My dad died 25 years ago today in a nursing facility on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, not far from where I now live. I was there with him on that dark, remarkably stormy afternoon as it turned into darker evening. The lights in his room were dimmed but his bed was by the window and muted, gray November light leaked in on him as my mom and brother and I kept vigil.
It had been a long road to that point. My dad had been ill but undiagnosed for many years; then diagnosed and ill for many more. There were many frightening, frustrating, bewildering, embarrassing, and sad moments and experiences leading up to his death from Huntington’s disease. I’d say it’s safe to say that many of us (family & friends alike) had complicated relationships with him throughout his adult life, largely due to the impact of his illness.
But my dad was authentically who he was through and through and for many of us, there were good memories, as well. What I’ve found is that over the years, those are the ones that stay with me the most indelibly. Also with some distance, we’re better able to laugh at some of the not-so-good memories. That’s not how it is for everyone, I get that. I wish it could be.
One of my good memories is that of one of Dad’s after-work rituals. He was like me (or I like him, in more precise terms), I think—an extroverted introvert. He needed some down time after a day packed with people and planning, so he’d come home and gather his glass of sherry and his Blue Diamond Almonds and he’d hole up in his office (which was technically our family room). He’d get out his baton (he was neither a director nor a musician), turn KING FM up as loud as he could on our very average sound system, and he’d direct the heck out of classical piece after piece. Witnessing him in action was a joy to behold, when we did. He looked happy, invigorated, and free of all cares in the world.
Tonight I did the same in his honor, on this, his deathiversary. All these years later, I believe that he’s still listening and that he’s happy, invigorated, and free of all the cares in the world.
A few other readings about death anniversaries:
If you're feeling healthy and happy and totally in the holiday spirit, cheers to you, savor it, and if you're able, reach out to those around you who aren't. This post is for the rest of us. Here's the heavy "stuff" people are dealing with in my corner of the world, and these short, dark days and the pressure cooker of the holidays certainly aren't helping:
No more “ugly cry” talk, please. I find that language so demeaning...to us as human beings and to the sacredness of our tears. I get that it’s slang. Hip terminology that Kim Kardashian (insert eye roll here) and Oprah have helped make popular. And that we don’t “mean” anything by it. But language has meaning. Our word choice matters. There is nothing ugly about crying, nor about us when we cry.
All of these tears, referred to recently as "ugly cries" by people I know and love and maybe even by me, are really quite the opposite. They're tears of beauty, and to paraphrase Washington Irving, tears of power, eloquence, grief, contrition, and "unspeakable love."
I get that sometimes when we cry really hard, our makeup washes away and our noses run and our faces may turn blotchy and red and our eyes may look like oh, that's right, we've been CRYING. None of that is ugly; it's human, and it comes from our most beautiful body part: our hearts.
So, please, keep telling me what moves you; what speaks to you so deeply that tears form in your eyes and cascade down your cheeks. Call it sobbing, say you "bawled your eyes out", tell me you wailed like there was no tomorrow, but please don't tell me you ugly cried. You're way too beautiful for that. xoxo
I love our neighborhood, but the closest grocery store has checkout lines that compete for the slowest in the city, if not nation. The lines are long and no one seems in any hurry to change that, so from what I've observed, most shoppers just adapt and use the time to catch up on alien abductions and other news of the rich and famous.
Last week, after a no-longer-than-usual wait for register #8, I was unloading my basket when I looked up and saw, as if for the first time, the row of Big Red gum in the register's candy display. Instantly, I was transported back in time. I could smell the cinnamon aroma and even taste the gum itself. My dad, who died when I was 26, used to send me sticks of Big Red and "lucky" pennies in the mail when my parents divorced and he was living in different places. He was ill for a long time and had very little money, but he wanted to give me something, and these were the things he could afford. Even as a pre-teen, I knew these tiny tokens were a symbol of his love for me and that he wished he could send me much more.
I wrote a few months ago about the sudden, unexpected death of our dear neighbor, Rogelio (www.smallboatbigwaves.com/sbbw-blog/lets-make-the-most-of-this-beautiful-day). Rogelio died at home, in the middle of the night, and his wife hasn't slept there a night since. Now, after a time of mourning and preparation, the rest of their four-generation family has moved out. There were too many memories in and around their house...many of happy times of togetherness and daily life, but too many of the shock, fear, and deep grief they experienced at the loss of their beloved patriarch.
A friend brought a sweet bouquet of Daphne odora to my workshop at the beginning of February, and another friend reacted instantly and with animation: "That smell! We had bushes of those by our front door when I was growing up...that smell always makes me remember that time, and I've planted the same in my own yard." In a moment, that friend left behind her current stressful, adult life and was reveling in a time from her childhood that was simpler and less heavy on her shoulders.
