The Circles of Life

St. Michael and All Angels Columbarium Garden

Lately, I have been thinking about the events of 2018, the year my precious son Elliot died on August 5th. Though I had faced many mighty challenges in my half-century on the Earth, this series of 365 days was like no other. It was a messy mélange of life, death, disruption, and grief—but looking back on it now, I’m increasingly befuddled by some of the other events that occurred in that most devastating year. I have mentioned a couple in prior posts that pondered connections to the cosmic unconsciousness.

Could it be true that everything really is happening at the same time—like some massive quantum ball of twine unraveling in an obscure dimension of time and space? Is the concept of time (past, present, and future) really just a convenient construct? It’s overwhelming to think about too much but still intrigues me in a “Twilight Zone”/”Black Mirror” sort of way. As a side note, Elliot loved both those shows and even introduced me to “Black Mirror.” So why rule it out?

I wrote the post below on May 28, 2018—just about two months before Elliot’s sudden, horrific, and unbearable motorcycle death. Like so much in my life now, rereading this essay was both profoundly disturbing and oddly comforting. There is so much we simply don’t understand—and likely never will in this tangible realm.  

______________________________________________________

“And Know the Place for the First Time” l May 28, 2018

Memories of those we have lost are often complicated—a morphing mosaic of longing, loneliness, anger, pain, guilt, sadness, gratitude, forgiveness, love and eventually, peace.

This Memorial Day I have come full circle in many ways. When my oldest son, Elliot, watched the “The Lion King” as a toddler, he called it “the circle guh-life.” Turns out that “guh” is profound because the circle is rarely a smooth curve. There are bumps and turns—which reminds me of the words of another Elliot – T.S., with one L:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I arrived there this week.

I began a new assignment writing copy but in a new context. I hope to shift out of the chaotic freelance writing world to work with an integrated marcom agency in Dallas for a while. Every change is an adjustment, every new adventure a realignment. Every experience, your teacher. I missed the energy of a creative cadre—a tribe of brilliant minds collaborating and concepting in real time. A place to belong. I guess I enjoy the process as much as the product.

The Universe works in mysterious ways—most of them unconscious. Life coach Mary Morrissey teaches, “First, notice what you are noticing. It’s the first step to self-awareness.” So, here’s what I have noticed – though I am starting over once again, I find myself in stunningly familiar territory. I am working in Preston Center, a shopping center just a few miles from where I grew up. It is like returning to the place “where I started”—probably holding more hidden nostalgia than any other place of my childhood.

And I’m seeing it for the first time.

I have been flooded with memories of shopping at Sanger Harris and the Woolworth’s dime store with my mom and sister when I was just 10 or 11. This was our primary recreational activity—a pocket of together time. An artist, reluctant teacher, and sometime socialite, my mother’s presence filled every room she entered in the outside world. On Saturdays, she adored shopping and visiting her flamboyant fashionista friend Mercedes, who ran the Elizabeth Arden counter at Sanger’s with great panache. They would chat and banter as Melissa and I “played” in the makeup, but her mission was to purchase her signature lipstick shade, Fuchsia Shock. It suited my mom’s mega-watt style, and it was the same shade she sported on her thick, one-inch nails.

Over the past few days, I have wandered the sidewalks of Sherry Lane and Westchester during my lunch breaks. A hip, trendy free-range hamburger boutique has replaced the greasy soda fountain at the Woolworth’s. And Wyatt’s cafeteria, with its wickedly sumptuous chocolate-icebox pie, is long gone—as it the dusty, cramped little store where I purchased my very first record album. It was the debut album by The Partridge Family. Though I have lived in Dallas for most of my life, I have never experienced the emotional impact of this place before—not like this. Until now, these glimpses of my past have felt like they belonged to someone else – distant and disconnected.

Perhaps, this is the beginning of my exploring.

On Wednesday, I left my 18th-floor office at noon, pausing for a startlingly raw moment. I noticed the high-rise across the street and recalled that faithful day more than three decades ago when I hopped into the back of shiny, white limo after my wedding reception on the top floor. I struggled to step into the skin of that ostensibly happy married girl. She felt like a character in a movie—unrelated and detached. I saw her in a crisp, purple size-10 linen suit she could wear only after losing 30 pounds on Weight Watchers. She was waving to the smiling people on sidewalk who were tossing fuchsia tissue-paper petals into the air.

I chose not to linger there.

