Grief Averted in Paris

Debby and Me (L to R)

Debby and Me (L to R)

I was lounging in bed listening to “Morning Edition” on my local public radio station. It was April 15. Tax day. But I wasn’t worried about that–I’d filed an extension. And I wasn’t awake enough yet to remember that it was the anniversary of my father’s death eight years earlier, though I’d remembered it in the days before.

When the phone rang I let the machine pick up. I hadn’t had coffee, but the message Joe left was more of a jolt than even the strongest espresso could have offered.

“Hi Jenn, this is Joe. [pause] Everything’s okay [pause] but I just need to update you on a situation about your sister.”

Joe (L) and Mike (R)

Joe (L) and Mike (R)

Debby has known Joe and his partner Mike since the 80s when they were in training together to become flight attendants. I’d spent the occasional Thanksgiving with them, shared countless dinners out, and celebrated a couple of monumental birthdays: Debby’s 40th, and more recently, Debby’s 50th.

His voice sounded calm, but Joe never calls me, so I knew something was wrong.

Potentially very wrong.

"House sitting" in Hawaii

“House sitting” in Hawaii

My sister and I are close even though I currently live in Albuquerque and she currently lives in Chicago. We spent two weeks together at Christmas in Hawaii house-sitting (which involves sitting on the beach, reading, eating shrimp and drinking wine).

We talk on the phone regularly, but she’s always travelling and often I don’t know where she is. Layovers in Shanghai or London, training in Dallas, visiting a friend in Denver, working a trade show in Florida, or monthly trips to San Diego for appointments with her oncologist–Debby has Stage IV breast cancer, which she has been managing for the last 10 years. Approximately 20% of those with Stage IV breast cancer survive long term and my sister seems to be one of them. But there is a part of me that always wonders how long her lucky streak will last.

Had something changed?

Eyes wide open I jumped out of bed, grabbed the phone off my desk, and hit the redial button.

“JoeThisIsJenniferWhat’sWrong?” I asked.

Joe told me that Debby was on a layover in Paris. She had collapsed, had a cardiac arrest, was in the hospital, in a medically induced coma, but she was fine. For a moment I felt my own heart stop. I had questions, but I couldn’t articulate them at first.

“What does that mean?” I mumbled, my body numbing, my eyes blurring with tears.

Joe said that he and Mike would fly to Paris, I didn’t need to come yet, they’d have a better idea of what was going on once they got there. But I didn’t want to wait. As Joe talked, he reassured me that Debby was not alone, there were airline crew members with her, that she would be fine. I nodded while I checked flights to Paris. As Debby’s registered companion I could fly standby using a non-revenue pass. The flight out of Albuquerque, however, would leave in an hour for Dallas and I knew there was no way I could make it, so I resigned myself to leaving the following day.

Debby’s supervisor in Chicago, also named Debbie, arranged for my travel the next day, departing Albuquerque for Chicago at 6:30 am, leaving for Paris at 5 pm, arriving the day after that. An eternity, and for the first time I really wished for a Star Trek teleporter. Would I get there in time I wondered.

I spent the day packing, tracking down my passport, dashing off emails to clients, rearranging plans, letting family know what was going on, and fielding phone calls from Debby’s friends who’d heard about what happened. I always joke about the airline grapevine– best way to disseminate information: telephone, telegram, and tell-a-flight attendant. I talked to Nancy and Barb who would fly to Paris with me. Jackie called, Kat emailed, and Pam messaged me on Facebook, but I had no news to share.

I spent the night tossing and turning. I’d made the mistake of googling “heart attack medically induced coma” only to discover that the survival rate for cardiac arrest is dismal: 11%. And there was a high risk of brain damage if CPR assistance wasn’t rendered quickly to maintain blood flow to the brain. Maybe it wasn’t “cardiac arrest” I prayed.

* * *

It was cardiac arrest.
If help had arrived minutes later, she’d have brain damage.
If she’d been in her hotel room, she’d be dead.
If no one had stopped to help, she’d be dead.
If someone hadn’t administered CPR, she’d be dead.