What are the sights, sounds, tastes, or smells that trigger memories in you? Who or what do they make you think of and what emotions do they bring about in you? I hope there's some sweet in there somewhere... xoxox
My bulbs went in late in the planting season this past fall. I think I was too busy being busy and too busy being anxious when I was supposed to plant them, and then suddenly I wanted to lean into the hope of spring and it was almost too late. Right before Thanksgiving, I crammed them into two planter boxes on our back deck and hoped for the best.
I told my spiritual director I'd planted them as a nod to hope and trust and all that, and then before I saw her a month later, dirt was scattered on our deck and there were suspicious looking holes in the planter boxes. Upon closer inspection, I saw that bulbs had been pulled out; some were gnawed on, some gone altogether. I took that as a sign, at first not a good one. The messiness, the chaos, the half-baked attempt at something beautiful...it was all in line with my life at the time. Of course these "seeds" weren't working out as I'd hoped and anticipated--neither was much else in my life!
Then, as I dug deeper (sorry) with my spiritual director and we talked about the strategic squirrels running around mucking things up in my springtime flower plan, it hit me: maybe they needed those bulbs more than I did. Maybe my last-minute decision to plant those bulbs was just what those squirrels needed to get them through the winter. Maybe I...my life...my work...my energy...was feeding someone who needed feeding. That insight changed everything for me and I let go of feeling frustrated and annoyed with the squirrels and I quit checking the flower boxes every day to see what damage they'd wrought.
Since then, I've leaned full force into the mystery of what green stems might pop up in the next month or so and what yellow flowers might bloom after that. I'm waiting to see what the dirt and fallen leaves and winter rain and bright sun have produced and what the squirrels left behind, if anything. And if they haven't, oh well...I count myself lucky that I was a small part of their care and feeding in this season of cold and hibernation.
What about you? Who or what's feeding you, or who are you feeding that might need your energy and goodness even more than you do?
In honor of this new year and an idea I've had brewing for awhile (not to mention bringing great people together for meaningful conversation!), I'm offering this workshop. If you or someone you know is interested, please email or call me for more information or to register.
"I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel." -Charlie Brown
If I had had my way, Christmas 2005 would have been cancelled altogether. Two of my very dearest friends died 9 months apart, and I remember thinking I would never be okay again. My heart strained tremendously under the double loss. Up until then a full-blown Christmas enthusiast, I told my husband I didn't want to decorate one iota for Christmas that year, we didn't, and it was the right decision for us in that moment in time.
Last night I was at the hospital bedside of a woman in her early 80s who was dying unexpectedly, in that she'd seemed fine just days earlier. Her large family of children, grandchildren, and people she'd taken in when they had nowhere else to turn, filled the room with their stories and tears. She couldn't go, they said--she was their "boss". She was only 5 feet tall in stature, they said, but she was a full 8 feet tall in personality. And she LOVED Christmas. She had just spoken of getting her tree up, setting up her train set around it, and decorating the rest of the house she shared with her husband of over sixty years. That family, while fluctuating between begging their matriarch to stay and saying the goodbyes they knew they had to, was already laying plans to get a Christmas tree this week and to decorate big and beautiful in her memory.
As a grief coach, I often meet with people in their homes, so I have the privilege of seeing firsthand their havens/sanctuaries/caves (all terms clients have used to describe how they see their homes as they retreat from the world in their grief). One decorating trend I've noticed with my clients this year is the understated, petite, non-Christmas Christmas tree. The pretty white ones made to look like bare Birch trees, lit with tiny white lights. The kind you find at Pottery Barn or Michael’s, or if you’re lucky, online, so you don’t even have to leave the house. Because for some, who feels like going out and shopping, let alone full-blown decorating, when your beloved husband died at the holidays last year, or your wife’s health has been compromised due to a stroke and you’re exhausted just trying to keep up with everything, or your child died and you wonder if you can even make it to the holidays, let alone through them?
How, when in grief, do we "decorate for the holidays", both tangibly and theoretically? As I hope these stories illustrate: However we want, in whatever ways feel most comfortable/comforting, with no explanations or apologies needed. Grief and our responses to it are as unique as each of us and that which we are grieving. There's no right or wrong and no one has the right to tell us otherwise.
Here are two articles you may find helpful if you're grieving in this season:
https://whatsyourgrief.com/64-tips-grief-at-the-holidays/ and/or you care about someone who is: whatsyourgrief.com/8-tips-for-supporting-a-grieving-friend-this-holiday/.
