Tag Archives: grief

The Circle

White board

The PICC line kept bothering him. That was what prompted me to move a chair right next to my father-in-law’s bed in the ICU. Relieving my husband after the long hospital night, I hoped to reassure Ray, to keep him from fiddling with the port that gave nurses immediate access to a vein just above his left elbow. He was tired, finally, but couldn’t quite settle.

The night before he’d been in rare form. When the night nurse asked him how he wanted to fill in the field on the white board for “what should you know about me,” he answered, “I am very attractive to women.” She wrote, “I am very attractive and funny.” He should have been exhausted after the heart attack that brought him in. Instead, he’d been euphoric, joyful, perhaps, to be on the other side of the pain that had seemed an insurmountable wall.

“4512,” he said. Then, “4512 McDonald Drive.”

The house where my husband and I lived while our house was being built. We rented it from my mother-in-law, whose mother still lived there when we were first engaged. My memories of it have gone syrupy. Nights walking my infant daughter from room to room, trying to soothe her, humming lullabies, willing her to sleep, desperate for it myself.

“Do you live there,” Ray asked.

“No,” I answered. “We haven’t lived there for a long time.”

I gave simple answers, hoping to satisfy him so he could rest.

“Who owns it now?”

I didn’t know and told him that my brother-in-law and his wife moved in after we left, but they hadn’t lived there in a long time either.

On his forehead, a thin white scar, shaped like an upside down Y, nested in the V that emerged between his eyebrows. He was worrying.

The pillows I’d tucked behind his back helped him maintain his position on his side but discomfort still needled him after too many hours in the hospital bed. He pulled himself toward the rail. With my left hand, I stroked the fine white scar. With my other arm, I leaned on the hospital rail. I felt it then, Ray’s hand gently holding on to my upper arm.

“The principal,” Ray said. His eyes were half closed. “Do they need me to sign a paper?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. “The principal is handled,” I said.

“Mike should get the principal. I need to sign the paper.”

Finally, I understood. Real estate was always top of mind to this self-made man. Out of all the properties he could resurrect, he landed on one that had been out of the family for almost 20 years.

“Mike got the principal. He bought the house from Mary Lou, and then sold it. It’s all handled. You don’t need to worry.”

That seemed to do it. He closed his eyes and rested. He seemed to be beating the odds. He’d made it through the night.

With my left hand, I stroked his forehead. With his left hand, he held my arm. We’d made a circle.

Two hours later, he was gone. But I feel it still, that embrace.

Ray Stone, Jr.: March 15, 1932 — December 31, 2016

Ray Stone, Jr. March 15, 1932-December 31, 2016



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This week, I’ve had two vivid dreams about loved ones I’ve lost.

The first was Monday night. I startled awake at 12:30 a.m. and had no idea why. I ticked through what might have disturbed me: not the cat, who was locked in the laundry room; not my son, who recently moved out. Once I was certain the house was secure, I gathered the cottony threads of an image: my father swinging his glasses. The black frames dated back 40 years or more. “A man should always have glasses,” he was saying. In the dream, Dad performed his old routine. He pushed his glasses down his nose and eyed me until I squirmed. Then he removed his glasses and reversed them, jabbing the stems to make a point. Finally he leaned back and began swinging them from the ear piece while smiling a lopsided smile. “You see? I don’t have to say a word.”

In last night’s dream, my family was boarding a plane to… the outer planets. I carried a tray of unbaked spinach lasagna and asked one of the flight attendants if I might be able to cook it in a microwave later. Sure, she said, but first find your seat. The plane was huge, Donald Trump huge.

Looking for 37B, I soon found that the rows and seats weren’t arranged in a comprehensible order: I saw 36, then 38. Later I found row 37, but not seat B. Finally, finally, when it seemed everyone was seated and we were beginning our takeoff, I found 37B. Just then, a few rows over, I spotted my friend’s mother. “Did you see Deb?” she asked. I thought Deb had died several years ago, but the rules on this aircraft were obviously different. “She went running,” she said, flicking her head in the direction of the plane’s bow.

