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Posts Tagged ‘loss’

pink gold texas sunset sky

I’ve been carrying Frank’s funeral program in my purse for days.

I slipped it in there at the end of his memorial service, a couple of weekends ago, in the high-ceilinged sanctuary of the church where I spent nearly every Sunday growing up. I nearly forgot about it, until I reached in a few days later to retrieve something else and my fingers brushed the paper. I saw his law firm portrait again and thought: That can’t be right.

Frank was an attorney, a father and husband, a percussionist, a dog lover, a man of faith. He and his wife, Kim, have been friends with my parents since the mid-eighties, since my sister and I were tiny. We grew up seeing them at church every week, where they worked tirelessly alongside my mom and dad, teaching Sunday school and directing events, serving in countless quiet ways. I used to baby-sit their sons and daughter, going over to their big, friendly house with its assorted dogs and cats (and, for a memorable time, a corn snake named Queenie). They have loved me, and I have loved them, nearly all my life.

When Frank went into the hospital in mid-April, none of us thought for a second that we’d be sitting at his funeral service in early May.

This is how it happens sometimes: without warning, in the middle of a full and busy spring, with school programs and work assignments and birthday parties and all the stuff of life. Kim is a preschool teacher (she taught my older nephew last year) and found herself taking days off school, both when Frank became ill and when he died. Their sons and daughter-in-law came in from Houston and North Carolina, and friends local and far-flung have rallied. And I think all of us have been wrestling with the sense of sturdy disbelief that Lindsey described in a recent post.

That day at the funeral, and the next day at church, people spoke about Frank and shared stories, funny and tender. He loved Mexican food, the spicier the better. He was a stickler for doing things well: his secretary learned years ago that there is a right and a wrong way to affix paper clips, and his kids knew he had high standards. He was a disciplined, faithful servant to his church and his community. He helped more people, in more ways, than I think any of us will ever know.

But the whole time, I was thinking about something much simpler: he was my friend.

Frank embodied discipline and duty, as his son Joey said at the funeral. (I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house when Joey started crying in the middle of his tribute to his dad.) He served, as so many people said, without fanfare and without ceasing. He showed up, quietly and consistently, over and over again. These things are important.

But what I will remember – what I suspect all of us will remember, too – is his warmth, his compassion, his smile.

I don’t get back to my hometown too often these days: a few times a year, for a long weekend or a few days at Christmas. I don’t have the kind of daily or weekly interaction with the folks there that I once did. But there are still places where I am sure of a welcome, and one of them is the big Sunday school room at the north end of the church. And Frank was one of the people who always welcomed me home. He always wanted to hear about Boston; he and Kim had enjoyed several trips to Nantucket. It made him happy that we shared a connection to this part of the world.

Those chats on Sunday morning, that rock-solid welcome, is what I will remember, and what I will miss the most.

We are all grieving: Frank’s family, his coworkers, his many friends, the church family he was a part of for so long. My parents are deeply sad and shaken by the loss of their friend. There are no easy words for this; I hesitated to even write these. But it feels important to mark his passing, to say: he was here and he lived and loved. And we loved him. We still do.

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ryder poppy cards

A couple of weeks ago, I hopped a plane to west Texas, leaving behind emails and work to-do lists for a different kind of busy. My older nephew, Ryder, was turning six, and I’d planned to head home for his birthday party and a t-ball game, plus some Mexican food and time with my sister and parents.

The family texts flew back and forth in the days before my trip: party plans, flight schedules, what to buy Ryder for his birthday (answer: Nerf guns and Uno).

But on the day before I left, my sister and dad both sent a different kind of text: bring a dress in case the funeral happens while you’re here.

Frank, a longtime family friend of ours, had gone into the hospital in mid-April. It caught us all by surprise: he was 56 and healthy, and we were all stunned by the infection that took over his body. We had expected a long recovery, perhaps weeks in the hospital. But I stared in disbelief at the early-morning text my sister sent with news of his death. I still don’t quite believe it’s real.

I slipped a dress and a black cardigan into my suitcase, alongside my red shorts, running gear, flip-flops and a stack of books for the plane. After a long flight to Dallas and an even longer layover, I finally landed amid thunderstorms on a Wednesday night.

The next few days, it seemed to me, contained all of life: board games and Tex-Mex lunches, t-ball and the funeral, church on Sunday morning. There was, of course, lots of playing with my nephews: climbing around on their backyard fort, shooting baskets in the driveway, playing with the new Nerf guns in the living room. Tears and laughter and chaos. Grief and love.

“Life’s full,” my coworker Janet is fond of saying, usually with a wry smile in response to some fresh crisis, or a week like this one: crowded and crossed with the glory and the pain of life, all at once.

