On the anniversary of my mother’s death

1_7-5-2010_075At the Children’s Grief Center there is an activity that involves writing a letter to your loved one who has died. I had shared a letter I wrote to my father, and I thought today, on the anniversary of my mother’s death, I would share one I wrote to her:

Dear Mom,

I remember when I fell off a horse the first time I took a riding lesson. Even though the instructor said I should get right back on immediately, you let me take my time, cry it out, and wait until I was ready.

eightThe hardest part about your death for me was that my entire life changed, became unsettled. I learned too early that nothing in life is certain.

It would have been nice if we’d had more time, if you’d had more time. I wonder who I would be had you lived longer.  Would I be more lady-like? Would I be less like my father?  Would I be more outgoing?

I’m really sorry for being a stubborn, eye-rolling adolescent, for arguing with you about silly things like making my bed. “Just close the door if you don’t like it,” I’d say. You’d be happy to know that now I make my bed every morning.

7-7-2010_001If you were here right now I would probably complain about you. It’s what daughters do. But I’d also invite you to all my parties and ask you to bring a dish to share because you were an awesome cook.

64af514b28a43195caab5a3f3c530a8cThank you for teaching me to cook and how to host a party. While those aren’t skills I can necessarily make a living with, they are good for creating and maintaining community, for sharing with friends, and showing my appreciation to the people in my life I care about. And every time I open the Joy of Cooking looking for one of “your” recipes, I think of you.

 

Love Jenn

Posted in grief, Mothers

Guest Post: Judith Hannan

The Write PrescriptionThis guest post is from Judith Hannan, author of the memoir Motherhood Exagerated which chronicled her experience of her daughter’s cancer treatment and transition into survival.  Hannan’s latest book, The Write Prescription is a hands-on guide to writing about illness.  I look forward to reading the book (and reviewing it here, soon) and using some of the writing prompts with my Monday Writers Group in Albuquerque.

From Judith Hannan:

“If you tell yourself like a story, it doesn’t seem so bad.” I wish I were the author of these words but they come from Jeanette Winterson’s novel Lighthousekeeping. They express an essential truth. In 2000, when my younger daughter, then eight, was diagnosed with cancer, I wrote in my journal with unusual regularity. And after her treatment and through the years of her survival I wrote and wrote until I came to understand those years, could put them in a context, and see how I had been transformed. The result was the publication of a memoir, Motherhood Exaggerated, because the other truth I know is that our stories, once written, must be heard by others.

There are any number of studies that quantify the benefits of writing—respiration and heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, anxiety decreases. But I do not write with a blood pressure cuff strapped on my arm nor do I take the vital signs of those I teach. Effectiveness is measured by the tears that flow, the laughs that burst from a heart that has been opened, the moment when the surprised writer says, “I didn’t know I felt that.”

When I write, I feel as if I am standing next to myself. This slight remove, which I can never achieve when I am speaking my story, allows me to go deeper into my feelings. Even the hardest emotions are easier for me to face. In my writing I can use metaphor or personification, I can speak from the third-person perspective, I can set small scenes rather than taking on the whole arc. I set the pace; I can approach on tip-toe, with two steps foreard and one back, in a zig-zag or a spiral.

Several years ago, my father began a not so gradual decline from Alzheimer’s disease. My notebooks were never far from my side. I had what I thought was an atypical response to hospice which I wrote about in my book, The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Move With and Beyond Illness. My goal is to help birth more stories illness, survival, death, grief, and survival. What follows is an excerpt which emerged from witnessing my father’s final days.

DEFINE DIGNITY

“The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.” This is a quote from the late Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland’s book, How We Die. He wrote the book because he felt conversations about a “good death” and “death with dignity” didn’t take into account the realities of what he saw. His aim was not to scare readers but to prepare the ill or their loved-ones so as not to be alarmed or guilty when faced with a death in which a failing body does not simply drift away. As Gary Shteyngart describes his Grandma Polya’s death in Little Failure: “She is dying in parts, as most of us do. Skeins of hard-won adulthood peeling off.”

Hospice has become the holy grail of the “good death,” either at home or at a hospice house. I had never experienced this form of palliative, non-interventionist care until my father was admitted to hospice when his Alzheimer’s disease reached its end stage. He entered disoriented and agitated. But visitors would come and say at least he was at peace now. Peace? In his bed my father bicycled his legs, flailed his arms, tried to rise, talked to himself or invisible others, and made expressions that ranged from a smile to pain to terror. Dignity? We discussed funeral plans over his bed, having been told he couldn’t understand us, as if he were the forgotten child who hears all the fights and secrets in the family.

What people meant was that the setting was peaceful. The hospice workers cared for my father with the mindfulness of Zen Buddhist monks. Even when they knew he was going to die within an hour or maybe two they bathed him and trimmed his mustache and put soothing balm on his dry lips. They were like external dignity pumps.

