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.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

My brother Jim, who was a lover of storms, was more at home with the elements than he was with people. As the stories progressed, his essence began to emerge as the mysterious changing qualities of the moon. Dan was compassionate and generous. His bright light was personified by the sun. A silver and gold thread began to shine through the dullness of my grief and weave itself through the stories. The mythical presence of Jim and Dan, expressed through dreams, symbols, and the coincidences that my family and I shared, supported me in my grief and became the signposts out of it. ~ From “The Jim and Dan Stories

“Two words,” I said to my husband as we were walking through the front door of Sal’s Restaurant, ready for a late supper.

“Cue cards,” I blurted out.

It was 9:00, and we had just come from the Radford University grief and loss class that is using my book, “The Jim and Dan Stories,” as part of their curriculum. I was the guest speaker, and Joe was telling me what a good job I had done. For once I didn’t deflect his feedback.

It was the 3rd time I had spoken to a class of Radford University counseling students in the last 2 years, and so I suppose my improved public speaking abilities could be due to the fact that I’m finally getting the hang of it, but it was also the first time I used noted index cards, and I think they helped immensely.

In “The Jim and Dan Stories,” I mentioned my ongoing fear of public speaking, so this group of 16 who had all read the book, smiled knowingly when I shuffled my index cards and began our hour-and-a-half together by saying, “I write better than I talk.”

Having my husband, a former counseling student who enjoys speaking to groups, by my side gave me an added boost of confidence. Although he injected less than he has in the past, he was able to overview the direction of the presentation, gauge the responses of students, and remind me to slow down when necessary. He also logged onto my webpage and blog and displayed them on a screen for everyone to see.

The evening included a show-and-tell of newspaper articles about the book, photographs, a scrapbook, and emails and letters from readers. My index card notes of talking points included headings such as; How the Book Came About, The Shadow Epilogue, The Turning Point in My Grief Process, What has happened since Writing the Book, The Hull Village Reunion, and Grieving My Father's Death. When my mind either went blank or became overloaded with what I wanted to say, I could glance down at my index cards and stick to my own script. Other times, I could refer back to them, after having veered off into a class-led discussion.

In the chance that the students might be hesitant to be vocal, I came equipped with a short series of questions that past readers had asked and a few questions that I like to ask readers, but I didn’t need to use them. The class, mostly women of various ages, was welcoming, intimate, and engaging.

In closing, I read “The Black Feather,” an account of a recent transpersonal experience related to my father’s death in November. By the look of the wet eyes in the room and by the feel of the hugs at the end of the evening, I knew it was a worthwhile shared experience, one that I would find myself thinking about later.

On my way out of the building, a woman who had been in the class but had not spoken a word approached me shyly and asked, “Just how did you conquer your fear of public speaking? I’m not even able to speak up in class.”

“I’m still working on it,” I answered. “The more I do it, the easier it gets. But it’s never easy, even with cue cards,” I told her.

Outside, I emerged, feeling like I had passed a milestone. Looking up, I noticed that the sky was filled with an amazing formation of large clouds. Seeing them, outlined by the gold of the setting sun, I instantly thought of my brother Jim, the weatherman, and my golden-hearted brother Dan. The clouds were like a “thumbs up” from them and a visual validation of something I had just said in the class. Death doesn’t only take away. Because Jim and Dan lived and because I wrote about them, so much love and insight has been given, received, and shared.

~Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on July 3, 2006

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Black Feather

On the same day my father was in a car accident that eventually led to his death, my sister, Tricia, had a grand mal seizure. Family members were in the hospital supporting her when my father was wheeled in on a stretcher. His vital signs were fine. He was talking and joking, coherent enough to tell the nurses that his daughter had just been admitted that morning. Although we were shocked by the turn of events and amazed by the synchronistic line-up, the phone calls and emails spanning the seven-hundred miles between my family in Massachusetts and my home in Virginia were encouraging. We thought my father was being kept overnight for routine observation.

When I called Tricia’s house the day after her seizure, I choked up when I asked her husband how she was. I was stunned when he said, “I’m more concerned about your father.” My eighty-one year old father had a broken vertebrae in his neck. He would have to be put in a brace and would likely be bed-ridden for some time.

The screen door slammed behind me as I headed out to the mailbox. Walking our long gravel driveway with woods on either side, I was absorbed in thinking about my father when I was startled by a SWOOSH, and then the loud flapping of wings. A brazen vulture had swooped down close to my head, and then, as quickly as it had appeared, disappeared into the woods.

I don’t remember what mail came that day, but I was midway in my walk back to the house with a stack of it in my hand when I looked down and noticed a large black feather in my path. A white feather had appeared in a similar manner just after my brother Jim died, four years before. Another white feather turned up a month later, before the death of a second brother. A part of me knew the instant I picked up the black feather that my father’s journey out of this world had begun.

He endured six weeks of hospital interventions and complications before he passed away. It was a heavy loss with layers of grief that took time for me to process. Six months after he died, I wrote a poem after waking up in the morning with a sense that he had kissed me on the cheek. I called the poem “My Father’s Kisses.”

From the creased and fading underlining
of the mind’s lived-out stories
I summon them up
to soothe a new hurt

Although my father was sober in the last two decades of his life (except for an outbreak following the deaths of his sons), he struggled with alcoholism all his adult life. He was nineteen when he joined the army as an artillery soldier in WWII. Combat was almost more than he could bear, but it was witnessing first-hand the inhumanity at Buchenwald Concentration Camp that he always claimed broke him. Later, as a father of nine children, providing for a family of eleven took a further toll.

