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death, Grief, Guest Posts

Missing Someone Before They’re Gone

September 9, 2015

By Marissa Dubecky

For as long as I can remember, my dad was sick. It started when I was in kindergarten, and he had several heart attacks that our family physician misdiagnosed as heartburn. When he went to him the third time, after collapsing in the grocery store parking lot and crawling the rest of the way to his car, the doctor took his complaints more seriously. After doing some tests, he wasted no time life-starring him to the hospital in the nearest city, where he had a quadruple heart bypass. Bypasses were less common twenty years ago, and the doctors were honest about the fact that it was a risky procedure. But all went smoothly, and the blockages around his heart were soon circumnavigated by clear vessels grafted from other parts of his body. The blood could flow to his heart again.

After a few months of recovery, my dad returned to the bookstore where he worked, but he was never the same. He’d always been a worrier, painfully aware of his mortality since he hit puberty, and now death felt all too real. My brother and I were only nine and five respectively, and he became obsessed with the idea that he wouldn’t live long enough to watch us grow up. Though fixed for the time-being by surgery, his health issues weren’t gone for good. The physical ills morphed into morbid, troubled thoughts that made themselves comfortable in his brain.

My dad worked at a bookstore an hour and a half away from where my mom, brother, and I lived in the country. They’d moved to get me and my brother into a better school system, but hadn’t found work to support us, so my dad kept his job in the city and the apartment we’d inherited from his mother. It wasn’t a bad situation; my dad loved his job. He worked next to the Yale School of Drama and Art, so he was constantly connecting with artists, actors, and writers. He was a jack-of-all trades kind of artist himself, so he could easily converse with the customers, forming bonds with movie stars and screenwriters.

My mom carted me around to her freelance graphic design gigs, and I joined her most days as she volunteered as the librarian at my brother’s elementary school. On Friday nights, my dad would come home with a VHS tape and stories to tell us over a big dinner. Saturdays were spent grocery shopping and scouring thrift stores for books, clothes, and antiques. Sundays we relaxed, and Monday mornings he headed back to the city for work.

After the surgery, his lifestyle there changed. He started drinking when he got home from his shifts, and when we would visit the apartment during the summers, my mom would find the porch littered with beer cans. Among other anxieties, he felt that his death was impending, and alcohol was the best way he could erase that thought from his mind.

My mom eventually got certified as a teacher, and my dad was able to move up to the country with us the year I turned nine. We hoped he’d find work there and his drinking would stop, but it didn’t end until a court-ordered trip to rehab when I was sixteen. He didn’t get a job, but he built a studio on the side of our house and spent hours filling its walls with paintings.

Throughout this, I worried about my dad’s physical and mental health. He had a temper, and his sadness was palpable. You could feel the stress emanating from him when he was angry. He looked healthy and handsome, with smooth, glowing brown skin and a thick head of bright white hair, but he drank and smoked a pack a day. He joked constantly, always making me laugh, but it was obvious from what he talked about that death was never fully out of his mind.

He was also one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. He was complicated, but he wore his heart on his sleeve. I lived in constant fear that I’d get off the school bus and find him dead from a heart attack, but I never worried that his love and adoration for me would die.

When I was fourteen, my dad went to the hospital for an angiogram, a test that examines arteries for blockages. He refused to go to the doctor unless his pain was unbearable, and this time it was. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the angiogram revealed clear vessels. It was summer, which meant we were all free of obligations. It was our time for adventures. We hit the road, driving up to Maine to see the ocean.

Somehow, no matter the frequency of arguments or tension, we all thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Long drives were spent in constant conversation, and none of us ever ran out of things to say to one another. We cared about the same issues, shared the same sense of humor, and were curious about the same topics. The trip was as memorable and magical as all our others.

The day after we got home, my brother, mom, and I were eating pancakes in the kitchen when we heard a crash come from my parents’ room. We ran down the hall to find my dad has knocked over a lamp to get our attention. He was gasping for breath. My brother ran and called 911. To this day, I’m not sure what I did. Eventually, the paramedics made it out to our rural home. They loaded my dad into the ambulance and took him to the local hospital, where he was again life-starred to Hartford.

The angiogram had punctured his lung, allowing fluid into it that he was literally drowning in. The moments while I heard him suffocating and waited helplessly to see if he would somehow make it were familiar. I’d felt that worry when I was five, begging a God I didn’t really know much about to give me more time, because I had no idea what else to do. I’d felt it dully over the years as I watched him neglect his health.

After a couple of weeks in the hospital, my dad was able to come home, but he was too weak to really get out of bed. The timing was especially hard because my brother was about to start his freshman year of college in upstate New York, a six hour car ride away. Our only option was for my mom to drive him, so I was left home caring for my dad. It was stressful the moment they left, but took a serious turn the day she was heading back. The previous night, his temperature had been rising and he’d been very confused. The next morning, it was dangerously high, and he was near-delirious.

I was scared and helpless at only fourteen. I paced the house, passing time taking care of him the only ways I knew how, which were mostly by getting him water and turning on fans or adding blankets. My mom got home around dusk. She took his temperature, and then as calmly as possible began to get him dressed and into the car. Then she drove him straight to the emergency room. Continue Reading…

Binders, death, Grief, Guest Posts

How to Have a Dead Child, The First Five Years

August 20, 2015

By Adina Giannelli

Live in a state of fog, half-submerged in water. Everything is fuzzy, cloudy, gray. Feel as though you’ve been anesthetized, but badly. Quickly you realize that what you thought was a general anesthetic turned out to be a local; the pain comes through the haze in sharp shards, and there’s no one you can sue for malpractice.

Cry, seemingly at random, at strollers and strawberries and the number 23. Living after death is not rational. Even through the anesthesia you see that. Exist as unhealed wound, sore and open, vulnerable to everything, yet somehow impenetrable. Scar tissue forms keloids around your head and heart; refuse to be moved.

