a pen has a lifespan, I think to myself just as mine has run out of ink in the middle of writing a sentence. The pen doesn’t come back the following season like the leaves on the poplar tree outside my bedroom window will come back in the spring… ~ From “The Jim and Dan Stories” ~ by Colleen

During my husband’s study for his master’s degree in counseling, he did an internship with Hospice and helped to facilitate a grief group. Knowing my experience and interest in the grief process, he invited me to be a part of the group. I would have appreciated a support group after I lost my brothers, but it had been 3 years since their deaths, a little late for that sort of thing, I thought. Even so, my husband encouraged me to participate, thinking that I could be of help to others who had more recently lost loved ones, and eventually, I agreed.

Our first meeting – a small group of all women except for my husband – was held at the local library. For introductions, we were directed to go around the room and share with the group a little about ourselves and why we were there. I should have known when I had to hold back the tears while listening to other people’s stories that sharing wasn’t going to be easy, but I was still surprised to discover when it was my turn to speak that, even after 3 years, I couldn’t be counted on to articulate losing my brothers without falling apart.

How is this going to help others, I wondered? What happened to my open book philosophy of taking death and grief out of the closet? I could go to the Radford University class that was using my book as part of their grief and loss curriculum and talk about the book, what it was like losing my brothers, how I got through it. But on this day and with this group, I couldn’t seem to state the facts, form the tragic words, or even use their names without losing it. I felt like an alcoholic admitting a disease that I had thought I was in remission of. Hello, my name is Colleen and I lost 2 brothers. Jim died in a violent machine shop accident. I watched my brother Dan die of liver failure.

Ah, is this what they mean when they say that you can come to accept losing a loved one but that you never really get over it? It was a rude awakening to remember again that Jim and Dan are really gone and then to speak it out loud to others. But I learned a good lesson that day: There comes a point in the grief process when it’s not a good idea to pick at an old wound.

Note: Originally posted on on November 23, 2005

Monday, November 30, 2009

Love and Death

Death is like sex. It’s something everyone does, but you hardly ever see it, and no one talks much about it--not publicly any ways. Death, like sex, is raw. It demands that you give it its due. ~Colleen, The Jim and Dan Stories.

My poet friend, Mara, who I share a grief bond with and often play Scrabble with is in LOVE! When we played Scrabble last weekend, she was not only on the phone with her lover half a dozen times during our game, but she was playing Scrabble with her online…in-between turns.

Two-timer! I shouted across the table.

Three of us played that day, and when it wasn’t Mara’s turn, or she wasn’t on the phone, or playing online scrabble with her girlfriend, we talked about the paper she is writing for school, “Physical Symptoms of the Early Stages of Love and Grief: Exploring the Connections and Correlations.” Mara, who lost her husband a couple of weeks before my brother Jim died, can speak from experience on both.

Her paper begins: The initial reaction is disbelief. How could there be a connection between love and grief? One is positive, the other is negative – at least that is the common misperception. When some of the physical manifestations are examined, however it’s startling how similar the symptoms are. They mirror each other: mind, emotion, and most especially body. Loss of appetite. “Butterflies” in your stomach. Sleeplessness. The world becoming strange and surreal. Grief and love are different only so much as our perception changes them. They both change us inexplicably, often affecting our entire manner of viewing the world…

Besides the obvious similar physical symptoms of falling in love and losing someone you love, both are experienced with a wide open heart and both are tied up in longing. Does the body know the difference between tears shed for joy or for grief? And what about bittersweet tears that blur the lines of emotion, such as those brought about when in the presence of something painfully beautiful, feeling proud of your child when he leaves home, or being so deeply touched during lovemaking that you come undone.

Mara asks two good questions: Why do we continually strive towards love, not simply love of family, work, purity, but the eternally complicated conundrum of being “in love,” which tortures far often than it satisfies?

And… Why do we avoid grief with such a dogged passion? Why do we try to protect ourselves and those we love from the very realities of death? Often mourning provides similar heights of joy and clarity to the struggle and pain love can give.