This trip was certainly full, and at times I could barely keep up: watching Ryder and his teammates run through the dirt at the t-ball fields, pushing Harrison (my younger nephew) in the swing and filming them both running through the sprinkler with my dad. Hugging Kim and Abbye, Frank’s wife and daughter, on a Friday morning that felt otherwise so ordinary. Eating chips and queso at Rosa’s with my mom and sister, before making a Target run. Holding Harrison on my lap at lunchtime, and admiring his new big-boy bed. Talking work and vacations with my parents and brother-in-law. Sitting outside at my sister’s house after the boys were in bed.

I went for three solo runs through my parents’ neighborhood, admiring the ocotillo and oleander, breathing in the fresh air under the big sky. Afterward, I sipped tea and ate breakfast in my mother’s kitchen, flipping through the local paper, which included, unbelievably, Frank’s obituary. We sat in a side pew at the packed funeral on Saturday morning, surrounded by so many faces I know and love. This church is part of the architecture of my life, and these people – not only Frank and Kim but so many others – are part of my family. We wound up the funeral by singing “It Is Well with My Soul” through our tears, Doris playing the organ as she has for decades. The next morning, we spent most of the Sunday school hour sharing stories about Frank.

There’s no tidy way to wrap up such a post; it feels unfinished, like the weekend itself, like life. Kim and her grown kids are at the beginning of a long road of grief, and Ryder and Harrison are wrapping up the school year. I’m caught, as always, between missing the cozy world of my hometown and being fiercely proud of the life I’ve built in a different city, hundreds of miles away.

I flew back to Boston that Sunday night, grateful to get back to my own house and my husband, who had been at a conference in L.A. while I was in Texas. But I also believe I was exactly where I needed to be that weekend: stepping back into a town that isn’t my current address, but which will always be home. Cheering for Ryder and his buddies as they batted and ran. And standing with my community, in grief and in joy.

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9/11, fifteen years later

sept 11 memorial reflection

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I heard these words of Faulkner’s again on a recent gray morning, as I stood in the doorway of a wood-paneled chapel on Harvard’s campus, a few steps from the Yard.

Speaking at the first Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, President Drew Faust invoked Faulkner to remind us that what we do with the past is our responsibility. It is, she said, “the essential material with which we can build a better future.”

As we marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, Faulkner’s words resonated in a different way.

Sept. 11, 2001, has passed into history, and yet it is still immediate, insistent. It is, after a decade and a half, part of my past and our national memory. But it is far from dead or irrelevant. It continues to affect my life and my world, both in ways I can point to and ways I can’t quite articulate. And it comes home to me again every fall.

sept 11 memorial flowers

I was a high school senior in West Texas on 9/11: happily absorbed in honors classes and marching band, excited about my new role on our school’s student diplomatic team, four days away from turning 18. I was curious and eager, on the brink of young adulthood, and I was completely undone by the news on the TV that morning. I walked around for days in a state of shock: tense, strained, saddened in a way I had never been before. It felt like a jolt into adulthood: a loss of innocence, a grim, sudden knowledge of how the world could be.

I’ve read a few books, in the years since that day, that include 9/11 as an element of the plot or setting. I couldn’t believe how long it took for the attacks and their aftermath to become a part of any fictional narrative instead of the gaping, overwhelming whole. Long after that day, the attacks dominated any discussion they entered. It took us years to absorb that story into the larger narrative of our lives.

Last week, I interviewed a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I work, about the far-reaching effects of 9/11, especially in the field of homeland security (her specialty). I asked her what the U.S. has learned, what we could have done differently, how daily life has changed for most Americans. I tried to reflect, in my questions, an awareness of the passage of time and of both President Faust’s and Faulkner’s words. Not simply Where were you that day? (though I always want to know), or Isn’t it awful that this happened?, but How can we move forward?.

In a sense, that is the question I have been asking for 15 years: how can we acknowledge the grief and fear, the complexity of such an event and its ripples, and carry it forward with wisdom and grace? How can we remember and honor the day itself, and yet move ahead with courage?

I don’t have many answers for this, but as always, I think telling our stories helps.

I’d welcome your stories, in the comments, and I’d also recommend a few of those novels I mentioned: Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Kathleen Donohoe’s Ashes of Fiery Weather. They treat this event and its aftermath with care and good sentences, which is often all a writer can do. And sometimes, that’s enough.

(Images are from the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, which I visited a few years ago.)

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Remembering George

 

water clouds light

“Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we all walk through life with grief for which there is, today, no compensation?”