I am grateful for hospice. It gave my father the best possible death. But it is a mask for the violence that occurs at life’s end. When the mask came off I found my grieving complicated. I could not say that what happened was good. Rather than wrestling with tangled notions of dignity, it is more accurate to say that what we are seeking at the end of life, or at any stage of illness, is compassion.

Writing Prompt

  • Write about your experiences with dying—whether you were at a loved one’s bedside or a distance away. How did what happened support or contradict preconceived notions on how you hoped that person would die? Set the scene. Where were you? Who else was there? What sounds did you hear? What did people say? Was it calm or hectic? Could you describe it as a good death?
  • Respond to Dr. Nuland’s belief that we lose dignity when our bodies fail.
  • What expectations, fears, anxieties arise for you when you think about your own death.
  • What is your belief about what happens when you die?
  • Have you written a living will? If not, write one now. Don’t just include advance directives regarding lifesaving measures, write about who you would want to be present, where you would want to be. My mother planned her funeral—the speakers, the music, where her ashes were to be buried. If you want to, and think it would be helpful to you or your family, write down a guide for your own funeral. If you need help having these difficult conversations, I recommend visiting www.theconversationproject.org.
Posted in creative writing, grief, Mothers

Review: Holding Silvan by Monica Wesolowska

Holding Silvan

I don’t really consider myself a literary critic, so sometimes I read reviews on Amazon or GoodReads.  Even though I don’t write traditional reviews, I find reading what others say sometimes helps me find a way in to a critique. In the case of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life reading reviews was a good reminder to me to focus on the book, not the person. One reviewer gave the book two stars because she disagreed with the author’s (and her husband’s) decision regarding Silvan’s life. Several other reviewers gave a one star or a two star because—well I don’t know why, they didn’t actually “write” a review, just clicked.

I read grief memoirs to study the craft, to learn how authors write about and make meaning of grief, which literary tools they use to tell a story, and which may serve me in my work. I examine the structure, the verb tense, voice and the use of image, and all kinds of nerdy writer stuff. I also look at how the author makes personal grief about something more. (I’m really not maudlin, but reading about others’ grief also reminds me that I am not alone.)

Monica Wesolowska successfully turned her writing not only into a beautifully crafted memorial of her son’s too-brief life, but she has something important to say about end-of -life decisions, or in the case of Holding Silvan, the beginning of life, the quality of life….many things we will all need to grapple with as medical science becomes more and more advanced. Whether as in Wesolowska’s case we’ll have to decide appropriate treatment for a baby born with extensive brain damage, or we’re faced with making decisions about care for an elderly parent or spouse who’d experienced a trauma, we can only hope we can make these decisions with love as Wesolowska and her family did.

There are so many things I could talk about in regards to this book: use of tense, the narrative voice, reflection vs. exposition vs. scene, concise and controlled prose, but instead I’ll focus on the opening, and connecting the personal to the universal.

IN THE BEGINNING….

In creative writing workshops we often discuss how the opening of a book tells you how to read the rest of the book…. From the opening of Holding Silvan we understand that Wesolowska is grappling with Big Issues.

In the morning, the phone next to my hospital bed rings. Stepping from the shower, my skin scrubbed of the sweat and blood of yesterday’s triumphant labor, I slip past David to pull on my old robe and head for the phone. I’m not worried. I’m expecting another friend, a relative, more words of congratulations to match my sudden pleasure in my baby—a healthy, full-term boy who waits for me in the nursery—but the woman on the other end is a stranger.

….. She says she needs to clear up some confusion about the spelling my name before the transfer. I, too, am confused. When I tell the stranger that I don’t understand, that I am about to go down the hall to collect my baby because it’s time to nurse, she says, “I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you, darling.”

With these vague but tender words, the ecstatic glow of motherhood that had surrounded me since Silvan’s birth begins to fade.

We know something is terribly wrong. And while at this point we don’t yet know the extent of the problem. We are primed. And we know a major themes of the book is: the struggle between expectations and reality.

THE PERSONAL IS THE UNIVERSAL….

One of the ways that Wesolowska relates her personal story to the larger issues is by use of an historical event: the right to die (or more specifically the right to withhold treatment) case of Karen Ann Quinlan. In 1975 when Quinlan fell into a coma her parents fought in court to have the right to remove her breathing tube.