As soon as passengers began to mill about, I jumped out of my seat and began running in the general direction Deb’s mother had indicated. Deb was a runner and it made sense to me that she would take advantage of the plane’s gigantic size. The plane morphed into a long narrow island with cottage-lined lanes. No cars, of course. Passengers who’d booked cottages for passage had pulled out lawn chairs to watch the walkers and runners stream by. After I’d been running for about 90 minutes, I thought my legs would fall off. I didn’t think I could go much farther, but I was nearing the tip of the island/aircraft. As I ran, I kept my eyes on the stream of runners returning on an adjacent lane. Just then, I saw a woman in yellow shorts passing. Her short hair, her fit physique — I thought for sure it was her. I started screaming my friend’s name. When she turned, she was a stranger. I described my friend and asked if she’d seen her.

“She’s getting an iced tea,” she told me, pointing at a cafe rest stop. The cafe was so crowded that patrons’ bodies and cheeks were pressed against the windows, steaming them up. I opened the door and yelled. In the back of the shop, my friend stood. She threaded through the people until she reached me.

I dropped to my knees and sobbed, clinging to the the edge of her shirt and saying her name over and over. She lifted me by the elbows and said, “Why are you crying? I’m right here.”

When someone I love dies, I pray they will visit my dreams. What I really want is an on-demand dream. I just want to see them again, just once. It never works that way, of course. My unconscious follows its own muse. This week’s double feature was a rare gift. My father reminding me he doesn’t have to say a word, my friend telling me she’s right here.


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The Sunset Years

Eileen reach for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

Reaching for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

A little heartbreaker on my way back from workout this morning. A familiar elfin woman strolled down the street, her hands clasped behind her back. Should I ask her? Until a few weeks ago, she’d always been with her husband. The two looked like the movie trope about the sunset years, in which the elderly couple walks hand in hand, smiling. And something about her reminded me of my mother. They were a neighborhood fixture, along with the woman who walks her two horses, the young parents with the double-wide stroller and two wiemaraners, and the walking-talking lawyer, always on a moving conference call. But the couple was my favorite. I imagined my mother and father into their shoes, living their last years together.

I decided to ask.

She shook her head and said, “He passed away.”

I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled that I’d always enjoyed seeing them out together and had noticed his absence. I felt it now, and was sorry for her loss.

“He was brave to the end,” she said, with her faint German accent. Her smile was still there, politely friendly to this inquiring stranger. Her eyes watered.

I remembered sitting with my father on the couch in my parents’ living room the day after my mother died. My mother was everywhere and nowhere. The living room had been redecorated with the help of an interior designer, but the scheme was all her. She chose light gold for the walls, carpet and drapes to compensate for the days the clouds hid the mountains and the landscape turned gray. She hated the dark. Of course there were pops of red, her signature color: true-red cherry blossoms on the Japanese screen, pink-red cranberry glass on the window sill, wine-red velvet on my grandmother’s chair. Next to the couch were the leather-topped end tables for which she constantly admonished us to use a coaster; one had a cigarette burn. I couldn’t imagine her having caused it, even after a glass of wine. She gave up smoking a few times but never kicked the habit. In fourth grade, I conducted my first communications campaign, barraging her with block-lettered “ads” bearing the P.S., “I don’t want you to die!” In the end, smoking killed her, but dementia robbed us of her before that.

I didn’t know how my father would live without her. They were one until death split them asunder.

But in grief there was still memory. At least he still had her image, the moments bad and good. Toward the end, my father said he could no longer remember my mother’s face. That struck me as cruel on God’s part. How could she go missing?

The old couple, walking down the street, always holding hands, allowed me to construct an image of my parents together. A pretend game that gave them back to me, just for a minute. The couple never knew. I never said a word until today. When the woman turned to me, inside the protection of my car, her grief was naked. I hope I let her know that it mattered, that a stranger noticed her beautiful partner was missing. I hope his memory never will be.