* * *

I’d drawn the shades and closed the door, muting the sounds of the hospital: the clanging of still-full lunch plates being collected, the moaning of the man across the hall, and the incomprehensible (to me) rapid fire French of the nurses. Debby had been moved the day before from the Intensive Care unit to the Cardiac Intensive Care unit, which seemed like an upgrade of sorts, but she was still connected to machines that monitored her heart and to an i.v. drip. Nancy had returned to Chicago and Barb and Mike and Joe had decided to walk up to the Chagall Chapel. I wanted to stay with my sister. Besides, the cobblestoned 3-mile walk the day before to and from Notre Dame had left my knees aching. And I still wasn’t sure what time zone I was in.

“I’m going to close my eyes now,” Debby said as she pulled the rough cotton sheet and felt blanket over her shoulders. Always petite, my sister seemed to have become even smaller since the last time I’d seen her, her olive-toned skin had turned pale, with a yellow tinge, and the drugs from the medically-induced coma were still affecting her. She’d been repeating questions like “When did you get here?” “Where are you staying” or “Cute top, where’d you get that?” although with less frequency than she’d asked the day before. She’d also repeat her own stories, or lack thereof. “I don’t remember anything,” she’d tell us, or “I don’t even remember the layover. Who was on my crew?” and even though the doctor assured us this short-term memory loss was normal, that it was the drugs they’d administered, I still worried about brain damage.

I settled into one vinyl chair, propped my feet up onto the other and closed my eyes. Since I’d arrived in Paris I’d yet to get a good night’s sleep or a decent meal, sustained only by the offerings in the Marriott’s Executive Lounge: bread and cheese and Bordeaux the night before, café au lait and croissants earlier that morning.

As I started to drift off, Debby’s tiny voice, still raspy from the breathing tube they’d removed two days earlier, called out, “Jenn.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled.

“Why am I still here?”

#  #  #

My sister is back in Chicago recovering.  She still experiences pain from the implanted defibrillator, the device that will engage in case she suffers another cardiac arrest (as a survivor of cardiac arrest her risk of cardiac arrest is increased), and she tires easily.  Her prognosis is excellent and she is a fighter.  What we don’t know is how long she will be off work, and what her work life will look like.  To help Debby during this time when she is not working, her friend Joe (the one mentioned above) is coordinating a Debby Simpson Recovery Fund to help with her living expenses, and out-of-pocket medical expenses while she is healing.  I have been amazed at the number of MY friends–some of whom are acquaintances, some of whom have never met Debby–who have donated to money.  And the well-wishes and prayers are also welcome and have helped Debby keep her spirits up. If you’d like to give money, follow the link above. If you’d like to leave words of encouragement, drop a comment here.

Why is she still here?  I don’t know, but I am grateful.

Here is Debby, one day after having a defibrillator implanted, with her French cardiologist.  And here Debby and I are on the plane, happy to be heading home.

A big SHOUT OUT to Mike, who stayed with me the whole time.  Couldn’t have done it without him, his moral support, his French laundry skills, his ability to select a good bordeaux, and his sense of humor as evidenced by THIS photo:

Mike on a borrowed bicycle (for a minute)

Mike on a borrowed bicycle (for a minute)

SPECIAL THANKS TO : Emelie, who first stopped when she saw Debby on the ground, and garnered help from a passerby who performed CPR and another who called for an ambulance.

Emelie:  she saved my sister's life

Emelie: she saved my sister’s life

And BIG THANKS also to the AA crew (a special MERCI BEAUCOUP to Paula!!)  who stayed with my sister before we could get there, the AA folks in Chicago (Debbie! Trina!) who got us out to Paris super fast, the crew members who stayed with us, and the people at the Marriott Hotel Rive Gauche. I would have fallen apart without all these people, not to mention the love and support from everyone via Facebook.  And the bordeaux.