Wesolowska recalls all the dining room talk about this case during the seventies and how as a teen she wrote about euthanasia for a school report. Later she considers the Quinlan case in light of the decision she and her husband made:

We know that, though Karen Ann Quinlan’s parents were acting simply out of love for their child, their legal battle has made things better for us. Because of them, we were able to take that first step of removing Silvan’s breathing tube. And because Quinlan survived the removal of her tube and went on to live for years in a coma before she finally died of pneumonia, some other family with some other comatose loved one must have fought for the right to remove artificial hydration and nutrition as well. Perhaps, we think, Silvan’s life and death will have had greater purpose if his death allows future children to die more easily than he is. (p. 123)

 Wesolowska’s use of the Quinlan case reminds me of a creative writing exercise in Judith Barrington’s book wonderful book, Writing Memoir.  Barrington suggests the writer think of an event of historical or cultural importance. Write about the event, what you remember, where were you when it happened, how your family reacted, and write about how the event changed your understanding of the world and/or of yourself…. I think Wesolowska’s book is a great example of employing this technique in memoir and it allows her as narrator the opportunity to expand on her personal beliefs and the legal issues surrounding end-of-life care.

When my mother died in 1978 at the age of 42 we had our own end-of-life challenges.  We kept her home, rather than in a hospital. This was before hospice and in defiance of the advice of doctors, but mom didn’t want to die in a hospital.  In 1994 when my grandma (in her 80s) was diagnosed with cancer she chose to not do chemo and as she neared the end of her life we kept her home, but with the support of hospice.  When Granddad died at the age of 94, extraordinary medical intervention wasn’t really considered even though we all loved him dearly and would have kept him around for another hundred years if we could have.  And my dad died suddenly at the age of 73 (though not unexpectedly given the state of his health). Because we live and love, end-of-life care decisions always hover under the surface of our lives.  I am thankful that I’ve not had to make one of those tough decisions, but I’m not naive enough to think I won’t ever have to.

To that two-star reviewer I say, I hope you never have to face the kind of decision that Wesolowska faced, but if you do, I hope you’ll remember this book, and think about what it truly means to love someone. I know I will.

Posted in grief, grief memoirs

Granddad’s Birthday

Granddad would have been 106 today.  gma-gdad

As a dental intern at the Marine Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, Maurice Simpson was known as “Dreamboat” for his sparkly blue eyes–but he only had eyes for his beloved Ruby, a widowed young nurse at the hospital who would become his wife of nearly 60 years, preceding him in death by 10 years.  He always said that the secret to his long life was “strong booze and wild women.”  People that knew him understood the joke. Only on occasion did he drink a gin martini, and in later years a glass of Sutter Home White Zinfandel wine, “the only one that tastes good,” he’d say.  And Ruby was a sweet and gentle
woman, not even close to “wild”.

Grandma, Me, Granddad (L to R) circa 1983

Grandma, Me, Granddad (L to R) circa 1983

In addition to being a dentist and a decorated retired Navy Admiral,  Maury, as he was known to his friends, was a tough but loving father.  Age and time softened him into a super fun and loving grandfather.  He did magic tricks, making coins disappear, he played a mean game of Acey Deucey, and he liked to fly down the hill from Torrey Pines into Del Mar in his 1971 VW Super Beetle, in neutral.  He taught me to drive stick, making sure I knew how to listen to the engine to determine the right time to shift.

Continue reading

Posted in Granddad, Grandfather, grief

Grief and Mother’s Day

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This is actually a birthday photo… but I imagine Mother’s Day was not too different

You can’t escape Mother’s Day for most of the month of April and for someone like me, whose mother has died, it can be a tough time.  My email gets inundated with special gift ideas for mothers, my local restaurants advertise Mother’s Day brunch special, and flowers are on on sale everywhere.  Amazon.com offers Mother’s Day gift ideas and even my local grocery store has an end cap display with Mother’s Day Gifts.

From what I gather, mothers like:  jewelry (especially if there is a charm that says “Mom”, or has diamonds–well , duh!), flowers,  beauty products, and vacuum cleaners (the new Miele is only $329!!).  And who knew so many mothers like to garden!

My inner 13-year old, the young teen whose mother died, wants to topple those displays and scream NOT EVERYONE HAS A MOTHER and my more grown-up, grief aware self–well, my heart hurts for my fellow motherless daughters and sons, for the kids I used to work with at the Children’s Grief Center who lost mothers, for friends who have lost mothers at whatever age, for friends of friends, for writers who’ve experience mother loss, for mothers who have lost children…

I used to focus on how unfair life is, how unfair it is to ME because my mom died.  Admittedly, I still think life is unfair, but at least I now understand that I am not the only one.  This is one of the reasons I “like” to read about other people’s experience with grief whether it’s the loss of a spouse, a sibling, a child, a friend…   reading about these experiences reminds me that I am not alone.