Writer’s note: I’ve been silent while working hard on manuscripts for my Bennington College Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. Graduation in June 2016, fingers crossed! Most of what I’m writing doesn’t quite fit the voice of “The Henry Chronicles” but periodically you’ll find me back here! It’s now been two-and-a-half years since my father died. Sometimes it seems longer ago, and sometimes like a few weeks ago. I continue to learn from him even now.


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The Empty Place

My father Christmas 2012

On my son’s last night in the country before moving to Japan, I served cake at the kitchen table.

“That’s weird,” my son said.

I looked at him for explanation.

“It doesn’t seem right to serve food at that place.”

I followed his gaze to the slice on the far side of the table. It took me a beat or two to understand. My father’s place.

The far side of the table gave my father the best vantage point on the household comings and goings, and the brightest natural light. My children sat across from him; my husband to his left. I sat at his right hand.

He is there even when he isn’t.


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Imagined Righteousness

The man who sat next to me at a dinner last night said he’d never had a massage. We’re in Napa, and the conversation had turned to what people did during the five-hour break in the meeting schedule. One of our company had immersed herself in the cocooning heat of a mud bath, followed by a wrap and massage.

Oh my god, I thought, someone who’s never had a massage! Why it’s un-Californian!

I swooped in.

“Why not?”

“I just don’t want to,” he said.

“Todd used to feel that way,” I told him, nodding my head at my husband, who was seated on my other side. “But he fell in love with it after I booked one for him.”

I smiled smugly, the efficient wife.

Todd piped up. “A good masseuse can really get in there and get rid of knots in my neck and shoulders. And it’s a great stress reliever.”

The man next to me said nothing.

“And,” I said, taking a different tact, “it’s one of the few alternative therapies that is actually efficacious. That and guided imagery.” (I thought the interjection of a big word like efficacious might sound kind of authoritative.)

He looked unmoved, but must have felt compelled to respond.

“Man or woman, I just don’t want a stranger touching me,” he said.

At about this moment I started to get a grip on myself. Who declared me Head Marketer of Massage? Why was I evangelizing for Deep Tissue?

When I turned in a couple of hours later, I returned to reading Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye. I was about a third of the way in and feeling vaguely skeptical. Why I was I not enraputured by her memoir, the story of her mother’s two year losing battle with colon cancer? Her sentences are gorgeous, after all, and her story telling effective.

Something about her premise, early on, bothered me:

Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me… Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. And because my mother was relatively young — fifty-five — I feel robbed of twenty years with her I’d always imagined having. I know this may sound melodramatic.

Yes, I thought when I read those sentences, it does.

She continued a page later:

In the months that followed my mother’s death, I managed to look like a normal person. I walked down the street; I answered my phone; I brushed my teeth, most of the time. But I was not OK. I was in grief.

She was selling grief. I wasn’t buying. No, I was judging.

This morning I remembered the instructions I gave my husband a month or two before my father died. I don’t know how I’ll feel, I told him, but I don’t want to be rushed to “closure.” I have a friend who has a pretty specific idea about how long it is permissible to grieve before wrapping things up. I told my husband to keep that friend away from me. I didn’t want to hear it.

I now realize that I had — have — a construct for the right way to grieve. One should not rush to closure, but should also avoid melodrama. Having built this model for myself, I seemed to be imposing it on others… exactly like the friend who advocates for swift closure.

Leave the man alone, I finally said to myself last night. It’s his business, not mine.




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What We Remember

peanut butter and knife

I’m having a hard time finding enough sympathy cards this month, so many beloved mothers and fathers and husbands have succumbed to time and health challenges. Perhaps it’s the sheer quantity of losses, but I finally noticed: what funny, seemingly unimportant moments become the stuff of stories.

One lovely woman, my neighbor’s mother, was remembered from the pulpit by her four grandchildren. The one who is my son’s age said he remembered three things about “Grandy.” I’ve forgotten what one was but I remember the other two: peanut butter and a knife.

He listed the objects first. Then he started talking about what he remembered from his visits to see his grandmother. He said he’d never forget how she let him eat peanut butter out of a jar with a knife.