After the last kiss goodbye I mourned
the part of him that was always absent
compelled to purse his lips for a kiss of death
against the slippery edge of a glass or bottle

My father was a playful, loving man who expressed his affection as easily as he did his anger. I both loved and feared him when I was a child. I struggled writing the poem. It was like a lid on a Pandora’s Box of emotion that needed to be lifted slowly.

If actions speak louder than words
then his kisses should drown out my hurts
the sting of his words harshly spoken
under the influence of post traumatic stress

Stupid little shit
and other figures of speech
that leave indelible marks on young children

Can you make it all better, daddy?
I’m afraid when you yell like that

I don’t normally post long personal poems on the online journal that I keep, but I impulsively posted “My Father’s Kisses” on Father’s Day, the first since my father’s death. The discomfort that followed was unexpected and dramatic. I felt as if I was “in trouble” for sharing such a personal poem. I worried that my words would disturb others and wondered how my family would receive it. As my distress intensified, I couldn’t sort out what was rational or irrational about my fear. I not only thought about deleting the poem, but I worked myself up to the point where I considered not writing on my weblog anymore.

In response to my anxiety, my husband, Joe, suggested we go for a walk. By this time I was aware that the poem had unearthed a dark childhood fear. I knew I had done nothing wrong; but I still felt threatened. Walking on the dirt road paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were immersed in conversation, reviewing the roots of my feelings, when Joe stopped abruptly in the middle of the road.

“Why are you making us stop?” I demanded. “I need to either keep moving or go curl up in the fetal position somewhere.”

He just stood looking at me until I gave in and let out a big sigh.
“That’s why,” he said.

I took his hand and we began walking again until something in the periphery of my vision caught my attention. It was another black feather, about eighteen inches long. I wanted to believe it meant nothing, but I knew it was mine to pick up.

Turning it over in my hand, I reminded Joe about the first black feather that appeared the day after my father’s car accident. “Did you know he was the only one who knew I put a white feather in Jim’s coffin? He was nearby and saw me do it,” I explained. “He asked like a curious little kid what it was for. I told him – purity, journey, freedom – and he smiled like he was learning something new.”

Joe and I walked in silence after that. With my hands clasped together behind my back, holding the feather in one of them, I shifted into a timeless place. With my head down, I watched my feet move, feeling the reverberating cadence of each step. The dirt road became the sandy shoreline of my childhood home; the dusty gray gravel was beach pebbles. I felt small like a little girl again, and the feather quill I was holding onto was like holding my father’s hand.

With that realization, a feeling of peace floated over me. I knew my father was pleased that my poem told the truth of his story. I felt his presence bearing a message: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to use your voice.

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on June 30, 2006.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Book: Fulfilling Its Higher Purpose

My book, The Jim and Dan Stories, started with a poem I wrote about being with my brother Danny in the hospital when he was taken off life supports – like taking Jesus off the cross he was nailed to… He died 3 hours later.

After the poem, I wrote a tribute about the deaths of both my brothers, Jim and Dan. Jim died in August of 2001 in a machine shop accident, and Dan died a month later from liver failure. The tribute was published in the town newspaper in Hull, Massachusetts where my eight siblings and I grew up.

After the tribute, I got out my notebook, thinking I would write some more poetry to help me process my grief; instead, “The Jim and Dan Stories” poured out of me. The original poem and the tribute got incorporated into the new writing, which I didn’t realize would end up as a book.

Once I knew it was a book, I didn’t know I was going to publish it.

After I knew I was going to publish it, I thought I would do so in a small number for family and close friends.

When the first printing of 300 books was done, I thought I was going to get stuck with lots of extra books.

When the first 300 sold in a few months time, I had another 300 printed up. Again, I thought I was going to get stuck with a lot of extra books.

When I sold that 300 and invested in a 3rd printing of 300, I thought I would surely get stuck with those.

I’m now more than half-way through the 3rd printing and wondering about a possible 4th.

Will the day ever come when someone asks about “The Jim and Dan Stories” and I say, “Oh, I don’t have any copies of that anymore?

Post Notes:
The cover design of The Jim and Dan Stories was done by my brother-in-law, Nelson Pidgeon. For more information about the book, how it came about and what has happened since it’s been published, visit my website, Silver and Gold, which Nelson is also the creator of.

~ Originally posted at loose leaf notes on April 18, 2006.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Strong in the Broken Places

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. ~ Ernest Hemingway

“Strong in the Broken Places” was the theme of the art show that hung on the walls of The Glade Baptist Church where I met with the woman’s book club group that had just read my book, The Jim and Dan Stories. It didn’t occur to me until the next day how fitting it was that I was talking about the deaths of my brothers with a group of women in a room adjacent to an art show with such a theme.

...I didn’t know when I began writing that to tell my brother’s story I also had to tell my own. I knew it was a family story, but I was surprised to discover that Jim and Dan’s deaths revealed an identity crisis in me, one that was underscored by the distance between my childhood home in Massachusetts and my present one in Virginia. Writing became a way to bridge those two places, and a way to piece together what was shattered in me. It was like a broken mirror was being put back together with each memory retrieved, so that I could see myself again. ~ From The Jim and Dan Stories, introduction.

Alex is a multi-media artist who I sometimes play Scrabble with. I gave her a copy of “The Jim and Dan Stories,” insisting that we make a trade after she gifted me with one of her handmade necklace creations. Once she read the book, she recommended it to her book club, which is how I came to be in the church that evening.