May peace, love, and comfort be yours this month and into the new year. xoxox
Rogelio, the sweet patriarch of the multi-generational Filipino family who live next door to us, was the first person I met when we moved into our house nearly five years ago. I was the first one to the house on moving day and when I stepped out of my Bug, there was Rogelio, standing on the sidewalk, smiling his shy, sideways smile. When he saw me, it felt like he really saw me; he said, “Oh, good…oh good. Welcome.” Those smiles, and his quiet kindness, have been our neighbors ever since.
The last time we saw Rogelio was a month ago. It was the middle of the night and he was being carried up his side yard on a soft stretcher by four firemen/EMTs. He was unresponsive, on oxygen, and looked even tinier of stature than he already was. He’d had a heart attack. He lingered in a coma for a few weeks and died peacefully last week. We were stunned. He was relatively young, still working long days, and we’d seen him just days before down at our neighborhood bus stop. We didn’t know then, of course, that that was the last time we’d get to enjoy his gentle teasing and twinkly eyes.
Rogelio and his beloved wife of over forty years had big plans to return to the Philippines next year when they retired. Their extended family and friends there, who called Rogelio “Papa”, were all eagerly awaiting their return. That’s often how life goes, it seems. We make plans, things change, and people are gone before we know it, with no chance to prepare or say goodbye. I’m the girl who mourns when favorite restaurants close without warning, so when it’s someone I care about, well, you can imagine. Losing people unexpectedly is the reminder that seems to repeat itself in its importance: let us do and say what we want to now rather than later, let us tackle those things unattended or unaddressed, and, in the bigger picture, let us live life to its glorious max, giving thanks for it all.
Farewell, dear Rogelio. I trust you’re having a neighborly day in the most beautywood of all.
Won’t You be My Neighbor
It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
It's a neighborly day in this beautywood
A neighborly day for a beauty
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you
So let's make the most of this beautiful day
Since we're together, we might as well say
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?
Won't you please
Won't you please
Please won't you be my neighbor?
Those there are a few of my saints. Not saints as in perfect people, but people I knew and loved and from whom I learned, who have passed from this life. They are family members, friends, and role models.
They taught me about generosity, nature, and that actually, there are a ton of good men in the world. They taught me about hospitality, how to play racquetball, and how to be a friend. They taught me the importance of faith, family, and the joy of a shared meal. They taught me about beauty, grace, tenderness, and forgiveness. Some were lights of exuberance; some of deep humility. They were doctors and engineers and pastors and wives and custodians and fathers and Sunday school teachers…one of them taught me how to make toast into art.
Some of them I knew well; some less well but with full admiration. Without four of them, I wouldn’t be here today. I give thanks for each and every one of them and their presence in my life, past and present. And as it’s All Saints’ Day (when the dead and our relationships with them are honored), I’ll tell you, I’m still in relationship with some of them. Yep, in relationship.
Though time and space separate us, I still call on my saints. I talk with them, I implore them, I ask them for guidance and wisdom. I tell them I wish they were still here, I tell them I love and miss them, and I tell them I don't understand why they had to go. Think I’m crazy? That’s fine, but in case you’re curious, here’s a good article on one of my favorite grief theories, that of the continuing bonds between the living and the dead: whatsyourgrief.com/continuing-bonds-shifting-the-grief-paradigm/
While Halloween was about goblins and ghosts, All Saints’ Day is about the actual people you knew and loved. Both have their pluses, though the latter's purpose may carry you through more of the year. Who are your saints? Who you gonna call?
A friend texted me recently to ask me what I believe happens at the moment of death. Did I believe in a soul and if so, where did it go? This friend's sister had recently died and my friend had had her hand on her sister's chest when she took her last breath. I took that in for a minute; what a profound experience those sisters had shared.
Then I answered my friend with what I think might maybe possibly happen at the moment of death (knowing full well and admitting that of course I know nothing): "I do believe in a soul and though of course I don't know, I imagine it leaving the body fairly swiftly at death and beginning its amazing and unique journey to...to where? To visit people and places it loves, as a way of saying goodbye, then eventually landing in a place of great rest, wholeness, restoration, and reunion with all those who have gone before." (For the record, not all of my text exchanges are this heavy...I can use emojis with the best of them.)
What's been your experience with people in your life you've loved and lost? Have you felt a connection after they're gone? Have they come to you in a dream, sent you a message, or have you found a tangible item they've clearly left for you? For me, these past couple of months have been full of stories like this (these are just a few):
Long ago I was an English major. Though some may say my degree has been under-utilized, my love for the written word remains, and sometimes my words turn out okay.