Being with my brother Danny when he died was a gift, while at the same time it was a trauma. Even so, I look back on the last two weeks of his life that I spent with him in the hospital with such fondness. Every day I was excited to see him, knowing in the back of my mind that it might be the last time I could. With a heightened sense of awareness, I lost myself in caring for him. I saw only him and thought of only him, and when he was gone, I missed that one pointed focus. Maybe the experiences of love and grief are so related because with both you forget self, with both the illusion of separation falls away, and you are one with another human being.

Ultimately, what is grief, but an expression of love? The more love felt, the deeper the grief.

Note: Originally posted on on November 18, 2005

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Unbroken Circle

How come you can get 3 months off work for maternity leave and only about 3 days for bereavement? ~ My husband, Joe

When I wrote the Jim and Dan Stories, about losing two brothers a month apart, I was really putting myself and my family “out there.” And so much has come back to us because of it.

Since the publication of the book in 2003, I’ve received dozens of “thank you” emails and letters and phone calls from readers. Some have stunned me. Some have brought me to tears. And some I want to frame.

Today, I received one of those “frame-able” letters from a reader who lost her mother as a child. She wrote, “I wanted to write you and affirm how important your message about grief is and that it gets out to the larger community…Thank you, for publishing your writings; for sharing what’s in your heart!”

In reference to the book’s introduction in which I wrote about feeling like I was down in a hole and described writing the book as “taking field notes from grief’s frontline,” she had this to say… “By the end of the first page of “The Jim and Dan Stories” I was in tears and connecting with your experience. That hole that you speak of that one must dive deep into to fully encounter the feelings of grief doesn’t go away. For me, it’s just not so cavernous a place that I fall into any longer, but more like a familiar pothole on the road home.”

I feel privileged that readers of my book feel safe to share their own stories of loss with me, but that alone isn’t the most meaningful thing that sharing the book has brought me. What is even more awesome is that the book doesn’t just reach out and touch others. Those who have been touched by it often reach back and touch me.

Not only did this reader share her innermost self with me through the poetry she included in her letter, she sent me a copy of an article listing insights into grief, which starts out by announcing: “Grief has its own timetable; sometimes it never goes away.” Considering how shrouded and misunderstood the subjects of death and grief can be in our society, I found the tips – which come from a book by Therese Rando entitled “How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies – to be very helpful. They include (in part):

~ Your grief will take longer than most people think.
~ Your grief will show itself in all spheres of your life: psychological, social, and physical.
~ Your grief will depend on how you perceive the loss.
~ You will grieve for many things both symbolic and tangible, not just the death alone.
~ You may be obsessed with death and preoccupied with the deceased.
~ You may search for meaning and may question your religion and/or philosophy of life.

Touching others and being touched back is extremely rewarding. But there’s more. Reconnecting with old friends through correspondences and the reunion in Hull that was spurred by the book, making new bonds and friendships with people who have read the book all spring forth from the fact that my brothers, Jim and Dan, lived. They are the center from which it all has rippled out. Even this blog is an offshoot of the book that likely wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for them. Losing them was the impetus that propelled my writing forward and urged me to reach out and share.

Not only is the circle unbroken; it continues to spiral out.

Note: Originally posted on on November 11, 2005.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Writing as Grief Therapy

"Everything has its roots in the unseen world…Every wondrous sight will vanish…Every sweet word will fade." ~ Rumi

We buried my older brother, Jim, who died suddenly at the age of fifty-four, in July 2001. My younger brother, Dan, died a month later at the age of forty-nine. Since their deaths, life has had a sharper focus. There are things I can see that I couldn’t see before. If I can describe what I see from inside this hole, will it help others when they are down in one? What place is this? How will I survive it? How deep does it go? I want to know. I’ve never been here before. Can I make something constructive out of the powerless feeling of loss? Am I digging my way out, word by word? I’m writing Jim and Dan’s story because after living this story no other seems worth telling, because what else can I do down here, because there’s no where else to go. I’m writing Jim and Dan’s story because I’m proud of their story. I want to shout from the rooftop how irreplaceable they are. ~ From The Jim and Dan Stories, the Introduction.

After my brothers died – one unexpectedly in an accident and the other from an illness – I read lots of books on death. I wanted to penetrate the mystery of death (as if it was possible to) and find proof that I would see my brothers again.