It conjures up a perfect moment, doesn’t it? This go-ahead-help-yourself-when-you’re-here-dear approach to visiting? There’s a grandmother who knew enjoying time together was more important than rules. She knew, literally, the sweet spot of her grandchildren, and in small indulgences, showed how well she understood them.

Sometimes it’s the smallest things we remember. The little rituals that stick.

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Egg Beater Drawers


egg beater drawers

There it was this morning, my mother’s voice. In my head, of course, since it’s been 15 years and counting since she passed away. But I heard it, clear as her prized Waterford crystal: “Dammit, Betsy, my drawer looks like you’ve gone through it with an egg beater!”

She was right. Her underwear drawer did look a mess after I got through with it. My mother wasn’t particularly neat — she considered piles a perfectly appropriate organizational system in the kitchen — but her drawers were another matter. That woman knew how to fold. And the neatest drawer of all was her underwear drawer. I know because I raided it every time I needed a half slip.

Her underwear was practical but silky with bits of lace on the bras and panties, camisoles and slips. All of it was folded into neat squares — the slips set toward the back, the underwear and bras toward the front. Bras were folded in half and stacked on top of one another, a miniature mountain in a landscape of lingerie.

Some people hear their mother’s voice critically — there she is again, bitching at me from the grave — but (thankfully) that’s not what I heard. She sounded exasperated, to be sure, but loving. As if wondering how she was going to survive my teenage hood while in her mid 50s. And just that phrase — her distinctive “dammit!” — was like having her back again, if only for a minute.

I never did master underwear folding, and my underwear drawer does look like it’s been mixed with an egg beater. But at least I stowed my stuff, Mom, so it doesn’t look like it’s been spread from “hell to breakfast.” And, by the way, Merry Christmas… and I miss you. Thanks for stopping by.



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Finding Poetry

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Dear lovers and writers of poetryThere’s nothing for you here today, nothing at all, except the first mewling cries of someone who is trying to understand why and how poetry is speaking to me even though I hardly understand a word. Read on at your own risk.

For everyone else: This is a short story that is a love letter to a friend I have lost and found.

I thought I wanted to raid poetry for its words. Poetry contains a well of words (see? there’s a metaphor already, though not a very good one since it isn’t novel; the best metaphors link unlike things) that I thought might inspire me as I attempt to write memoir.

I picked up Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, a dreamy collection of poems that the book cover says are meant to tell a single story, although it’s not like any story I’ve ever read. That said, I couldn’t put it down and I can’t stop thinking about it.

I read this scene from the title poem about sharing a room with a brother in a candlelit room at night:

[Note: WordPress is deleting the spaces between stanzas, so I put a “/” where a space should follow]

I was alone with my brother;

we lay in the dark, breathing together,

the deepest intimacy./

It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided

into those who wish to move forward

and those who wish to go back.

Or, you could say, those who wish to keep moving

and those who want to be stopped in their tracks

as by the blazing sword.”

So much unspoken mystery as Glück floats through her dream-night. I confess to feeling pretty lost but I keep thinking about the symbols she strews along her way. There is something here, I thought, more than words. Something that is affecting me.

I looked for answers in Edward Hirsch’s “How To Read A Poem and Fall In Love With Poetry.” And I read this: “Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of what the poem finds in me. It activates my secret world, commands my inner life. I cannot get access to that inner life any other way than through the power of the words themselves. The words pressure me into a response, and the rhythm of the poem carries me to another plane of time, outside of time.”

Glück took me somewhere with her when she wrote of “the blazing sword,” the kind of metaphor that Hirsch calls “a concealed invitation,” which invites the reader to figure it out. Throughout her poem there are such references to the sword in the stone, and I’ll admit I find them a puzzle. Is the narrator the heir? The heir to memory? I’ll have to get one of my poet friends to explain it to me.

But besides the riddle, I was struck by Hirsch’s description of poetry’s ability to give him access to an inner life. I understood what he meant. I don’t always “get” poetry, but something in my shifts when I read some of it. The words and their rhythms go to a place within me that is beyond words, beyond logic. To a place of longing, of pure feeling, of community, of prayer.

