Deathday: The Anniversary of the Day A Loved One Died

calendarFive years ago today the man I was in love with died. It was sudden and instant. His life ended at that moment and whatever your beliefs about an afterlife might be, that’s where he resides now, no longer in this physical world. For those of us who deeply loved him, he lives on in our hearts and minds, invoking a variety of feelings. Sadness and joy. Anger and love. Memories and reminders.

Do you remember specific days of loss? When I woke up this morning, my first thought was to check the time. I remembered the note he left about going for a walk on that day, August 27, 2012, at 8:35 a.m. It said he would pick up coffee for me on the way home. He was gone too long so I began searching for him, and because he went out with no ID, eventually found him – at least his body – in a local hospital. I went into shock and still have painful flashbacks about that experience.

I have suffered many days of loss: two younger brothers, both of my parents, and my adult son within ten years. Some deathdays (yes, this is a real word) I remember, and others slip on by. Maybe it’s denial or a subconscious protecting of myself. I remember specific details of each deathday but not always the exact date.

One date I never forget is July 25, 2004, when my son Ben died from a glioblastoma brain tumor. I often experience a bout of melancholy in the summer, then look at a calendar and realize my saddest day is approaching. A few thoughtful friends still send messages on that day, letting me know they are thinking of him and me. Some do this about my lost love, too. I appreciate that they remember my loved ones, and that they also miss them. I’m touched that they think of me and send loving thoughts for my comfort.

In these days of highly public social media, I’m torn about whether to post something on a deathday or stay private. Then someone else will post about it, and I feel like I need to be present, so I join in. The many loving thoughts and gestures help soothe my aching heart. Sometimes I feel vulnerable and exposed. Privacy offers protection and allows one to find solace while working through personal grief.

Throughout my life I’ve found how people view death, experience it, and then deal with grief to be highly varied. I remember years ago carpooling with a coworker, and talking about my elderly grandmother who was near death. The coworker became quiet and even seemed hostile toward me. I asked what was wrong, and she said, “I’m offended at your coldness when talking about your grandmother.” What? She didn’t know the history of my family or what my personal feelings might be regarding my grandmother. Maybe I was talking in a matter-of-fact way to hide my emotions. Maybe there were unpleasant events connected to my grandmother, like that my mother was adopted and had an unhappy childhood. I found out that my coworker’s father was a funeral director in the small town where she grew up, and that he was also the person who cleaned up death scenes. She had a much different outlook and experience with death than I did.

In her bold, revelatory book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory, Caitlyn Doughty delves deep into the world of those who process dead bodies, and how people and cultures view death. Did you know that some people want to be present during the cremation of their loved one? Or that some crematory technicians learn about and pay homage to the life of the deceased person before pushing the button? Did you know that embalming didn’t become prevalent until the Civil War? Families wanted the bodies preserved long enough to bring them home. Doughty examines the varied the views about death and burial in many cultures, and helps demystify the process in terms we can understand, allowing us to reconsider where our own beliefs came from and to rethink how we want to deal with this in our own lives.

I am not a student of religion, so I admit that I needed to do some research about how different religions view death. Religious upbringing often dictates how a loved one’s body is handled. Judaism and Islam believe the body should be returned to the earth intact. Hinduism mandates cremation to allow the spirit to detach from the body. The Catholic church has in recent years relaxed its views on cremation, and Christians and Protestants may choose how their loved ones are processed, buried or interred. As in the case of the soldiers who died in The Civil War, social mores changed because of unusual circumstances.

Recently, I toured the Bates County Museum in Butler, Missouri, a surprisingly large historical building filled with artifacts. Along with a display about Butler’s most famous citizen, author Robert Heinlein (“Sci-Fi Master”), the museum contained exhibits about the Osage Indians, the First White Settlement of Harmony Mission, coal mining and railroads, The Civil War and the first Kansas Colored Infantry, plus glassware, pottery, and numerous historical rooms depicting life in the late 1800s and on into the present day. Butler also lays claim to several inactive missile sites where missiles laid in wait to react to The Cold War.