I read these words on Christie’s blog last week, at the end of a summer that has held chaos and change and all sorts of upheaval. Transitions are difficult, no matter the kind, and they bring with them their own, often bittersweet grief. But Christie’s words also came as I, and many people I love, are mourning the death of our friend George.

I always find it hard to write about these losses, not only because of the sadness, but because it feels impossible to convey the life, the spirit, of a person through a handful of sentences.

I could tell you that George was the music minister at my family’s church in West Texas for 23 years. I could tell you that he was a talented, accomplished musician, always willing to highlight and encourage others’ gifts while modest and humble (to a fault) about his own. I could tell you that he had four children, a wife he adored, five grandsons and dozens – no, hundreds – of friends. But all that would go a short way toward honoring the memory of the man himself.

George came back to Midland to work at our church (where he had grown up) when I was in the fourth grade. His son Wade is the same age as my sister, and they became firm friends. George directed the Sunday morning choir, in which my mother sang; the youth choir, in which my sister and I both participated; and the sweeping, elaborate Easter pageants that were a formative part of my teenage years (and which came to involve my entire family).

For years, George led worship at youth retreats and Vacation Bible School, at candlelight services on Christmas Eve and at four services every Sunday: three in the morning, one at night. He managed pianists and organists, praise bands and orchestras, pastors and PowerPoints, thousands of details no one ever knew about. His fingerprints are all over that building and that community: quiet but indelible, the definition of the word faithful. But my favorite thing about George was this: he always had time for everyone.

“A friend told me he had the greatest capacity for love [they had] ever seen,” George’s wife, DiAnn, wrote on Facebook recently. “He belonged to everyone.” And it’s true: George had as many things to do as most of us (maybe more), but I never saw him turn away anyone who had a question or needed a smile. During all those rehearsals for summer musicals and mission trips and Easter pageants, I never saw him lose his temper. If I close my eyes, I can hear his clear tenor voice and see his practiced gestures, guiding us through ancient hymns, nineties praise songs and soaring choral anthems with his signature humor and grace. He loved his work and he loved his community, and I am – we are – so grateful that he was ours.

“Time is cruel because it carries us so far from the people and places and things we have loved and lost,” Christie wrote in that blog post. In a certain sense, George is far away from us now: death has a way of creating distance. It feels final and inevitable, and I know it will come home to me again, some Sunday when I’m standing in those familiar pews and he isn’t there. We grieve, and we are right to do so: it means we have loved.

Grief is complicated, and so is faith: I don’t pretend to have any answers about what happens after we die. But I believe, and hope, in a time when everything will be made new: when, as Christie wrote, “all the fragments of our lives, all the broken bits and pieces, will be gathered up.” I know George believed that too, and I hope to see him again one day.

Rest well, good and faithful friend. I am grateful for all the songs you taught me, and I will keep singing them until we meet again.

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willow tree light public garden boston autumn fall

I remember understanding what a brutal thing it is to be the bearer of truly bad news – to break off a piece of that misery and hand it to other people, one by one, and then have to comfort them; to put their grief on your shoulders on top of all your own; to be the calm one in the face of their shock and tears. And then learning that relative weight of grief is immaterial. Being smothered a little is no different than being smothered a lot. Either way, you can’t breathe.”

The Royal We, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

This insightful description of grief – and the heartbreaking process of dealing with the practicalities of death – stopped me in my tracks when I came across it this weekend. I was even more surprised to find it where I did: buried in the middle of a frothy, sassy chick lit novel.

Midway through The Royal We (which I loved, by the way), its narrator, Bex, loses someone important to her and has to fly from England back to her hometown in Iowa, to be with her family and to grieve. And while I have never (yet) lost a close family member, this description of grief hit me right in the chest – because I know what it’s like.

Nearly eleven years ago, just before my junior year of college, my friend Cheryl – a member of the group with whom I’d spent the previous semester studying abroad in Oxford – died in a car crash, the week before school started. It wasn’t the first time I had lost someone I loved, but it was the first time I’d had to deal with the sudden, unexpected death of someone close to me. And it was the first time I had to deal with the details of tragedy as an adult.

From the moment we found out about Cheryl’s death – late on a starry, sultry Texas evening, all of us congregating in the front yard of a house near campus – my Oxford group stuck together. We sat up most of that night telling stories about Cheryl and Oxford and our time together, finally drifting off to sleep, draped over futons and sprawled on the living room floor of a house shared by four of my girlfriends. The next morning, those of us who were able – including me – started making phone calls.

I don’t remember how many times I gave the bad news that week. I do remember the gasps of shock on the other end of the phone, the blatant disbelief, my reluctance to say the awful words. I wasn’t as close to Cheryl as some of the others were – but I learned, as Bex does, that the relative weight of your grief doesn’t matter. We were all hurting, and trying to bear the pain in our own ways.