Yet I could not avoid more of the strangely familiar. Not sure why, but I turned right at the corner—away from the shopping center and toward St. Michael’s and All Angels Church. This destination held its own mixed, messy bag of memories, but it lured me with a gravitas I could not explain. The last time I was there was 2014 for my father’s funeral and before that, 2012, for my mother’s memorial following her protracted illness. I also was married there in the sanctuary and attended elementary school at St. Michael’s School, where I always dreaded that excruciating President’s Physical Fitness Test. Though my parents did not attend services there or address spiritual matters much at all, it was our “church of record.”

How I remembered trying to find a way to belong there. I offered to help Mrs. Dienes, our perfectly pressed neighbor, teach kindergarten Sunday School when I was about 16. I borrowed my parents’ powder-blue Mercury Monarch with the white interior to get there by 9:00 a.m. I sang in the choir for Paul Thomas, who always scared me a little, and I attended the youth group led by Kyle Rote, Jr., the super-cute soccer star on the Dallas Tornado. Alas, despite all my valiant attempts, I never felt like I really fit in—as if I were missing that essential component that made me worthy of the Episcopal whole.

Still, this is where my parents’ ashes are residing for eternity. My stomach tumbled as I realized I was about to see them again. Serendipity—but no coincidence. I had not been back since my father’s interment. At once, I felt the weight of generations of secrets and shame enveloped in a warm wave of comfort. I stepped closer to the austere, yet elegant, monument. There they were, together for always and forever. So present and peaceful behind the pristine limestone marker. I stared at the inscriptions and was suddenly overwhelmed. I grieved not for what we lost but what we never had. And in that moment, I made peace somehow. Then, I paused in pure awe as I considered the convoluted series of events that had brought me to this place at this moment. There I was—steeped in memories and standing with my parents once again as I prepared for a new future. Almost too much to process.

I closed my eyes and thanked the Universe for this miraculous journey and others to come. These are the moments that amplify our being beyond all comprehension.

Then, I thought of sipping a cool, creamy root beer float at Woolworth’s . . . and I smiled.

I Am

A week or so before snowmageddon stymied Texas, my dear friend and writing pal Sue recommended a book called “When Women Were Birds,” by Terry Tempest Williams. I’m endlessly grateful, as it provided a warm and poignant embrace during the powerless hours. If Anne Lamott says it’s “brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder,” you can bet it’s a winner. As I sat on my big purple couch in the frigid darkness, swaddled in three blankets with a flashlight precariously perched on one knee, I devoured Williams’ evocative, lyrical prose and was instantly inspired to scribble this poem — just before the electricity sizzled back on for another brief round:

I Am

I am worn out.
I am scared.
I am alone.
I am freezing.
I can almost see my breath.

I am a balloon that is slowly deflating.
I am an opaque mosaic of dusty shards
that don’t quite fit.
I am the map of another country.
I am overwhelmed.
I am underemployed.
I am seeking.
I am hiding.
I am not knowing . . .
I am fried.

I am filled with emptiness.
I am hollow with grief.
I am here but not present.
I am shallow but deep.

I am aching to be seen, but I don’t want to be noticed.
I am yearning to connect but no energy to speak.
I am salt in the wound.
I am salve on the sore.
I am dented but still running.
Where is the door?

I am shadow.
I am moonlight.
I am desire.
I am disdain.
I am letting go.
I am holding on.
I am selfish.
I am shame.

I am kind.
I am cold.
I am love.
I am lost.

I am waiting in the wings.
I am milling in the mezzanine.
I am loitering in the lobby.
Where is the stage?
I am scripts unwritten.
I am books unread.
I am the Rock of Gibraltar.
I am the tools in the shed.
I am a frothy, white jet trail.
I am blood-orange sunshine.
I am Purple Rain.
I am Auld Lang Syne

I am select soccer and team tennis.
I am saxophone lessons and art classes.
I am ear infections and root canals.
I am a pair of new dark glasses.
I am fistfights in the kitchen.
I am boxes in the hall.
I am lullabies in the nursery.
I am drawings on the wall.

I am sighing
I am sobbing
I am wailing
I am praying
I am allowing
I am inviting
I am chuckling
I am fraying

I am a sutra unraveled, but
I am whole.

I am a cotton shirt, not pressed.
I am a pair of jeans, too tight.
I am a child without a mother.
I am a mother full of fright.
I am the tears in a handkerchief.
I am the words on the page.
I am a candle in the window.
I am a flashlight in the dark.
I am a sip of black tea.
I am a broken heart.

I am an imposter and an expert —
respected and dismayed.
I am confident and confused —
anxious and praised.

I am stardust.
I am golden.
I am taking.
I am giving.
I am releasing
Now
Forever
And for you, I am living.

Grieving Power: Finding Your Way in the Dark

Life is precarious.