We met at Zeppoli’s, a Blacksburg Italian restaurant that makes home-made pasta, before the book club meeting at 7 pm. Alex arrived first. I found her sitting in a dark corner of the restaurant and immediately noticed that she didn’t look right, as if she was holding her breath. It didn’t take long for her to blurt out what was wrong; she had put down her favorite old horse that very day and was grief stricken about it. I tried to console her and wondered out loud if she would have the emotional stamina to attend the book club. What was the alternative, she questioned? She didn’t want to go home and be reminded of what had happened. At least the book club topic would be relevant.

At the church, while touring the art show, Alex shared that just days before in the same room the book club members were beginning to gather, she taught an art class on making mosaics. What kind of church hosts art shows and classes and has a giant mosaic with the word JOY spelled out hanging over the altar? Baptist is part of the church’s identity, but they have recently chose to be affiliated with the United Church of Christ because, "The UCC placed a comma in our lives where the Southern Baptists had placed a period," the pastor, Kelly was quoted on the United Church Press webpage as saying.

Alex made the Joy mosaic with shards from the minister’s own prized pottery that had been broken in an accident. It hung above the altar well before the “broken in the strong places” show. Perhaps it was the inspiration behind the show’s theme.

But I was there to talk about my book, and I did. The women were welcoming, the format informal. I was moved by how willing they were to share their own stories of losing loved ones, and I’m still thinking about some of the questions they asked me.

Sometimes memorable events can mean even more to me after they’ve happened. The next day, I was able to step back and see the theme through the previous evening that was not just the name of the art show. Alex’s mosaic was another fitting piece to the art of the evening, and so was my book. It too was like a mosaic, one of broken pieces and retrieved memories constructed by words to tell a story of love.

Even the book group related to the theme. We were a roomful of different women coming together as a whole to talk about grief and loss in an effort to make meaning out of it.

~ First posted on loose leaf notes on April 5, 2006.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Weather

AKA: We’re All in It Together

After my brothers, Jim and Dan, died, I went through an identity crisis, which caused me to question why I lived in Virginia when the rest of my family was in Massachusetts. One factor that complicated my distress was that, besides my husband and sons, no one in my close-knit community knew my brothers. While I had 6 other siblings, five of them back in Massachusetts, grieving along with me, here in Floyd I was, for the most part, grieving alone. But I wanted everyone to know my brothers and to know how much their lives mattered. It was a desire that became the impetus that led to my writing a book about them.

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. ~ excerpt from “Down in the Hole” from the introduction to The Jim and Dan Stories.

After the book came out and many people in my community read it, the sense of alienation I felt changed, as people approached me with feedback and comments about my brothers. My brother Jim especially made an impression with readers, probably because he was such a paradox. Jim, was opinionated, pessimistic, capable, constructive, and (regardless of how much he complained) passionately engaged in life. He was also an avid weather enthusiast who published weather photos, worked at The Blue Hill Weather Observatory as a volunteer, and was well known and respected throughout his local weather community.

The Blue Hill Observatory, where Jim volunteered, is planning a dedication ceremony to honor him. They’re raising money to erect a flag with a tribute to Jim inscribed on a plaque set in its base…All this for a guy who didn’t think he accomplished much in life, a guy who, when I asked him, “Jim do you think you’d try for a liver transplant if you need it (for Hep C)?” answered, “No, give it to someone who enjoys life!” A guy who, when asked by Kathy with a video camera, “Who are you?” answered with a laugh, “A loser.” A guy whose key chain read, “Not a happy camper.” ~ From The Jim and Dan Stories

I reached a turning point in my solitary grief and knew that writing the book made a difference when, while at a community gathering just after Hurricane Isabel, a friend approached me and said, “Wouldn’t your brother Jim just love all this weather?”

More recently, another Floydian asked, “Did you get those photos I emailed you?”

“No.” I answered. “My computer was probably in the shop. What were they of?”

“A photo of my baby girl…and some weather photos. I was thinking of your brother Jim when I shot them.” he said.

Missing Jim and Dan and grieving their deaths is something I’m still involved in. I know that because I’m crying as I type this. But the sadness is mixed now with a sense of gratitude that I’ve been able to share a small part of who they were with others who wouldn’t have known them otherwise.

Photo: On the back of the above photo that Jim took, he wrote: Virga at Sunset over Boston. I looked up the word and learned that “virga” is “any form of precipitation that doesn’t reach the ground.”

January 31, 2006

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Bibliotherapy means using the reading of books (or the watching of movies) as a way to heal yourself, gain insight, or solve a problem. ~ from The Sibling Connection

Suppose you were struggling with grief after losing a loved one, and so you sought out a grief counselor for guidance. Because it is often less threatening to deal with painful emotions indirectly, your counselor might use a treatment modality called bibliotherapy, suggesting a book for you to read or a movie to watch with themes that relate to your issues. I first learned about bibliotherapy when my book, “The Jim and Dan Stories” was reviewed by Pleasant Gill White, Ph.D. and listed in the bibliotherapy section of her sibling loss website, The Sibling Connection. Some of the ways bibliotherapy can help facilitate healing, listed on the website, include: It can give you a vocabulary, reduce your feeling of isolation as you recognize characters who remind you of yourself, and help you work through your grief experience by giving you an opportunity to compare and contrast your experience with others.

But you don’t need a therapist to practice bibliotherapy. Some who are coping with loss will find themselves instinctively reaching for books and movies about death and grief. After losing my brothers 4 years ago, I did. I browsed through so many books on death that I can’t remember one from the other now. “Tuesdays with Morrie” was one I do remember that was so good I bought an extra copy to have for lending to others.