Posted in creative writing, grief | 1 Comment

Marketing Grief

Recently I signed up to be a part of the outreach team for the Children’s Grief Center (CGC) and while I know it’s important to share information about the grief center and the services they provide to grieving families, I feel a little weird, macabre maybe because I get a little excited when I hear about someone who is grieving.  But really it’s because I know just the place for them!  I know the CGC can help!

This past week I had my first  opportunity to share my grief story with the Kiwanis, and so I thought I’d share it with you here:

 

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Me, Mom, Debby (L to R) circa 1974

My name is Jennifer and my mother died when I was 13.

First there was shock which slows everything down to a pace that allows your mind to catch up with the loss.  Shock after the death of a loved one gets you through the phone calls, able to say, “I just wanted to let you know that Donna died,” or nod in agreement, “Yes, she is no longer in pain.”

Shock lets you choose a casket, select music for the funeral, write the eulogy, arrange food for after the funeral.

Only then do you realize that everything has changed. Continue reading

Posted in grief, grief memoirs

The 5 Stages of Grief Over my Shoes

skechersAt the end of January I  bought my silver- leather-bedazzled Skechers from Zappos.com.  I couldn’t wait for them to arrive and once they did I immediately put them on, took a photograph and posted it to Instagram: “sparkly new #shoes !” I wrote.

Oh how I loved those shoes.  They were sporty and comfortable and they matched everything.  I could walk in them.  To the grocery store, to the bank, the post office.  The perfect travel shoe– easy to slip on and off through the security line– I wore them to Seattle. I could wear them with socks, with tights, and even with bare feet.  The memory foam insert added a little bounce to my step.  They made me happy.

And then one day, less than two months later, they broke.

skecher shoe broken

Stage 1: Denial

For days they lay under the coffee table as if they were just waiting for me to put them on.  I was in denial.

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My fancy Josef Siebel shoes

Eventually I tossed them into the bottom of the closet, while I struggled every time I got dressed trying to decide which pair of shoes to wear.  Sure, I had a nice pair of Josef Siebels that were comfortable to walk in, but they were kinda fancy.  Yeah, I had a pair of good running shoes, but they were kinda boring.  And I had a pair of Keds, but they were kinda worn out.

My roommate suggested that I contact Skechers. “I’m sure they’ll send you a replacement pair,” she said.  But I was waiting for the shoes to spontaneously repair themselves. As if.

Finally, I tweeted a picture of them @SkechersUSA “love my new shoes. Sad they’re broken already” I wrote. Continue reading

Posted in creative writing, grief

National Grief Awareness Day 2013

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Christmas sometime in the 80s (notice my sister Debby’s big shoulders)

The Thursday before Thanksgiving (that’s today, November 21) is Children’s National Grief Awareness Day, recognizing that the upcoming holiday season is especially difficult on grieving families.

Even though my mom died more than 30 years ago, the holidays are still difficult.  Not horrible, I’ve managed to have some good times over the years, but my mom loved Christmas, and each time I decorate my tree with ornaments from my childhood– the clear glass ones my mother collected or the ones we made together–or hang tinsel on the tree “one strand at a time” as Mom always advised, her absence becomes a presence in my family room.

xmas

Not sure what Christmas this is… we always wear these stupid paper hats that come from our stocking crackers (1)

And as I bake Christmas cookies, using Mom’s  recipes (also known as the Joy of Cooking’s recipes), rolling pecan balls, or dropping chocolate drenched chow mein noodle cookies onto wax paper, Christmas carols playing, a fire crackling, her absence becomes a presence in my kitchen.

Over the years the sadness has lessened, but there are other losses as well: Grandma died in 1994, Granddad in 2004, Dad in 2005…  and there will be others, because whether we like to think about it or not, people keep dying, it’s part of life. Continue reading

Posted in grief, Uncategorized

What is grief?

purple-gorillaWikipedia calls grief “….a multi-faceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something to which a bond was formed.”

Mirriam-Webster defines grief as deep sadness caused especially by someone’s death.

The Mayo Clinic offers a 245-word article, “What is grief.”