Texas and the universe demonstrated this truth with debilitating intensity last week. Indeed, we are living in a time of radical transformation, a period without predictability or security. Socioeconomic upheaval, geopolitical unrest, erupting racial tensions, escalating cybersecurity threats, and climate change are all coming to a head. And oh, and this is all happening in the midst of a global pandemic.

I will admit I am hypersensitive as I navigate the agony of my own grief, but the world is becoming increasingly fragile and complicated. Control is an illusion. Sure, we can decide whether we turn on a flashlight or light a candle in a blackout, but how do we manage our lives with any kind of certainty? So many directions, but nowhere to go.

When most all the infrastructure services that are designed to support and protect us in arctic temperatures fail catastrophically, our trust evaporates. And we panic. Plus, we’re back to ground zero on Maslow’s famed hierarchy of needs. Forget self-actualization — I’ll settle for flushing my toilet.

And amplifying the precariousness is the capriciousness of it all. Some people are still without any power in Texas; some are boiling every sip of water they drink; others are recovering from extended rolling blackouts (like us), and others had no disruption at all. Then, there are the food supply-chain disruptions happening now and broken pipes everywhere you turn.

Yet through all the chaos, I have been grateful. I have appreciated my 24-year-old son Ian’s calm, grounded presence, as well as the kind texts from friends across the country who checked on us — though I could not always read them in real-time, because our cell service was toast, too. I was grateful for the vigilance of our building management and our dedicated maintenance team. They worked tirelessly to repair broken pipes, open locked-down security doors, and silence errant fire alarms. I may say everything reminds me of “The Twilight Zone,” but the building seemed to have a will of its own at times — like it was mischievously misbehaving.

As the days oozed into nights without power, heat, internet, or cell service, I also remembered the “Twilight Zone” episode called “Midnight Sun.” Lois Nettleton played an artist who was suffering in stifling summer heat, painting abstract canvasses dripping with pigment. Alas, the earth had fallen out of its orbit and was moving closer to its central star. The obligatory twist occurs (spoiler alert) when the opposite is true. In actuality, artist Lois has been nursing a raging fever. When it breaks, we discover the earth has been plunged into sub-zero temps as it is jettisoned from the sun’s orbit. A potent metaphor.

“Twilight Zone” or not, I was scared.

I still am, but I’m aware my fear is exacerbated by the trauma and shock associated with losing my precious 26-year-old son Elliot in a flash of indifferent tragedy 30 months ago. His untimely, out-of-order death continues to rattle me to the core, each and every day — so sudden, senseless and shocking. C.S. Lewis said, “Grief is like fear, but you are not afraid.”  Well, in this case, you are. It’s apropos of everything these days — this feeling of utter, urgent precariousness and instability. The kind of complicated grief traps you like a hostage in a boundless fog of disconnection and anguish. I am always balancing on a precipice – looking for a way to hold on and live in a world that is forever changed.

Dr. Todd Miller, our wise and wonderful eye doctor, had a rare simpatico with Elliot. They would banter incessantly about music and technology. Dr. Miller also was enamored with motorcycles in his youth. I deeply appreciate his perspective and that he allows me to talk of Elliot and my grief whenever I see him.

“The appeal of riding is like finding the ‘sweet spot’ between pleasure and fear,” Dr. Miller said. “It’s a balance, a kind of calculated risk.”  But what kind of formula do you use to calculate such a risk?

I cannot dwell on these questions, though they continue to haunt me. Still, I have come to realize that fear is a common part of grief. And precariousness is woven into the fabric of our existence — more salient now than ever. Life is ephemeral. Fleeting. Then, gone. Combine that with the ambient grief we share for a confederacy of losses in the pandemic, summarily splashed across social media. It feels like we are slogging through some kind of mind-bending Truman Show.

I am coming to accept that all life is precarious — a temporary gift we must respect and nurture as best we can. Our souls are all on different journeys, and that includes our children.  A spiritual medium once said to me, “Our children are not ours. They just come through us.”  

As the snowmageddon crisis in Texas has taught us, we are not in control — even when we think we are and even when are just sitting on the couch.

Turns out, we are just along for the ride.

My Precarious Boy

I need to find a crack to breathe in
this stolid suspended chasm.
Empty moments dissolve into heavy hours —
to make bearable being awake.
Persistent memory.
Present absence.
Precarious life
now that
saline tears debride the unhealable
wound forever —
a faint shadow,
cast in the light of his darkness.
So raw and exposed but not seen.

Away with Words

It all started with a susurrus.