Over the last few years only a couple of movies with death and grief themes continue to stand out in my mind. One is “Moonlight Mile” with Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman, and the other is “In America” about an Irish immigrant family who lost their young child. I saw both too long ago to comment on in detail, other than to say that they were deeply moving and dealt with the subject intelligently and sensitively and in a way that I could relate to.

I recently saw another movie to add to this list of favorites. It’s an independent Canadian film made in 2003 called “My Life Without Me.” The plot line described on the video box that drew me in was something like: Young woman conceals the fact of her terminal cancer to live her life with a passion she never had before.

In the movie, the main character, played by Sarah Polley, decides to face death on her own terms. She rationalizes that by keeping her pending death a secret she will spare her family months spent crying in hospital corridors and eating bad cafeteria food. She sets about to make her children audio tapes for each birthday, reunites with her incarcerated father, looks for a new wife for her husband and mother for children, and explores doing things she’s never done before. It’s sad but not sappy with balance of tragedy and resolution, and the fact that the lead role was a strong female character wasn’t lost on me. One reviewer summed the movie up like this…it makes you think twice about what’s really important and a movie that can do that is a movie worth seeing. Ultimately, that’s probably the underlying reason that I’m involved in the study of death.

My Life Without Me and the other movies I mentioned will probably make you cry, but you won’t feel manipulated to do so, as with some Hollywood fare; at least I didn’t. But why watch movies that you know will make you cry? How can that be therapy? I think watching movies about death when you’re grieving can act like a homeopathic remedy, aligning with feelings you’re already having and bringing them to the surface for you to plainly see. Another reason not to avoid what you know will make you cry refers back to a line in the The Jim and Dan Stories, the book I wrote after losing my brothers: “The sadness is already there… the crying just lets it out.”

~ Originally posted on January 27, 2006.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bridging the Grief Gap

“Drop by drop we cry a river of tears and the earth is washed with our love.” ~ Jan Seivers Mahon, reader of the Jim and Dan Stories.

I received an email recently from a subscriber of the Museletter, the monthly community forum that I co-edit. She was thanking me for my written contributions that have appeared in the publication, particularly recent ones on the subjects of death and grief. I think she was referring to my questions, posed to author Joan Didion, ‘Is it any stranger to think that a loved one can return from death than it is to accept that they died in the first place? Isn’t the vanishing as fantastic as the idea that they might return from it?’ when she commented that her take on death was similar to mine…that maybe there isn’t any.

I appreciated her feedback, as I appreciate any conversation about death and grief that others are willing to have with me because too often it can be an awkward subject that people avoid. Death and grief have played heavily in my recent life and to not acknowledge that or not talk about it with others tends to make me feel invisible. But I haven’t pinned down any one fixed take on death, and I don’t think I ever will.

I emailed her back saying that my study of death is ongoing. On a lighter note, I added, “I might be willing to die just so I can penetrate the mystery of it. That’s how curious I am!”

A few days after that, Pearl, a Loose Leaf reader, left me an intriguing comment. Knowing that I’m engaged in an in-depth exploration into the mystery of death, she sent me a link to some writing on the subject, which ultimately led me to “Dan Blogs,” authored by a man who had recently lost his wife and whose insights I found to be fresh and honest. He wrote: Actually, I think it's more accurate to say that you aren't dead until everyone of whose social atom you are a part is dead. This is because we don't live solely inside our bodies, we live outside them, too. We are social beings. We are defined by, we come into existence through our relationships.

I was so affected by my brother’s deaths four years ago, that I felt like I had been abducted by aliens. I found myself looking for others who had also been abducted so I wouldn’t feel so strange and alone. I still feel like that but to a lesser degree, and since then have lost my father, which is why I gravitate to others who are dealing with loss and why I was interested in what Dan had to say on his blog. I particularly liked his post entitled “Time doesn’t heal. The only way out is in.” In it, he writes: What does happen over time is that memory of the loved and lost begins to fade and so the daily experience of pain at the loss reduces. You begin to form new life patterns so the reminders of the difference gradually diminish. This isn't healing the wound, though. It is simply the wounding process winding down. The knife gradually being withdrawn…

He also has a post titled, “What to say and do with someone who has lost a loved one,” which is something I also wrote about in “The Jim and Dan Stories.” I know from experience, as one who has been changed fundamentally by loss, that it’s better to say something, as awkward as it may be, than to say nothing to those who are grieving. Even a knowing gesture can offer a bridge to a person who is feeling alienated by grief.

I don’t think our culture prepares us for dealing with the death of a loved one (particularly when it doesn’t come at the end of life, which is considered more normal). I think it's up to us. We need to reach out to each other.

Posted by Colleen at 8:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)
Bridging the Grief Gap

iceshadow.jpg“Drop by drop we cry a river of tears and the earth is washed with our love.” ~ Jan Seivers Mahon, reader of the “Jim and Dan Stories.”

I received an email recently from a subscriber of the Museletter, the monthly community forum that I co-edit. She was thanking me for my written contributions that have appeared in the publication, particularly recent ones on the subjects of death and grief. I think she was referring to my questions, posed to author Joan Didion, ‘Is it any stranger to think that a loved one can return from death than it is to accept that they died in the first place? Isn’t the vanishing as fantastic as the idea that they might return from it?’ when she commented that her take on death was similar to mine…that maybe there isn’t any.

I appreciated her feedback, as I appreciate any conversation about death and grief that others are willing to have with me because too often it can be an awkward subject that people avoid. Death and grief have played heavily in my recent life and to not acknowledge that or not talk about it with others tends to make me feel invisible. But I haven’t pinned down any one fixed take on death, and I don’t think I ever will.