Stare coldly at strangers who ask questions; stay angry. Exercise until you’ve lost all discernible body fat and rip your hair out at the root. Cry in your bed, in your car, in your office, at the gym. Wear age-inappropriate clothing that hangs on your gaunt frame like a signal light, a warning sign, a red flag.

Imagine yourself pregnant, feel phantom kicks; dream, occasionally, that your dead child is reincarnated as younger sibling. Become pregnant, accidentally but essentially on purpose, by your dead child’s father—a man you once loved and now hate.

Go to Russia where you sleep for fourteen hours a night and cry silently into your cheese grater cot at night, hoping for another day to pass, willing yourself to forget all you’ve left behind. A voice so small it is nearly inaudible whispers in your ear: remember, remember.

Two

 Move to a beautiful apartment in an idyllic little village an hour from where you work, where none of the faces are familiar and no one knows your troubles or your story or your name. Strangers stare, no one bothers to ask. Walk the streets in the day, to the library and the cooperative market and the village’s flower-covered bridge in rainy mornings, sit in your living room chair late into the evening, staring out the window and wondering why.

Your water breaks in the living room late one evening on the precipice of winter. A fierce cherub is born in the bedroom shortly thereafter, apparently healthy and squealing. Your midwife Kirsten catches the baby and places him on your swollen breasts; silently, in a manner discordant with your tradition, you pray.

Do not name the baby for eight days, less for religious reasons, more because you’re scared he won’t survive. His father, if you can call him that, wants to name the baby Uzi. You want to name the baby Ariel. His father is nowhere to be found for most of that first year, visiting occasionally as you monitor your second child’s breathing and anticipate the moment at which it might cease

Cry sparingly, for tears do no good. Winter births spring as you birthed your December baby, who passes through the five-week mark easily and without fanfare and tell yourself that if you don’t get too attached to the idea of his permanence, there is a very small chance he might survive.

Give strangers death stares when they ask about your husband, how many children you have, if he is your first. It is just you and this small infant this first year. Wake every fifteen minutes, checking his breathing, which steadies your own. You call this baby Samuel, a Hebrew name meaning God has heard. You are not so sure.

Three

Exhaust yourself with work and the task of raising a needy infant alone. Stress yourself with thoughts of your own poverty, the loneliness of a solitary future, the uncertainty of how you will survive. Realize you have no idea how to parent this beautiful baby when no one parented you, when you exist in a state of fog, when half of your heart is buried miles away, encased within a tiny white casket in a verdant cemetery plot, left to earth beneath the shade of ancient maple and pine trees.

Visit the cemetery and the other half of your heart as frequently as possible. Watch as your second baby is reborn a toddler through a sort of fog which offers a strange clarity, even in a haze of grief.

Repeat, as a mantra to guide you:

Your daughter is dead but your son is still here.

Your daughter is dead but your son is still here.

Your daughter is dead but your son is still here.

Sometimes it will work and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes your days are better than others, even good. See that life is extraordinarily beautiful, at times; feel happy. See that life is extraordinarily blessed, at times; feel grateful. See that life is extraordinarily difficult, at times; feel angry. Your daughter did not deserve to die. Your son did not deserve a dead sister, an absent father, a mother teetering on the edge. Resign yourself to the fog, lean into it and hope that like all other weather patterns, it will one day lift. Some mornings it is a challenge to lure your body from bed, the fog is so heavy, but you rise. Even on the worst days, you find yourself lifted.

Four 

Struggle. Become so busy with teaching and work and the labor of parenting a toddler that you have to remind yourself daily of your reality. You don’t feel sad, most of the time, you feel so overextended and exhausted by the activities of daily living that you nearly forget you have a dead child. Cease speaking about her, as a means of self-preservation.

Listen as people ask if Samuel is your only child. Tell people you had a daughter but she died; comfort them as they work through imagined grief. Learn to lie when people ask if you have other children, so as to maximize everyone’s comfort. Think of her daily; cry less frequently; try to move forward and upward and on. Feel guilty, as if by approximating a life you have betrayed your dead child, your buried half heart.

Realize that the fog very nearly overtook you, but it was merely an overture: a necessary beginning, but a temporary one. Recognize that even if you don’t know how to get it, you and everyone around you deserve something else.

Five

Decide you really have to get it together, to get off the treadmill of stagnant, unspent grief where you’ve stationed yourself in the years since your daughter’s death. See that every bad decision you’ve made in the last half-decade has been a function of indecision, a failure, driven by fear, to make a move, to take your life by its own balls and do the thing you were initially driven to do.

Realize that though your daughter is dead, you are not. Recognize that though you have tried desperately for the better part of the last five years to match her in her death state, it is physically impossible. You cannot be dead while you are still alive. The realization is shocking in its simplicity, and somehow profound, if only for the fact that you’d never considered it before.

Recognize your process was blocked, and you need to get unstuck. Act accordingly. Throw yourself into exercise, and friendship, and work. Help everyone who asks. Be kind to everyone who crosses your path. Write and read and teach with fire burning beneath you, from the place where for five years, half your heart’s been buried.

Pitch stories to editors and proposals to agents, knowing that many of them won’t be accepted. Eat ice cream after you go to the gym and have three drinks at dinner with your beautiful cousin and her wonderful husband, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh. Wrap your arms completely around the broad body of the man you’re casually dating but beginning to love, even if you don’t know where things are going, even if it means your heart will be broken and badly. Your heart’s already broken, and if you’re very lucky, it will break again, and again, and again, anyway.

Go to the cemetery at dusk on the evening of your daughter’s fifth birthday, and cry into the grass while your son runs circles around you. Walk down the hill to the nearby playground with your preschool aged son. Stay there until well after dark, blowing bubbles on park benches and chasing your boy on the pavement, summer fireflies lighting the night around you, long after he should be sleeping. When you arrive home, read him seven books in bed rather than the requisite three. But I’m three, Mama, he will protest, conflating his nightly reading load with his chronological age. Yes, but you’ll be seven someday! you will tell him, and you will mean it.