Simply put, grief is the physical, emotional and spiritual reaction to loss.  But in my experience, it’s not really that simple.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver likened grief to the heaviness of a swimmer’s long hair dragging in the water. For author Claire Bidwell Smith grief became a giant sad whale she dragged behind her.  Poet Matthew Dickman called grief a purple gorilla.

A writing exercise I like to do with the kids from the Children’s Grief Center is to respond to the prompt, “Grief is…”  And the answers can be very revealing–one kid called grief a friend who doesn’t want you, but won’t let anyone else have you either.

Here’s what I wrote the last time I did this exercise:

Grief is a pillow I can lay my head on when I am tired.

Grief is a presence, ephemeral, something I can’t touch or hear, but feel in my gut. Sometimes grief is indigestion.

Grief is a fashion style–my collection of black sweaters, my propensity for black shoes, black headbands, and my black leather coat.

Grief is a blanket that is too heavy and warm and makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning.

Grief is a fog around my mind’s eye keeping me frm seeing, imagining my own future, or remembering the times before cancer, before death, the times when life was good and we were a family taking picnics to the beach or talking over dinner.

Grief is annoying, I want to be done with it. I want to move one, kick it to the curb, put it on a funeral pyre and watch it go up in flames.

Grief is like a small rock I put in my pocket. I’ve fingered it smooth. Sometimes I take it out and show people.

What is grief to you?

Posted in grief

Grief (reading) takes a holiday

still pointOver the last several months I’ve read several grief narratives–memoirs mostly.  Actually this whole year has been devoted to reading grief, and of course writing grief.  Not all these books are necessarily classified as “grief memoirs” but I wanted to read them because they deal with grief in some way.  Here’s a brief list of some recently read:

Half a Life by Darin Strauss (which I reviewed last month on this very blog)

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp

Somehow Form a Family  by Tony Early

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith

But grief gets overwhelming sometimes, so I  read The Kalahari Typing School for Men: A No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Novel (4) by Alexander Mccall Smith. I’d read the first three, purchased this, or it was gifted to me, and it sat on my bookshelf unread!  It was delightful. 

I’m also about halfway through Isabel Allende’s Zorro and started to re-read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott…. and I even started reading Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps.   One of the benefits of an MFA in creative writing is the learned ability (grad school survival skill) to read several books at a time. I have many more grief memoirs to read, not to mention essays and I’ll get back to commenting on them on this blog, but for now, for my own writing, I felt like I needed something else.

I needed a break from other people’s grief because really, my own grief never takes a holiday.  Not entirely.  It’s like it goes away, maybe down to Cabo, or takes a pub tour of Ireland, but still it checks in on Facebook every now and again or tweets  status updates:

  • Cleaning out my desk! ran across this letter my mom had written to my grandma…  I recognized her handwriting instantly
  • Hmm. wondering: was mom happy?
  • Thinking about Dad– what would he think about in no particular order: Obama, the iPhone, Syria, Treyvon Martin, same gender marriage, Breaking Bad

Thirty some years down the road grief is no longer the kind of gut-punch grief experienced right after a loved one dies, but still, there are moments of pause, sometimes, still, even a tear.

So while grief may not be taking holiday, I’m taking a break from reading about grief.  At least until I finish the books on my nightstand.  There’s others waiting in the wings:  Son of Gun by Justin St. Germain, To The Last Breath by Francis Slakey, Comfort: a journey through grief by Ann Hood, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala….  People. They just keep dying. Writers. They just keep writing about it… I keep writing about it.

Posted in creative writing, grief, grief memoirs

Grief Literature Spotlight: Half a Life by Darin Strauss

A little over a year ago I earned my MFA in creative writing, a program that includes a bunch of courses in writing and literature, the actual writing of a book-length manuscript, and the successful defense of the aforementioned manuscript.