I emailed her back saying that my study of death is ongoing. On a lighter note, I added, “I might be willing to die just so I can penetrate the mystery of it. That’s how curious I am!”

A few days after that, Pearl, a Loose Leaf reader, left me an intriguing comment. Knowing that I’m engaged in an in-depth exploration into the mystery of death, she sent me a link to some writing on the subject, which ultimately led me to “Dan Blogs,” authored by a man who had recently lost his wife and whose insights I found to be fresh and honest. He wrote: Actually, I think it's more accurate to say that you aren't dead until everyone of whose social atom you are a part is dead. This is because we don't live solely inside our bodies, we live outside them, too. We are social beings. We are defined by, we come into existence through our relationships.

I was so affected by my brother’s deaths four years ago, that I felt like I had been abducted by aliens. I found myself looking for others who had also been abducted so I wouldn’t feel so strange and alone. I still feel like that but to a lesser degree, and since then have lost my father, which is why I gravitate to others who are dealing with loss and why I was interested in what Dan had to say on his blog. I particularly liked his post entitled “Time doesn’t heal. The only way out is in.” In it, he writes: What does happen over time is that memory of the loved and lost begins to fade and so the daily experience of pain at the loss reduces. You begin to form new life patterns so the reminders of the difference gradually diminish. This isn't healing the wound, though. It is simply the wounding process winding down. The knife gradually being withdrawn…

He also has a post titled, “What to say and do with someone who has lost a loved one,” which is something I also wrote about in The Jim and Dan Stories. I know from experience, as one who has been changed fundamentally by loss, that it’s better to say something, as awkward as it may be, than to say nothing to those who are grieving. Even a knowing gesture can offer a bridge to a person who is feeling alienated by grief.

I don’t think our culture prepares us for dealing with the death of a loved one (particularly when it doesn’t come at the end of life, which is considered more normal). I think it's up to us. We need to reach out to each other.

~ Originally posted on
on January 13, 2006.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Is All Art Therapy?

I saw a movie recently that I can’t get out of my mind. Not because it was a great movie or because of the filming, soundtrack, or special effects.

It was low budget, filmed with a hand held camera, and described by its writer/director as an autobiographical confessional documentary-type of film. I enjoyed the “director’s cut” menu feature (where the director narrates over the movie dialogue) more than the actual film, but I had to have watched the film to enjoy it.

The movie, “Manhood,” is described in one review as a darkly funny, compelling family drama that probes the depths of masculinity, specifically Jewish masculinity, in America. Interesting enough; but what interested me most was what I learned from the writer/director, Bobby Roth, in his behind the scenes narrative. In the movie, and in Roth’s real life, his sister was violently killed. Re-living his trauma through making a film about it, using dream sequences and his own son as an actor, Roth used his art to process his sister’s death and to honor her life.

I wrote “The Jim and Dan Stories,” the book about losing my brothers a month apart, for the same reasons. And while Roth’s film tells a modern story through a Jewish experience, mine is told through a working class Irish Catholic one, covering the 60s and up until my brothers’ deaths in 2001.

Another reason I liked and the film was that it was filmed on a shoestring budget using local resources, as my book was. In the directors cut, Roth tells how he and the cast got creative and stole some scenes in places they didn’t have permission to be. He explained how he used his friends as extras in the movie, his real son’s bedroom to save money, and rather than pay to film in a pawn shop, he had John Ritter, one of the actors, walk past a pawn shop to imply that he went in, which was part of the story line.

Even the movie’s soundtrack drew on resources close to home for Roth. At first glance, you wouldn’t think the music of Bruce Springsteen would be so, but in the director’s cut Roth reveals that he’s married to Springsteen’s sister.

The actors, John Ritter, Janeane Garafolo, Nestor Carbonell, and others didn’t get paid upfront for their work. They got involved because they support independent film, the director, his message, and his methods. Those who support independent film know it as an art. They know that human stories deserve to be told… from the living room to the big screen… and everywhere in between.

I enjoyed watching Manhood, and while I recognized right away that it wasn’t a Hollywoodized production, I wasn’t aware of the bare boned and personal way it was created until I heard Roth explain it. Mostly, what I liked about the movie was that it was a testament to what art is, what art is for, and why we, as human beings, are compelled to make it.

Originally posted on January 6, 2006.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Red Line to the Moon

My brother Jim died in July 2001, and my brother Dan died a month later, in August. In the six months after they died, I wrote The Jim and Dan Stories, a chronicle of the grieving process that weaves together stories of growing up as one of nine siblings with the details of my brothers’ last weeks. By Christmas that year, I was nearing the end of the book and felt the need to bring the stories full circle, back to my hometown, the peninsula of Hull, Massachusetts, where the stories began and where my parents still lived. I don’t usually visit my family in winter, but that year was different. I was homesick for my childhood and confused as to why I had been living in Virginia for the past 20 years when the rest of my family was in Massachusetts. I wanted to see that my parents and my remaining siblings were alright. I didn’t know how the book would end, but I knew I had to go home and find out. Below is an excerpt from the book about that Christmas trip home and a family excursion into Boston.

On the Red Line to Park Street from the subway train window, I saw the December full moon. I was sitting next to two year old Patrick who was on the look-out for Christmas lights. “I see something!” he would periodically exclaim. I followed the moon while walking with my family to the Boston Commons and then to Fanueil Hall. Under this full moon we found The Enchanted Village, a magical world of moving mannequin children who, dressed in late 20’s clothing, were placed in Christmas settings. I had seen the Enchanted Village in the downtown department store windows of Jordan Marsh when I was five years old. It was a vague memory that I questioned the reality of. What a wonderful surprise to find out it was true, to find the Enchanted Village (now in a pre-fab heated building) again. And how well it fit the theme of my trip, a re-visitation of my childhood roots.

