All posts filed under: Loss

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On Going to a Better Place: What I’ve Learned from My Brother’s Death

Originally published in the Loss Issue, 2016 I have a picture of my younger brother when he was four days old. I’m sitting on my parents’ black and white geometric-patterned bedspread, cradling him. It’s one of my favorite photographs. I’m the oldest, followed by my sister, 13 months later. Almost a decade passed before my parents had another baby. Bryce’s birth was momentous. He was charming from the first day, with a wide, impish grin. As time went by, my mother would say, Bryce is going to do great things: He has the brains, the work ethic, the brawn. When Bryce was thirteen, he started drinking. In our family, drinking wasn’t just about experimentation. No one in my family drank. At fourteen, when the cops called to say he had broken into our neighbor’s house on the hunt for cash to buy booze and drugs, my mother called me at college, desperate and knowing there was a real problem. What had begun as acting out for Bryce had become a salve for anxiety and depression. When my …

Taking Care of the Strongest Man I Ever Knew

My father asked me, “How long does it take?” I felt all the sound, light, air — everything — leave the room; only the weight of those words remained. I was standing at the side of his bed, lightly stroking his forehead. Mom was exhausted, slumped in a chair in a dark corner. He was dying and wanted to know when it would be over. He had seen so much life and death on the farm — animal life and death — for 40 years, he knew when death was near and he was ready for it. But for him to ask me… that took me a minute. I was the youngest and a girl. You didn’t reveal this kind of vulnerability to your youngest daughter. Four months earlier, I’d come home for a visit and it had been clear to me: Dad was not going to make it. It was upsetting to see him so much thinner and weaker than just a month ago. It was before the dialysis. Before the hospitalization. That January afternoon, he sat …

Calling Julie: The Sister I Chose and Lost

I still have her listed as “sister” on my Facebook. You know how you can tag people as family in your profile? It has been five years since she died, and I just can’t bring myself to change it. Perhaps I never will. Julie was my best friend. We first met each other when we were working at The Destin Log on the northwest coast of Florida. It was my first “real job” out of college. I had followed a cute Air Force officer to the beach town after I got out of school, planning to move on to Atlanta after the summer. Turns out I loved it there and, although the dude didn’t love me, I stayed. I had a friend who knew someone at the local paper, and — voila — I got a job there on the lowest rung, working the government beat in nearby South Walton County. Julie was the features editor — a beautiful woman who drove a cute red BMW. I was drawn to her immediately. Now, the government …

Even When Dad Was Dying, We Kept Laughing

I am one of the lucky ones whose parents, through a combination of good genes and good living and good luck, were still around when I was in my 40s. When I thought about losing either one of them, which I did rarely and fleetingly, I pictured myself sobbing next to a hospital bed, drained faces, the gaping abyss that would come with the loss of someone who had loved me unconditionally from my first breath. Then my dad got sick in June this year and died in July. And I realized I’d left out an important facet of the process of losing them: laughter. Admittedly, mine is a family where a quick wit was prized and prodded to higher purpose. A sense of humor was as important growing up in my home as was the ability to work hard, tell the truth and clean the rabbit cage without being nagged to do it. I don’t believe we were special that way; the proprietary humor that can thrive between family members is part of the …

Grief and Gratitude: Knowing Nannie Was Worth the Pain of Losing Her

In early 2007, we sat around my Aunt Mary’s dining room table talking about ways we could celebrate my grandmother’s birthday. Nannie was turning 80, and though she referred to her contemporaries around town as “the old folks,” she in no way considered herself one of them. She’d still have been driving (like a bat outta hell) if her last hip surgery for a degenerative condition hadn’t significantly weakened her pedal-pushing leg. Las Vegas came up. We sipped coffee—my aunt, my mom, my cousin Erica, Nannie and I—as we imagined a glitzy adventure littered with Elvis impersonators, convertible Caddies, big winnings, free booze and overflowing buffets. We envisioned ourselves road-tripping cross-country to party in Vegas. The things we’d do, the people we’d meet. It was even suggested that Wilhelmina might come out of retirement—Wilhelmina being my grandmother’s vagina. Come November, just 45 days before anyone could assess the fire hazard of shoving 80 candles on a cake, my grandmother left this life. That night, I laid down in her bed and slept for close to 24 …