Although my committee chair Greg Martin told me that he thinks of the defense as a “conversation about this draft” I still imagined donning Wonder Woman’s indestructible bracelets to deflect the incoming bullets comments about my manuscript.  Fortunately Greg’s vision of the event was how it actually played out.  One comment from my committee member Sharon Warner, however, haunted me.

“You need to stop apologizing for writing about death and grief. You should embrace writing about these things,” she said.

Since that time (April 2012) I have spent a lot of time reading grief memoirs.  You’ll find an annotated list here on this site, but I’ve not read all of them.  (not yet anyway!)  I also taught a Writing Grief class.  I still sometimes apologize, but I find myself embracing the fact that I write about grief and death and cancer more and more.

half-a-life

Enough about me, all that intro was to tell you I’ll be reviewing in more detail the grief memoirs I’ve read here, on this very blog.

I recently read Darin Strauss’ memoir, Half a Life at the suggestion of (it was actually assigned by) writer Emily Rapp (with whom I studied over the summer). 

From the first line, I was hooked. In fact, this may be one of the best first lines ever:

Half a life ago, I killed a girl.

Genius.  Now of course this first line works so well partly because of the lines that follow, the words that put the reader in a time and a place, and in sympathy with the narrator:

I had just turned eighteen, and when you drive in new post-adolescence, you drive with friends. We were headed to shoot a few rounds of putt-putt. It was May 1988.

In the text that follows we learn about Celine, who was riding her bicycle on the side of the road and for unknown reasons turned into the far left lane, into Darin Strauss’ car.  And she died. It is not his fault according to witnesses, to the police.  This thing that happened to him became a story he will keep secret.

Not only is this story of delayed grief, of guilt, and of trauma  compelling,  it is rendered beautifully.  The crisp clean prose, especially in the beginning works well to contrast the chaos of trauma.  The main narrative, the “what happened” and the “then what happened” is written in short chapters.  Those chapters are then interspersed with tiny chapters, some only one small square of text, like a photo, a flash of image, a memory, a thought, a realization.

Celine Zilke, the girl I killed, was sixteen and always will be sixteen. And I knew her: Celine went to my school. She was an eleventh grader. I see her playing field hockey in blue gym shorts–Celine had been that lively, athletic type one always imagines in shorts. Or I see her settled in beside friends on the concrete benches just outside the cafeteria, or dashing off some notes in the public speaking class we took together. Celine sat by the window.

When I look back now, she strikes me most of all as young.

Another favorite tiny chapter is just three sentences long and rests in the middle of a page surrounded by white space:

I’ve come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn’t properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That’s what shock is.

If you’ve experienced trauma or a death, then this probably resonates with you as much as it does me….

I’ll be writing about more memoirs, as I gather my thoughts and read more….   let me know of any grief memoirs that are not already on my list.  I’m also interested in great grief essays and poetry so feel free to share those as well.  I’ve started a list online here as well.

Posted in Book Review, creative writing, grief, grief memoirs

Honoring Jane Catherine Lotter and my Granddad

Ever since I read about Jane Catherine Lotter’s death, and the fact that she had written her own obituary I’ve been intrigued.  What if we all wrote our own obituary, maybe updated it every year. How would that (could that?) change who we are?  I’m not ready to write my own obituary, though I hope one day in the quite distant future it will read that I was as well loved as Jane Lotter, and that somewhere someone (maybe more than a few) found my words, my work inspirational, helpful….

So often obituaries focus on the The Big Accomplishments. What I love about Jane Lotter’s is how she focuses on the smaller things.  Yes, she mentions her professional career, but it’s her family, the things she loved that are most important to her.

It makes me wish I’d written my grandfather’s obituary differently.

Here’s what I wrote in 2004:

Rear Admiral Maurice E. Simpson, USN (Retired) passed away on February 16, 2004 near his home in Del Mar, Calif. Born in Minnesota in 1909, he completed his dental studies at the University of Minnesota in 1936, followed by a year’s internship with the U.S. Public Health Service in the Marine Hospital at Norfolk, Virginia. In 1937, Simpson was appointed lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy.

