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Tag: death

The Loss of a Friend

People I care about are leaving this world.

I want to honor them with the life I live. I’m not talking about being a good person or doing a lot of charity work or taking on causes or achieving anything at all.

I’m talking about incorporating into my life what I loved in theirs.

It is amazing how many times death has implanted motivation deeply inside me. Several years ago, a friend had a grandchild who struggled in the NICU before leaving this earth at a very early age. Yet, whenever I get to the point when I feel like giving up, I remember this tiny baby. I say to myself, if that little baby could fight so hard, so can I.

Now I’ve lost a friend who I found delightful. It is the delight in her I must honor by loving the delight in my own life.

The slice of sun lighting the roof of the school next door.

The squeak of the dog’s teeth against her chew toy.

The gurgling of my husband’s coffee pot which he uses as a tea pot.

The tiny tree on the window sill standing tall, holding its arms as high as possible.

If I feel myself slipping back into worry and angst and that looping thing my brain does when it can’t figure something out—a constant digging of a trench like a backhoe caught in gear and circling, circling—I will remember her. I will literally switch gears.

I will love the things God has put into life for the sole purpose of me loving them.

The hardest thing, I think, is to figure out in this diverse, complex world what we can best offer it. We have so many, good, valid choices on how to live our lives. Which one is for us?

Of all the wonderful qualities my friend had, the best thing she offered me was our connecting with each other over simple, unimportant, sometimes silly things that delighted us both.

In honor of my friend, I will honor delight. I will look out on this world and, as long as I’m here, I will focus on the My Friends are Dead book I think is so funny.

I’ll laugh at how silly my dog looks when she’s flopped onto her back, tummy up.

I will see an image of Eric Northman and sigh.

For her, I will love life. I will connect with others in delight. I will do my best to honor her.

here’s to creative synthesis . . . .

Accepting Salutes

Always, in the past, I would call my daddy on Veteran’s Day. I called him on Memorial Day. I called, every once in a while, on December 7th when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I called to tell him thank you for a service that happened before I was born. Before I ever knew he would come into my life. Before . . .
*
He was only nineteen years old, too young to order a drink at a bar. But he was an officer in the Navy, ordering other young men around. Blame his youth on precociousness or growing up in Chapel Hill, a college town: he entered college at sixteen. When his education was interrupted he was only as old as many freshmen today. And there he was, on that big ship, in foreign waters, accepting salutes.
*
The typhoon raged. The ship, far away, felt only the after-affects. Swells tall as New York buildings loomed before their eyes. The ship climbed the mountainous water, its tip pointing to the sky until, shuddering, it began its descent. In the telling of the story, Daddy’s flattened palm points to the ceiling then flutters like palsy into a trough so deep it blocks the sun. My mind captures the shuddering of the behemoth ship, the shadowed point between the gargantuan waves, all of it caused by nothing more than energy rolling through water. I have never in my life set foot on a cruise ship, and I never will.
*
I cannot pick up the phone and call my daddy today on Veterans’ Day, the first of many anniversaries that will roll through this year of his death. Next, it will be only my mother’s voice on the phone singing “Happy … Birthday … to … you.” We will celebrate Christmas without him, and never again will I see his particular scrawl on a Valentine’s card or Easter card. Such is life. I understand the conversation continues, just in a different form. But, today, let me miss his gentle, “Thank you, I appreciate your calling. And how are you doing today?”
Thank you, Daddy, for your service.

Bayard Taylor Van Hecke
Bayard Taylor Van Hecke

When I look back on my daddy’s passing from this earth, I see the deeply funny moments – like when my sister suggested we offer Daddy the comfort of his beloved Episcopal liturgy. It was a brilliant idea: we would recite the words he’d heard every Sunday of his life since approximately 1971. How soothing to hear the well-known phrases, how reassuring!

Problem was, in a family that’s been Episcopalian since God created the heavens and the earth, we could only find Mother’s prayer book from 1954. The service was unintelligible. Not your dated but well-known 1928 prayer book Rite 1. The words made no sense to me; I had no idea what some of them even meant. “Read the 23rd Psalm,” the sitter suggested, so I flipped to the psalter at the back of the prayer book. Again, not a jot of familiarity.

As I scanned the convoluted, almost foreign sentences wondering how I, the woman who wrote a book on prayer, found myself at this spot, music played. “Oh, Bayard would love this,” Mother had said, and set the tunes turning. As the music plinked, I gave a half-hearted stab at reciting some of the prayers aloud, before muttering, “How could Daddy recognize any of this crap?” In my mind’s eye I saw how others would do this: the adult children who ushered their parents into the next life, bathing them in love, candle light, familiar scents, and softly playing Mozart. But there we were, my daddy at death’s door, and I was reading incomprehensible liturgical gibberish to the strains of 1950s be-bop.