Recently, on the Charlie Rose Show, Charlie was interviewing Joan Didian, author of “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Didian lost her husband unexpectedly while her daughter was ill, and then lost her daughter. I related to the unexpected death followed by a more likely one, and the fact that she dealt with her grief by writing a book about it, as I have.

On the show, she said something about her husband’s death that poignantly describes part of the grief process, “You get obsessed and go over and over it… trying to find a different ending.

My blog bio reads: “I write to synthesize what I’m thinking at the time.” Didian put it this way: I had to write to know what I was thinking.

When Charlie asked her what has been the hardest part of writing the book, I knew what her answer would be.

“Finishing the book,” she said. And then she went on to explain that writing her book was a way to stay in touch with her lost loved one. Finishing it was hard because, she had to let go of that connection.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Note: This was originally posted on on November 5, 2005.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Grief Bond

My poet friend, Mara, lost her husband, Cory, unexpectedly just before Jimmy died in July. She was with Cory when it happened. By October I was ready to drive out to visit her. We picked apples from her orchard and sat on the edge of the woods by a rock cropping, Cory’s favorite spot, and compared notes. “Do you want the community to start a food tree for you?” she asked. “No, I don’t want to see people now,” I answered. “I didn’t want to be alone,” Mara said. “I throw things away easier now, but I save things easier too,” I shared. She knew what I meant (something about knowing what was important and what was not) because we were speaking the same language. ~ From Death’s Poetry, The Jim and Dan Stories.

Mara and I share a love of writing as well as playing scrabble, but because she’s been busy with her creative writing classes at Hollins College, we haven’t seen each other much lately. Even so, she called me the day before I left for Boston to visit my father in the hospital, feeling that something was wrong.

“What can I do to help? Can I come over?” Mara asked when she learned that my father was in the ICU.

“I’m busy packing to go to Boston. Just keep me in your heart.” I answered, and then I added, in the language that we share, “I know that you know that I know you know, you know?”

Mara did know. She and I share what she has coined as “the grief bond.” And her phone call reminded me of another one described in “The Jim and Dan Stories…”

My friend, Mara, called to see how I was doing. I was crying over George Harrison’s death at the time. “I’ll call you right back,” I said… “If I had just lost a husband, it would be hard to find a few other people, let alone nine, who had just lost theirs and could offer support,” I said after she told me she was seeing a grief counselor. I had a built in support group! Is that why I couldn’t go a day without talking to my family members on the phone or through e-mail? Each of us has an individual way to grieve, yet I had nine others who really did know what I was going through. Two brothers dead a month apart, who else could relate to that? Mara had a little girl to take care of, and she hadn’t been back to the Pine Tavern to read her poetry since a woman there made a comment about her dress. “Red? I thought your husband just died,” the woman had said. Mara lost her boldness right there. ~From The Red Dress

Later, on the same day of our phone conversation, we ended up running into each other in town. She was coming from the Harvest Moon Health Food Store as I was on my way to it. We pulled over in front of "Oddfellas Cantina" and shared a big knowing hug on the side of the road… another language we have in common.

Update: I'm posting from the Hull Public Library. After this, my mother and I are heading out to see my father at the Tufts New Enlgand Medical Center. Over the course of the last few days, he has undergone several ups and downs. He's back on the ventilator but stable with that. He's lucidly present, which is a blessing. We're holding him in the light...

Note: From November 2, 2005.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Boston Bound

AKA Landing: I found the dentist’s appointment card while rummaging through my pocketbook on October 29th. I was cleaning it out in preparation for my trip to Boston to visit my father in the hospital. The card said my next cleaning would be March 20. Isn’t that my dad’s birthday? The first day of spring? Will he still be here then? I wondered as my heart sank.

Everything was moving too fast. Even the sun moves across the sky fast this time of year, making the hours in a day short, and the pace of my trip preparation frantic. But I didn’t mind. I was trying to hold onto every last bit of normalcy. I felt safe in the daily routines of my life, even if packing added some extra work. I worried about what I would find in Boston and knew that once my plane landed there that my life might never be the same. The hospital staff had told my family that my father needed surgery to repair a broken neck vertebra, which he sustained in a recent car accident. At that point, a ventilator was breathing for him, and he was being tube fed. We were beginning to fear a worse case scenario and were gravely concerned about him undergoing surgery at his age (81) and in his condition.