The first time I saw this whisper of a word dancing in Elliot’s prose, I required a dictionary—not an uncommon occurrence when reading anything he wrote. He used the term to describe a chorus in the program notes for his saxophone recital—as poetic as they were precise. A susurrus is a murmuring or rustling sound. Such a visceral, expressive metaphor—complete with a hint of onomatopoeia.  

This is where it gets interesting.

A couple of months ago, I noticed a new notification in my venerable yahoo.com email box. I’ve had it for ions—since the boys were young, but it’s still functioning reliably. In fact, I’m grateful for my inconsistent email hygiene over the years—as I am relishing the treasure trove of memories and conversations buried deep in its archives.

The subject line of this particular email was: “Word of the Day: Susurrus” from mail@wordgenius.com. I don’t remember signing up for this alert, but I was game. Of all the words in the world, how could they pick this “Elliot word”? My heart jumped. He was the wordsmith’s wordsmith—the inimitable “word genius.” How many people do know who received a perfect score on the verbal SAT—not missing one question?! Could this be a wink from Mr. E? After all, we were both inveterate word nerds, and the Wrights are peppered with writers. Why not? I mused as I felt a giant grin, so unfamiliar of late, stretch across my tear-stained face.

Elliot was an exquisite and erudite writer. Following his graduation from the University of Toronto, where he majored in classical saxophone, he reviewed contemporary classical recordings for a respected music publication in Toronto called The Whole Note. In Dallas, he reviewed local concerts of all genres for The Dallas Observer. And he crafted provocative think pieces for Central Track.

Yet he soon abandoned the glamorous writing life to pursue another one of his extraordinary talents as an IT savant at Global Payments. Clearly, he could write compelling stories in almost any language and any context. Here is an excerpt from his brilliant program notes from his fourth-year saxophone recital on March 31, 2015, at UofT—as captivating as the music. Elliot wrote these evocative words about a piece he played spectacularly:

Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano | Edison Vasilievich  Denisov  (1929 — 1996)

DENISOV – Though his place of birth is a full 900km deeper into Siberia than the penal colony where Dostoevsky was transformed at the end of a mocking rifle barrel, Denisov suffers from neither the anguish of mysticism (as was the case of his contemporary, Gubaidalina) nor subarctic austerity. In fact, at its core, Denisov’s music is all lyricism and ardent expression, refracted through the crystal lattice of his mathematical mind.

Commissioned by Jean-Marie Londeix in 1970, the Sonata for Alto Saxophone allows saxophonists to have their cake and eat it, too: it is at once a sophisticated serialist composition and an unbridled jazz freak-out. The first movement is a kind of shambling waltz, the left leg of the waltzer filed down by the machine-gun 32nd notes exchanged between the saxophone and piano. The second movement is a saxophone soliloquy, a lyrical murmur glinting through the Siberian ice which entombs it. All this melts seamlessly into the final movement, a dodecaphonic jazz burnout inflected with an almost hysterical irony: the big—band “shout” chorus which appears midway through the piece becomes more of a “susurrus” chorus, and of course it is just as the music approaches a full-blown pseudo‐free jazz eschaton that Denisov is most meticulous with his musical orthography. Condemned by the Soviets as a “formalist” and reared in the harshest regions of Russia, Denisov’s music expresses a wryness in the face of all the improbability of being.

I was so enchanted with the susurrus that I used it in a haiku that felt directly channeled through Elliot’s consciousness. It reflected his passion for Japanese culture, his love of poetry, and his voluminous vocabulary:

Time
In a susurrus,
what is done, always will be—
dissolving the now.

And it turns out that susurrus was just the overture for me. There have been other words since then from the same email that have snatched my breath away.

The next was camber, a word I did not even recognize.

As I read the definition, I gulped. It refers to the slightly convex shape of a road or other horizontal surface. Coming from Middle English, its roots track back to the Ancient Greek word “chambre” (arched room or burial chamber) and the Latin word “camurus” (curved inwards). I instantly thought of the treacherous curved ramp where Elliot apparently lost control of his motorcycle. Could this be another piece of the accident’s puzzle—something that hindered his ability maneuver safely on that hideous day in August? There are still so many unanswered questions that torment me, and I would not put it past my mischievous rascal of a son to communicate in such a perplexing and obtuse way.

Upon further research, I discovered the term “negative camber,” which specifically refers to a road condition that scuttles motorcyclists. This curve of the road’s surface requires the rider to recalibrate the angle of the lean and velocity of the turn on the fly—a factor I had not uncovered in my extensive research. But it feels plausible. I wondered . . . could this word be administering a glimpse a grace? Could this be an explanation that might help soothe my unsettled soul? These random glimmers and glimpses always seem to appear just when I need them most. But oh, the possibilities continue to swirl around in my head like an agitated hornet’s nest.