I was at the museum with longtime friends from elementary school, one of whom lives in Butler. The thing that most surprised us happened as we stood in front of an old photo of a family of five: a father, mother, and three children under the age of six. The tour guide said, “Can you tell that the mother is dead?” Whoa!?! We leaned in for a closer look and realized that indeed, the mother was dressed in her best clothes and propped up in a chair for one last family photograph. The guide explained that in those days, as photography was becoming more popular and available, families used it as an important final remembrance of a loved one. As we walked up and down the aisles, she pointed out photographs of dead children, too.

At the Pioneers Museum in downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado, the actual house and original furnishings of famous author Helen Hunt Jackson, writer of Ramona and who was an outspoken activist for Native American rights, is on display. She kept the white plaster of Paris death mask of her young son displayed prominently on the wall in a main room. Death masks became popular in the 1800s, first in Europe and then in the United States; there are even two known death masks of Abraham Lincoln.  Not only did the death masks help to remember the shape of a loved ones’ dear face, but they were used by scientists to study facial features of criminals and to research disease. While making death masks is no longer in practice, I’ve been to many funerals in my adult life where people blatantly took photographs of their loved one on view in an open coffin.

Some well-meaning people have shared photographs of my deceased beloveds with me. It’s shocking to go through stacks of old photos, and come upon a dead loved one in a coffin, yet I haven’t thrown those away. The photographs mark the very last time that beloved was visible to be photographed. It’s a reminder that someone who was once important to us is now gone, a reminder of a very sad day, and a firm reminder of the reality of life and death.

Today is Sunday. My husband, Gaylon, and I made our usual Sunday breakfast of blueberry pancakes and bacon. I watered the plants and we settled into our favorite chairs to read the newspaper. Gaylon knew the significance of the day and was tender towards me. Later, I went to the gym to do my workout; it’s quiet there on Sunday afternoons. This evening I called my son, Zac, to catch up from the week and made plans for my granddaughters, Josie and Hazel, to spend the night soon. Then I sat down and started writing.

My lost love was a writer and would be thrilled that I’m writing again, too. I miss the man who died suddenly five years ago today. Knowing him changed my life for the better. In just a few days, we’ll remember him again on his birthday, and I’ll think happier thoughts. We are born and then we die; birthdays and deathdays. The circle of life goes on.

 

Writing for Words

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He loved writing, especially by hand. Eventually the pieces were refined on his laptop computer, but only after filling pages of a standard yellow legal pad or a Moleskin notebook. Random thoughts covered the outside of an envelope,  or curved around the corners of a postcard, both sides. He wrote by hand every day, wherever he found a comfortable spot to sit, reflect, muse. He favored writing with a classic fountain pen dipped into an inkwell, or the “world’s best” cedar pencils and rubber erasers purchased from an art supply store. In his hand, these tools produced beautifully written letters, a cross between printing and cursive, deliberately neat with just enough curl to be fancy.

Tom Ryan, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, held master’s degrees in both strategic planning and English literature. A seasoned soldier with a lifelong love of the arts, he was often called “the smartest person in the room,” and “the kindest man I have ever known.” Now that he could finally devote all of his time to writing, he was prolific, always journaling, taking notes, writing poetry, plays, articles and essays. Tom’s business cards – written by hand, of course – said simply, “Writing for Words,” expressing his passion for both the physical process of handwriting and creating art out of words.

When we met I had recently quit my day job to work full-time as a musician. Kansas City’s artistic community was thriving and Tom and I loved it all. We could be found at my gigs or other music events, or at the theater or art exhibits or the ballet. We knew artists in all genres and attending shows was a social event. Our personal artistic ventures kept us busy as well. On top of performing as a singer/songwriter or with bands, I taught preschool music, coached voice students, and sang to memory care patients. Tom wrote poems and essays for his website, “Avalon Deployed,” blogged for the Kansas City Star newspaper, volunteered at the public library, and began to workshop a play he was writing about the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton.

After two years we decided to live together, and found the perfect place: an urban, fifth floor, downtown loft, with brick walls and high ceilings supported by rough-hewn wooden beams. Out our window to the west we could see, hear and smell the Folger’s Coffee factory. The loft was located right in the midst of our beloved artistic community. For me, this was the fulfillment of a long-time dream, having seen the 1980s film, “It’s My Turn,” in which Jill Clayburgh took a freight elevator to reach her rooftop loft, a big, open, bohemian-styled living space. After weathering many losses and heartaches in my life, I could hardly believe my good fortune of falling in love with this wonderful man, being a full time musician, and living in the loft of my dreams.

