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loss

Guest Posts, loss, Surviving

Cross Purposes

June 1, 2018
cross

By Aimee Ross

A cross has stood in that field for three years.

Three years since he smashed into me and the girls in my car that summer night. We were on our way home from dance camp.

The girls escaped the wreck with minor injuries. I barely survived.

He died.

Fifteen minutes from home. We were almost home.

Dear Zachary,

 I’m writing this letter to you because I feel like I have to, even though I don’t know you and never will. I can only know my version of you, and to be honest, it’s not good.

 I know you were the driver of the red Mini Cooper who ploughed recklessly into the side of my gray Saturn Aura that warm July night. I know you were only nineteen, and not one of my former students. And I know that doctors declared you “brain dead” the next day in a room near mine at Cleveland Metro Trauma Center.

The cross was first pushed into the earth less than two weeks after the accident. My mom, who drove past the site twice daily on her way to and from the hospital, was infuriated by it. She thought it was made of Bud Light boxes. I’d been past the site since then a few times, but I had never stopped. I never wanted to be in that space long enough to think.

Until now.

After the accident, visitors told me rumors about you. Even my own daughters. They knew people you partied with. They also warned me of your Facebook memorial page, but I didn’t listen.

I looked too soon.

You—the party boy with swag—were loved, and by many. They called you Zach. Throwing bangers, getting baked, and blowing smoke at the camera consumed the posted memories and fuzzy photos.

 Something kept telling me to visit the scene.

And I needed closure.

So, armed with notebook and pen and ready to record the epiphany I was sure to have, I drove there alone one mid-summer afternoon. I expected to cry, feel relief, be cleansed. The trauma would finally make sense.

As I approached the busy state route’s intersection, I noticed the warning signs of road construction—at least I wouldn’t have to worry about traffic. I parked along the berm across from the site, realizing I had no intention of leaving my vehicle anyway. I would just be here, feel here.

A friend of your mother’s told me you had trouble with the law, and I know your driver’s license had been suspended at least twice before. You even spent time in a detention home. I wonder if other rumors about you and your buddies playing a very dangerous driving game to earn points for traffic violations were true.

Beyond the intersection, a cross made of two perpendicular skateboards—not beer boxes—jutted crookedly out of a grassy slope. The ground climbing from the ditch to the tilted cross was still scarred. Dry brown gashes in the earth, like my three-year-old wounds, littered the rise where energy from an inelastic collision was absorbed. The scars, evidence of an outside force. Inertia disrupted.

 And then there’s your family. Good people, I heard. I know you had dinner at home with them that evening. You asked your dad for the car, the one titled to him but given to you, so you could go to a friend’s house. You were on your way when you crashed into us. I also know your family loved you. Just moments after finding out you had passed—after being asked about donating your organs—your father and sister hugged my brother. They cried, said they hoped I would “pull through.” I imagine your mother was broken in a corner, lost in a sea of tears. I know your parents—an older, more settled couple—adopted you and your sister from another country far away. Maybe they couldn’t have their own children. Now they can’t even have you.

Why did he run the stop sign? How fast was his car moving?

 The most devastating thing I know about you, however, isn’t that you disregarded a stop sign or might have been speeding that night. What’s most devastating is that you were driving under the influence. The highway patrol officer who came to inform me I was the “victim of a crime” said so. They don’t know how fast you were going, but they do know that you had marijuana and benzodiazepine in your bloodstream.

And then the toxicology report. I researched. Benzodiazepine, an anti-anxiety medication, can induce everything from euphoria to a hypnotic state, just like the recreational drug marijuana. Together, the two would have produced an amplified high, as well as an amplified tranquilizer effect. He might have been so high he didn’t know what he was doing. He could have been asleep at the wheel.

Why did you do that, Zach? Why?

Did you smoke pot and do drugs so often you drove stoned all the time?

Did you forget you had family and friends who loved you, a whole life ahead of you?

Did you think you were invincible, maybe even above the law?

But none of that matters. The outcome is the same.

Three beautiful girls, teenagers on the dance team I advised, were riding with me on the way back from dance camp that evening. I couldn’t protect them from you. You could have killed them. You almost killed me. I believed my daughter, also on the team, had left ahead of us, but in fact, she was only moments behind in a different car. You could have killed her that night. The thought makes me sick. I love her, just like your parents loved you. Our worst fear as parents happened to them: you didn’t come home.