Are these questions keeping me mired in the gravity of gone? Is this why I feel so stuck in the muck—overwhelmed and anxious, enmeshed in the trauma of those fragments of the puzzle that may never be solved? It does feel like the road to nowhere.

Elliot, is it time to let go of needing to know?

Especially when there are so many potent words to ponder, like the group of Japanese words that popped up just yesterday. One was tsundoku. Quintessential Elliot, it refers to the habit of acquiring too many books to ever read and letting the pile grow indefinitely — one of his favorite words and activities.  (However, I think he actually read every one.)

Made me smile.

Another was wabi-sabi. That’s embracing the transience and imperfection of nature—and the eventual end of everything.

Still working on that one.

So, the journey continues . . . one moment and one word at a time. Keep them coming, Mr. E. I love you.

Pieces of Me

The other night, I watched a new film on Netflix called “Pieces of a Woman.” It burrowed into my soul like the vaccination needle into your arm. Yet surprisingly, the subtle and deftly poignant images packed the most potent punch.

This provocative film takes us on the horrifying journey of a home birth gone tragically wrong, but that’s just the first half of the story. (Spoiler alert.) Though the cataclysmic event is harrowing and devasting, some of the most profound and affecting moments come after it.  Perhaps, I experienced the narrative in this way, because this heartbroken mother’s journey is similar to my own. Though the particular circumstances are different, the gravity of losing a child at any age carries its own unique, untenable weight.

“Elaine, why would you subject yourself to such a sad, triggering film?” one might ask, and one would be justified in posing that question.

But the answer might be just as confounding. As I walk this unbearable path, I find that connecting to others around our shared,  unrelenting pain—often through art, helps me feel less alone and even witnessed in a misery-loves-company sort of way. Being seen is a momentary salve on the gaping, unhealable wound.  And frankly, it takes the focus off me for a brief instant and gives me another way to contextualize what still feels impossible to believe.

Not every moment in “Pieces of a Woman” works, but this kind of story signifies a gradual shift in the way we are acknowledging grief in our culture. In the second half of the film, we come face-to-face with a woman’s unvarnished grief journey and emotional fallout—exposed, raw and unapologetic.  Martha’s grief takes center stage, often colliding with her husband’s incongruent mode of coping—ignited by rage and alcohol. Her pain is there for all those around her to see—in all its awkwardness and messiness.  Most people I encounter want someone who has suffered a tragic loss to get over it quickly and be “OK,” because they don’t want to face their own looming mortality. But Martha bears all.

Ellen Burstyn is brilliant and riveting as Martha’s mother—mounting a hostile resistance against her daughter’s unfathomable pain that also prevents her from providing the compassion and care her daughter aches for. In Burstyn’s mordant revulsion to her daughter’s festering sorrow, we sense her character’s own inability to process difficult feelings. This is at the same time fiercely intimate and unflinchingly universal.

 “You’ve got to fight and seek revenge,” she barks. “That’s the only way you can move on.”

The grim reality is you never move on. You don’t “get over” the love of your child. You just find a way to carry the pain.

In fact, Martha vehemently protests the concept of revenge. In one of the most searing moments in the film, Martha finds a beautiful photo her husband snapped on that bittersweet day, just after she delivered her baby. As she views image, we see Martha’s hardened heart soften like molten lava. She begins to replace some of the hard darkness with light, some of the fierce anguish with love. I felt that so deeply. She actually begins to forgive—her midwife, her husband, her mother, and perhaps, even herself.

The other gorgeous detail that brings me to tears is Martha’s meticulous collection of apple seeds, nurturing them carefully in cotton pads or tiny blankets in the refrigerator. She mentions at one point that her newborn smelled like apples, and we often see her eating apples—unconsciously drawn to them in the grocery store, as well.  But when she opens the refrigerator one day to check on them, she discovers they’ve begun to sprout and bud, and she is awestruck by the persistence of nature and the miracle of life before her eyes. This becomes its own solace, its own comfort. This stunning nuance seeped into every cell as I empathized with every tear she shed; every wail she unleashed. The sensitivity of this storytelling is breathtaking—and the performances, masterful, as devastating as it is glorious. This shattered mother is able to find a glimpse of grace and a moment of infinite connection—an uncharted path back inside her own shattered heart.