Rings to Remember: The Art of Mourning Jewelry

When I was 10 years old, my parents gave me a copy of Gone With the Wind as a birthday present. While I didn’t understand it all, one of the many things that stuck out in my mind from the book was the concept of mourning. I learned that in Scarlett O’Hara’s world, society had strict rules to follow about behavior and attire after the loss of a family member. In just a few chapters, Scarlett goes from 16-year-old flirt to widow, and, as society dictated, being a widow she wore a long veil and black, eschewing social activities in observance of her loss. While these strict customs have mostly faded, one physical relic that remains from that time is the jewelry. Called mourning jewelry — also referred to as memento mori jewelry — these pieces commemorate the death of a loved one and serve to remind us that death will come for us too. As an antique jewelry enthusiast, I have seen many mourning pieces over the years. While I appreciated them as historical …

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You’re Never Too Young to Trust Your Gut (Lessons Learned from Making a Terrible Decision)

If only we could soften the pain of regret by revisiting the source of our angst. If that were so, I’d have gotten over this particular wound decades ago as I’ve thought about my decision at least a thousand times. It seemed so complicated at the time, but the lesson learned — the lesson that stays with me nearly 40 years later — is simple: When something feels wrong, it probably is. At age 17, my life was unraveling. My mother was dying, and my father was undone by the seemingly endless slog of her illness. He did his best to take care of my brother and me, and, in terms of creature comforts, we were fine. But crushed as he was, my father could offer no emotional or logistical support about the decisions I faced as I contemplated college. There were no discussions of which schools might suit me and no campus tours. Whatever research was to be done, I was on my own. I was a good student, and my options were undoubtedly …

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The Drug Talk I Never Needed to Have

I’ve never had the drug talk with my twelve and fifteen year old daughters because I’ve never felt like I had to. So many people in our lives have died from alcohol and drug addiction that discussing the point seems moot. Death has been talking loud and clear. My daughters’ first life and death lesson with addiction came when they were eight and eleven. I was picking up the youngest, Dev, from an after school activity one early fall afternoon. A bunch of us parents were waiting in the school parking lot for the kids to be dismissed, when a young girl ran up to me. “Excuse me, Dezi’s mom,” she said, tears about to spill out of her eyes. “My dad drove me here to pick up my brother, but he was driving weird.” Her dad was drunk, she said, and she didn’t want her or her brother to have to get back in the car with him. Stacy was a sixth grader like my daughter, Dezi. Her brother and my youngest daughter were …

Random Acts of Cancer

I went to a memorial service today for my friend, Jeanne, who died two days before Christmas from brain cancer at the age of 58. Her sister spoke, as did her closest friends and her children, but it was something her husband said that stayed with me: “I used to think things happen for a reason. Now, I believe things just happen.” To me, those words underscore the randomness of cancer. With the exception of people who practice risky behaviors that increase their chances of getting cancer, the rest of us can only hope that luck is on our side. Cancer strikes with ferocious democracy — it doesn’t care how young we are or whether we’re complete innocents or evil to the core. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Many scientists believe in the randomness of cancer, too. Last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine used a statistical model to determine that random mutations may account for two-thirds of the risk for getting many types of cancer, leaving heredity and …

The Loose Ends of Racism

Two months ago, I stood in my kitchen struggling to find the words to discuss the death of Freddie Gray. Another unarmed black man killed at the hands of the police who, in a perfect society, should have and would have protected him. Baltimore is just 45 minutes from my home in Washington, DC and, on that particular day, I was prepared to question why these moments of aggression towards blacks continue to happen with only a sound bite response from our elected officials. Unfortunately, I wound up sidetracked and didn’t write about the death of Freddie Gray, but I will never forget the fear and sadness I felt when I sighed and noted, “It will happen again…I can wait until the next time.” Next time, of course, arrived. This time in Charleston, South Carolina. And I am a black woman struggling with what to say. People finally seem willing to broach the topic of race. They once stood on the sidelines under the guise of “us v. them,” remaining blissfully colorblind. But now, so …