I stared at the cross, thinking about what onlookers would have witnessed that July evening. A car shooting from the darkness and crashing into another. Impact in the intersection. Crunching metal, shattering glass. A body catapulted through a car’s sunroof and against the unforgiving road, as momentum propels both vehicles over a ditch to rest less than twenty feet apart. Airbags deployed, windshields buckled, a smoking engine. Four trapped inside mangled metal. Passersby stop, phone calls are made, and moments later, the chaos to save lives ensues. The scene is flooded with light, engulfed in disembodied voices, and swarming with firemen, ambulances, and highway patrol.

 Your parents must miss you desperately. I imagine they didn’t know about your regular drug use. I wonder if they were shocked, horrified maybe, to find out. I’m sure they have forgiven you by now, though—you were their only son.

 It is quiet here today at this place. Peaceful, even. Bright sunshine, a gentle breeze, midsummer warmth. The perfect setting for something—anything—to offer understanding. Redemption maybe. A setting to offer forgiveness.

But I am finding it difficult to do.

I am alive, but another mother’s son never went home.

We all make mistakes and poor choices. I know this. And if you had lived through the accident, maybe you would have apologized. You probably would have been sorry, too. If you had lived through the accident, maybe you even would have changed. You probably would have stopped being reckless, too. But maybe your life ended because of how you chose to live it. Maybe change would not have been possible for you. I don’t know.

I wait.

I don’t want to hate you, Zach.And I don’t want to be so angry . . . still. I even want to try to forgive you.

Nothing happens. I don’t even cry. I slide the pen back in my purse, toss the notebook to the front passenger seat, and head home. If only the intersection had been closed three years ago. If only we had taken another way home. If only he had been sober. If only he had stopped at the intersection’s sign. Then we would not have had our path crossed. T-boned. Crushed.

But I just can’t yet.

 Four lives altered forever, another life lost.

Sincerely, Aimee, the woman whose life you changed

A cross marks the spot.

Aimee Ross is a nationally award-winning educator who’s been teaching high school English at her alma mater in Loudonville, Ohio, for the past twenty-six years and an aspiring writer for as long as she can remember. Her first book, Permanent Marker: A Memoir, was just published in March 2018 (KiCam Projects). She has also had her writing published on NextAvenue.orgwww.lifein10minutes.com, and www.SixHens.Com, as well as in Beauty around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia (ABC-Clio, 2017); Scars: An Anthology (Et Alia Press, 2015); Today I Made a Difference: A Collection of Inspirational Stories from America’s Top Educators (Adams Media, 2009); and Teaching Tolerance magazine. You can find Aimee online at www.theaimeeross.com.

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Grief, Guest Posts, loss

Dear Benjamin

May 13, 2018
boy

By Jennifer Roberts

My sweet boy,

I am sorry it took me so long to write to you. There’s so much I’ve wanted to say, but didn’t know where to start. How does a mommy write a letter to her baby that died? Mommies should never have to think about that at all. This is going to be full of words that are so different than what I would be saying to you if you were still here. I’m sure if you were here I wouldn’t feel the need to write you a letter at all, I would just tell you to your sweet little face how loved you are.

Next week you would be turning 20 months old. I can’t believe it’s been that long since I became your mom and since I last saw you.  I could have told you already that I’m sorry my body failed you and you had to be born 8 weeks early, but most likely I wouldn’t even be worried about that anymore. I might have told you that I am sorry for complaining about the heartburn and hip pain while you were growing inside me, but possibly I wouldn’t even feel bad about it now.

Since things turned out the way they did and you are not here, I have felt the need to let you know that I am sorry that I complained. I am sorry my body didn’t do what it was supposed to. I am sorry you were robbed of your life so early and never got to come home. I am sorry I needed a C-Section and you never got to be held until you were gone. I’m sorry that all you ever felt was the NICU bed and needles and stuff stuck to your skin. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing, loss

Air Hunger

April 29, 2018
hurt

Today my sister has been dead 17 years. I can still remember the feeling when the world was whisked from under me as I sat on the floor in the middle of the night listening to my mother tell me Cristi had died. They say time heals all wounds, and I suppose it is true, but the scars those wounds leave behind are nasty ones. Has it gotten easier as the years have gone by? Perhaps in some ways, but in other ways I remain permanently altered – the attacks that began after her death continue. This piece was originally published on the site in 2014.

By Angela M Giles

They always begin the same way: a sudden flash of heat is followed by a cascade of electricity that deftly makes its way through my body in a quick, cruel wave. As soon as it hits my collarbone, I feel my face begin to flush and immediately put my hand to my throat, a quick reflex to try to cool my neck, a strangely protective measure. Then the chill begins. I focus on breathing. I keep my hand at my neck. If I can feel a pulse beneath my skin, I am still ok.