His first duty assignment was to the Naval Training Center in San Diego, Calif. where he moved with his new wife, Ruby Wellons of Sedley, Virginia.

Simpson was aboard the stores-issue ship USS Antares when the ship entered Pearl Harbor at 8 a.m. on December 7, 1941 and was strafed by Japanese pilots.

Simpson also served aboard the USS Washington, where he saw combat in the Pacific during World War II, aboard the USS Repose, stationed in Tsingtao China prior to the Communists take over, and aboard the USS El Dorado. Other notable duties included chief of dental service in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Quanitco Virginia, and serving in Japan during the hostilities in Korea where he was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for his skill and leadership in the treatment of the wounded at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka.

Simpson was promoted to rear admiral on July 1, 1964 and served as fleet dental officer and assistant chief of staff of dentistry for the commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Virginia from 1967 until his retirement in 1971.

After retirement, Simpson returned to San Diego where he enjoyed golf with friends, and even made two holes-in-one. He also enjoyed travel with his wife Ruby, who died in 1994.

What I wish I’d written:

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Me in the middle, Grandma on the left, Dreamboat on the right

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.

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 played golf well into his 90s, and in fact made a Hole-In-One when he was 90. Not known for being prideful, he would want me to mention that it was at the at the Lomas Santa Fe Executive Golf Course.

He paid his bills the day they came in the mail, paid cash whenever he could, and the first time he ever took out credit, was a loan to cover the $35  fee to adopt George, Ruby’s five-year-old son from her first marriage.

Maury was most loved for telling stories– some of which his grandchildren (at least the one writing this) didn’t realize were NOT  true until years after first hearing them. Like how they used condoms to waterproof their flashlights on ship during WWII. Granddad had to go to the store and buy a case then return the next day to complain that there was one missing.  The store clerk said, “I hope it didn’t ruin your night.”

* * *

What do you hope people will say about you after you’re gone?  What would you say about yourself?

Posted in creative writing, grief

What goes with grief?

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This is what hitting a deer looks like

Grief goes with…

A Dairy Queen in North Platte, Nebraska.

A dead deer.

A wrecked 1971 Super Beetle VW.

Apfelkorn.

A semi truck full of frozen turkeys.

A calico cat named Alex.

A best friend named Karin.

I took a writing class in Santa Fe last month with Emily Rapp. If you’re not familiar with Emily’s work, she is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, which chronicles her experience parenting a child who is dying of Tay-Sachs disease and not expected to live past the age of three. Grief, pre-grief, anticipatory grief, whatever you want to call it–it  can’t help but permeate the pages. If you’ve not read the book, you should check it out.  Undeniably sad,  it’s beautifully written.

I should mention that it was a great class–Emily is smart and funny and though some of what we discussed in class were things I already knew about writing, I always enjoy hearing how someone else talks about craft.  In addition she provided great writing exercises and my fellow students were fantastic. I also always enjoy writing in community with others.

One of the writing exercises sparked what has become the start of what I hope is a pretty good in-progress essay pairing my grandmother’s death:

The downstairs den had become a makeshift hospital room for Grandma and the hospice nurse had explained to my sister, my granddad and I that our grandma was “actively dying” and we might see her slip in and out of consciousness, she may experience loud breathing, what is called a “death rattle” and she may begin to fidget and maybe even seem to look at something beyond what we could see. 

In the waiting time everything slowed down.  The air felt thick, heavy to walk through, hard to breath in and it was quiet, except for the sound of grandma’s breath, the rustling of her sheets as she pulled at them, the sound of granddad quietly crying.  I held her hand, a hand that had once been like mine with its short thick fingers but had become thin and soft.  My sister held her other hand and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of granddad.” 

with me hitting a deer in Nebraska:

The sky had turned light gray when out of nowhere a brown mass I could not identify came towards me in slow motion and I screamed and slammed on the brake as the mass hit the windshield spider webbing and bending the glass to within inches of my face.  My friend Karin, who had seen the 18 wheeler behind us but didn’t understand why I was braking, grabbed the steering wheel to pull us off to the shoulder.