This, I thought as I flipped through the pages for something, anything familiar, is my family.

When I re-tell this story, everyone in my family laughs.

This is my family too. The ones who guffawed while the rest of the movie theatre sat silent through the suicide scene from “Crimes of the Heart.” The story was written by a Mississippian, Beth Henley. My mother attributed our “getting it” to the Mississippi heritage we share with the playwright. Maybe. Or maybe my family simply has a strange sense of humor. We are the ones who laugh at death.

Thank God.

Otherwise, all I’d have to look back on when I remember my daddy passing from this earth would be sorrow, grief, and tears.

If you find that offensive, if you believe death is only appropriately treated with dignity, quiet, and respect, you’d best be signing off. I’m about to tell the story of how my sister thought I’d conveyed to her the news of Daddy’s passing via text.

Remember: you cain’t do nothing with love . . .

Exiting the Office Depot, I saw a sign: “Now Hiring Smiling, Friendly People.”

I wondered if I would pass the “Smiling, Friendly” test.

I debated this on my way to the car. Talking out loud, to myself.

“You flunk!” my examiner shouted. “Smiling, friendly people don’t talk to themselves. They have people who listen to them. People who like them, people who call them friends. Because they are . . . smiling and friendly. Ergo, you, talking to yourself in our trash-strewn parking lot, cannot be smiling and friendly. Next!”

I could not argue with his logic, specious though it might be. I did not feel smiling and friendly. I felt bereft.

Ten days ago, my daddy died. If you’ve been wondering what happened to this blog and the rollout of stories, there’s your answer. Facebook has been wondering. “Your posts are down! Your reach is down! Your comments are down!” their emails scold me.

Well, I am down. Blue. Sad. Not feeling smiling and friendly.

Next week, I hope to return to my enthusiasm. In the meantime, listen to some of the old stories. Catch up on what’s already out there. Or go chastise the Office Depot for being so upbeat or Facebook for its lack of understanding. Take on the relentlessly happy and ask them for a smidgen of space for grief.

Remember: You cain’t do nothing with love

Substitution Will Not Work

Recently, I have had two distinctive events in my life: the death of my dad and the birth of my second grand baby. These events are distinctive in the sense of momentous and thus distinguished from my otherwise normal life. They are also distinctive in the sense of distinct: they have nothing to do with one another.
In their comments to me, folks keep wanting to conflate the two: yes, your dad died; but you have a new grandchild. I have to assume they offer this comfort because it works for them. For me, the substitution of one thing for a lost thing is the proverbial paved road to perdition.
I know the dangers of this path because I’ve tried to follow it. When I was three years old, my first dad, the one I called Daddy Joe, died suddenly and traumatically. Twenty years later—after a lifetime of being assured I was too young to remember my dad and thus wasn’t scarred by his death—I married a man who looked uncannily like Daddy Joe. It did not work out well.
Grief must be dealt with or, sooner or later, grief will drift downstream and like a sea serpent raise its scaly head when you are least expecting it. Substitution is not dealing with grief. It’s flailing around in the grip of grief, trying to extricate yourself, grasping for something that will make the loss go away.
You can’t make the loss go away. The thing you love is gone. Gone. Gone.
Not only will substitution really mess up your decision-making, trying to wedge someone into the role of stand-in is unfair. You are asking the new person to fill a hole that isn’t shaped like him or her. That won’t work, either.
Perhaps folks who pair the baby and my dad are using shorthand to tell me that, though I have grief in my life, I have happiness as well. I can’t tell you how strongly I agree with that statement. But the baby doesn’t make the loss of my dad okay. Losing my dad is not okay. It wasn’t way back when and it sure as hell isn’t now. And although I am beginning to believe in a nonreligious but purely scientific/physics way that a much bigger schema is in place than “Life” and “Death,” I must wait until I too get dead to actually understand it. In the meantime, the physical thing I loved is no longer physical, and regardless of the ways in which the dead re-present—visions, dreams, memories—the physical loss is what it is.
And the baby is what he is too: a doubling of the incredible joy I feel for my first grand baby, which is nearly unimaginable. Surely that’s good enough to stand on its own.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Life is Tough All Over