Maybe it is G-d working in and through and for you and this revelation is holy. And maybe it is for your daughter and maybe it is for your son, maybe it’s for your favorite cousin or that man you are only casually dating but find you’re beginning to love. Mostly it is for yourself, but it isn’t selfish. Your child has been dead for five years, but you have walked among the living, even if half your heart’s been buried since. If you are going to have a dead child you must find a way to be alive. You start by choosing to live.

 

*

 

A writer and teacher whose essays has appeared in publications including Role Reboot, Salon, and The Washington Post, Adina Giannelli lives and works in Western Massachusetts with her son Samuel. She is currently at work on her first book.
Ring in New Years 2016 with Jen Pastiloff at her Vancouver, BC workshop Jan 23. The workshops are magic! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Click photo to book. NO yoga experience needed. Just be a human being

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Featured image by Barbara Potter.

death, Family, Guest Posts

Grandmother

August 20, 2015

By Michael Price

John was my boss and he was very boss-like about it, significantly more managerial than I had ever known him to be.

“Leave the bar,” he said softly but firmly–and in extreme contrast with the din of the night’s shenanigans–looking me straight in the eye, not a smile on his face, which was decidedly unusual.

I thought he was kidding.

“Now, Mike.”

He wasn’t.

“That man over there says he’s your uncle,” he said, pointing.  “You need to go talk to him.  I’ll watch the bar for you.”

I hardly remembered my uncle Bob, it had been so long.  But that was him, most assuredly, standing at the far corner of the bar, behind another guy and his lady friend sitting in front of him, waving timidly.  He looked old from that distance, still a head taller than most people, but older than it seemed like he should have looked.

John is a great guy, I’ve always liked him.  And, being Saturday night, dinner hour, he knew what he was stepping into; the bar was three deep everywhere.  John had tended bar—we all knew that—and was probably very good in his day.  But that had been many years prior, several thousand margaritas past, and he had to know he was about to get slammed, and real bad.

It was a very busy night.

Uncle Bob was…I had very little recollection, really.  He was a relative, a very tall relative; I remembered that.  An army doctor somewhere, I thought.  Used to move around a lot; I vaguely remembered that, too.  Who I hadn’t seen for twenty, twenty-five years.

And he had my grandmother in the passenger seat of his car.

“She wants to say goodbye to you,” Bob said calmly, softly cupping my shoulder in his bony-fingered hand, leading me out the door, past the waiting list of wanna-be diners, and out into the parking lot.

It was about ten-below, and I was dressed in the my work uniform–black high-tops, cut-off jeans shorts and the company logoed mid-sleeve T-shirt, twice rolled up at the sleeves–but I don’t recall being the least bit cold.

Bob was my grandmother’s son, my mother’s brother.  I may not have remembered him much, but I certainly remembered his mother.

I loved my grandmother, the most spiritual person I have ever known.  And I’m not even sure what that means.

“I’m taking her back to Colorado with me,” Bob said.  “It’s where she wants to be.”

I knew what that meant.

“Here, you get in front.”  He unlocked and opened the driver’s side door for me.

The car was parked in the back row of the parking lot–engine running, heated defrost hard at work–facing the restaurant, just to the left-front of the main entrance.  There wasn’t another available spot in sight.

Like I said, it was packed.

I remember bumping my head getting into the car, but I didn’t feel that much, either.  I sat down and turned to her.

“Oh, honey,” she said to me.

The high, overhead parking lot light beamed down through the front windshield, directly onto my grandmother’s face, ineffective, for the most part, in concealment of the deeply drawn features that had crept over her face since the previous time our paths had crossed.  She had always had gray hair, ever since I could remember, but that night the bright light from above shone down on a head of almost unbearably phosphorescent white curls, tightly spun and immaculately brushed, as if Bob had just picked her up from the “beauty parlor,” as she still called it.  Her heartrendingly weary and doleful eyes looked happy to see me, somehow, contented, at the very least—we both felt it, a stronger connection I had and have never sensed—eyes that were smiling somberly through moistness, and her body was shivering from only, I hope in recollection, the cold.

“Oh, honey.”

“Hi, Grandma.”  Then, with a deeply lodged lump in my throat and desperately at a loss for words, “How are you?”

“Oh…”  She looked far off, past me and out the window, her head tilted skyward, as if she were searching for a divine answer.  “…fine, I guess.”

She gently shut her eyes, deep in reverence, it seemed to me.  I assessed her appearance; I all but stared right at her, it was difficult not to.

Much too much white facial powder and blue around the eyes; that was my initial impression.  A character straight out of Ghost Story.

Except, excluding a little carefully applied red lipstick on Sunday mornings, my grandmother had never worn make-up in her life.  Of that, I was all but certain.

I wavered but held on.  “Good.  That’s good.  It’s good to see you,” I blathered.

I didn’t know what to say.  Five minutes earlier, from behind the bar, you couldn’t have shut me up.  And glib stuff, too, not that conversationally appropriate drivel you get from a lot of bartenders.

“It’s been a long time,” I trifled.

“Oh…” I was so sure she was scrolling the highlights of her life across the top of her memory.  “…yeah,” she finally answered, smiling wistfully at me.

We—my parents, older sister, and I–enjoyed several Christmases with my grandmother in North Dakota when I was a creature.  Those early memories are few but precious: the wondrous aromas emanating from grandma’s kitchen–krumkake, pfeffernuesse, and other family holiday delicacies–while watching football on TV with my father and, before he died, my grandfather; playing Go Fish with my older sister and, sometimes, when she wasn’t cooking, baking, or vacuuming, my grandmother; listening to George Beverly Shea sing his Christmas tidings and other generic praises from the big brown stereo console I wasn’t allowed to touch; playing with the across-the-alley neighbor kid’s basset-beagle puppy, Samuel (not Sam, I remember that distinctly; I forget the kid’s name), an animal that stepped on his drooping ears about every third step, which I thought was the funniest thing at the time; and assisting my grandmother with the Sunday crossword puzzle–in ink, no less.  Although I’m quite certain I knew very few answers, if any, she always had a way of making it seem like I was “a big helper” to her.  Sometimes she even let me help out in the kitchen—I was “a good little stirrer”–to my father’s mild dismay.