The driver side window not open, but gone, shattered into a thousand pieces of gravel that I would later find in my socks and my underwear.  Karin found the emergency kit and lit the flares as I stood chain-smoking on the side of the highway shaking, my teeth chattering, blood dripping down the side of my face.

Although the two events happened within weeks of each other, I’d never made a connection between them.  In fact, I’d not written much about my grandmother’s death–maybe because I’ve been so focused on writing my memoir and focusing on my mother’s death. And “Hitting a Deer in Nebraska” had become one of those stories I tell at cocktail parties.

When I asked in class “Are these two events related?” my fellow classmates answered with a resounding, “Yes!”  and so I’ve been working on it ever since.

I’d never thought about how the experience of hitting a deer paired with grieving my grandmother’s death–though the more I write the more I see the connections. I’m making meaning of the story.

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Grandma and Granddad

Maybe I’m forcing the two together, but it seems that there is something in being so close to death: my grandmother’s, my own, and being in that foggy place of not knowing what is next, not knowing where I was….  of being fully in moments of grief.

I hope for my essay what Emily says she hopes for her book, that “…readers ….rethink their notions of tragedy and normalcy. I want them to find beauty in our human fragility, in the precariousness of all our lives, and I want this to act as a catalyst for them to live and love more boldly in their own lives. To make their lives big and rich and full and meaningful, however that might look for them.” (1)

A tall order for sure, but one worth aspiring to…

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Back on the road with replacement parts from a junkyard in Denver

(1) Quoted from Amazon.com’s Author One-on-One: Cheryl Strayed Interviews Emily Rapp

Posted in creative writing, grief

Father’s Day Shouldn’t Be About Grief

Father’s Day isn’t as hard for me as Mother’s Day–perhaps because  my father died in 2006 and I was an adult.  And though I had not  started to think of my 73-year-old father as “elderly” his health was failing.  It had been failing for a very long time.

I often say that we don’t get over loss, but rather we learn to live with it, and it gets better, feels different over time.  My mother dying when I was 13 was the hardest for me.  First of all being 13 is hard for obvious reasons.  And, in my family we didn’t know how to grieve and the word “therapy” was not in the family lexicon.  Dad buried himself in work and he didn’t know what to do.

Debby, Me, and Dad (Chicago 1980 something)

None of us knew what to do, how to relate to each other in this family that no longer had a center, a family whose linchpin had been removed and was spinning out of control.  The centrifugal force ultimately launched us each in different directions, away from each other.  We each tried to re-adjust ourselves to new roles in the family but we didn’t know who we were anymore.

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Grandma, Me, and Granddad (Del Mar, 1985ish)

When my grandma died, she was in her 80s and I was in my 30s.  I had always felt so lucky to have grandparents at all since so many of my contemporaries did not.  And when Granddad died (at age 94) it was hard for a lot of reasons, not the least of which that it was in the midst of my sister battling breast cancer. But grandparents dying in their 80s and 90s is the natural order of things.  I still felt the loss, still miss them, but there is no anger or feeling that it is unfair… After all life expectancy in the U.S. is 76 for men, 81 for women. Both Grandma and Granddad did better than that.

And when my Dad died, in some ways it was a relief. His health, as I mentioned, was bad.  And it was bad because he didn’t take care of himself.  He smoked, he drank too much, his diet was filled with fried foods and few fresh vegetables, and he didn’t exercise.  I harbored a secret fear that like my friend Karin, who had been caring for her mother after a debilitating stroke, my sister and I would end up taking care of him.  My father also left a mess: a hoard in his condo worthy of a television show, years of unpaid taxes, years of unopened mail.

Regardless of his faults, his shortcomings, his personal struggles with–well, so many things, I loved my dad.  

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Dad eating a hot dog in D.C.

So this Father’s Day I’ll remember the good things. He could be silly, had a sharp wit, he was smart. And he was a great cook and lover of hot dogs.

And I miss him.

Posted in grief