You can talk all you want about how “sweet” my daddy was. And he was sweet, particularly at the end of his life when he tromped through the brambles of dying without letting erupt anger, complaint, or self-pity. In fact, he did the opposite, insisting always that he was doing great, feeling great, just glad as all get-out to be here.
But you need to remember: when we were three girls growing up, whenever we opened our bird-mouths and chirped complaints about this, that and the other thing, his stock response was: “Life is tough all over.” To this pronouncement there was no, “Yeah, but.” Life is the way it is. Get used to it. Move on.
So when I see Daddy in my mind’s eye fighting to get his arm to bend the right way so it will go into the dang pajama sleeve. Or holding onto the sitter’s hand for an extra long moment so he can steady himself before trying to take his first step. Or grimacing at the pain he cannot identify, much less do anything about. When I ponder the courage he showed in his absolute conviction of happiness even when many of us would say life had decreased to the point it just down-right sucked, I understand.
Daddy was not being patient or kind or even sweet. He was living out what he’d always believed: if you’ve got a roof over your head and a family that loves you and food you can count on arriving on your plate, you have no right to complain. None.
“Life is tough all over” wasn’t something Daddy said just to shut up teenage girls. It was a jumping off point: life is tough, understand that, get over it. Now what are you going to do? Who are you going to be?
For me, Daddy answered that question: I am going to be someone who teaches my grown daughter the proper way to exit this world, with light-heartedness, happiness, and joy at the life I’ve been given the chance to live.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Death Enters the Story

I just finished mapping out the last fifty pages of the new Katrina novel, Jazzy. I don’t begin writing with an outline; I begin with a character and a situation. As I write, I jot down a bare-bones outline of what I think is coming next. Often this turns out to be untrue. Sometimes I go back and outline what I’ve written, to see what I’ve written. Here, at the end, the outline takes on a more detailed imagining. In these last fifty pages of Jazzy, elements of what I initially thought would happen remain, but they’re all slightly different. The one hard fact of the ending remains the same: if this is to be a Katrina novel, death must enter the story.
I HATE writing death. I like for death to be the emotional triggering event–in the past. Read my novels and short stories and you will see death over and over again. I attribute this to my daddy dying when I was three years old, suddenly, tragically, graphically. Haunted by that, I’ve explored the death of mothers, several cousins, a sister, strangers, an uncle, a grandfather, boyfriend, wife, the near-death of a nephew, and the death of too many fathers to count.
Only once or twice have I written the death of a character who lived and breathed when I began the story. In one novel, I was so averse to having a young cousin die, I had him run off and become a Jesus freak instead.
All of which means the character in Jazzy, of whom I am extremely fond, must not die in vain. The hard part, of course, will be when I return to the beginning of the story for the editing process. Now I will know the character is going to die. Everything I write about him will be tinged with poignancy. It will be hard going. Death always is.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Are You Still With Me?

When I was three years old, my daddy died. That’s quite a sad thing to happen, losing  one’s father at such a young age, particularly when he was so young himself. Worse, he died suddenly, violently. His car was hit by a train, at a crossing that had a red light, but no warning arm to descend protectively across the track. He likely didn’t see the flashing red light. He assuredly didn’t see the train.

Terrible, you’re thinking, and so unfair. True, true.

Tragically, he wasn’t alone. His car carried a passenger. The passenger was killed in the accident as well. Two people, both fully alive, both suddenly dead. Daddy Joe’s passenger was only slightly younger than he, taken too soon right along with him.

His passenger was a woman.

Does this give you pause?

The woman was traveling to see her fiancé, that’s what her brother said. Catching a ride with my dad to see the fiancé. She and my dad knew one another from the lease shop, the brother said. She sold my dad oil leases. Nothing more to it, the brother said, just a business trip.

The brother was required to explain the situation, you see, because my dad was out of town—the train tracks he did not successfully cross were in Colorado Springs, and he lived in Denver.

Are you still with me?

So my dad was traveling out of town on a Friday night—did I mention that? The accident occurred late on a Friday evening, about 11:00 pm. His wife was back in Denver. With his two little girls. And another baby on the way.

What are you feeling now?

Still think it was tragic?

My dad’s still dead, still too young, still taken from his adoring family.

My mother did not know the woman in the car. She did not know the woman would be traveling with my dad. Only after the accident, did she learn of the woman in the car with her husband.

A beautiful young woman and a very handsome young man. Dead.

So tragic.

But . . . what if he was doing something he shouldn’t have been?

The facts unfurl, and what you felt at the beginning of my story (sorrow, regret, sympathy) morphs into something else: suspicion, justification, dismissal. Maybe even betrayal: I wasted my emotion on THAT?

You see, if we can successfully justify someone else’s death, even if we have to worm around to do it—ha! he was cheating on her!—we jump on it like a duck on a June bug. He deserved to die, we say, though we probably don’t use such straightforward words.

Whatever.

The point is, we ourselves aren’t doing the same bad thing he was, so we don’t deserve to die. Ergo, we will, in fact, not die.

Witness the triumph of the human brain . . . and fear.

If we remain interested in stories involving the violent death of strangers, it is usually only to tease out the facts we can then use to separate the death from ourselves—he was on drugs, he was drinking and driving, he had a psychotic episode, he was in a gang, he was committing a crime, he was up to no good, he lived in the wrong neighborhood, he wasn’t like us. Satisfied, we turn away.

The death we’ve just experienced is no longer tragic.

We’ve successfully separated from it.

Safe.

Alone.

But safe.

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