On my last day home, one of the last things on my to-do list was to plant the 8 daffodil bulbs that I had recently bought at the Garden Center. Last year, I planted tulips and held a few aside, hoping to plant them the following year, once I had a better idea of where I wanted them. But when this year came along and I opened the brown bag of tulips bulbs, I found that they had crumbled to dust. I didn’t know how long I’d be in Boston. The ground might be frozen by the time I get home. I might really need to be cheered up this spring, I thought while digging in the garden.

Everything I did on that last day had a sense of intention and permanence to it. I learned when I lost my brothers, Jim and Dan, 4 years ago that the last few weeks of someone’s life might as well be set in stone because those are the memories you will play in your mind, over and over. Will my dad still be here when these daffodils bloom was all I could think of as I buried them.

If he wasn’t, I knew that daffodils wouldn't be enough to cheer me up.

The Good News Update: My dad was transferred from the regional hospital he was in to the New England Medical Center, where, according to their reassessment of his condition, it was determined that he would not be operated on. When I saw him Saturday, he was breathing on his own, and we were all feeling more encouraged and hopeful for his eventual recovery.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Family Bonds

Love makes people ferocious. ~ Michael Mead

My family tends to go through dramatic events in pairs. First there was a sister and a brother who were both hit by cars when they were teenagers. Both were pedestrians about the same age and needing to change the life course they were on when it happened, both sustained broken legs which required surgery and hardware, and both went on to live with an older sibling after their long recoveries.

When one of my niece’s was fighting for her life due to complications of pneumonia, a nephew was coming into the world under emergency duress. And of course losing my brothers, Jim and Dan, four years ago was the epitome of a family pattern of tragic symmetry. Their deaths paralleled and intertwined as though a plan was unfolding.

Earlier this week, another unbelievable family story unfolded in a synchronistic way. It started when I received a shocking email from my sister, Kathy (who has also blogged about this), telling me that our youngest sister had a grand mal seizure and was in the hospital. It was not her first seizure, but the last one she had was 13 years ago, incredibly…on the same date as this one. Her two young sons, heroes of the day, were with her when it happened. The six year old called 911.

Later that day, a second shocking email arrived in my mailbox. My mother and sisters were with my youngest sister in the hospital when a nurse came in and asked if they knew Robert Redman, my father! My father had been in a car accident, and the nurse did some detective work after he told the hospital staff when he was admitted that his daughter had a seizure earlier in the day and was in the same hospital. One was in room 12, the other in room 21.

My sister is home now and doing well, but my dad is still in the ICU. Although he is expected to recover, I can’t help but think of Jim, who was killed in a crushing industrial accident, when I think about the impact that my father endured. And I can’t help but re-live the experience of being with Dan in the ICU the last weeks of his life when I hear the ups and downs of my dad’s daily progress. Emails and phone calls between family members are flying across the air waves, nerves are raw, and tears are on the surface, just like those last weeks with Dan.

Blogging can also be a vehicle of synchronicity. On the same day, I was held in the grip of this family crisis, my blogger friend, Lu, unknowingly reminded of the strong bonds and love I have for my family. She had recently read my books and then reviewed them on her site. Here’s what she said about "The Jim and Dan Stories."

"As much as this book is about colleen and her family and their tragedies, it is about my family and your family and anybody's family, it's about unconditional love and bonds that can’t be broken, its about memories and legacy, it is about the human spirit."

Thanks, Lu! It seems that the story goes on…and so does the strength of the human spirit.

Post notes: Family events occurring in pairs aren’t only those of a tragic nature. After the first 5 of us were born, the last four came in sets of two. These are the last two of the 9 Redman siblings in the early 1960s. They were inseparable at the time this photo was taken, and we could barely say the name of one of them without following it with the name of the other. This post was originally posted on in 2005.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Danny’s Shoes

It was the 4th anniversary of my brother Danny's death this past Monday. In honor of it, I’m posting an excerpt from The Jim and Dan Stories, the book I was compelled to write after losing my brother Jim, and then Dan, a month later.

