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Tag: grief

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!

I very much appreciate EAP:The Magazine publishing my essay “Grief: What’s the Best I Can Do?”

I really like this magazine. Full of good writers, talking about interesting, important stuff. Mosey around and peruse some of the content when you click through to read my essay. 🙂

Grief: What’s the Best I Can Do?

Grief: The Best I Can Do

My Daddy Joe was killed by a train when I was three years old. My older sister was four, and my mother was newly pregnant with my little sister. After the baby was born, my mother had what we would now call postpartum depression, complicated, of course, by the death. She thought to herself, Well, I’ve had this baby. The two older girls can take care of themselves. I’m not needed here anymore.

That’s traumatic grief manifesting into physical thought.

It’s impossible to put my finger on who among us Daddy Joe’s death affected the most. Me, who was at the age when a daughter carries the strongest attachment to her father. My older sister, who had fourteen months greater understanding of the event than I. My younger sister, who lived for almost ten years without even the briefest experience of a father, until my amazing stepdad arrived. Or maybe it was my grandmother, who buried her child then sealed off her grief so completely she mentioned her son no more than a handful of times until the day she died. Or my mom, who sometimes emails me on December 19 in remembrance of an event that happened over fifty years ago. Each of us, in our own way, felt the pressing hand of loss shaping, molding, forming us.

My life experiences—watching my stepdad pass over to the other side; communing with those who have left this world before me; reading about others’ death experiences—have convinced me the dead are fine. We can pray for the dead, but we needn’t worry about them. They are fine. We are the ones riveted by loss.

Left behind, we grapple with a pain that physically wounds us. Holes riddle our hearts, digging deep wells in our souls that neither time can heal nor grieving remove. No matter the good things that rush in—my stepdad whom I loved so much—those places of emptiness stay with us. I question why life is set up this way. What is the point of bonds that tie so closely but can be severed so quickly? Why is life devised to cause us so much pain from loss? So many, many of us walk around with wisps of loss at the edge of our consciousness constantly asking, where is daddy? What happened to mommy? Why did God take my child from me? The loss ripples out until it seems the whole world shudders.

Nor must the loss be traumatic. We grieve, inconsolable, for our aged parents who have lived long, good, full lives. We miss them terribly. We pause and hang our heads when a memory strikes us full force, not wanting the world to see how grief can still slay us. We love and we love and we love and we lose.

Who thought this was a good idea?

And yet it is.

So, what to do with it? My cousin, what he did was to lead the funeral congregation in a prayer of forgiveness for the actions that took his teenage son from him. Let me repeat that—a grieving parent led the funeral congregation in a prayer of forgiveness for the loss of his son.

My mother, she decided “things” were unimportant, only people mattered. She has spent the rest of her life throwing away, de-cluttering, and smiling at everyone she meets.

Me, I write. In many of my novels and short stories, the dad is dead. The daughter or son who is left behind wrestles with the loss, trying to find a place to step that doesn’t turn into quicksand. As I write, I try to see through the loss, to claim back from death everything it would try to take from us.

I did this with the tiny pearl necklace I wore this Christmas Eve. After Daddy Joe died, a man came to Mother and said her husband had ordered the delicate necklace for his daughter. That made no sense to Mother—why would Joe buy one necklace when he had two daughters? But she paid the man for the necklace and tucked it away with the handful of things she kept from that time. Last year, going through her stuff, she came across the necklace and offered it to us girls, scam though it probably was. I took the necklace and this year, because my dress needed a second necklace, I wore it to Christmas Eve dinner.

Even as I closed the cheap gold clasp around my neck, I wondered anew, why? Why had I accepted something that surely had no connection to Daddy Joe? Did I pitifully act on the slim chance he had, in fact, bought it for me? Or was it something else?

I held the tiny pearl in my fingertips and felt the answer: the “probably a scam” necklace graced my neck because nothing is sacred. Not the wallet that was Daddy Joe’s, not the Ole Miss memorabilia strewn across my house—none of it. The joke is on the man who sold the necklace to Mother. He thought a memento grasped in a sweaty palm could contain and assuage grief. But the only thing that can do that is love, a force so strong it can redeem even the sacrilege of death. Love makes anything, and everything, sacred, even a scam necklace.

When the grief of death strikes anew—as it did this Christmas Eve when I was wearing the tiny pearl necklace and my nephew suddenly, traumatically died—I can only look for the moments when that love manifests itself.

The memory of my Daddy Joe’s arms enveloping and comforting me.

The image of my nephew’s smiling face lighting up whenever he greeted me.

These rays of love that were once in this world left their imprint, and they stay in this world for all time, waiting only for us to reach out and touch the memory of them.

So, basically, I come around to saying those who die are still here. That’s not letting go. It’s not accepting death as a part of life. It’s not reconciling myself to this configuration that includes repeated, painful loss. I hate death. I always will. But I love love.

And that’s the best I can do.

Here’s the Kicker

A daughter orphaned from her dad at age three, I wrapped myself in all things Daddy Joe. Because he moved to the Rockies, I loved the snow, demanded a Frosty the Snowman cake every December birthday, cherished my red sled—in Mississippi, where it snowed once every seven years. I folded and unfolded the postcard he sent me of a Palomino until it disintegrated, but not before I’d lied, telling some of my friends my Daddy Joe gave me that beautiful horse. I was even more proud of the postcard he sent me featuring two deer killed in battle, their horns locked in death. His message? “This is what will happen if you don’t stop fighting with your sister.” At one point, I harbored dreams of moving to Colorado and living on the land he’d left us, so ignorant I didn’t know the “land” was mineral rights. No one can live on a mineral right. I thought I could. I was an ornery pip.