The first attack occurred on May 29th, 2001, exactly thirty days after my sister died, twenty-four days after she was buried, seventeen days after I returned to the east coast, seven days after I went back to work and four hours into my workday. The official diagnosis for what I experienced was ‘air hunger.’ But I didn’t feel a hunger for anything. There was no sense of lacking something or of needing anything. I wasn’t hungry, I was being invaded. I was being overrun. Something was winding through me that I couldn’t control. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, healing, loss

The Season Before Winter

February 22, 2017
paperwhites

By Marika Rosenthal Delan

The world was in a state of unrest when fall came.

In my home state of Missouri, people in Ferguson were rioting and burning shit to the ground. The only thing I was burning were hours of sleep and some old notions about the way things should be. Watching the world in complete disarray already had me fighting back vomit as two pink lines appeared on the stick I had just peed on.

Forty had descended on me like a wrecking ball that summer. I was surprised to find myself embracing this milestone, but had long considered a third child out of the question. I had always joked that I wanted three. But that was before 40, before three back surgeries and endometriosis.

Before. It was before my body was breaking.  A baby was not on my radar and it showed up like a UFO.

I had been exceedingly careful with my birth control after once getting pregnant with an IUD- what are the chances? I looked it up: 0.8% in the first year of use whatever the hell that means.

I had eagerly signed consent for tubal ligation while undergoing exploratory surgery for endometriosis the previous year. But I hadn’t met the required 30-day waiting period by the day of my procedure. I woke up from anesthesia with my tubes intact.

A plan B wasn’t immediately established. It took months of discussion after which my hubby finally manned up and volunteered for a vasectomy.  This was our three-part plan: We would make an appointment right after the holiday.  He would have the procedure. Then we would go to the movies. It would be a date, I joked. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, loss, Pregnancy

Choices

December 4, 2016
survive

TW: This piece discusses medically necessary termination of pregnancy

By Leslie Wibberly

A while ago, a friend and colleague received some devastating news. She and her husband were expecting their second daughter, and at over three months into the pregnancy they had assumed everything was fine. A routine ultrasound unexpectedly revealed multiple birth defects and a tumor, called a terratoma, attached to the base of the baby’s spine.

They were told they could choose to terminate this pregnancy, as the effects of those birth defects were not clear. Or, they could try to carry the baby to term and hope that surgery might be able to correct the problems.

As she shared her news with me, her despair carefully but not completely masked, I was brought back to the moment many years earlier, when I had received similar news. A tiny tsunami of nausea intermingled with terror and regret, flooded my body.

My first pregnancy was planned, but happened sooner than expected. Exhausted from full time work and a year of studying for a post-grad certification, my body was not in peak condition. My husband and I had fully intended to start trying for a baby once my exams were over, but the universe was impatient and so conception was precipitous.

We were overjoyed none-the-less, and I did what assume every mother-to-be did. I bought parenting books, baby-name books, maternal vitamins, I started to worry about never sleeping again, and I prepared to say goodbye to my thirty-something pre-baby body. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, loss, Surviving

Luckier Than I Deserve

July 28, 2016
daughter

By Ann Klotz

My husband and I are lying on the bed, warm October sun slanting through the window, an afternoon nap.

It has been a week, starting on Tuesday morning with a 5:30 a.m. phone call, announcing the unexpectedly swift death of a teacher we all love.  Loretta had worked at Laurel with me, teaching English, then leaving to have Margaret, and then baby Tommy. Her cancer was discovered when Tommy was weeks old.  Her battle is swift, virulent, hopeless.  Fifteen months from diagnosis till death.  Last week, she and I had had an email exchange about fruit flies. She, awake in the wee hours of the night, offered me remedies; I, astonished that in the middle of her fight to live to mother her children, she is generous enough to think of me, whining on Facebook about the infestation that grosses me out and refuses to be cured by any of the home remedies I try.

When Loretta’s best friend phones to tell me Loretta has died, I know I have to call our daughter. There, in the dark.  I text her:  Bad news. Phone when you can.  We’d agreed earlier this fall that this would be our code.  She implored me to keep her informed.  She loved Loretta; they shared a sarcastic streak, and Loretta offered Cordelia a loving but unsentimental ear that helped Cordelia manage—having your mother as the head of the school you attend isn’t necessarily so easy.  Cordelia babysat for Margaret, and after Loretta’s initial diagnosis, last summer, spent time with both Margaret and Tommy.  It was what she could do.  But, in August, when Loretta was re-diagnosed, she wasn’t strong enough to see Cordelia, and Cordelia, leaving for the semester, knew better than I that the cancer, this time, might ravage Loretta faster than we wanted to believe.