Today, I noticed a similar miracle in my own living room. The delicate orchid plant a friend gave me for my birthday about six months ago had lost all its blooms. Since the leaves remained green,  I continued to water it as my late Aunt Virginia, the orchid whisperer, had instructed. She used a turkey baster to gently inject two squeezes per week. Carefully infusing every Saturday, I have been watching the tiny green pouches with anticipation, and to my surprise, one opened this morning—a fragile, tiny orchid saying, “Hello world.” 

Like Martha when she lifted the carefully arranged cotton pouches from her refrigerator, tears welled. There is something magical and comforting about witnessing life  . . . its brazen persistence, the continuity of creation, the divine order of things. I must allow this to sink in, to feel it down to my marrow. Another day . . . another glimpse of grace.

Poetry in Progress

This has been a poignant and moving week—punctuated by the power of words and the vulnerability of relief. Tears have welled spontaneously and frequently. And synchronicity has worked in mysterious ways. Last weekend, I participated in a profound and revelatory writing workshop with poetry priestess Meghan Adler. Astonishing, informative, and inspiring.

I am exceedingly grateful for every moment spent in the company of this sacred circle. Here are a couple of poems:

NOTICING ELLIOT

I notice the always ache
I notice the awful gravity of gone
I notice my breath beside a stream of sea-salt tears
I notice the volume of your absence
I notice the hallow of my emptiness
and accept it as peace.
I notice the fading jet trail against the bright azure sky—
dangling like a cotton thread from heaven.
Then, I notice your brother’s laughter in the other room.
I notice what I notice—and I wonder. Are you there?

MO MEMORIES

They say Mo-Ranch is a thin place, where the edges blur between now and then.
I say Mo is a dream, a collection, really—had, made, and missed.
Mo is a gene attached to my DNA—crafted and careening without fear down a creaky wooden slide into the cool green ripples.
Mo is a memory, bittersweet and fragile, like a scoop of Blue Bell in July. Mo is a feeling. Forever and never again—still, inhabiting my heart.
Mo was saxophones, songs, and s’mores. Can this be all that family is?
But now, Mo is a time to remember and to grieve,
held in the river’s lap by day and wrapped in glitter’s blanket by night.
We say it’s not just a place at all.
It flows through all who know Mo—by grace.

The Thing with Feathers

Grief.

It comes in many forms, and its spikey talons dig into your flesh, heart, and soul with varying degrees of force, pressure, and duration.

But there is another layer now, a cacophony of angry, bellicose voices that surround, infiltrate, and pierce us relentlessly—pinging and careening like atomic particles in a supercollider of accelerating chaos. David Brooks said in The New York Times this week, “There are dark specters running through our nation—beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth.”  The reality is that these events in America continue to weigh on us like a mammoth psychic boulder.

And then, there’s the pandemic—manifesting universal grief, a primordial stew of sorrow,  but there is a rancid ingredient in the pot. In this brave new concoction, so many of us are stirring unresolved pain and anger into the mix, which is hindering our ability to care for each other and ourselves. We are stuck, hardened, and adversarial.

Indeed, this creates a challenging milieu for anyone who is grieving a personal loss. But grief is not a competitive sport, as they say. There are as many flavors of grief as there are types of relationships, but I must admit, losing my first-born 26-year-old son 29 months ago in a sudden and violent motorcycle accident tops my list.

And I know loss.

At this point in my life, I have lost everyone in my immediate family, except my precious 24-year-old son, Ian.

  • My marriage in 2000
  • My only cousin, Scott, at 56 in 2007 from alcoholism
  • My mother, Ann, in 2012 after two strokes and a 32-month debilitating illness
  • My father, Everett, in 2014 after shrouding a lifetime of illness and secrets
  • My only aunt, Virginia, in 2020 in isolation due to COVID
  • My only sister Melissa’s presence after Elliot’s death
  • My kitty of 14 years, Patches, in 2020
  • And my dear first-born son, Elliot, in 2018

These are my stages of grief. This is my confederacy of losses, and recently, their collective impact has been both untenable and inevitable, as I come face to face with my own mortality.

Looking back on these years of struggle, I now recognize why everything else in my life has been messy and difficult, exacerbated by that baseline of trauma and turmoil. So these days, I am learning to be gentler with myself. I’m learning to forgive. I remember being completely flummoxed by Elliot’s wisdom on the day of my father’s funeral in 2014.

He mused, “For such a small family, we certainly have expansive abysses to bridge.”

Poignantly astute. And ironically true.

It’s like living a double life sometimes—one where you have to act like everything is OK, fabulous, and sunny all the time—and one where you are constantly overwhelmed and looking for ways to fill yourself with worthiness, love, and peace. The good things always seem to evaporate—so temporal and insubstantial, like the ribbon of smoke from my mother’s cigarette.