We piled into a string of cars (including mine) to drive down to San Antonio for the funeral. We sat and watched the Summer Olympics in stunned silence, needing to be together, trying to come to grips with the loss of our friend. We wept, or clung dry-eyed to each other, and wondered how this could have happened to us.

Every time I lose someone I love, I flash back to those days in West Texas, and the awful responsibility of sharing the news with my friends, making travel plans, trying to handle questions for which I had no answers. I wasn’t at the center of that sorrow, but I remember how it felt to share it, to bear it together. So this passage from The Royal We made me say simply: Yes. Me too. I know what that’s like.

Not bad for a (mostly) lighthearted piece of chick lit.

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windy willows

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, – but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, –
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay

I came across this poem last month, about a week after Jeff’s passing. Heather Lende quotes from it in the last chapter of her first memoir, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.

Lende writes obituaries for her small-town Alaska newspaper, and I write obituaries for the alumni magazine of my West Texas alma mater. A couple of days after Jeff died, I sent what details I had (name, age, birthdate) to my editor (who is also my former boss, and a friend).

It isn’t much, these few lines in a college magazine, especially in light of such a loss. But it is what I can do to mark the passing of someone I loved.

I am in charge of the honoree list for the Easter lilies at church. Every year, we fill the altar with flowers, and publish a list in the bulletin of those we would like to remember and honor. The list is long this year, for some reason; we have twice as many names as last year. It isn’t much, but I understand why we do it. This, too, is a small but important way of remembering our dead.

Earlier this week, I heard about the passing of Susan, a family friend whom I hadn’t seen for many years. She fought the cancer longer than anyone expected she would, but she is gone now, and I know her children – including her three eldest daughters, whom I used to baby-sit in the summers – are grieving.

Like Millay, I do not approve, and I am not resigned. But her eloquent words have helped sustain me as I think about death and loss and grief. I share them, on this Good Friday, hoping that perhaps, when you are faced with a loss, they might do the same for you.

April is National Poetry Month, and I will be sharing more poetry here on Fridays this month.

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light candles memorial church

Over the past week, I’ve been watching the grief over two deaths unfold in real time. My college community has been mourning the loss of our friend Jeff McCain, and many people I know from Twitter and the blogosphere have been grieving the death of Lisa Bonchek Adams.

Both of them had cancer; both of them died far too soon. And in the wake of their deaths, many of their loved ones have taken to social media to express grief and to honor these two lives.

Jeff and I were friends before Facebook existed. (It came into being during our college years.) Our mutual friends are people we know in real life, from that patch of ground in West Texas where we studied, sang, laughed and cried together. My husband lived across the hall from Jeff our freshman year; my sister and her circle of friends all know him, too. And since we’re scattered all over the country and can’t gather to mourn in person, we come to Facebook to mourn together.

Dozens of people have posted brief sentiments or shared photos. Some of us, like me, wrote longer tributes and shared them as a way of marking Jeff’s death and, yes, celebrating his life. (He was, as I have said, a person who carried joy around with him. I have no doubt he’d approve of us recounting all the funny stories we can think of.) I’ve seen a similar trend with Lisa’s death – dozens of tweets and a fair few blog posts honoring her life, as well as mixed (but passionate) reactions to a couple of pieces in the New York Times.

Besides wishing we didn’t have to do this – because these deaths are fundamentally unfair and heartbreaking – I’ve been thinking about how we grieve together, in the age of social media. These sites where we share so much of our lives have become a new forum for public mourning. I’ve seen it happen after several tragedies: the Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, the events in Ferguson. We come together on social media to share our hurt, our outrage and our deep sadness.

It can be cathartic and helpful – a way to reach out to one another and say, “Me too.” It can also, eventually, become overwhelming. My husband and I have both felt the need to step back from Facebook at various times this week. We’ve sat at our kitchen table for hours, trading stories about Jeff and talking through our emotions. Eventually, we’ve needed to step away even from that. Grief has a saturation point, and it’s not something you work through in a couple of days.

I’ve also been turning back to a few beloved poems, including Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” But, fittingly, I discovered another poem this week via Twitter – “The Mower” by Philip Larkin. Its last lines sum up, for me, what this communal grieving is all about:

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
This. Always this. We should be kind, and careful to honor the tender places in each other’s lives, the wounds and blank spaces opened by grief. Sharing our sadness on social media is one way to do that. These sites can be loud and contentious places, but when they are avenues for sharing grief (and joy), they become beautiful – even holy – ground.

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