“I might not ever get to say goodbye,” she said, teary, but not crying. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, loss, love

Our Symphony Has Stopped. A Letter to My Lost Love

July 25, 2016
love

By Skylar Rose

Here I am, on the other side of everything we fought to get through. And here you aren’t.

Our love has sat on a dusty shelf for thousands of hours now, and whilst we both know the futility of reaching for a cloth to clean it with, the space remains occupied by our story.

How strange that the closeness which once seemed impenetrable should now seem unimaginable.

Your new life is in a home I’ll never visit, filled with furniture I’ll never see. But there amongst the books and trinkets, amidst the coffee cups and sheets, there are traces of me. Of us. An echo of laughter. An imprint of interlaced fingers. An unfinished argument. A chapter that never quite concluded. Remnants of a past that cannot be a future but stubbornly seek out a place in the present.

I still remember the cold caress of the kitchen tiles that I laid on when you left me. You cannot forget the closed door that was forever bolted when you tried to come back.

We’d danced with a pain-laced love for too long, we’d cracked ourselves open too many times. There was nothing left to do but leave.

Yet, even the weakest flame will fight for its right to burn.

I am the tattoo that you thought to be temporary. The coming years would see your hands try to wash me off. But see how I stain you. See how I stay.

I am the warmth that you dare not seek comfort from, though you remember the solace so well. I am the stray breeze that comes to tease you on the forever days of stifling stillness.

I am the tenderest touch that you still feel brush against your face, the droplets of rain that you cannot dry from your skin.

How many dawns did we see too soon? Time hurtling forward to new days that we weren’t ready to greet, clinging to nights we were loathe to surrender. With each ray of sunlight came truths we couldn’t turn away from. They sought us out like prey. We hid under covers, trying to stop the clocks and halt the hurt that we knew was waiting to flood in.

The future threw back so many warnings to us. We stacked them up like unread newspapers and unopened bills, not willing to heed their unwelcome words.

Our story is woven into the fabric of a life I’ve left behind. But sometimes pieces of the past fly forward, clawing through cobwebs, demanding to be seen once more.

There are nights when you visit my dreams uninvited, stealing my sleep with your smile. I see that image of you which I know so well, your head thrown back as laughter leaves your lips. The scent of you lingers. The sound of you stays.

We were tangled in addictions and embedded in a turmoil that left a taste too bitter.

Our craving for each other was the catalyst for every reconciliation that would bring us back to the torment we swore to leave. The knowledge that the next hit could be fatal made every high even more poignant, but ever more potent.

Our too greedy hearts did not recognize their satiety and always asked for more.

You are the history I keep locked deep inside of me. Safely stored in a vault, within a vault so that I might not ever accidentally, unintentionally open the sealed doors. The air cannot get into those vaults, so the contents will wither. And I will not move to bring them oxygen. I will not revive their agony.

The greatest love leaves the most devastating void when it departs. The hollowness haunts me at times. But our candle has burned too low, too long. A pool of spilt wax tears are all that remain. I have breathed out every memory, there are none left to exhale.

In another world, we are walking hand in hand, tumbling in the love that spins around us, leaving us breathless on a bed of invincibility.

In another world we are dancing with abandon, letting the notes sweep through us as our bodies unite then separate, before we pull each other close again, unwilling to be apart for more than a few beats.

In another world we are everything we ever knew we could be, rapturous in the love that is everything we always knew it would be.

But not this world.

Our symphony has stopped. The orchestra is finally done playing our piece.

Skylar Liberty Rose is a writer and an empowerment warrior. She is the creator of Fierce Females which she established as a way of celebrating the female spirit and to encourage women to live to their full potential, rather than playing small. Having found her own freedom by releasing limiting beliefs, Skylar seeks to provide others with tools they can use to empower themselves. Chosen as one of the ‘Best 50 Women’s Empowerment Blogs 2015’ by the Institute for the Psychology of Eating and ‘Top 101 Most Inspiring Blogs’ by Guided Mind, Skylar is passionate about stripping away layers of conditioning and instead discovering the unique truth within. She is inspired by courageous hearts and creative souls. She grew up in London and now lives in New York City with her husband.

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Join Jen Pastiloff in Tuscany Sep 17-24, 2016. There are 5 spaces left. This will be her only international retreat in 2016 and is her favorite retreat of the year. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com asap. More info here. Must email first to sign up.