We had almost walked passed it when I broke off from the group to take a closer look. “I think it’s a wax museum,” I had said, by then everyone was curious. The man at the door who was collecting our dollars wouldn’t let us pass until we told him something we had gotten for Christmas.

“A journal,” I told him trying to think fast. “Will that get me in?”

“It depends on what you write in it,” he answered with a grin.

I don’t remember seeing the moon again until the day I was riding in Sherry’s car to catch the ferry that would bring me to the water shuttle and then to Logan airport on the day I headed home. It was up in the sky in the middle of the day looking like a ghostly visitation. It was a ¾ moon by then. I pointed it out. “See what I mean about the mysterious moon. I can never predict when it’s going to show up,” I said to Sherry, who was driving.

I looked for the moon from the ferry boat window, from the airport terminal, and from my window seat in the back of the plane, but I never found it again that day. That was alright, though, because there was so much else to look at.

The ocean sculpts the land into hooks that look like Cape Cod. One of those hooks is Hull. The plane I was on, departing from Boston, flew right over Hull, low enough so that I got treated to a tour of places that I loved. I saw 10 ½ Spring Street where our house used to be, the tower at the forts, the windmill at Pemberton, the outline of Allerton and Strawberry Hill. I recognized the landscapes, parts of Hingham and Quincy, the mural painted gas tanks in Neponset. The city of Boston looked like a floating island of skyscrapers from my window seat in the sky.

I had no such recognition when we flew over Roanoke. It was just after dusk but even if it wasn’t, I don’t know the landscape of Roanoke and its surrounding areas the way I know the South Shore of Boston. Everyone below had their porch lights on, but I still couldn’t find the mountains.

I was leaving the north where they had no snow and arriving in the south where they had several inches of it. Things were still mixed up. I was still sad that I had a whole other life that my friends in Virginia weren’t a part of and that my family wasn’t a part of my life here with them. But I was happy to be back and as the days went on, in the paradise of my own yard, I remembered why I live in the country where my closest neighbor’s house isn’t part of my view, where the pace of life is slower, and the drinking water is better.

After a few days of transition, I called all my friends to tell them I was home and to tell them I was thinking of them. After doing that, I took a deep breath and felt ready to begin the New Year.

Originally posted on on December 26, 2005.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A New Mourning

Death is like an arrow that is already in flight, and your life lasts only until it reaches you. ~ George Hermes

Is every grieving the death of a loved one different? Or are we different each time a loss visits us?

When my brothers, Jim and Dan, died 4 years ago, I felt like part of my heart had been ripped out. The grief I experienced recently when my father died was felt mostly in my gut, as though I had been punched in the stomach and left with a sick sinking hole. Several of my siblings expressed at the funeral that they felt like they had a stomach flu.

Some of my recent symptoms of grief feel familiar, but some are different. With both, I felt identity confusion. After losing Jim and Dan, I wondered why I lived in Virginia, when they were buried in the Massachusetts town we all grew up in, in the very cemetery we played in as kids. I mourned the loss of my childhood as much as I missed my brothers.

The identity crisis I'm experiencing with the loss of my dad is less about where I live and more about who I am. Who am I without a father? Who is my mother without my father? Who am I to my mother now? Can I let go of the burden my dad carried that all his kids shared the weight of, the burden of seeing the Holocaust first hand, WWII combat trauma, and his battle with alcoholism?

There is a sense of calmness (or is it numbness) along with my sadness that I wasn’t able to feel when Jim and Dan died. Is it because my dad lived for 81 years and had been drifting away from us before the accident that led to his death? Since the deaths of his sons, and especially during this last year, he sometimes seemed to be going through the motions of life more than living them. “He did everything he wanted to,” my mother recently said to me on the phone.

The loss of a parent can shake our sense of security, identity, and foundation. But unlike losing a sibling, child, spouse, or a parent prematurely; losing an older parent is something we’re conditioned to expect. We know life ends, just as we know the day will end when the sun goes down. As hard as losing a parent is, we don’t have to feel alone in it. It’s something we all have in common or will someday.

I’ve only begun to absorb the impact of not having my dad in this world, but I’m grateful that I feel more in control of my grief this time around. At least today, I do.

Post notes: Icy path to the driveway illuminated by the setting sun. Originally posted on on December 14, 2005.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What I’d Like to Say to Joan Didion

How does a part of the world leave the world? How does wetness leave water? ~ Rumi

I’m reading Joan Didion’s book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which is about the sudden death of her husband while their only child was hospitalized and gravely ill. When my brothers, Jim and Dan, died 4 years ago everything I thought I believed about life and death came into question. My understanding of death was reduced to that of a child’s, but I wanted to understand and to penetrate the mystery of it. My desire for understanding manifested in the reading of many books about death and the grieving process.

After my father’s accident this past October and while he was in the hospital, I picked up Didion’s book as though I had signed up for a refresher course on my study of death. While reading, I braced myself for the worst, losing my dad, which ultimately did happen.

As I understand it, Didion’s book is a personal exploration into the pathological symptoms of grief. The underlying premise of the book is that while she logically understands death, there is an irrational part of her that does not. She re-tells how she analyzed every detail of the night her husband slumped over with a heart attack at the dinner table, hoping to discover a different ending. Months after his death, she couldn’t bring herself to give his shoes away, thinking what? That he might come home and need them.