So in honor of Mother’s Day, I’m sharing some of my favorite essays (in no particular order) about Mother’s Day and grief, mothers and grief, from advice to gut-wrenching, nostalgic (in a good way), and even funny:

From Monica Wesolowska, “Seven Ways to Support a Bereaved Mother” and “Clinging to Each Other We Survived the Storm”

From Kate Spencer, “How I’m Making Mother’s Day My Bitch”

From Leslea Newman, “Like Mother Like Daughter”

“All is Forgiven Between Us,” by Joanna Chen

And from the doyenne of motherless daughters, Hope Edelman, “A Mother’s Day Letter to Motherless Daughters.”  Note:  I carried Hope’s book, Motherless Daughters with me for years before I actually read it…. I learned so much about the affects of loss on my own life I wish I’d been ready to read it sooner.

One of my all-time favorite essays about mother loss (and so much more): Cheryl Strayed’s, “The Love of My Life”  Continue reading

Posted in grief, Mothers

Review: Dark Wine Waters: a Husband of a Thousand Joys and Sorrows

IMG_2851Frances Simone found me through this very website and asked if I could add her book to my list of resources.  She also kindly sent me a copy of the book.

When I think of grief memoirs, I don’t often think about addiction. Which is kind of funny because my father was an alcoholic and all of his health problems, and his subsequent death, were the result of his addiction to alcohol and cigarettes.  If I do think about addiction as a topic for memoir I mostly think of books told from the point of view of the addict:  the addict who fell to the lowest point in their lives then scraped their way out of a dark hole to recovery.

One reason why I believe Dark Wine Waters is a good resource is that in this book we get the point of view of the codependent, someone who experiences the complexity of love and grief.

Why do we write?

One of my other projects is the iWriteBecause project.  We who are writers write for so many reasons:  because we love words, because our mothers couldn’t read or write, because stories flow through our veins…   I believe as memoirists we write first for ourselves, to figure things out, an excavation of sorts, and an accounting.  We write to heal.  In fact, recent research shows that the act of writing can put your body into a meditative state that promotes healing.  Research has also shown that creating a narrative out of the traumatic experiences of our lives helps us deal with them better.

We also write to connect with others.

Fran’s story is an accounting of her life with her husband Terry. She is attempting to make some sense of his death by suicide.  She must have asked herself a thousand times how did I get here? By asking these questions she will undoubtedly connect with many many (too many) others who have loved an addict. Continue reading

Posted in Book Review, grief memoirs

Guest Post: Someone, Somewhere by Woz Flint

Deep in sleep, newborn cries awaken me from a foggy dream. Not yet a mama for two weeks time, my babe is hungry and we are falling into a routine. A choppy one, but a routine nonetheless.

The rest of the house is quiet as my son and I cozy up on the couch for his early morning feeding. The first of many. He’ll have Hobbit style secondsies in less than an hour to come.

I begin to drift in and out of sleep until my phone beeps letting me know that someone, somewhere is thinking of me.

The last couple of weeks have presented an outpour of love from family and friends:

“Congratulations on the new baby!”

“Can’t wait to meet the little guy!”

“Don’t worry, sleep is only a few years away!”

Message after message made my heart swell with bliss. Yet, one message never came — the one I needed the most. The one from my own mama.

Having died when I was just a child, my mom was never going to meet my son. She would never see his smile. Attend a birthday party. Heart his laughter.

I was going to have to navigate these new, muddy mama waters without the one person so many new moms turn to…their own.

As I sank into my couch, baby on my breast, I felt a wave of sadness wash over me. A sadness soon replaced by anger for my mom not having the opportunity to meet this precious six-pound package of perfection.

Now with a full tummy and heavy eyelids, my son fell back into a hazy slumber and I was close behind. It didn’t take long for me to walk into a dream where my mother came and sat down at my kitchen table, soda in hand (a warm Dr. Pepper with lemon, no doubt) and reached for my hand as I sobbed “It’s not fair that you’ll never meet him, mama.”

She paused.

She smiled.

“It’s okay, sweetie. I met him before you did.”

Just then, my phone beeped letting me know that someone, somewhere was thinking of me.

WOZ FLINT is a writer, a mama, a lover of green olives and toast. You can read more on her blog, Simply Woz.


 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  as a fellow motherless daughter, even though I am not a mother, I know the feeling of grief, of how grief for those of us who have lost parents at an early age continues throughout our lives even in the happiest of times.  Each moment of happiness, is often tainted, sometimes ever so slightly, by a feeling of longing, of lamenting the absence.  This is true for anyone’s loss of any loved one at any age, but for those of us who experience our first significant loss when we were young, that feeling of loss starts earlier: bringing home a good grade, earning an award, graduating high school, getting your first apartment, falling in love, getting your heart broken, graduating college, a first job… you get the idea.

What I love about this piece by Woz is her ability to so well articulate those feelings:  happiness, sadness, and hope all rolled up into one sweet and poignant moment.  In fact, I loved this piece so much I asked her if I could republish it on my website.

If you would like to guest post here, let me know.

 

Posted in creative writing, grief