“How are you doing, honey?”

Incidentally, she and my mother are the only two people that have ever called me that.  I don’t know why that seems important, but it does.

Insipidly, “I’m fine, grandma.  Really.”

If my life ever reaches the stage where the end is nigh and I know it, when I’m cognizant of the fact that I don’t have long to live and am fortunate enough to be able to articulate a final goodbye to my family and best of friends, it is my sincerest of wishes that I am able to look at my loved ones the way she looked at me at that moment, that night.  I have never felt so treasured, so cherished, in my life.

Who am I kidding?  I’ll never come close.

In my dictionary, the word spiritual has five definitions, at least three of which can be directly or indirectly associated with religion.  Certainly, being the loving and devoutly supportive wife of a Lutheran minister, with whom she ardently and faithfully helped serve multiple parishes sprinkled throughout both Dakotas for over forty years, my grandmother was most certainly the very model of a spiritually religious being.

But it wasn’t just that.  In her presence, spirituality was more than that. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts

To May, with Loss.

August 10, 2015

By Julia K. Agresto

I want to like May, I really do. But I just can’t. Hear me out.

May brings new life. It ushers in a tapestry of flowers and abundant sunshine and the promise of endless summer, of bonfires and warm nights. For me, the stark contrast of loss against a backdrop of such beauty has always been too much to reconcile. Beauty should be born in May. It should not die.

May 14, 1995 was Mother’s Day. I had turned eight years old two months before. I still have a framed photograph from that day of myself, my mom, and our family dog, sitting in the backyard in the sun – my mom in a brightly striped beach chair, me in the grass next to her, leaned in close and clutching on as if to say, “Don’t leave me.” In retrospect, I wonder how much I was actually able to appreciate on a day that’s all about appreciation. Did I thank my mom for all that she did for me? Did I make her a well-intentioned but less-than-impressive card by hand? Did I give her a gift? Did I say, simply, I love you?

Six days later, she did leave me.

On the night of May 18, she suddenly became ill. My sister and I had gone to bed, presumably after being tucked in by my parents, under the guise of normalcy. Sometime later, I was awoken by the sound of my mother’s cries. My father came into my bedroom, scooped me out of my bed, and transported me to my 12-year-old sister’s room, again tucking me in and explaining that mommy was sick and he needed to bring her to the hospital. At some point, they returned and again I heard my mother crying out in pain. Light spilled in through my cracked-open bedroom door, coming from my parents’ room down the short hallway, and I saw what my young brain registered as a police officer, though I know now this was likely a paramedic. The next thing I saw, through my sister’s bedroom window, was my mom being loaded into an ambulance in our driveway on a stretcher. I didn’t know what was happening; what would happen. That I would never see her again. That she would fall into a coma after uttering her final words to my father: “What about my girls?” We were the first thing on her mind always. We were the last thing on her mind before she left this earth. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Triggers

July 21, 2015

By Heather Regula

My dad died on April 17 2014. It was totally unexpected – he was getting ready to get his hair cut and boom –  just dropped dead.  My mom opted not to do an autopsy as there was little good that could come from it. The doctor told us it was likely a stroke or massive heart attack and that he was probably dead before he hit the ground. My dad’s death has been brutal on me and there have been a few times over the past year when I’ve felt that reminders of my dad’s death were going to crush me. There are physical symptoms associated with where I’m at mentally and emotionally – inability to sleep, restless sleep, grouchiness, extreme sensitivity and being overly emotional, etc… Mainly I feel like fifty bricks are sitting on my chest – every day for the past two weeks.

My dad’s birthday was on September 1st and in a typical overly dramatic fashion I’d like to announce that September damn near killed me. My annual “Dad’s birthday” alert popped up on my iPhone. That visual reminder hit me harder than I ever imagined and it took me months to seemingly bounce back. My dad’s birthday was definitely a sorrowful trigger and I’m cognizant of the fact that September 1st will probably hit me hard every year. I left the birthday alert on my phone – sure I could’ve easily deleted the reminder but I chose not to. Not because I want to feel heartache when it pops up, but because I want the forever reminder – kind of like how my dad is still listed in contacts on my phone. Perhaps if I don’t delete his contact or the birthday reminder, then his death won’t be so permanent. Childish? Perhaps. Unrealistic? Definitely. Avoiding? Likely so. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts

A Murder of Crows

July 20, 2015

By Mary Petiet

On Monday my movements were shadowed by crows. A murder of them swooped along as I drove down the street, and one came straight at me, nearly hitting my windshield, a kamikaze crow playing crow chicken.

A murder of crows is a flock, and if you’re ever plagued by one, it might be trying to tell you something.

On Tuesday I was confronted by an insistent single crow on the beach. It landed on the sand five feet in front of me and proceeded to engage me in vigorous crow talk as it edged a little closer, a little closer, and a little closer before finally taking flight, circling my head once and vanishing into the sun.

Crows are the messengers of change and death.

On Wednesday afternoon my Aunt Lisa died suddenly and the crows were gone.

The last time I saw my aunt I was in traffic behind her. When the lights changed I turned left towards the harbor while she proceeded straight. She drove one of the few remaining proper station wagons, not a cross-over, but a silver Mercedes four door wagon, styled like what we all used to drive before cross-overs and mini-vans ruled the roadways.

She headed east, and now I imagine her following the historic Old King’s Highway to its conclusion at the easternmost point of Cape Cod, the edge of America, the spot on the far side of the Cape’s tip in the oceanic wilds beyond the colorful cacophony of Ptown. The spot where Thoreau said you can stand and put all America behind you.