My study of death began because I wanted to find proof that I would see my brothers again. And so, I understand firsthand Didion’s magical thinking, and to it I add a further question: Is it any stranger to think that a loved one can return from death than it is to accept that they died in the first place? Isn’t the vanishing as fantastic as the idea that they might return from it?

~ Origianlly posted on on December 13, 2005.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Eulogizing My Father

May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand. ~ Old Irish Blessing

My brother John, the black sheep of the family, sober since our brothers, Jim and Dan, died 4 years ago, flew in from Minnesota to bury our father, feeling heartbroken and thinking that he wouldn't have a role to play in the funeral services. As it turned out, he, the eldest existing and unmarried son, had a very important role. He was my mother’s escort throughout the two days of services.

My sister, Sherry, a nurse, had taken a prominent role in overseeing my dad’s hospital care, and her husband, Nelson, read a moving tribute to my dad at the wake, as did Jamie and Rachael, two of my father’s grandchildren. Jamie remarked how his grandfather was like everybody’s Santa Claus, and he reminded us of one of my father’s trademark saying: “I love you more than you’ll know,” the last words he spoke to Jamie. We all laughed when Rachael remembered my father looking around at a family cook-out and saying, “Look at this population I created!”

At St. Ann's church, the next morning, granddaughters, Beth and Molly, shared readings from the Bible, my youngest sister, Tricia, read the funeral mass intercession prayers she had written, while my older sister, Kathy, opened the eulogy part of the services. Taking her place at the church pulpit, alongside my brother Joey and me, Kathy spoke of the circumstances of my father’s death before turning the microphone over to me. I read my essay, “Let Me Clue You in about My Father,” that was originally inspired by a “father’s day essay contest” I was a judge for. I read it on WVTF public radio this past Memorial Day and felt grateful to have honored my father with it before he passed away. While reading to the church full of people who loved my dad, I was remembering this past summer when I visited him and my mother, and he read the essay for the first time. Judging from the tears in his eyes and the number of times I saw him re-read it, I think he approved. I was happy that my description of my father evoked some laughter from the crowd because one of the last things I remember him saying to me was, “I like to make people laugh.”

My sister’s and my words were well received, but it was my brother Joey who stole the show. Joey has a severe case of dyslexia. During his school years, the school system was on the cusp of ignorance and awareness of learning disabilities. At one point, they wanted to put him in with the kids who had mental retardation, but my parents, knowing how bright he was, took him into Boston and got him tested, which led to special services and inclusion in regular classes. Although Joey couldn’t read, or even talk in elementary school with anything other than his made-up language that our brother John (Joey’s sidekick) had to decipher for us, we all knew he was smart as whip.

Through sobbing tears, hunched over the podium and with Kathy, me, and his niece, Heather (who was his designated support person), at his side, Joey spoke of how much it meant to him that my father praised the D’s he got in school, and how it was our father who encouraged him to build his first house…and the next and the next. Joey, who got his driver’s license by taking the drivers test orally and is now the president of his own company, had to work hard for days to write his eulogy and then read it out loud in public. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Later, at the restaurant where the reception was held, it was my youngest brother Bobby who got the crowd’s attention with a piercing whistle so that his wife, Jeanne, could read the above Irish blessing. Jeanne also read a poem she had written and reminded us all that my dad was not only our Most Valuable Player (MVP), but that he chose to leave us while he was still at the top of his game (after beating pneumonia and getting off a breathing tube).

The population my dad created came out in droves to honor his good run. The stories were told, and laughter mixed with tears as we remembered how much we all loved him.

More than he’ll ever know.

~ Originally posted on on December 7, 2005.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Gently Down a Stream…Life is but a Dream

Dreams are real as long as they last. Can we say anymore about life? ~ Henry Havelock Ellis

If, as Carl Jung proposed, the psyche has a foreshadowing of death before it comes, how do the physical circumstances of death line-up with it? And if the psyche does indeed experience a foreshadowing of death through dreams and intuition, where does it come from? Does the foreshadowing imply a design?

I believe the life force was draining out of my father long before the car accident that led to his death, in the same way that a bright leaf hangs from a tree in October, and when you see it you know it’s only a matter of time before it will fall. A hard frost or gust of wind is like the equivalent of the physical circumstances (illness, accident, etc.) that precipitate death. And the leaf dropping from the tree is like the body, something we slip out of when it’s old.

“The tree doesn’t die when the leaves on it do. But are we like the tree, or just a leaf growing on it?” I posed the question to my husband on the ride home from my father’s funeral in an effort to convince myself of the continuity of life. As one who struggles with religiously framed tenets, understanding life and death by looking at nature appeals to my sense of logic.

But I don’t understand! Not really.

“The tree does die! Eventually,” I blurted out an hour later, as if I had the discovered the answer to a riddle, or a hole in the theory.

“The earth doesn’t die when the tree does. Are we like the earth, or just the tree growing on it?” I quipped, knowing my line of questioning could go one endlessly. “Do we go on endlessly?” I seemed to be asking.

Hospice caregivers and others who work with death report that many dying patients who start out fearfully resisting death often come to accept it. Acceptance is facilitated through dreams, contact with unseen forces, or an internal process, and is often accompanied with a burst of energy and marked lucidity. Is that what was happening to my father when, after being frustrated, impatient and confused for weeks, on the last two days of his life, he was (in my sister Sherry’s words) “almost ecstatic.” On the last day of his life, he announced excitedly “Today’s the day! Everything is coming off (tubes, neck brace, etc.),” and he looked at the calendar repeatedly as if he knew (in my sister Kathy’s words) “his contract was up.”