 

Join founder Jen Pastiloff for a weekend retreat at Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts Feb 19-21, 2016. Get ready to connect to your joy, manifest the life of your dreams, and tell the truth about who you are. This program is an excavation of the self, a deep and fun journey into questions such as: If I wasn’t afraid, what would I do? Who would I be if no one told me who I was? Jennifer Pastiloff, creator of Manifestation Yoga and author of the forthcoming Girl Power: You Are Enough, invites you beyond your comfort zone to explore what it means to be creative, human, and free—through writing, asana, and maybe a dance party or two! Jennifer’s focus is less on yoga postures and more on diving into life in all its unpredictable, messy beauty. Note Bring a journal, an open heart, and a sense of humor. Click the photo to sign up.

death, Family, Grief, Guest Posts, loss, motherhood

Black Lace: On Music, Motherhood, and Loss

November 18, 2015

By Geri Lipschultz

Nothing is sexier than black lace, nothing more deadly.  When it’s cut in a circular shape, one slips the bobby pin inside, fixing it there into your hair.  With the black lace thus covering, you can show respect upon entering a synagogue or a funeral parlor where your mother is, before she will be buried.  It may only be nine months after your father died that she developed the cancer, less than three months before it would kill her—and in between that time, that is, in between the two deaths, you, at forty-six, would deliver a girlchild in darkening November. With the lace in your hair, you are holding the girlchild in your arms.

My daughter’s love for me was palpable.  A friend had seen her spirit when the baby was in utero.  Her shade was long, Tibetan, a tall thin dark man who sat on my shoulders and wrapped his legs around me, put his head upon my head. Cradled me. Farfetched or not, this was the feeling of this baby. Loving, attached, but withdrawn among strangers, whereas my son would work to catch the stranger’s eye.  Born eleven years before, my son had colic. I held him, and he cried. Even his entrance into the world came with a face of doubt, a scowl of woe.  He was covered in meconium, an expression of his discontent?  My daughter swam into life, looked up, surveyed it, said it was good.  Did my daughter know she was conceived in wedlock?

I was already married a year when I found out I was actually pregnant, for the second time, at forty-six, and I called my mother to tell her this.  She expressed something that sounded like horror.  I asked her if she was horrified, and she said that she was worried.  I was too old.  She was in her seventies.  The other grandchildren, my sisters’ kids, were teenagers, mainly.  My son, David, was ten.  He would be eleven when Eliza was born.  I told my mother to please keep her horror to herself.  I told her I was thrilled, that she should pray for a healthy baby, preferably a girl, for me, and if she was worried, to please not inflict it on me.  It vaguely reminded me of my writing, the once or twice I’d shown her what I’d written, her inability to take it in, her tendency to read too much into the stories.  I wrote stories, fiction. The lace of words, of black on white, the way stories gush up into images. You turn something terrible into something beautiful. I made things up.  If it was good I made it bad—some bit of salt or pepper or honey to change the flavor. If I told the truth, I would feel guilt, but the truth can hide behind a lie. It can light up the sky. For a long time after my mother died, I felt the guilt of someone who did not do enough because she could not cope, could not take in the loss. I was in the thick of motherhood, myself.

Black lace is what’s left when the mother is gone. A string of memories, a household full of items, tangible and laden and one day all of her furniture and even her wastebaskets would be sent to your house, because you were the one without a real job, just adjunct teaching and the pittance you made from your writing. Not to mention the insecurity of your marriage. Sometimes, if you could, you would take a match to the world. Sometimes it felt as if someone had. Can you admit the waters of grief? Stunned, after your mother’s death, you walked away brittle, unfeeling, protective, pretending. This has become your way with any kind of loss, until music arrives with its stream of the eternal, its messages, its images, its notes and rests and etchings. Continue Reading…

Addiction, death, Grief, Guest Posts, loss

Above The High: Coping With Addiction And Death

November 17, 2015

By Nancy Arroyo Ruffin

The first time I remember experiencing death I was three years old. My uncle Louie lay in a casket at the Ortiz Funeral Home wearing a light colored suit; it could’ve been white, beige maybe. His afro was neatly picked and in my three year old mind he appeared to be sleeping peacefully. That’s the thing about death, to the deceased it is peaceful, and to the ones left behind it’s anything but. To those left behind, the haze of losing a loved one, which feels like a searing mass of heat injected deep into the veins, seeps into everything making it difficult to focus on anything but the grief.

From my recollection, the funeral home was a dreary place, old and decrepit, like an old lady who had spent too many years outside of herself watching her life pass her by. The red carpet in the viewing room was ragged and dirty and the lighting, though warm, was not inviting. It was a place that bid farewell to too many lives taken before their time.  Exactly one year before on the same date, my maternal grandfather (his father) lay in a similar casket sleeping peacefully. He was in his 50s.