Five months later everything came to a sudden, unexpected end. Tom didn’t let on that he was experiencing heart palpitations and shortness of breath, until one day he went out for a walk and never came back. He had a heart attack and died instantly, falling hard to the sidewalk half a block from our building. The last words he ever wrote were on a small, yellow sticky note left on my bedside table that said, “Left at 8:30 for coffee,” signed with a hand-drawn heart.

I was asleep when he left, and when I woke up and read the note, I knew he should have already returned. In desperation I opened Tom’s journal, searching for clues about where he might have gone or an appointment I didn’t know about. I had never before looked in his journal, even when he left it open on his desk by the window or on the arm of our sofa. Now it was critical to see what was on his mind and in his heart, written by his own hand. That’s when I read about the chest pains and difficulty breathing that he felt that morning, and that he planned to “walk it off.” Frantically, I called the coffee shop on the first floor to see if he’d been there, and the library just a few blocks away, one of his favorite places to stop, but no one had seen him. With the help of his daughter and son-in-law, we finally found him in the nearest hospital, an unidentified man who died around 9:30 a.m. that morning from a heart attack. We only needed to mention the Saint Christopher’s medal he wore on a long chain around his neck, a gift from his two children, to know it was Tom.

The funeral was surreal. Hundreds of people came to show their love for Tom and me. Many people told me then, and still tell me now, that Tom made them feel as if they could accomplish anything they set out to do in life. Unfortunately Tom’s life ended far too soon for him to realize the success of his lifelong dream of writing and publishing.

I moved out of the loft, and as I slowly began to navigate a new life alone, I read more of his journal entries and the bits of paper and notebooks he left behind. Beautiful, streaming thoughts about the night we met, our first date, and falling in love. Difficult things, too, like times he spiraled into debilitating depression; struggled with PTSD from several near-death experiences and violence from 20 years as a soldier; and grieving, heart-broken words about the loss of his adult son, a few years earlier, in a fatal car accident. Deep, revealing, heartfelt thoughts and feelings all recorded in his unique script. I’m thankful to have these writings as a comfort and reminder of this special man.

Handwriting is the physical transfer of thoughts that flow from the brain out through the arm, hand, and fingers. A uniquely personal forming of lines and curls morph into letters, then words, and beyond. Artistic shapes take on meaning as sentences, paragraphs, and pages relay information, express feelings and ideas, tell stories, and document history. As Tom Ryan would say, “Writing for Words.”

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It’s Only Money – Except When You Don’t Have It

17She saw me through the big picture window, where I was dusting in preparation for dinner guests. “Oh shit,” was my honest reaction as I waved back, knowing now she would come up the front walk to my door and that now it was impossible to pretend I wasn’t home.

I recognized her immediately from sometime past, a heavyset African-American woman with graying hair slicked back, gold on her teeth and unusual light green eyes. Struggling for breath as she climbed the stairs, she claimed to remember me, too, saying she’d talked to me not last year, but the year before, selling magazines. She remembered my pretty short gray hair and slim figure. And probably that I was nice to her and an easy target. I’m sure I gave her money that time, too, just like I knew I was destined to do again. In my mind, thoughts raced in a loop: “It’s a scam! Everyone knows it’s a scam! How do I get out of this? Why can’t I just say ‘No thanks’ and shut the door? How am I going to tell (my husband) Gaylon I gave money to a door-to-door scammer?”

Instead, I focused my full attention on her and stared straight into those green eyes. Very light green, the whites bloodshot from her ability to turn on tears at any given moment. It’s impressive, and amidst my racing thoughts I marveled at this talent, wondering if she does it on cue at every stop. She softened her voice and launched into the first story, that she is an abused mother of three children who does this job to save money so her kids can have a better life. “She’s so good at this,” I thought, knowing just what story to tell to pull at the heartstrings of her current victim. She introduced herself, “I’m Angela. May I ask your name?” I said, “Elaine.” Then she went on, saying “I know I’m selling something you don’t want – magazines.” I chuckled, because she was right on with that one. “But let me tell you how you can help me,” she continued. “And when you’re done, if you can write your comments down here in pencil, so if it’s bad I can erase it.” Ha ha ha! She’s a comedian, too. Knows just when to lighten the mood to keep the victim off balance.