I don’t have the answer—far from it, but writing helps me see . . .  helps me understand the truth of what I think and what I feel. Writing also has helped me recognize that finding glimpses of grace, even the faintest glimmers in the middle of the ickiest muck, is not only surprising—it’s necessary. It’s what I need to live, the way I can put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Especially now.  

I also am strengthened by savoring the moments of awe, surprise, and connection more intentionally. Grief is like walking around in quicksand, a strange kind of suspended animation or slow motion that suffocates and separates you from the rest of the world—a bittersweet state that compels you to take a beat, whether it’s in misery or in magic.

And the magic is definitely in the angels, those celestial messengers who just seem to show up—out of thin air. How grateful I am for them, tears welling . . . I’m not sure where I would be without these cherished friends in my life. They appear when I need them most, and they are present in ways I never could have imagined. The mysterious grace of those who just know—they see me, acknowledge my profound pain—and stay anyway. They keep me going. I am writing this because of them. I dedicate this to them.

I only hope I can give other shattered, grieving hearts the same salve, the same presence . . . and in the words of Emily Dickinson, the thing with feathers. That is my meaning. That is my hope. That is my purpose.

Time for Haikus

Last night, I caught the very last story on “60 Minutes.” It highlighted the rare and timeless rituals of Kabuki, still thriving in Japan today. Though this took me back to my days studying theatre at Northwestern, I was reminded of the Japanese word for Kabuki. It means “off-kilter.” Apropos of everything.

Instantly, I also felt Elliot’s presence in the stylized whimsy of this ancient theatrical spectacle. What bittersweet synchronicity that I happened to turn on the television at this very moment on the last dreary Sunday evening of 2020. And since then, I have felt El’s unmistakable zeitgeist all around.

Japanophile was just one of his many monikers—son, brother, nephew, grandson, friend, housemate, boyfriend, wordsmith, poet, alumnus, brilliant iconoclast, IT savant, musician, saxophonist, shakuhachi flutist, composer, music critic, artist, philosopher, pinball wizard, raconteur, Global Payments engineer, volunteer, mission tripper, teacher, journalist, book devourer, bitcoin purveyor, witty conversationalist, “whitish-hat” hacker, tilde.towner, fellow traveler, cool cat, hip nerd, aviation ace, computer game whizz, old soul, restless heart, disarming intellect, insatiable student, reluctant soccer goalie, skeptical theologian, Japanese car aficionado, Japanese motorcycle fanatic, skateboarder, origami master, loose tea connoisseur, and world citizen.

Oh, I know I’ve left out something . . . so much to so many in one wild and precious life.

“That’s OK,” my wise and spiritual friend Sue reassures me, her heart also irreparably torn apart by the loss of her adult son, “As mothers, we cannot ever possibly know the totality of our sons’ existence, the edges of the lives they led,” she muses. “And somehow, that’s strangely healing. They have and always will exist far beyond us.”

Yes, I think that notion is powerful. I take a breath.

And perhaps, it’s grace.

Right now, it’s Elliot’s Japanese thread that dances before me, so it’s no surprise to me that 2020 was my “year of the haiku.” They seemed to flow from me like a gentle mountain stream. I dedicate them now to Mr. Elliot. They greeted me as I walked, as I sat quietly in my office, and often, as I washed my hands—over and over . . .

With these words, I hold you—and all who have struggled and lost so much in this year like no other, as will I for El forever:

Heart
Make it stop—this now
sacred, unquenchable ache,
because you took flight.

Time
In a susurrus,
what is done, always will be—
dissolving the now.

Apart
Life in a bubble—
Hermetic under its veil.
Together alone.

Grave
No other reason.
A grave erratum must be—
Buried on his page.

Lament
Grief’s ambient tears,
Permeating my membranes
inside tomorrow.

Swann
Passed is my future
So now In Search of Lost Time
Still—breaking my heart.

The Only Thing I Had Time to Write

The holidays are tough; they just are, this year in particular. Even in years without global pandemics and the strife of 2020, they serve up a bittersweet concoction of complicated family dynamics, mixed with tidbits of joy, the overwhelming presence of loss—and deeply cherished memories of celebrations past. This is my third Christmas without my son Elliot.

For me, the holidays are something to endure, to get through. But for my dear son Ian’s sake, my priority is to create new traditions for us, fresh memories for him, for me and for us. Easier said than done this year, but being together will be my greatest gift.   

There are plenty of new experiences now. Last weekend, I participated in a deeply moving ritual – the 24th Annual Worldwide Candle Lighting, sponsored by Compassionate Friends, virtual this year. The event honors and remembers children gone too soon. My dear friends Patty and Ken, along with First Unitarian Church, hosted a beautiful Zoom ceremony with profound and intimate meaning for those who struggle every day to pick up the sharp fragments of their shattered hearts.