Written in a conversational style, the book is structured by short seemingly disjointed stories that eventually tell a whole story, which is reflective of the way the mind re-members during the grief process. It's part a recounting of the last few weeks of my brother’s lives; part a humorous re-telling of growing up in an Irish Catholic family of 9 siblings during the 50s and 60s; and part a chronicle of the day to day living and writing my way through heartbreaking grief.

I thought I would post a favorite photo of Dan, but I can’t seem to bring myself to inject such a visual reminder into the present right now. There are photos of Jim and Dan and the rest of my large family (some of whom are mentioned below) on my website, Silver and Gold, a site dedicated to my brothers. My sister, Kathy, has also posted about losing Dan on "A Particularly Persistent Point of View."

The excerpt, “Shoes in the Closet,” is one of J&J’s Mom’s favorite, who said she laughed and cried while reading the book, sometimes at the same time!

My brother John had a dream shortly after Dan died. He had arrived at Dan’s apartment with the U-haul (which he actually did do weeks later) to close it down, and Dan was there. John was astounded! “Dan, you’re dead! How can this be,” he asked?

“I know I’m dead, but I’m all right,” Dan answered, and then he said, “And now it’s like Christmas.” The dream continued with Dan giving away his belongings to John and other family members.

We all wanted John, the only sibling besides me now who was not living in Massachusetts, to have Dan’s computer. “We want you online. We want to keep track of you,” I told him. John, the black sheep, hard drinking fisherman rouge, who had also contracted Hepatitis C from drug use in the 70’s and was now determined to stay sober in every way, sometimes needed to be kept track of.

When Kathy, Jeanne, (who came after my mother left), and I were staying in Dan’s apartment, we got a phone call from John. John had lived with Danny for several years in Quincy, Massachusetts, and then in Texas, and was particularly broken up. He cried when he asked us if he could do Dan’s eulogy. We all knew it was his calling, especially since our youngest sister, Tricia, had a dream that John was singing “Let it be” in the church during Dan’s funeral. He didn’t sing, but we did play “Let it be” the morning of the burial, and John did give a moving eulogy for Dan. We all choked up when he ended it with, “…Today we put my big brother Dano to rest beside his big brother Jim. I guess that makes me the big brother now.”

I called Dan’s apartment when John, Joey, and Nancy, who were going to drive Dan’s Toyota Tundra truck back to Massachusetts, were there to close it down. “I have a strange request. Bring me a pair of Dan’s shoes. I want to keep them in my closet,” I said. The request was related to one of my most vivid childhood memories, and one that has been re-stimulated with Dan’s passing.

When Danny was almost four years old, he went to Florida with our grandparents for the summer, but they ending up keeping him for a whole year. A year might as well be a lifetime in the mind of a child, in the minds of children. I was five and was rummaging through the room that Dan and Jim shared when I found a pair of Danny’s shoes in the closet. They were a 1950’s style, brown with white in the center. Finding them was an abrupt reminder of the brother I used to have, the one I had forgotten about, the one I wanted back! I carried those shoes around with me all day while I cried inconsolably. I wanted my parents to witness my anguish, so they would get my brother back home for me.

I asked for a pair of Dan’s shoes because I don’t want to forget my brother, the child he was, the man he was. I wish he could come back, like he did from Florida.

Note: The above was originally posted on on August 31, 2005.

Friday, November 20, 2009

I Will Remember You

This past Monday was the 4th anniversary of my brother Jimmy’s death. My brother Danny was destined to go a month after Jim. The photo is of my brothers, Bobby and Joey, raising Jim’s tribute flag at the 1st annual James Redman Memorial picnic, held at the Blue Hill Weather Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts, where Jim was a weather club member and volunteer. My sister-in-law, Jeanne, is our resident family clergy person who has married some of us. I attended the recent 4th annual memorial event when I was in Massachusetts. There, we came together as family and friends of Jim’s and at the end of the evening, Jeanne shared the following touching and original invocation.

