Weathering Grief

by Cheryl Jones

The Way Dad Died

DadOn the day my father began his full speed run towards death, he left the condo as usual for his daily walk. He headed down towards the spit, past the house boats, to gaze on one of the things that still gave him pleasure despite nearly constant pain, an unobstructed view of the San Francisco bay.

My mother, who never went with him because she preferred swimming, began a large pot of spaghetti as a surprise. My father would have eaten spaghetti every night if my mother hadn’t been intent on feeding him gourmet meals, still enjoying experiments in cuisine at almost 80.

We’ll never know for sure what happened, but a neighbor later told my mother that she saw him walking back home, looking bad. She was almost crying, telling my mother, “I don’t know why I didn’t stop,” and my mother could not understand why the woman told her, since there was no difference for it to make at that point.

My father never came home.

A few hours later, the phone rang. I was in our kitchen cooking dinner myself, enjoying the flurry I created at dinner time, enjoying a regular, quiet, family day.

“Something terrible has happened,” she said, sounding pinched and almost suffocated. She continued, struggling to get the words out. “Your dad has fallen on the street and he’s in the Emergency Room at John Muir.” The body is slow to register information like that, but a moment later springs to action. “Deb will pick you up. I’ll go straight there.”

When I entered Emergency, guided to his little corner of a back room, divided by curtains and impossibly crowded, all I saw was a large man. I could not honestly tell if this was my father. I asked Deb whether we were in the right place and she couldn’t tell for sure either. I guess I took in, right then, that although the frame I had known for my whole life was lying there, the father I loved was gone. I looked in the paper bag where the EMTs had put his destroyed leisure suit jacket and blue jeans. That was when I believed it was him; I knew the clothes. My mother later regretted they had cut off his favorite jacket and she had to take it home in ruins.

It would be a few days of testing to confirm what my instincts told me; we would have to let him go. Of course, they didn’t tell us that. They told us there was no hope, that his brain stem had disconnected from his body and could no longer tell it what to do. As long as he lived, and on life support there was no reason to think his body wouldn’t survive for quite a while, he would be in a vegetative state. My mother, after making sure none of us would be mad at her, told them we wanted to remove the life support. I was stunned that they seemed surprised, maybe even relieved. They had expected a fight and a long process towards accepting the truth. I couldn’t imagine really wanting my father, or wife, or child, or grandfather or anyone I loved to stay alive like this. The stunned “o.k.” of the medical staff told me that our family was a little unusual, that it’s often very hard for people to accept right away when there is no hope.

But we all agreed (my mother insisted we reach consensus, which took under 5 minutes) that he would not want to survive this, and so we sang to him, we stroked his hands, we surrounded him with love in the slightly less crowded ICU room they’d moved him to, then the medical team pulled the plug.

I recently finished reading Katy Butler’s book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, about her own father’s protracted death and the medical establishment’s inability to let him die. It was the first time I felt lucky about the way my father died. Until that point, his 2 day hurtle into death was purely a loss. In my wife’s ten years of dying, I savored caring for her. It affected my grief positively to have been able to do for her (with many helpers) the things she needed. I had, however strange it may seem, looked forward to tending to my father in just the same way. I felt robbed of the chance to sit with him while he slept, or sing him a song or read him a book, as he slipped away, gradually. Now, reading how that had really been for Katy Butler’s father and for her family, I was forced to face how truly nightmarish that would have been for my dad. Generally speaking, he hated being tended, feeling himself a burden no matter what anyone said to him about it. And even more, he was not someone who savored attention, even though his brilliant mind and kind heart often brought it to him anyway. He always got out of the limelight as quickly as he could, diverting the spotlight to the people around him. Still, I only had the words before; “he probably preferred dying like this, even if we all hated it.” After reading Katy’s book, I felt the truth of it, deep down.

Thank you, Katy Butler, for helping me to take another step in absorbing this loss! Or maybe just absorbing how it came. The loss itself was, I well knew all along, inevitable. The blessing is simply in all the years I had him.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website, http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

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Pray

Ruby Bridges by Norman Rockwell

Ruby Bridges by Norman Rockwell

Last night my choir, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, performed a benefit concert for the Ruby Bridges School in Alameda, California. We’ve done that for the past few years and it’s always great. I love our service concerts; prisons, schools, homeless shelters, nursing homes. I sound altruistic, but really, I admit, it’s a little selfish. It feels good when the music touches people down deep and that’s always true when we give it as a pure gift!