From here, any progress further east is blocked by water.

I imagine her on the edge of the ocean, the surf pounding and the blue of the water losing itself in the blue of the horizon, and it would have been so easy for her to slip into the depths and dissolve into the ephemeral nothingness of the blue fluidity.

Instead she checked herself into a Boston hospital with chest pain, was admitted to the cardiac unit, and declared dead of a massive heart attack within the hour.

Growing up my aunt’s house was a short path through the woods from mine. The path wound through trees, passed a daisy field, and followed a bridge over a stream. It was an ancient way, and it traced the old Indian Trail past colonial stone walls and bottle dumps my aunt would excavate.  It connected our houses and we called it the Psychopath.

I would follow the Psychopath to visit her and she would make elegant tea parties with Red Rose tea. She always called me Muffin, and she taught me to arrange flowers, find clams on the flats, and how to make tuna fish sandwiches. We’d spread the tuna on Pepperidge farm bread and have gold fish crackers with seven-up for lunch.

When my mother took her first tentative steps back into the work force, I would follow the Psychopath to my aunt’s house on school mornings, and my aunt would give me breakfast and put me on the bus, and she was always home when the bus dropped me off again at the end of the day. When I needed her, she was a second mother to me.

She was 70 when she died, the first leaf to fall from the tree directly above me, jolting my cousins and me with the realization that we are now the grownups, and jolting her own generation with a deeper insistence of its own mortality.

I hadn’t seen her in some time. She had unmoored from the old ties and I had been distracted by my own children, for whom I now make tuna fish and meet the school bus. Other people occupy our old houses, and the Psychopath is overgrown. I never thought of her as old, and there was never any feeling of urgency to the idea that we should connect.

She left quietly through the back door, and never got to say goodbye.

I imagine her young and tall and blonde and statuesque. She loved the ocean, was a strong sportswoman, and she effortlessly sported those iconic American good looks Ralph Lauren tries so hard to capture.

A week later my best friend died.

The evening before his diagnoses, a pair of peacocks roosted in the maple outside my back door. Crows are not a rarity here, but peacocks are unheard of, and the near Technicolor hue of their necks lent meaning to the concept of peacock blue. They perched there silently, made large by their dangling plumage.

The peacock is phoenix-like in aspect, and is said to symbolize rebirth and transcendence, and is death not the ultimate transcendence?

The next morning dawned with the knowledge that it was time to bring our rapidly declining black and white cat Faust to the vet. The peacocks stayed until well after sunrise, sitting vigil for Faust. I missed their departure meeting deadlines as I tried to get Faust examined.

He was diagnosed with a myriad of symptoms. He was dying of old age and suffering badly in the process. We knew his time had come, so we scheduled the appropriate appointment for the following morning.

This meant letting go of a dear friend, and I call him my best friend because he was more dog then cat, he was always with me, always at my feet or in my lap. Right now I am re-learning how to write because there is no softly purring presence sleeping against my left arm as I tap the keys.

It is hard now to discount the old traditions, symbols and omen. There is something to the ancient idea that information can travel on the currents of energy circling the world to manifest in subtle, easy to miss hints. Everything is connected and everything holds a space.

There has been an especial starkness to these first two weeks of April on the tail end of a horrendous Northeast winter. The seasons change, the earth tilts, and each death both takes something with it and leaves something else behind.

Lisa, the suddenly lost aunt I knew from day one, helped me grow and was of my childhood. Her absence places that time a little bit further from reach, and leaves me to grow more as her generation moves forward and my generation continues to somehow assume the mantle of true adulthood, in the space  between our children and our parents. We are sandwiched in the middle and we are holding the space so each can grow, the younger to maturity and the older to whatever comes next beyond this mortal coil.

When we arranged the flowers Lisa grew, we brought beauty inside to illuminate our interior spaces. When she taught me to dig clams, extracting delicious beautifully packaged morsels from the mud, she showed me how to find beauty in dark places, and when we fueled all of this with shared tuna fish sandwiches, we were tapping into strength and nourishing community.

Faust, the suddenly absent cat we acquired fifteen years ago in the bright days leading up to 9/11, was the starter child my husband and I added to the wonderfully ramshackle Cape starter house we’d just moved into.

Faust was what remained of us from those halcyon years before airplanes flew into the World Trade Center and the tech bubble crashed, when the world was truly our oyster and we were just starting to think about having children.

So we treated Faust like a child, and he became a true family member, always present with a happy greeting. He was our first parenting experience, preparing us for the children we now have, and his declining old age may help ready us for the inevitable fading of my parent’s generation.

We buried him in the rain at the foot of the maple tree.  The air was finally alive with spring as we worked through clumps of blooming snowdrops and struggled deeper through roots and stones and unyielding clay. As we finally placed him in the wet, dark earth, I thought I heard Aunt Lisa’s voice calling on the wind across the low tidal flats, “Don’t worry Muffin, I went first to check it out!”

A crow cawed high above, heading north out over the water and there was no sign of the peacocks. Their vigil had ended and they had vanished as fully and silently as the cat when his soul slipped from his body.

Mary Petiet (www.marypetiet.com) writes about current events, organic farming, local food, history and spirituality. She is a long time contributor to Edible Cape Cod Magazine, a reporter for the Enterprise Newspapers, and her work has been featured in Parent Co. Look for her upcoming article in STIR Journal, and her book Minerva’s Owls, which reinterprets old stories in new ways to create a new future from Homebound Publications,  April, 2017. Follow her on Facebook or twitter @maryblairpetiet.
Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! A workshop for girls and teens. Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! A workshop for girls and teens. Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for the next cleanse on august 10th. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the new season of spring. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.

The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for the next cleanse on august 10th. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the new season of spring. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.