And now I will give you a short story.

Yesterday I spent time with a dear friend who used to be my boss. In the professional world, she was my first true teacher and mentor. The place she holds in my heart cannot be filled by another. Just a couple of years older than me, she has been set upon by a series of strokes that the doctors don’t seem to understand. The smartest woman I’ve ever met is now much different. I won’t go into the details. Her brain is like a bog, with bits of organic material occasionally floating to the top. Thinking is hard. Putting names on things is impossible.

But feeling, feeling is still there. So much love it can light up her face.

So I decided to read her poetry. She cannot name images, but I wondered if words could form images in her mind, pictures that would bring her joy. I read from Mary Oliver’s “Why I Wake Early,” a book that I have taken to bedsides and even deathbeds.

The fourth poem that I read to her, I think, was “Peonies.” My friend closed her eyes when she listened and I remembered that was her pose of reflection. When she wanted to listen deeply with her head and heart she would press her eyes shut so that the only thing that existed was what poured into her ears. She always heard what one said, but she listened for the meaning underlying the words, tipped off by the telltale tone of voice, the choice of words. This is what she did yesterday: she tilted her chin down and her lashes floated onto her cheeks.

Poetry is a soul-making activity, Hirsch says. I wrote this poem, as terrible as a poet would find it, because I can’t seem to capture in prose my confusing stew of feelings: the deep grief I feel for the loss of my old friend, and the momentary joy we found together reading of peonies. Thank you, Mary Oliver, wherever you are, for the gift of that moment.

My old friend is someone new

I can’t say a stranger because she is familiar

diminished to some but polished to my eye,

silky of spirit./

Strokes like ordnance have reordered her brain.

Like a prize fighter, her husband says:

Too many hits to the head./

So we read of wild iris and humble sunflowers

But it was the peonies that swayed her

Lacy pools, white and pink./

She closed her eyes, lashes dancing

As we read of green fists opening, black ants tunneling

The words watered the parched patches in her soul./

When the poem ended we read it again

Delighted, her face sparkled

And then we were silent, two wet souls./

Shall I read more, I asked?

Sometimes you should let it sit, she said.

So we sat in the sunshine

Old and new friends.


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Dad and Midge

Dad and Midge

I’ve finally started writing about my mother. That’s been hard for me and the reasons are a little complicated. It isn’t just that she died fifteen years ago — just about anyone who’s lost a loved one will tell you that time doesn’t seem to follow the rules when it comes to grief; it’s that for much of my life we were locked in a push-me-pull-you mother-daughter battle.

I’m not talking about fighting. (Although yes, we did that, oh boy did we…) I’m talking about what I wanted from my mother that she did not have the capacity to give. 

Before I was born, I had a sister who died of leukemia, three months short of her fourth birthday. Until about the age of two, her pictures were indistinguishable from mine. One of my earliest memories is of my mother standing by the kitchen sink doing dishes. She turned and looked toward me but I had the feeling she wasn’t really seeing me. And she was crying, something I never saw my mother do. I asked her why, and she told me she was thinking about my sister. Then she dried her eyes and finished the dishes.

This is an excerpt from what I wrote this week:

Was Midge’s death why my mother kept me at arms’ length? Did she wall off part of herself ? I wanted nothing more than to be with her, to drink her in, to devour her. I wanted to feel her inside me, to feel full to the point of stuffed, to finally feel satisfied. I wanted more of her than she could give. The more I clung, the more she pulled away. She would pick me up and hold me, I know she did, but only for a few minutes. It was never enough. Finally she would say, “Stop hanging on me.” She sloughed me off.