I can’t recall if I understood then that it would be the last time I’d see my uncle. I don’t remember if my parents explained to me the finality of death and what it meant when I heard family members say “at least he’s with his father now.” These are not things parents are prepared to talk about with their 3 yr. old. I think about my own 3 yr. old daughter and how I would explain death to her in a way that she would understand and I don’t think she would.

What I do recall about my uncle however are the times when he was vibrant and full of life. I remember how his eyes shone with happiness at the mere sight of me, or when he’d take me to the park and proudly tell everyone I was his daughter, even though he never had children of his own. He was young, handsome, and full of unrealized potential.

When someone dies we try our best to remember them, their great qualities, and how they made us feel. We try as best we can to remember the details about them like their scent or their energy as they enter a room. We try and recollect the curve of their mouth when they smile or the sound of their laughter, or the way their eyes say “I love you” when they look at you. We attempt to remember how their arms wrapped effortlessly around us or how their mere presence brought peace, happiness, and comfort. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, healing, loss

How I Choose To Remember

June 30, 2015

By Nikki Grey

My mother’s hand shook as she set the black velvet jewelry box on my lap. I knew she was trying to seem excited to give it to me, which was true of course, but she also was attempting to hide the fear in her eyes with the smile on her face.

I opened the box and saw the golden heart-shaped locket. An intricate carving of a mockingbird decorated its face along with a long stem of flowers. I knew the significance of this special gift. I knew she was going to die soon.

This necklace would soon be all I would have left of my mom.

I wore the locket around my neck day and night, even in the shower, for weeks before the day came when my foster mother pulled me aside and told me to go upstairs with her. Right away, I knew something was wrong. My foster mother never asked me to come to her room, even if I was in trouble. Besides, the look in her eyes was not one of contempt— the way she usually looked at us if she were upset, or just in general really, like every time any of us spoke. She never did like any of her foster kids much. But today my foster mother looked less cold and distant than usual. She appeared old and somber. I felt small and young. I was 13.

Immediately I knew what my foster mother was going to tell me. My golden locket clung to my chest, seemingly heavier than before. With its weight my real heart sank, too, because I knew.

I knew as I glanced at my foster sister. She knew, too. I knew as I climbed the staircase up to my foster mother’s room. I knew as I sat on her bed and she put her arms around me. The gesture broke my resolve and I started to cry.

My foster father was also in the room. He sat on the bed with us. I sat waiting between them, two people who hardly knew me and definitely didn’t like me. I held my breath and blinked back a few tears. Then my foster mother delivered the news.

“She’s gone.”

I saw it coming. I’d known for months. I knew it would hurt, but I didn’t really know. I didn’t know my body would shake uncontrollably. I didn’t know I would let these strangers try to comfort me. I didn’t know I would feel so alone. I clutched my golden locket in my hand and held on tight. I didn’t want to let go.

That was my final memory of my mother. It wasn’t a memory of her really, as much as it was my experience of her death. Now all that’s left are memories. The problem is that sometimes I’m not sure I really knew my mother all that well. I saw her as beautiful and fun, but who was she to everyone else? My mother was a drug addict to my older sister when we were growing up; Mom always let her down. To my younger brother she was just a compilation of stories and brief memories of being held as a child; he was only 10 when she died. Her parents viewed her differently from her friends, different from her kids. Continue Reading…

Binders, Grief, Guest Posts, healing, Little Seal, loss

Cartography for Mourners.

March 2, 2015

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By Emily Rapp. 

The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted.

– Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

 

Maps to Anywhere (Numerous)

I hate maps. I can’t read them, understand them, interpret them, or follow them. I have a whole drawer full of maps and pop-up, fold out street guides for various cities, and although I take them with me when I visit these places, I never consult them. Instead I tote them around in my shoulder bag, my purse, my backpack, and ask people on the street for directions.

 

Map to a Funeral (Hidden)

It is mid-winter in downtown Chicago, and my parents, sitting in the two front seats of a rented mini-van, are huddled over a paper map. Exhaust billows in gray and black streaks past the windows. Commuters look shrouded and miserable, hurrying over frigid sidewalks in the rapidly fading light. I’m in the back seat with my ten-month-old daughter Charlotte, who is strapped in her car seat, babbling and cooing. She doesn’t know this is a terrible blizzard in rush hour, or that someone – my father’s mother, my grandmother – has died. We are driving from Chicago to Pontiac in a storm that feels as thick and relentless as the sound of the word blizzard on the radio, which is turned up high. People are frenzied, worried and watchful, the way people love to be about extreme weather conditions.