We Remember

With the crash of the waves, We remember.
With the whisper of the wind, We remember.
With the sun on our face, We remember.
With every record breaking meteorological event, We remember.
With the storm on the horizon, We remember.

We remember that you are like the storm Jim,
just over the horizon, Though we cannot see you,
We remember that you are just beyond our view, waiting for us. And so it is with joy and gratitude that we remember. . .

The crash of the waves say "I love you".
The whisper of the wind says "I love you".
The sun kissing our face says "I love you".
I love you. . .we remember.

Note: “I Will Remember You” is the title of the song by Sarah Mclachlan that was played for Jim at his wake

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The White Feather

Walking on Nantasket Beach in my hometown peninsula of Hull, Massachusetts, makes me think of my brother Jim. Jim lived in Hull for most of his childhood and all of his adult life. He was an ardent weather enthusiast and a respected member of the local weather community who frequently took photographs at the beach, some of which were published. Later this month is the anniversary of his unexpected death in 2001, and The Blue Hill Observatory, where Jim was a volunteer, will be hosting the 4th annual Jim Redman memorial picnic (part of the reason I’m in Hull right now). After his death, the Observatory erected a flag with an inscribed dedication in Jim’s memory.

My brother Jim’s life and death were intimately intertwined with my brother Dan’s, who died a month after Jim did. This is the time of year that my family and I relive our heartbreak, and I find myself remembering a certain white feather.

Below is an excerpt from “The Jim and Dan Stories,” the book I wrote about losing my brothers.

It was a perfect white feather that must have just fallen, but it seemed to have been placed in my path just for me. I was walking on the beach in Hull, the beach that Jimmy so often took storm photographs of, trying to gather my strength for his funeral and thinking of the eulogy I was to give. I found myself picking up that feather to save in my pocket and then later putting it with Jim’s body when I said my last goodbye. For me, it represented other-world, freedom, and purity.

Weeks later, we were facing the worst with Dan in the hospital, an unlikely place for a white feather to show up, but it did. Jeanne, my sister-in-law, pulled it out of her pocketbook (not knowing about the white feather I left with Jim’s body), saying her daughter had given it to her. We called ourselves “the three ministering Mary’s,” Jeanne, my sister Kathy, and myself, tending Danny at his death bed, the way Mary Magdalene, Mother Mary, and her cousin did for Jesus. That was when it occurred to me that death faced willingly, and especially after suffering, was a sort of sacrifice and generator of grace. And didn’t Danny say “I’m all right” the first chance he got when the breathing tubes came off, the way Jesus said “forgive them, Father,” comforting us when he was dying?

We anointed him with “Three Wise Men Oil” that my aroma-therapist sister, Kathy, had brought. We placed the white feather on his pillow next to the pin of Mother Mary that an anonymous late night visitor had left there. When I find myself in times of trouble… Mother Mary comes to me… speaking words of wisdom... Let it be. The nurse removed the breathing tubes when Dan signaled he was ready, like taking Jesus down from the cross he was nailed to. After he died, I placed the feather safely in my journal to keep in remembrance of his passing, but later, when I went to retrieve it, it was gone.

Family friends arranged for a funeral reception at the Hull Yacht club, which was a stone’s throw away from where the house we all grew up in used to be. My husband, Joe, took a picture of Jeanne, Kathy, and I at the bandstand gazebo on the lawn. On the way over to the bandstand Jeanne picked up a white feather and gave it to me.
“You better take good care of this one,” Joe said.

“No, this one can go where ever it wants to,” I answered. After holding it awhile, I passed it back to Jeanne who wore it as an earring.

Weeks later, when that picture was developed, I was shocked to read above our heads in bold letters “DAN S MEMORIAL.” My Massachusetts sisters and mom drove down to the yacht club to take a second look. It actually said “DAN SHORT’S MEMORIAL BANDSTAND,” but in our picture some of the words were cut off.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Love Link

I recently posted a photo of my childhood home in Hull, Massachusetts, which was taken by eminent domain and burned to the ground to make way for a town sewage plant. Several people who loved that house as much as I did left comments. I also got this comment from a blogger friend, “I didn't realize that so many of your readers are your siblings. I'm a little jealous.”