Anyway, I was up there in the alto section, robed and ready. The curtain opened and suddenly my heart put two and two together. This “bunch of misfits” (as the director Terrance Kelly likes to call us) would not have been possible, let alone flourishing, without people like Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr., my dad (he would be so embarrassed to be in the same sentence that way). People showed up, they risked, they walked into enemy territory with no weapon, they went to jail or school or lunch counters and the main point was that we humans needed to be together, not separate.

That’s what Ruby Bridges said last night. Some day, when we are in trouble (and we will be) we will not care what the person looks like who helps us.

That made me think back a few years. My mother was in the intensive care unit for a bleeding ulcer when she hemorrhaged. Blood coming out of everywhere and, through the tiny window in the hall, my wife and I saw person after person rush to her bed. It seemed like the whole staff of the ICU was crowded around that tiny bed (that was very close to the truth, as it turned out). I had just arrived at the hospital and before my wife spoke, I knew things weren’t good. “It’s bad, honey,” she said and moments later, they rushed her out, literally running to the OR. Her nurse, the one we liked the best, came out and gave us the details, betraying his lack of confidence in her chances for survival.

It’s funny what you do at a time like that. I called the section leader from the choir to let her know I wouldn’t be at rehearsal (!) She said, “I can’t believe you’re calling me,” or something like that, and I said, almost as an afterthought, “ask people to pray, please.”

I pray, but in a pretty “equal opportunity” way. “God, whatever you are, whatever is true, please walk with me to the best outcome. Please support me (or whoever I’m praying for) for the greater good.” Stuff like that. Having tried on Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Native American practices, and many others ways of looking at the Mystery, I find they all lead to the same place in me, so I don’t discriminate. I knew already that when you ask an interfaith gospel choir to pray, well, you are going to get nearly every kind of prayer known to humankind and that’s part of what I love about the choir. I was immediately glad I had thought to ask.

The days passed and somehow, she lived. Medical personnel found it hard to believe and dropped by her room just to confirm she was still kicking (that was definitely a figure of speech at that point). One told her that he didn’t expect to ever see again in his career someone who lived through what she did. The doctor told us right after surgery that things were a mess and he didn’t even know exactly whether he had succeeded but then, several days in, told her, “well, I guess you’re going to make it.”

All of this was coming back to me up on that stage. I was looking across at Ruby Bridges, who walked, alone, into a river of white kids, the first child, at six, to integrate that southern school and she was surrounded by a sea of at least 50 children, every color, clamoring around the stage and high-fiving our director as they looked up at us, every religion and spiritual tradition, every color too, and a diversity of sexual orientations, reflecting what Ruby Bridge’s courage had helped create.

“Pray for my mom.”

I called the section leader back a few days later to tell her it looked like my mom was going to make it. I told her it was a miracle (I could think of no other word). Then out of my mouth came, “It looks like when we all pray for the same thing, God says, ‘All my people are together; I guess we should give them what they want.’”

Cheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. Most recently, she has launched a radio show called Good Grief, talking with people who have created something transformative from their experiences of loss. You can learn more about her at her website, http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

cjones2 pic only

Grief season

dr_photo_08I was 42 when my first wife died. It was the end of October, 1995, right before Halloween, right before day of the dead.

My two year old went trick or treating with my parents that year, because I was doing my version of sitting shiva, having been moved by the tradition when Jewish friends of mine introduced me to it. Every night for a week we opened the house, sang, told stories, ate food, appreciated all that Joanne had been to us and all we had shared together. That was during what I would soon begin to call the euphoric period. Instead of feeling her absence, I felt her presence everywhere. I could find nowhere she wasn’t. It would be almost 2 months before I would crash into the simple fact that her body had quit, that I would never see her or touch her in this life again.

For the first few years, I defined the grief season as beginning October 24 and ending January 25, her birthday. Soon enough, though, other deaths would blur the lines, punctuating the entire year, and I stopped thinking of things that way. Every day, there is life and there is death, grief and celebration.

I’ve been noticing all of this in a new way, as I listen each week to the moments of grief which led, immediately or over long, long periods of time to profound changes in the lives of the guests on Good Grief, my radio show. 18 years after my own loss, I realize that the changes which came for me then never really stopped, that they continue to evolve and reshape themselves in each new moment. I discover that I can’t really be sorry for any of it.

I wonder how things might have been different if she died suddenly, if I’d been younger, if I didn’t have children and then I laugh at myself. It is, in truth, impossible for me to imagine a different life once it’s been lived. Too much would be lost. Too much would be different.