Do you want the space and joy to get back into your body? To get into your words and stories?  Join Jen Pastiloff and best-selling author Lidia Yuknavitch over Labor Day weekend 2015 for their 2nd Writing & The Body Retreat in Ojai, California following their last one, which sold out in 48 hours. You do NOT have to be a writer or a yogi.  "So I’ve finally figured out how to describe Jen Pastiloff's Writing and the Body yoga retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch. It’s story-letting, like blood-letting but more medically accurate: Bleed out the stories that hold you down, get held in the telling by a roomful of amazing women whose stories gut you, guide you. Move them through your body with poses, music, Jen’s booming voice, Lidia’s literary I’m-not-sorry. Write renewed, truthful. Float-stumble home. Keep writing." ~ Pema Rocker, attendee of Writing & The Body Feb 2015

Do you want the space and joy to get back into your body?
To get into your words and stories? Join Jen Pastiloff and best-selling author Lidia Yuknavitch over Labor Day weekend 2015 for their 2nd Writing & The Body Retreat in Ojai, California following their last one, which sold out in 48 hours. You do NOT have to be a writer or a yogi.
“So I’ve finally figured out how to describe Jen Pastiloff’s Writing and the Body yoga retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch. It’s story-letting, like blood-letting but more medically accurate: Bleed out the stories that hold you down, get held in the telling by a roomful of amazing women whose stories gut you, guide you. Move them through your body with poses, music, Jen’s booming voice, Lidia’s literary I’m-not-sorry. Write renewed, truthful. Float-stumble home. Keep writing.” ~ Pema Rocker, attendee of Writing & The Body Feb 2015

Featured image by Tiffany Lucero.

Binders, death, Guest Posts

Gone To Feed The Roses

May 31, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Katherine Vaz

The home I share with Christopher Cerf, on Gerard Drive in Springs, was not spared Hurricane Sandy.  We were residing in our main residence in New York City when the water rose over the spindly, mile-and-a-half long cape bounded by Gardiners Bay and Accabonac Harbor.  Police cars blocked the entrance to Gerard, we read in the Times.  It was not safe to enter.

Aerial views made the spit of land look like the Loch Ness Monster surfacing—humps of spine, the creature mostly submerged.  A friend reported that our yard and patio were ravaged, but our house was unharmed.  After a spell came the news that my eighty-seven-year-old father had collapsed in northern California.  A day later, for the first time, I entered my childhood home without him greeting me with a blessing and kiss.  Content with his history books, his painting and gardening, he was a homebody; I sensed the vacancy as a prelude to loss.  At Eden Hospital, he cried out my name when he saw me, the daughter from far away. Continue Reading…

Binders, death, Grief, Guest Posts

On Losing a Brother, Survival, and Sweet Clementines

May 28, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88

By Joanna Chen

I remember the moments before learning of my brother’s death. It’s mid-December. I do not know why I have been called out of class but I register the horrified look on the face of the secretary as she enters my classroom. I am standing at the window, looking out at the dull fir trees swaying in the wind. I turn around when she calls my name and follow her obediently. Schoolgirls in bottle-green uniforms move about from class to class, ascending the stairs on the right, descending on the left. I am descending. One foot after another, very slowly. My hand lingers on the smooth, polished wood of the banister at the bottom of the stairs. The secretary leads me to the waiting room opposite the office. The pale oak door is closed. I place one hand on the circular door knob, turn and enter. They are waiting for me inside: Headmistress. Mother. Father. There is a pause as they look up at me, standing there, my hand still on the door knob.

Six years in this school and I have never been in this room. There are green easy chairs in a half-circle. On a low table is a silver tray with cups, saucers, milk jug and sugar bowl decorated with rosebuds. Sugar in lumps.  The headmistress wears cat-woman eyeglasses. I offer a small smile. I giggle. I am fifteen.

And then a sentence with words one after the other strung together, each word falling heavy into the air.  My brother Andrew, not yet eighteen, is dead. A coach came out of a side-street into the main road and my brother, on his blue motorbike, hit the side of the coach head-on.  And I imagine him speeding along, his first week with the new motorbike, freedom at last, no more standing at the bus stop in the cold of northern England, no more waiting for our father’s red Rover to drive by after work to pick him up, no more.

That last time I saw Andrew was in the mirror, three hours earlier. He was leaving the house, and stopped at my bedroom door. I was adjusting my school tie and did not bother turning around to face him. It would ruin the knot. I remember his face in the mirror, his hair thick like a bush, his hands on the keys, his stubby fingers, dirty fingernails. And now in reverse. His dirty fingernails, stubby fingers, his hands on the keys, his hair thick like a bush, his face in the mirror.  I always go back to this moment.

I bolt the waiting room. Outside it’s a cold day. Snow. Slush. Crunch under shoes. No coat. My finger traces a word on the window pane. Andrew. I am standing outside the school building, looking in. The separation has begun but people are looking for me already. My green gabardine coat is handed to me, and my school bag. I am led to the car.

We drive first to the Goodmans, friends of my parents. Mrs. Goodman tells me tea with sugar is good for shock and I should have a couple. She leans her stumpy body over me, sitting where I was put, and reaches for the sugar bowl with her right hand. She drops one lump into the tea and then another. The first one splashes faintly as the white lump hits the milky, still- steaming water. The second one she drops in more gently, more reverently, as if the little square of crystal is a child that might fall over. I say nothing. I hate sweet tea.

She hands me a magazine, tells me to stir the tea, passes me the spoon as if she is not sure I understand her and returns to the kitchen, where my parents are sitting. I need to speak to your parents, she nods at me, thundering along, already halfway across the living room with the white carpet.

I slide out of the chair onto the carpet, pull down the magazine and place the cup and saucer beside me. I’m still in my school uniform; we have not gone home yet. My shoes are by the front door; the Goodmans are very particular about their white carpeting. My socks are dirty. I had been in a hurry that morning to dress and grabbed socks from the day before.