My grandmother has died at 93 after refusing food or fluids for two weeks, which is some kind of record. My son, at three years old, lasted only a few days with the same restrictions. Ninety years difference – a literal lifetime – between their ages at death. I struggle to understand what this means or how to absorb it, but generate no cogent thoughts.

Beyond the city limits the interstate is a blur of red and blue emergency lights, car blinkers switching on and off in irregular patterns that compete with the holiday hangers on who leave their Christmas decorations up after the new year. The drivers in the cars stopped on either side of us are reading newspapers spread out over the steering wheels or tapping into their phones, having given up changing lanes. One woman is slumped over, face in her hands, weeping.

My daughter poops her diaper, and I unstrap her from her safety restraints and change her in the unmoving car. My parents are bickering. My brother is waiting at the airport. We’d gone to Soldier’s Field to see the Aquarium, but ended up looking at twenty-year old exhibits of stuffed animals: antelope and bears in permanent yawn, taxidermy tails stalled mid-air. I crammed us all into a photo booth in our last fifteen minutes, because I had an enormous glass of wine for lunch and because we need to laugh.

“We should never have gone.”
“Who could have known we’d get stuck in a blizzard.”

This conversation continues on endless repeat, my parents trading lines between them until I threaten to throw the diaper into the front seat if they don’t change the subject. “Don’t think I won’t!” I shout, and feel like a teenager on vacation with her parents: petulant and trapped, self-righteous and unhappy.

We make it to O’Hare and pick up my brother and my nephew. My dad argues with the security guard, telling her that the airport is designed to be confusing. I tell him this is certainly not true. Through the open van door I toss Charlotte’s diaper into a curbside trashcan.

An hour from O’Hare, far from any lights, wind, snow-thick, swirls white and erratic over the roads mainly clear of cars but still treacherous. My dad drifts between lanes, floats across medians. “You’re fucking scaring me!” I shout when he crosses a road without looking in both directions. My brother glares at me for cursing in front of his ten-year-old son.

We stop at a town outside Chicago, at a sports bar, where six men wearing orange vests sitting at a table turn to stare at us when we walk through the door. We have been in the car for nearly ten hours. When I tell my friend Gina, a native of Chicago, where we ended up for dinner, she tells me she’s lived in Chicago her entire life and I’ve never even heard of that fucking place.

A waitress accidentally spills a beer on my father’s lap.

“This day is shitballs,” I tell him, and hand him a stack of napkins.

“Yep,” he agrees, but he’s laughing. He leaves the apologetic waitress a generous tip.

 

Map to a Church (Unnecessary)

The route to my grandmother’s funeral service is a straight line from the hotel to the church down a road lined with two-story houses, all fenced yards and large wooden porches, the sidewalks stacked on both sides with fresh snow that blows away in sporadic blasts of arctic wind to reveal weeks-old snow covered in soot, stamped with boot and paw prints and pieces of dog shit. The church is near the town lake, where a group of geese huddle together looking stunned and miserable on ice the same color as the wall of cold sky that seems almost low enough to touch the frozen water. I think they’re geese. I know they’re not ducks. I’m not a poet. I don’t know my birds. I don’t know an elm from a poplar. I’m a little bit better with flowers. I know a blue spruce because there was one in my yard in Santa Fe, and it was the one pop of color on the gray winter day two years ago when my son died.

“Don’t they migrate somewhere warmer?” I ask. “Those geese or birds or whatever?” Nobody answers me. At the church, my brother and his son leap out of the car and sprint across the parking lot. The frozen lake reminds me of another frozen lake in Minnesota where I spent one weekend listening to Joni Mitchell records and writing bad poetry (I didn’t know my birds then, either) with a group of college girlfriends; another frozen lake in Wisconsin where I watched five continuous hours of CNN on the first anniversary of 9/11. Both events seem whole lifetimes ago, memories connected to my current life by delicate filaments that show their strength in the strangest moments.

I pick my way across the parking lot with a bundled Charlotte in my arms. Inside people are milling about in front of a funeral board: pictures of my grandmother as a young girl on the farm, on a horse, in the early 1940s with my father in a cute suit, standing in front of a flat white house, with her parents, who are expressionless and shaped like barrels.

My grandmother was cruel to me, and I am not sad that she is dead. I feel like 93 is a pretty good run. She was rarely sick. She had friends and was comfortable.

My dad speaks first, and he tells the congregation that his mother once told him that he could have searched the whole world over and he never could have found a better wife. This is for my mother, to whom my grandmother was also cruel.