So I simply acknowledge the startling fact that when I think of all she was to me, all I lost and all I gained, I am overwhelmed by only one feeling. Profound gratitude.

My time with Angelo Merendino

Angelo MerendinoWednesday was a special day for me. I spent an hour talking with Angelo Merendino. (Please go look at his photos at mywifesfightwithcancer.com). I wondered what it would be like talking to a photographer without the benefit of his photographs to look at. He is clearly a visual person, having captured their time with cancer in a deeply revealing, compelling and openhearted way.

My concern was for nothing. His words and heart are reflected in his photos- everything goes together. I was moved and transported by his story, imagining their life together but also remembering my own time with cancer. I have my version of those amazing images, the hairless head, the huge smile, the empty bed. And so he took me back to the joys and the sorrows of living with cancer right next to me. He also reminded me how those times are connected to the way I live now, the ways that my experience of deepest loss wrote itself on my life. It shows in the way I conduct my marriage now, the way I love my children and my friends, the way I work, even the way I talk to checkers in the super market. I cannot find anything in my life that wasn’t deepened by facing up to that most difficult time.

So I am grateful, not for the experience, but what I was able to learn form it. Not for the loss, but what I was able to gain from it.

And I’m grateful to Angelo, for the reminder.

Death Cafe

death_quote_5

Sunday was a beautiful day in the Bay Area, and I headed out about 12:30 for the first Alameda Death Cafe, which a friend of mine was hosting. When I saw her announcement on Facebook, I was so excited, and forgot to censor myself in the days that followed. I was saying things like, “I can’t wait to go to the Death Cafe on Sunday!” Quite a few people (including some of my relatives) literally took a step back.

So when I got to the cafe and waited in line for some tea, I asked in a hushed tone, “Where is the Death Cafe.” The woman, smiling back at me, directed me to the backyard patio and up the stairs.

The person behind me in line said, “what is Death Cafe?!” She leaned forward, eager to hear and I told her that it was an international movement encouraging people to come together, drink tea, eat cake and talk about death. She was excited, and we talked for a few minutes about her work as a hospice nurse and mine on the radio show Good Grief. Then I headed upstairs. She headed off to some previous commitment, wishing she could stay instead.

For two hours, 20 of us talked about death, but is it really possible to talk about death without talking about life, and dying and love and what’s important? For me it isn’t, and that’s part of why I couldn’t wait to enter that room. I long for and savor conversations where we can talk about ANYTHING and really, if you start with death, nothing else is that hard to bring up.

So in December, I’ll look for the Death Cafe in Oakland, and probably go back to Alameda too, just to sit with people who want to talk about death, no other motive. And it will feed my soul, nourish me to go back to living and to facing death, with renewed energy.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

By Good Grief | November 23, 2013 at 03:01 AM EST | No Comments

 

JFKTen years old. We were in class and suddenly, all the adults were crying (they never had before) and we were sent home. I may remember it wrong, but I think I walked my seven year old brother to our house, our mother waiting for us there. I believe she was more upset than I’d ever seen her. Before that day, “president” was a vague concept, someone far away and mythic. After that day, the world was a dangerous place, where the guy in charge could be gunned down in a heartbeat.
I lived in Berkeley then, just before the Free Speech movement, which we would miss by months when my father’s work took us to Manhattan.
Manhattan, where we lived mere blocks from where Malcolm X was assassinated. And Martin Luther King, who my father met in prison and admired so much, one of the reasons he went South to march, to make the world a better place, to put his life on the line for justice. And Robert. F. Kennedy, getting back on the horse and losing his life.
When I was twenty or so, I wrote a slew of poems about grief, and I was mystified. Why was I writing about grief? My parents, my brother were alive, I had not lost anyone close to me.
Or had I? In that time, we were personal about our heroes. We got attached in a friend to friend way. Or was that just because I was a child, in my innocence believing those people far from me (and powerful) were good people and that everyone felt the same about them.
It may sound dramatic, but when Jack Kennedy died, my childhood came close to ending. That same year, I learned about the holocaust when a German friend of my parents who had been in the camps came to visit. The horror of it defied my understanding.
And so, today, I review the many changes in me since then, the center of my life being inextricably tied to its losses and gains, and I remember when I still had heroes, and I vow to have them again- imperfect, human, with their triumphs and mistakes, but heroes, all the same.

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