Just as quickly, here came the tears and the breathy voice again. “I just lost my grandmother, who raised me and my brother. My mother didn’t want us and gave us up when we were just kids. I ask you, why didn’t she want us? I just wish I knew.” I told her I was sorry to hear about the passing of her grandmother, and added her mother leaving wasn’t her fault, that her mother’s issues had nothing to do with her or her brother and that she must have been dealing with her own troubles.”

She seemed surprised by my interjection, becoming a little unbalanced. She thought for just a second, then replied, “Well, thank you for that, Miss Elaine.” Another ploy by people asking for money – putting me in a position of authority. She was back on track. “Miss Elaine, my grandmother did the best she could for me and my brother, and that’s why I’m here now, because I’m trying to do good for my kids. This job has taught me so much about how to stand up for myself and gave me confidence. But you won’t see me again next year, because my kids don’t like it when I leave them to do this. No, you won’t see me next year.” She then told me the names and ages of her three kids, all teenagers. Wanting to make it seem like we’re familiar with one another. In turn, I don’t volunteer anything about myself or my family.

I really want to get this over with and back to my cleaning, so I ask, “How much are the magazines?” She tells me that it depends on what package I get, and hands me a stack of plastic-covered pages stapled together. I begin flipping through the magazine titles, looking for anything that looks even mildly appealing. I see a Yoga magazine listed, but no prices. So again I inquire, “How much is it?” After some hem hawing she finally says that it’s $75 for a year subscription. That’s way more than I’m prepared to give, so I ask if there are other options. After going back and forth on this, she finally says, “You could buy the Animal Stories magazine and donate it to a children’s hospital. It’s only $40. And I can’t accept a handout from you, but if you pay cash, I get 70 percent, and if you write a check, I get 60 percent of the money.”

I knew I had two twenty dollar bills in my purse. It was still $20 more than I wanted to give her, but she had honed in on exactly what I had available. She repeated again that cash was the best deal for her. Then she repeats, “You won’t see me next year,” but this time adds, “because I’m going to nursing school! That’s right, Miss Elaine, I want to be a nurse so I can help other people!”

Wait, what? Had I not reacted emotionally enough to her previous stories? This is harder for me to believe than the abused mother and the grieving granddaughter, but I championed this idea right away. “That’s so great! Such a good example for your kids, too.” She says, “Well I know I’m getting old, 43 years old and here I want to go to school. But that’s what I’m going to do.” I know that at this point, she could tell me anything, and since I have no idea whether or not any of it is true, it no longer matters. I’m always going to applaud anyone who challenges themselves with learning, so she can reel me on in. I tell her to wait on the porch while I go find my purse.

I come back with my $40 cash and she says, “Tell me, why are you willing to help me today, Miss Elaine?” At first I said, “Oh, for many reasons.” I didn’t want to engage in more conversation than necessary. But then I added, “Because I can see that you’re a hard worker,” and I meant it. Begging for money under the ruse of selling magazines is a really crappy job. I put the money in her hand and she gave me the clipboard holding a form where I filled in my information: name, address, and reason why I bought a magazine subscription. I wrote, “Angela is hard working and good at her job.”

She tried to shake my hand but instead I went in for a hug, maybe because the week before I’d been at a creative writing camp and experienced the love of many good people who were supportive, inspiring and generous with big, solid bear hugs. Or maybe because I have a nice house where I can dust furniture in a big picture window and have friends over for a lovely dinner. Or maybe because I looked deep into those weary green eyes and doubted that the other strangers she talks to in her bizarre job of wandering through nice neighborhoods all over the United States to ask for money give her a heartfelt hug. So whether or not any of the stories she told were true, I was going to be that person. Whether it made her feel good or guilty was something she had to sort out for herself. It definitely made me feel better about allowing myself to be scammed – I mean, about donating a magazine subscription to a children’s hospital – because I could justify it as helping out another human who’s just trying to live.

Before she walked away, Angela, softened her voice once more, to add a note of sincerity or maybe to get back on script, and said, “Yes, I’m an abused mother and recently my kids and I went back to my abuser. I know it’s scary but I felt it was the right thing to do, and we’re doing good.”

I just looked at her as she turned around and walked down the stairs with my $40. “Take care of yourself,” I said.