The minister gives a dorky eulogy about salvation that doesn’t happen “in the big city,” but instead in “a little church in the prairie.” His language feels vaguely pornographic to me, all this talk of being “chosen” and “choosing,” and my grandmother saying yes to God, again and again she said yes. I can’t stop thinking, sitting in the back pew nursing my child where nobody might happen to see my breast, that there’s no way this guy voted for Obama.

The only time I feel moved is when my second cousin’s husband sings a solo, halting and occasionally off-key version of Beautiful Savior at the lectern. He struggles through all of the verses without looking up. In front of him, on a table decorated with flowers, my grandmother’s ashes are in a simple black box.

After the funeral we eat fried chicken in the church fellowship hall. My grandmother’s sister introduces me to a man who is clearly suffering from dementia.

“This is Emily,” my great-aunt says. “She wrote a book about her baby who died.”

“Who are you?” he asks. “Did somebody die?” He looks around the room. Someone is slowly releasing a Jell-O mold onto a plate in the kitchen. A woman in an apron dumps more chicken into a bowl on the buffet table.

“My grandmother died,” I say. “Lois died.”

My great aunt is frustrated. “Listen,” she says, tapping the table in front of the man.

He looks at her, then at her hands. “Yes? Who are you?”

“I’m Emily,” I say.

“She’s a writer,” my aunt continues, “and her first book is all about…well,” she says, and flaps her hand in the air. “You tell him how you was made wrong.”

Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, healing, loss

The Other Side of Loss.

January 21, 2015

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By Rene Denfeld

I come from a family of suicides.

My older brother killed himself by eating pain pills and then putting a plastic bag over his head—just in case. My mother followed a few years later, willing herself out of this world. Cousins, siblings, nephews: dead. Even those who survive often bear the marks or memories of trying.

When someone you love kills himself or herself—and when it happens over and over again, as in my family—suicide becomes as ordinary as crossing the street. It becomes your hand on a glass of milk. It becomes you opening the mail, you going for a walk: see that bridge? See that truck? It becomes the freeway ramp you recall your brother made his first attempt to kill himself, driving the wrong way, desperate for collision. It becomes the plate of food you look at and see your mother, denying herself until she literally starved to death, a gasping skeleton clutching your hand in a bed, so devoid of fluids she could not cry.

When the people you love kill themselves, it becomes a common thing, a normal thing, and an everyday you-could-do-it-too thing. It haunts you. It asks, why not you? What gives you the right to survive? Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, loss

Feeling My First Goodbye

January 20, 2015

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By Alana Saltz.

I wasn’t sure my grandfather was going to be aware of what was going on when I read to him from my novel. As I share the words I’ve written, he laughs at my narrator’s self-deprecating humor twice, and that’s how I know that he understands me. After I finish, he struggles to find the words to tell me what the story is about.

“The girl is very…it’s…very internal. It’s mel…mel…”

My sister and I take guesses at what he’s trying to say. Melancholy? Melodic? He shakes his head no. I never find out because he trails off and stares up at the ceiling. I hear the churning of the oxygen machine, see the silent face of Clifford on the TV screen, the show on mute.

Finally, just when we think he’s asleep again, he says, “You have a gift with words.”

I smile and say, “Thank you.”

Three hours later, I’m sitting in the front lobby of the hospice, watching the sun set over snow-covered roofs and bare trees. I’m thinking about how my grandpa barely knew me, only saw me once or twice a year when I visited St. Louis, yet he supported my dream to tell stories and have them heard. He helped me pay for grad school so I could study writing. But I’d never shown him any of my work until today.

There’s a whir of sliding doors behind me. Murmurs of nurses and patients down the hall. Clean couches, bright lights, my mother beside me talking to someone on the phone and complaining about his treatment, the sky dimmer, deeper, darker.

Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Letting Go, loss

Proof of Loss.

January 12, 2015

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beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Sara Marchant.

When my husband comes home he walks right by the cradle in the laundry room, still drying from its hard scrubbing. His excitement makes him more unobservant than usual. He has news for me. He rushes in, past where I stand at the kitchen counter, already exclaiming before he sees what I am doing.

“The owners took me aside and gave me a raise. It’s supposed to be secret because I’m the only one. At their last meeting they discovered I’m responsible for 60% of the revenue and decided they should keep me happy.” His hands are on his hips. He is containing his exuberance.

“That’s great,” I say, genuinely happy but intent upon my task. “It’s about time.”

“Yeah,” he agrees and then looks up, I assume, for he goes very quiet. I am not looking directly at him, having turned back to my task on the counter. I sneak peeks at him from the corner of my eye as his silence continues. He is standing next to the dining room table he has appropriated for his ‘office.’ He has dropped his wallet, keys, and hat on the table, but stands staring at me. Continue Reading…