Sitting in the living room will be quite a treat for you, she tells me earlier, patting me on the shoulder, and I wonder exactly what kind of a treat she is referring to. I suddenly feel very tired and want to go home. Perhaps he is there, after all, and he’ll punch me in the arm and tell me I’m an idiot. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts

One Breath Out

May 17, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Mark Liebenow

Grief is selfish, and it needs to be.

When death hit and my life exploded, I scrambled to save all the pieces before they were lost. I had to be selfish with my time because no one else knew what to say for someone who died suddenly in her forties. I had to do it myself, and it took all my energy to get up, go to work, make something for dinner, and endure the long nights without my wife.

As I learned grief’s ways, there came a time down the road when I began to see the world again. I noticed other people who were grieving, and felt the desire to use what I was learning to help them.

In Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart, she mentions a one-breath-out meditation in several places. The first time she does, she speaks of the willingness to die in the time after exhalation before inhalation begins, and calls it a little death.

This reminds me of something I experienced in the days right after Evelyn died. I would breathe out and not want to breathe in again. Then my body’s reflexes kicked in and dragged me back. I’m not saying I wanted to die, although I would have been perfectly happy doing so because living without Evelyn was too painful. There was just something in that moment when I was emptied of breath that I think ties into what Chodron is saying. I noticed that in that brief moment I felt balanced and at peace. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts

295 North Toward Baltimore

April 16, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Lexi Weber

I want to tell you to stop being such an asshole. For all you know my hands are white knuckled around the steering wheel and I am sucking in tiny breaths in rapid succession. For all you know the height of this hill, the sharp turn around the corner, and the anticipation of Baltimore traffic below have paralyzed me with fear. For all you know taking the exit for 295 today feels like cliff jumping. Maybe if you knew, you would stop honking, stop yelling, stop riding my bumper around this narrow bend.

What if I told you that my grandmother is one of my earliest memories of love? I don’t remember what it was we were doing, but I remember that I was small enough to fit in her lap. Her long fingers were clasped around my back, my face was buried in her sweater and we were rocking back and forth. She was singing. That is one of the few memories I have of feeling safe. Now, nearly thirty, I still cling to the sound of her humming.

As we inch along toward the exit I am sweating through my fleece jacket and cautiously tapping the brakes. I want to tell you to just back off a little bit.

You only know that I have stopped my car on the Beltway and proceeded at 12 miles per hour. You only know that you have had the terrible luck of being stuck behind this white Jeep Cherokee at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. I bet the lime green sticker reading Island Time really pisses you off. But I want to tell you that there is so much you don’t know.

You don’t know that I buried my grandmother yesterday. Continue Reading…

cancer, death, Guest Posts

Foxholy

April 9, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Janet Reich Elsbach.

“Smile, would you please?” said my sister as I came through the door to see if she needed any help. “Jesus loves you.”

There were a number of surprising elements to this interaction, beyond the fact that the room we now both occupied was the bathroom. For one, she might more reasonably have requested that I do a tap dance. My sister was dying of cancer, her beautiful athlete’s body wrecked and wracked, and we were just home from another two days in the hospital, where as usual she had questioned and refused 98% of what was on offer, where as usual the doctors and nurses had glared at me reproachfully behind her back, and where as usual I had done a non-stop theater-in-the-round cabaret of advocacy and placation for 48 hours. Maybe I had slept for two of those hours, and not in a row. So of all facial expressions, a smile seemed farthest from my reach.

For another thing, we’re Jews.

“He does, you know,” D. continued as I attended to her. “Don’t you know that?”

Once I became old enough to really put some muscle into talking back to her, some time in my teens or twenties, I pointed out that a large percentage of what she said to me (and to others, to be fair) ended with an audible or implied, “you don’t, do you?” As in, “do you know you’re supposed to put X on Y in that order, rotate your whatsits seasonally, never accept domestic yah-yah and ONLY buy organic hmm?” Here she would pause for a second to see if there was a flicker of agreement, then sigh or even snort a little when it failed to appear. “You don’t, do you?” Eventually the sniff or sigh could stand in for the four-word codicil. Sometimes I would say it for her.

Cancer had intensified her dissatisfaction with rubes and imbeciles in ways I mostly understood, as well as raised the stakes. As her prospects grew darker and her misery increased, so did the percentage of the population around her who could get nothing right. Since I frequently numbered among them, staying present and supportive was not easy, and with this new Jesus angle, she had managed, yet again, to sling a curve ball that could completely undo me. Having a front-row seat at an epic struggle with mortality, even if it is not your own, can inspire a person to feel around in their toolbox for some connection to a higher power. Over the 18 months of her illness, I hadn’t come up with much.

We aren’t especially Jewish, even though we are Jews. I majored in anthropology, so it’s easy for me to put it that I am culturally Jewish, just not spiritually. Meaning the cuisine, the mannerisms, the sensibility: yes. I like the food well enough and the rest I couldn’t shake if I tried. Bred in the bone. But whatever spirituality I possess, I don’t tune into it on that channel.

When I was little, we were high-holy-day Jews. We had a seder at Passover, and some excellent little hamentaschen from William Greenberg’s on Third Avenue at Purim. A menorah was lit at Chanukah, but the house saw a little Christmas action, too. Barring a funeral, wedding or someone else’s mitzvah (bar or bat), the only time we went to temple was on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; on all these occasions everyone around me knew the prayers in Hebrew and I did not.

Our house was generally a mood tinder-box at the holidays, our parents reverential one moment and irritated the next, apparently with us for not taking it seriously enough. I liked to please them, but I didn’t have much to invest since my sisters and I had never gone to religious school. So I would feel guilty and anxious, as well as excluded and confused, and all in all it was not a pleasant base from which to grow a faith. For a long time I connected my not feeling Jewish to this history, and I bet my parents did, too.