Some people believe that the soul makes a decision to be born. Maybe we don’t die either, unless some sort of agreement is made, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.

~ Originally posted on December 6, 2005.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Somebody Upstairs Has Claimed Him

He was, in his own words, “an operator,” which I understood as a reference to his street smarts. And he had the lingo to prove it. For my dad a beautiful woman was always “a hot tomato,” people who didn’t know what they were talking about were “blowing smoke,” “hatchi katchi” meant “fooling around,” and so did “hot to trot.” He wasn’t bigoted, except maybe against homely girls in favor of the pretty ones. And he never tried to hide the fact that the reason he tuned in to TV football was to watch the cheerleaders at half-time. ~ From WVTF radio essay, Let Me Clue You In About My Father, HERE.

My father was born in Boston Massachusetts in 1924 on the first day of spring. When he died, on a recent rainy November evening, the wind was howling all the way from Boston to Virginia, where I live. The rain continued into the next morning, so much so that the creeks flooded over onto the roads, reminding me of the tears that were being shed by everyone that loved him.

For some reason my father had convinced me that he was indestructible. I might have gotten that impression from the wild stories he told of his past that usually ended with him shaking his head and saying, “I don’t know why I’m still here. I guess someone upstairs must like me.”

“There’s going to be some mad Irish wake stories going on for this man,” I said to my son over the phone after I broke the news to him that his grandfather had died. He was holding a page he had ripped out from his collage journal with a photo of his grandfather in Germany during WWII on it, he told me. “There will never be another “operator” quite like Grandpa,” he said.

“He was operating till the end,” I answered. No one could get into his hospital room without bringing a scratch ticket for him to play. He was winking at the nurses up until the end and holding the TV remote in his hand..."

But he had started to drift away long before the car accident that brought him to the hospital. I noticed a change when I visited him and my mother this past summer. At times he seemed withdrawn. Other times confused. On some days, it seemed that he was going through the motions of life and covering up his failings with his humor. But when the mood was just right, he still had a good story to tell:

“You’ve never heard this one before,” he said to me. “It will explain everything. Even why I drank so much.”

“Does Ma know?” I asked. My interest was piqued.

“Only me and the devil…and God know,” he answered.

It was a story of combat, one that I vaguely remember he might have told me before, one that would make a great movie but is too personal to re-tell here. I felt that he was purging himself and setting the record straight that day, and I got the sense that the process of leaving this world was beginning for my father.

I just didn’t think the end result of it would come this soon.

Post Notes: The photo is of one of the photo collage boards made by family members and displayed at the funeral home for my father. My son’s collage journal page, dedicated to his grandfather, is posted on the bottom of the board. The song that was played at the end of the funeral services was one that the Andrew Sisters sang in 1943, “I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time,” a wonderful send off for our spring-born daddy who so loved the music of his era. My sister, Kathy, has also been writing about the experience of losing our dad at her blog. Orignially posted on in the fall of 2005.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My Dad's Chair

Dream from Howard Johnson’s in Pennsylvania on the way to my father’s funeral: I dreamt that I was staying in a big house next to my mother’s house, but I didn’t go over to see her. Eventually, she came to visit me. She seemed frail sitting at the kitchen table. I don’t know if I thought it or said it out loud, but I realized the reason I hadn’t gone to see her was because I couldn’t face seeing my father’s things, especially his chair that sat in front of the TV with the footstool next to it where the TV remote control sat. Next to the remote were all the other things my dad used to “operate” (a magnifying glass, eyeglasses, scissors and etc.) that no one else was allowed to touch.

The day before I dreamt this, while riding 81 north towards Boston, my husband reminded me that my dad would be buried at the gravesite with my brothers, Jim and Dan. “Oh! I hadn’t thought of that,” I answered and then pondered the image it conjured. “All I can think about is his chair with him not sitting in it. For me, his chair will be his place-keeper shrine and the place I will go to, to hopefully feel his spirit"

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Last Sunset

I’ve been hit in the gut – not with the flu – but with loss.

My father died unexpectedly Monday evening.

I feel deflated…and defeated.

Ironically, the most upbeat day in the 6 weeks he’s been in the hospital since his car accident was also his last. Everyone was excited that he was making such noticeable progress, and on the same day he was to die, he also got up with a walker for the first time. He was wheeled to the room where he would soon begin physical therapy in a wheelchair by my sister, Sherry, and my mother as everyone cheered him on. Did he take one look at the work-out equipment and figure (on some level) that he wasn’t up for the task? My husband, who has worked with Hospice, tells me that it’s typical for people to rally before they die. It’s also common that on some unconscious level they frequently know they’re going to die.

“Today’s the day!” he had said enthusiastically to Sherry and my mother when they visited him on that day. When Sherry questioned him about his announcement, he added, “It’s the day that everything’s coming off!” He meant the neck brace, the tracheotomy apparatus, and anything else they had him hooked up to.

“Today’s the day you’re getting up!” Sherry corrected him, wondering if he was confused.

A few hours later, after they left, he quietly slipped away. A blood clot? An aneurysm? A mucus plug in the tracheotomy tubing? We don’t know yet. The hospital staff were as surprised as we were.

It looks like my writing is destined to continue the ongoing theme of grief and loss...

Photo: July, 2005 at sunset: Robert Leo Redman Jr. assisting Robert Leo Redman Sr. down to the parking lot at The Blue Hill Weather Observatory where my brother Jimmy’s annual memorial picnic was being held. The flag seen in the background is the one that was erected in Jim’s honor and has a dedication plaque set in its base. Originally posted on November 30, 2005.