On Thursday night, I attended a book signing by a local Santa Cruz psychotherapist and book author, Alexandra Kennedy. She introduced an idea I’ve never heard before: generational grief. When grief does not heal, when it is stuffed down and sealed up, the old hurts do not dissolve. Neither does the love. Alexandra suggests that grief, and love, can be passed down through generations. She wrote:

Perhaps before you were born, your mother or grandmother lost a child whom she never fully grieved; perhaps your family in past generations experienced a significant loss or trauma that was never healed. When this generational grief surfaces, it is your work to be the sanctuary to simply embrace the surge of feelings as they emerge, to pay attention to any images that come to mind, and to listen closely to your dreams for guidance.

I realize, now, how the pattern I learned from my mother carried into the next generation, affected my mothering. 

My father, in his last years, revisited many old wounds — the love and acceptance he never felt from his father, the loss of Midge, the loss of Mom. When he died, he had no unfinished business. I can’t say the same for my mother, since dementia stripped away her memory, and lung cancer took care of the rest.

Maybe if falls to me, now, to heal — for her, for me, and for the generations to come.


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Break In


One kick to the door was all it took. My first thought when I saw the splintered door frame was: thank God my son wasn’t home; he would have slept through the noise. The CSI detective showed me how they entered by shining her light down the surface of the front door: the clear print of a boot. Waffle stompers we called them in college. “That’s exactly where you kick,” she said.

The thieves who came in the night took their time, dumping drawers, opening cabinets and sorting through my jewel boxes. Things were strewn throughout the house. A Mexican five peso bill from my husband’s bathroom drawer was next to the dining room curtain. A stained pillow was lying next to it.

I thought (with some satisfaction) that it couldn’t have been a very gratifying haul for them. I keep the little good jewelry I have in a safety deposit box. The burglars went to the trouble of removing two wall-hung TVs. The TVs were eight years old and worthless. They took a huge silver plate serving tray that I’ve never used; new “princess” trays sell online for about $75.00. No prints, the detective said, they even used a new kind of glove that left no smudges. They were pros.

I thought (with some relief) that they didn’t break anything. The old Chinese tea caddy that I use for a jewel box was on the floor, drawers emptied but undamaged. They could have vandalized things just for the hell of it, dumped condiments from the refrigerator, graffitied the walls.

I thought (with effort) that it was just stuff. While rushing home, my friend called with the news that her husband had just passed away. I had been with her most of the week while he lay “actively dying.” For eight days, he had been unable to take in liquids. For seven days, he had been in a hospital bed, lying in that state that hospice calls “transition.” I remember “transition” from giving birth; with this version there’s no happy ending.

After CSI left, I went to see my friend, then came home and fell asleep. I awakened some time later. I thought I heard a thump through my husband’s open window. Had someone hopped the fence? I listened, willed myself awake. No sound, not even crickets. Had the crickets been startled into silence?

I drifted. The image of my grandmother’s pendant watch floated before me. My mother’s mother – I called her Nana — died when I was five. I entered her bedroom after my afternoon nap, expecting to find her resting, too. I couldn’t awaken her. My mother hurried me out of her room while she called our neighbor the doctor. Nana had always been a gentle presence. I remember her softly curled gray hair. Her soft lap. Everything about her was soft. The edges of her frameless glasses caught the light and sparkled around her eyes. I have two things that were hers. Correction: had. I unconsciously looked toward my dresser for one when I approached my bedroom after the break in: my grandmother’s jar of potpourri. It was untouched — a white porcelain jar painted with a delicate pink chrysanthemum, a red-and-white morning glory and a tuxedoed magpie. I lifted the lid and inhaled. The scent of summer roses wafted across sixty years. I didn’t think about her watch then, the round ball with tiny face. It was enameled with tiny pink flowers against a turquoise background. Throughout my childhood, when I stood by my mother as she chose accessories for an evening out, I took it out of her jewel box and let the links trickle into my hand before I dropped the cool globe into my palm. When my daughter was young, she would hold it and ask me to tell her about my Nana. The watch would have gone to her.

My nights are still like this: I fall asleep reading and rouse with the memory of something I will miss. A sterling spoon engraved “Ella’s baby.” That was my Nana. The gold butterfly necklace my father gave me. My mother’s silver earrings with the dangling bells that tinkled when she moved her head. The things that connected me to those who came before.

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