Finally I asked my mother why they never sent us to Hebrew school, if their faith was strong enough to twist and bind them with what had seemed like anger when I was smaller than they were, but I now recognized as guilt. By then I was in college, and they had become more obviously and contentedly Jewish: studying, actively identifying as Jewish philanthropists, lighting Sabbath candles, and I had become more confused about where the faith I felt was rooted. I could tell I had some but I also knew it wasn’t found, or fueled, in a building or book that I had yet encountered.

“We didn’t want to force it on you,” she said. “We had taken a big leap getting a place in the country, and at the time I felt more sure that getting out of the city would be good for you three than I did about Hebrew school. And we couldn’t do both.” I scoffed a little when she told me this, but now that I am a parent I can see completely how a person could arrive at that kind of inconclusive conclusion as the rush of life came at them. Punt! I can’t say that I’ve done much better myself, for my own three.

Around this time I was in the habit of spending a weekend in New Orleans every spring, at Jazz Fest, with D. One of the notable features of that densely packed weekend is the stream of little parades, the congregation of here or there decked out in team colors, waving flags and belting out gospel songs at the top of their impressive and collective lungs. “You kind of need Jesus for that,” I remember saying to her. Judaism, Buddhism, anything else I could think of—none of these other belief systems really loaned themselves to this kind of ecstatic, toe-tapping spectacle of testament. It was enviable, to me—that pure devotion and utter certainty and frank enjoyment that characterized their faith. Jesus had a plan, and come what may, that was the raft they set sail on and clung to in a tempest. It seemed as comforting and appealing as it was out of reach.

I was amazed that my sister had found that raft. Both my sisters had certainly gravitated more resolutely towards Judaism over the years than I had, and I’d had many occasions to wonder how it had all skipped me as they both spoke knowledgeably and comfortably about things that felt utterly foreign, even alienating to me. D.’s son even had his bar mitzvah, a first (and only) in our family for generations. And I also knew that D. was pretty open, as a seeker. Around her house you could find a little altar to Ganesh and a portrait of Lakshmi as well as a mezuzah, some Buddhist prayer beads, giant crystals from Arizona and an Islamic knot. But Jesus, now. That was new. Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, healing

An Unfinished Life

April 1, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Rachael Koenig.

When my sister calls me in the morning much earlier than she usually does, I know there is something specific she wants to tell me, and I am proved right as she shares the news of the death of a successful young comedian and writer the day before. She knows his sister well. I am not familiar with his name, but I know why she called to tell me.

It doesn’t quite hit me yet as I talk to her on the phone.  “Oh my God, how terrible,” I say, “I can’t even imagine,” which is something that comes out of one’s mouth automatically when discussing these things, but I correct myself when I realize I CAN imagine, because it happened to us. And, then I think to correct myself again, because it happened to HER, our second sister, but I realize I was right the first time, because it’s still happening to us.

I google the comedian and read about his successes. Writing and producing hit television shows. Famous friends and peers. Regular columns on comedic sites and youtube clips of standup shows. I read his articles and watch his clips. He is hysterical and talented. A life to be envied. And I think what I always think  – what potential; how tragic; what an unfinished life. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts, Young Voices

A Teenager on Grief.

March 30, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Breanna Bridegan.

I thought once, when my father died that life was playing a sick joke on me. Because why would you put someone so amazing, so completely captivating in some ones life  and then take them away. I blamed everything, even god, mostly god. I tried to think of things I said to him before, I replayed the last time I spoke to him so many times in my head. I started to become another person, I didn’t know who I was without him. My life was something off a television show, I didn’t recognize anyone anymore.

My father was the glue that kept us whole, without him we became aliens to one another.

I no longer felt like I knew who I was. I desperately craved good days, I was exhausted from trying to save memories of my  life before his death. I missed everything about him, mostly the love he gave for his children, my siblings who were both too young to know what happened.

I think now to how my baby sister, who was only five, never experienced his love like I did. I cry for her because I know the pain she will go through as all her life moments come and he isn’t there.  I cry because she has so much of him in her that it takes my breath away. Her spirit is so spontaneous and quirky. She has so much love to give just like him, she reminds me so much of him. I know she’ll come to me with a head full of questions, and I’ll cry because she wants to know things about the other half of her the parts that make her who she is. Continue Reading…

death, Forgiveness, Guest Posts

Steele Grey, Part II

March 21, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Julia Cassels.

Read Part I here.

My brother and I retreat through the vestibule of the funeral home. I pick my way through four inches of uncleared snow in the parking lot, navigating in my oh-so-appropriate black stiletto knee-high boots, and climb back into the cab of his pick-up.  I slam the door as he starts the engine, and reach for the pack of cigarettes we had bought for the occasion on the dash. “Where’s the fucking lighter?” Jeff fishes through his coat pocket, pulls out an AC/DC lighter, and passes it over as the heater in the truck comes to life.

“Where to?”

“Lager’s.  Now.” A divey bar with peanut shells on the floor, orange vinyl booths, and wagon-wheel light fixtures. A decor mode not uncommon in that part of the world. Perfectly appropriate to a day such as this.

Rap, rap, rap.

There is a man at the window of the pick up. He is wedged between the window and the side mirrors which extend far out in this monster of a truck.

I look to Jeff. “Oh shit. Are you kidding me?” I hit the automatic button to roll down the window, against my better judgment, although ignoring him and leaving the parking lot would have resulted in taking this poor guy out with the side mirrors.

“You must be Julie. We didn’t get a chance to speak. I’m Pastor Dave.” He is breathless, partially from the four degree weather and his lack of a coat, and partially from the chase he just gave us out of my father’s viewing.

“Yes?”

“Are you coming to the memorial service?”

“Um. I don’t think so, no.”

“Can we talk for a moment?”

“I don’t believe there is anything to talk about.”

“And you are?” He leans further into my window. I move the cigarette to my left hand, trying to keep the smoke out of his face, and let it burn.

“I’m Jeff. That asshole in there was my step-father.” Continue Reading…