I wish I could say this Kafkaesque search ended with maturity. It didn’t.

In my first marriage, I recreated Daddy Joe’s marriage to my mother, holding the reception in the white-columned house where he grew up, marrying a man who made the wedding guests gasp, he looked so much like Daddy Joe. When my grandmother died, I insisted the family give me Daddy Joe’s memorabilia from the hallway secretary. His Ole Miss megaphone and University of Denver beer mug and his diplomas and U.S.Navy documents. And his scrapbook of his motorcycle trip out west. I took as much as my scared self could harvest and went to a professional photographer and made copies of the sepia photographs and the black and white photographs and gave them to my sisters. I don’t think they much cared about it one way or the other. I did. I kept caring.

Until last night.

As I lay in bed contemplating how to revise an old novel, wondering what it was that motivated the child protagonist, I understood her goal was to set things up so that when she returned to her house in New Orleans, her dead dad would walk back through the door.

She’s eleven. This is a totally unrealistic goal for an 11-year-old protagonist. It’s equally unrealistic for a twenty-five year old. Or thirty-eight year old. Or fifty-seven year old.

Here’s the kicker: I made a terrible mistake. Everything I aligned myself with, Daddy Joe had run away from. The white-columned house he abandoned for a free-wheeling life out west. The memorabilia he left behind. The past, all of it past but clinging like ivy clamping onto bricks. None of it was for him.

This revelation made me almost laugh out loud. I felt closer to Daddy Joe than I had in years.

I will revise this novel. I will set the child to rights. She will work through her issues, and the story will make you weep. Not with sorrow. With laughter. I promise, you’ll be laughing and wiping away the tears.

The small weight of sorrow in my life, ragged as a sinker on a fishing line, will always be with me. It’ll keep bobbing up and down like the red and white cork on the end of the line. That’s life. In the end, though, I’ll know who I am.

Train of Thought

The train whistles in the distance. Slanting sunlight filters through the living room window—the train, which arrives and departs Memphis morning and night in the darkness, is late. Seated on the floor, I rub the dog’s belly and confide, “I love the train.” How I can love the instrument of my daddy’s death is beyond me.

In college I lived beside the railroad tracks. In my Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, the train snaked through the woods, unseen. When I ran away from home and divorced, I gave up the train for the tractor-trailers rumbling down the interstate—it wasn’t the same. I moved to Memphis where the train passes my house twice a day on its way to and from Chicago. Not satisfied, I leased a second residence in New Orleans where the train passes so near I can almost touch it.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if my habit of sitting my butt down by the railroad tracks is a form of “keep your enemies closer.” It’s not. The train releases in me, as it does for so many people, the excitement of possibilities, the flying into the fabulous future and, at the same time, the remembrance of hope lost, the past retreating into a place where it will never be seen again.

So it is with my Daddy Joe, my birth father who died when I was three, hit by a train then dead. The evocation of lost things always brings that poignant mix of happiness and sorrow. But this morning seated on the living room floor letting the dog gnaw my hand, I realized I would never have to miss the past again because it is still with me, always. Nor do I have to “miss” the happiness of the present, overly aware it, too, will pass away. The moments I’ve lived live on inside me, as present as the whistle of the train, which I also cannot touch or see but feel in my heart, vibrating.

Life is good, and it will always be good, as long as I sit on the living room floor in the sun, rubbing my dog’s tummy.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

We are in a re-beginning. The roll-out of stories, interrupted by my daddy’s death and the grief that followed, is re-starting. To get back in the groove, we’re re-turning to the last aired story,  “A Trip to the Lawyer.” It’s one of the shortest, 8 or so minutes. That’s a good thing when you’re re-warming muscles. Hope you enjoy it.

“A Trip to the Lawyer”

First appeared in print in RedHot ChickLit Review.

To contribute to Common Ground, a program of the YWCA devoted to conversations on race & communities in action, please follow the link here or visit commongroundmemphis.org

Listen to the story here: 

Angels on the Train

We were many. An overflowing, summer-stuffed, unpracticed group. Even those of us who weren’t novice train-goers were intimidated by the crowd, made nervous by the excess: would I really have a seat?
He was kind, the conductor who did not view his job as an opportunity to inflict minor cruelty on those more ignorant—and dependent—than he. As we anxiously asked about proper tickets and checking luggage and trying to line up in the correct place so we’d be out of the way of his tram, he re-assured us, “You’re doing it right. You did a good job.”
“He’s always here, always like that,” a sister traveler said when I noted the man’s kindness.
A miracle, I thought, when it could have so easily gone a different way.
*
I knew I wanted a coffee, but when I stalled on what to eat, the patient cafe attendant offered a list of appropriate breakfast food. As my bagel warmed in the microwave, he asked, “Are you okay? You seem sad.”
“I am,” I said, tearing up: I am fine until someone is nice to me.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he replied.
Later, when I’d done some good work on my writing and watched the trees whiz by the train window in an arc of green, I returned to the clerk to ask for a “regular Pepsi.”
“How is your trip going?” he asked.
“Better,” I said.
“I can tell,” he replied. “It shows in your face.”
Much improved, this time I did not cry.
*
I have never been an adherent to the “angels in your path” theory. People are just people. But those working on the train today were kind people. And that may be all angels are.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

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

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