The Final Reunions I Never Had

There are reunions you look forward to in life. For these gatherings, you plan to lose a few pounds ahead of time, book hotel rooms and rekindle memories by looking though old photo albums and yearbooks. And then there are the impromptu reunions. They are the unplanned, emotional and raw. I keep an altar of sorts on my nightstand. It’s a place to reunite the spirits I love. The ones who were taken from us too soon. *** I met my friend Chris Vicente in a Nazism and Fascism class in college during our junior year at Penn State. He had just returned from a semester in Rome, and I was immediately drawn to his Euro style: the horn-rimmed glasses, the bouffy, big 80s hair and a fabulous fashion sense. We didn’t know each other, but figured we should. And that’s how the friendship started. Turns out we shared a birthday (July 8), a passion for life, dancing and a love of men, although I didn’t officially discover that Chris liked boys until much later …

Being Small is the Greatest Escape

There is no such thing as quantifying loss. Loss is beyond measure, inherently both heavy and weightless, its true burden to be measured only by those who are carrying it. In that way my dead parents equals your failed business venture or your sister’s cheating spouse. We cannot assign it a hierarchy. Loss takes, and takes, and takes. This price is what equalizes. We only need know it takes. I had the hubris to write a book about walking through a season of loss in my life. I called it Falling Apart In One Piece, a bit of wordplay that pleased me, because with it, I could announce my failures and overcome them, too, in a single breath — even though the truth is, it took me almost three years to walk that distance. The night of the book’s official publication, I was feted at a party. It was a poignant kind of triumphant: I stood on the stairs in the entry hall of a friend’s beautiful suburban home, surrounded by dozens of people listening …

10 Years After Losing Twins, A Mother Reflects

I was almost six months pregnant with twin boys after undergoing IVF when, at a routine anatomy ultrasound, we discovered one twin had died, and shortly after we got the rest of the bad news. I was suffering from preeclampsia, a severe case, and I had to be admitted to the hospital immediately. Twelve hours after I was admitted, the doctors surrounded my bed and told me that I was going to die unless the pregnancy was terminated. Either my son and I could both die, or I would just lose my son. It was the worst day of my life. After I came home from the hospital I disappeared into grief. For three weeks I lay on my couch, watching reruns of the vampire show Angel, and listlessly eating junk food. I spent most of my time in the gray of loneliness, a hand on my empty belly, feeling terribly lost. I remember handing out Halloween candy to the neighbor’s kids while silent tears ran down my face. I remember occasionally swimming out of …

Close to Death: From My Hospital Bed, I Could Hear Her Dying

Someone was wailing. I pawed through the bed sheets for my 3-month-old son, but I couldn’t find him. Everything felt hot and damp from my leaking breast milk. I heard the cries again. Oooooh! I kept trying to peel back the twisted linen. And then, Mercy! Mercy! This was not my son bellowing. Instead of his fuzzy head I found a giant call button. Then my eyes made out the lopsided fruit basket and plastic pink water pitcher. I tried to sit up, but got caught. There were wires snaking out of my gown and I smelled like a sour armpit. The past 24 hours leached slowly back into my brain. I was 40, had just given birth to my third child, and was training for a half-marathon when a night of “bad indigestion” turned out to be a heart attack. Instead of picking up my older kids from the playground after school, I’d found myself on a metal table, gazing up as a handsome Italian doctor stented one of my coronary arteries and chatted …

The Picture At My Desk: Mom and Dad

I have a lot of little photos at my desk, all around me. Actually, they’re Stickygrams, those awesome mini-magnets of your Instagram photos. But the most important photo at my desk isn’t a Stickygram. Because I don’t have an Instagram photo of my parents. They died before Stickygram was invented. Before Instagram, even. They died four weeks apart in June and July of 2010, both of sudden, unexpected illnesses that punched a huge hole in my life, never to be mended again. But the photo doesn’t make me sad. The photo makes me think how made-of-awesome I am. That love that parents give their children makes me think about how much my parents meant to me, that I, as an unnecessarily independent person, didn’t even realize until they were gone. Turns out, you don’t feel the floor under your feet until you’re falling. One day a few months ago, I was sitting at my desk, doing that funny daydreaming thing that leads to writing, and I was once again feeling that curious sense of empty, …