“Well, there were 9 of us. So the odds of me getting some of my siblings to my blog are pretty good,” I told her. But the real reason more than half of my siblings and niece have been to my blog is probably because of something called “The LoveLink.” Let me explain…

After my brother Jimmy died unexpectedly 4 years ago, my brother Dan’s health, which was compromised by a liver disease, deteriorated rapidly. Because our family was still recovering from the shock of Jimmy’s death, a childhood friend of Dan’s flew with him back to Houston, where Danny had been living for the previous 22 years. He wanted to go home for “closure,” he told us.

He only got to spend part of one night in his own bed, before being transported to the hospital, where he remained for the next 2 weeks, until his death. Since it was looking pretty serious for Dan, one of us had fly to Houston to be with him. I volunteered. It wasn’t long before the doctor gave me Dan’s shocking prognosis and I called my sister, Kathy, to say, “Come now. I need you.”

In the weeks that my sister and I lived at Dan’s apartment, my mother came and left and my sister-in law, a hospice nurse, came just days before Dan passed. It was during this time that the LoveLink, an e-mail group consisting of mostly family members and a few Redman family fans, began. Each night, Kathy or I would type the day’s events and news about Dan to the group, who were hanging on our every word. It was actually called “The Sister Group” back then. I’m not sure why, because the brothers were online too. Maybe it was called “The Sister Group” because the sisters in my family are either more talkative than the brothers or they type faster.

After Dan died, I typed my last wrenching post to the group…For those of you who don’t already know, we lost our precious Dan today…and the e-mail group ended.

Just weeks after Dan died, the twin towers in New York came down. My niece, who also lived in Virginia, revived the e-mail group under the new name of VA/MA LoveLink so that we could keep each other updated on changing world events. Since that date, nearly 4 years ago, we haven’t missed a day posting something…political, personal, or comical… to each other on the LoveLink. Because Jim and Dan were online before they died, I can’t even bring myself delete my siblings e-mails, knowing how much Jim and Dan’s e-mails meant to me after the died, and fearing another loss.

I started blogging only recently, in March of 2004. I wanted my siblings to participate in my blog from day one, but it took time. Except for my sister, Kathy, who has her own blog, most didn’t completely understand the nature of blogging. I cut and pasted each day’s entry and sent it to the LoveLink… until slowly and occasionally some of them came to my site and even left comments.

It means the world to me when they do.

To read more of my family story you can go to my silver and gold website, which is dedicated to my brothers.

This post was originally published on on June 17, 2005.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Losing a Loved One

Death is real. It comes without warning. No one escapes it. Soon my body will be a corpse. ~ Buddhist passage

When my brothers, Jim and Dan, died a month apart in 2001, the reality of impermanence hit me hard. I’ve been reading about death and contemplating it ever since. Although I’ve experienced firsthand how it feels to have a loved one die, I still don’t understand death. Most of us don't. We know it happens, but when it happens in our own family, our innocence is shattered and our understanding is reduced to that of a child’s. Where do we come from? Where do we go? How do you lose a person? Below are some of my attempts at putting into words the stages I’ve lived through coping with loss over the last few years.

~ In the first year, you look the same, but you’re different. Someone who was a part of you is gone. You feel as if you’ve been abducted by aliens who have conducted experiments that have changed you. You look around for others who have also been abducted (lost a loved one) to compare notes with. You know those who haven’t lost someone close yet will be abducted someday too. But you can’t tell them much about it, because they won’t believe you.

~ The first couple of years: You know how it is when you’ve lost a tooth, and your tongue keeps going to the spot where the tooth used to be? Your tongue is drawn to feel the remaining sharp edges and to repeatedly examine the huge gapping hole left in the tooth’s place. You realize you’ll have to learn to eat differently. It’s sort of like that, losing someone you love. Your mind is compelled to review every detail of your loved ones life and death. It’s a seductive kind of torture that feels good while it hurts.

~ By the 3rd year after losing a loved one, you’re busy with your life. You don’t cry much. Things seem okay, but then you remember: They’re gone. They’re still really gone. It’s like getting the punch line to a very bad joke, over and over.

Note: This entry was originally appeared on on July 3, 2005. Please see my website for more information on this topic.