A huge hurt builds inside me. My father died on Christmas Day 1986. It is a familiar, old hurt. This year it is freshly layered with new hurts and loss. Five months ago the my last living brother died. He was the eldest of my siblings. 13 months ago my brother who was closest to me in age died. Two other brothers have passed on, one in 1998, and another in 2005. Mom died in 2007.
I have a husband, and a wonderful daughter who I will see shortly after the New Year when she and her finance return from the great white north to the Old Pueblo to plan a wedding that will happen the day after next Christmas. I have an amazing and talented step-daughter. We spent a fantastic Thanksgiving with her and her husband and their twin five year olds a few weeks ago in the Hudson Valley.
The last two brothers to pass both had dementia so I hadn’t really been able to converse with them for a while. I am not yet 60. My mother lived to be 92. I could live for a long time as the only one who remembers my childhood family holidays. Childhood memories of fall and winter get togethers become cloudy through time. There is no one left to shine sunlight through the clouds on old stories, desserts, family jokes, no one to laugh with about family eccentricities. I can tell the stories to my children and grandchild, and I do, but there is now no one who shares those memories with me.
I know I’m not the only one.
Holidays can be very, very tough. Be kind. Ask people how they are doing. Smile. Give hugs. Take it easy, don’t do more than you want to or can can do. Allow yourself a good cry, don’t cut it short. Then dust yourself off and do something to make someone else happy. Find an activity that brings you cheer. Allow the cheer of others to creep into you. We can learn to have a sadness and to be happy at the same time. Life is bittersweet for those blessed with long lives.
Merry Christmas, or happy whatever you may celebrate!
My brother passed away last weekend. Roger left us forever at five minutes after midnight on Sunday November 9th, 2014. I was on my way to the All Soul’s Procession, a wonderful contemporary community sharing of celebration of people’s lives and supportive public sharing of grief when I got the news via text on Sunday night.
Needless to say perhaps, I am thinking a lot about death, death rituals, death culture, and my personal views of death.
Death is the most personal experience there is. Birth is shared, but death meets us alone.
I should say that I have not been all that concerned about what will happen to me after death since December of 1977. I was in college, my best friend from High School, Kim Marie Sanders, was in a horrific car crash on November 6th, 1977, seven days after her 21st birthday. Her brain stem was crushed. A few weeks later I was at home, a solid but worn, two story house, a rental on Greenbush Avenue in Lafayette, Indiana where I lived in Junior year of college when I had what I have to describe as a classic NDE experience.
As I walked into a bedroom I passed out, I guess. But it was different, quite distinct, from when I usually blacked out which I had some experience with as I had very low blood pressure back then. Normally, when I would pass out I would just have my vision narrow in as in the iris of a camera, as a circle, graying out.
But this time I did not see that, I saw a tunnel of light. As I began to travel in the tunnel or beam of light I felt as though my energy or essence was draining from my body through the back base of my skull. Then there was bright golden white light. At the end of the tunnel I knew there was just LOVE, complete accepting love. I did not see individuals although I felt like there was someone there. I did not consciously get to the end of the tunnel but I remember thinking, “Wow, this was death and it was not bad at all.”
I think I woke up about an hour later. I knew my friend had changed, but I wasn’t in touch with her family until a few weeks later. It was then that I found out that she had come out of the coma she had been in since the wreck on the same afternoon I had the encounter with the light. She was in the coma until mid-December, Friday December 16th I think. She died on Friday, January 13th, 1978.
I had a very difficult time with her death. I grieved for years. But I was not afraid. I have never been able to reconcile this disparity except that I can accept my own death, but not that of another person.
I think it is that I am selfish. I just do not want to be alone without my friends and family.
I’ve always thought something was amiss with what people told me about death and how they really felt about it. I was three years and two months old when my mother came in to me in the morning, crying and obviously very upset. She said, “Grandma died during the night.” My analytical self was already present within me apparently as I distinctly remember being confused that I had been told that when you die, you will be with Jesus. From everything I had been told as a toddler, this Jesus guy was a really good guy and Heaven, with Jesus, was a good place. So what was up? Grandma was with Jesus. That was a good thing. Why was Mom crying? Incongruity. Someone was not telling the truth.
I think what I experience as grief, and thus mourning rituals, is an incredibly selfish indulgence. How does our grief add up to anything but our experience of loss. It really has very little to do with the person who died. It is all about the pain we the living experience. Everything we do, for the dead, is really for ourselves. I think I learned this from my dad. I think I have finally figured out that Dad viewed cemeteries as parks where you talk about the past, teach kinship, consider the impacts of life and living in various ways. This from a man who said that when he died we should just, “toss him over the fence to the hogs.” Historical markers were okay but the obsession with body preservation was over the top in his view.
Shift in Perspective
These are some of the things I’m thinking about today. I couldn’t wait any longer to grieve. I had to take today off to just feel, think, ponder, and cry. Normally I would tell stories of the person recently deceased with others who loved or knew him, but I’m 2000 miles away and the only one left in my generation of close family. My eldest brother Jim is 75 and has memory problems. So I’m having my own private remembrance.
Perhaps I am just being selfish, but I have a lot of information I need to share. I’ve decided that information exchange is the most important ritual. If I have information that might help someone with a question or concern or just to create an understanding, I need to get it out there. I have several years until I am 60, but much information would be lost if I died before I got it into the cultural information collective. These are the things that matter to me. Distilling lives into stories. I have much work to do.
Today I am struggling with being and nothingness.
My mind travels from the bleak, drenching 21st Century Arizona rain to artful black and white photos my mother never snapped of pans filled with shelled peas my brother and I had spent hours extricating from pods. Creativity allows me to examine an imaginary composition, a nonexistent thing, but a very real thing, prior to my mind assembling them just a few minutes ago.The photo’s context is black and white too. A large bank barn, sets at the top edge of a long slopping hill. In front of the barn is a solid tamped-down barnyard with another outbuilding to the north located just before it also dips down to meet a tiny stream that drains a nearby wooded knoll. A rusty two bottom plow rests there too, where it was detached from the old John Deere last spring.
Closer still to the vantage point of the scene is a country lawn a few feet higher than the barnyard. In the contextual panorama a skinny boy, scarcely adolescent, sits in a stiff gangly non-pose in an aluminum lawn chair, a well-used pie-pan filled with raw peas rests in his lap. He wears denim dungarees, and a plain white t-shirt and sports roundish tortoise-shell horn-rimmed glasses. He seems fragile, and anxious, constrained by an unknown future so heavy it already presses in on him and weights him down.
I am there too. I am incidental to the scene and too young to know more than the moment, the sunshine, and the bright starchy crunch of raw peas. I sit next to the lawn chair distracted by a the sticky, sweet dance of a honey bee on the soft spikes of a clover blossom. I cannot imagine the scene being any different than it is.
I cannot imagine nuclear-tipped missiles, much less that they are being deployed to an island called Cuba by my country at this very moment. I cannot imagine that skinny boy in ten years. That is the second image. I wish I could not now imagine it.
In the second photograph that never was I am the same age as the boy in the first picture, the vantage is from a farmhouse window looking down to the midnight black silhouette of a young man, cigarette in hand leaning against a muscle car outlined against the lighter gravel of a driveway. The red-hot glow of the cigarette punctures the moment and tears a rift in time as a maelström of shredded flesh and shrieking wraiths of Khe Sanh detach from the man and are sucked into a collapsing universe into another dimension.
Even at that moment bits of him were already connected to that netherworld. Soon the process will be complete and I will watch from that long ago frame, alone.