Whether two days or 20 years, the pain never goes away. It just changes, but still inextricably intertwined with every moment and every breath. What a sacred time this was for those who understand, who know without saying a word, to honor the names and memories of our precious children, sorely missed but never, ever forgotten.

In thinking about how I would honor my extraordinary Elliot, on this day I thought of his poetry. He spoke from the depth of his soul, and I felt compelled to share his inimitable words that continue to resonate and inspire me in my writing each day. I recall with gratitude when Elliot’s University of Toronto poetry professor contacted me via this very blog. Thank you, Ricardo Sternberg, for sharing your admiration for Elliot and his exquisite words, a welcome glimpse of eternity. I read this as his candle burned:

THE ONLY THING I HAD TIME TO WRITE

By Elliot Wright

This cut in my bone
is the cut in yours,
a home for bad infinity;
Cantor’s blade is teething there,
mythic sword in stump.

Time, kindling for consciousness,
julienned, burns like straw,
and pallid smoke smears memory
as sheets of stratus smear the sun.

The clock unspools a fibril
a slender invisible line
for stringing my images along
like a Chinese line of cash–

It’s hard to tell–they’re shaved so thin–
which image here is
derived from the last.

It’s hard to adequately express my gratitude for the First Unitarian community—thoughtful, caring, authentic, and present. Thank you, thank you. Sending love and light to all who suffer in this unbearable darkness. I am with you. My heart is with you.

Living Popcorn Style in Zoomland

Popcorn Style in ZoomlandWe are all navigating untenable times — most of us connecting in isolation and many of us struggling in silence. This COVIDian chaos is our new global zeitgeist. What is normal, anyway? We had been living in our own private Twilight Zone since the 2016 election. But now, we’re conquering a brand-new frontier called Zoomland, where the women don’t wear makeup, the men don’t wear pants — and all the cocktails are above average.

I have at least one online Zoom meeting per day for various reasons — spiritual, professional, and ad hoc/friend (aka  Zoomtails). I guess it makes sense since the phone call became an anachronism in the last decade — especially for the under-30 crowd. My brave new technical world is defined by intermittent internet buffering, waning laptop battery life, and unflattering lighting. First-world problems, but I still find this new communication imperative to be strangely draining. Maybe it’s that I lack the energy to be “on” 24/7, or maybe it reminds me of just how isolated I am.

Adding to the awkward vibe is the practice of “sharing popcorn style” in Zoom groups. I suspect the idea is to allow participants to engage as they are so moved, but I find the expectation uncomfortable in a land of only two dimensions. It triggers my performance anxiety. I always thought I was an extrovert, but living in the depths of profound grief since my son Elliot’s tragic death almost two years ago, I have morphed into an introvert with occasional extrovertish episodes. In Zoomland, I have discovered that introverts simply need more time, and extroverts should probably take more time.

I sit alone in the cozy 10 ft. X 12 ft. room I call my office, staring at a Brady-Bunch array of faces stacked in perfect chessboard symmetry on the screen—  disembodied heads blankly gazing into vague, abstract space. The connection is an illusion, devoid of nonverbal cues and physical energetic exchanges —  except for that cute couple cuddling up in one box. I guess it’s better than nothing.

Should I go? Uh . . . Hello . . .  Argh, my screen froze, or was that someone else’s? Oh, I’m muted! Hello! Can you hear me now? Now? Now! Oh well, someone else started, anyway. I’ll wait. Betty always jumps into the dead air.

There we are, trying to take the edge off our baseline angst, but we are plastered across an electronic wall like a batch of newly apprehended hooligans lined up for our mug shots. This is Zoom lockdown. There also seems to be a heightened sense of self-consciousness on Zoom — ironic since no one has put on “outside” clothes since 2019, and almost everyone has given up all attempts at hair maintenance. Still, every time you speak, you are in that glaring spotlight of exposure without any immediate feedback. Everyone is looking at you  — or at least, the image of you. Or, they are checking out your room décor.

I have decided this “popcorn style” online group dynamic is an apt metaphor for broader pandemic experience. The dizzying randomness of messaging — so rapid-fire and scattershot. All news is breaking, a constant barrage of urgent nonsequiturs — as befuddling as they are horrifying. The extroverts dominate. It’s too much to process, so we don’t. We can’t possibly. Sometimes, I turn it all off to feel better but end up feeling more isolated. So-called leaders and self-proclaimed pontificators are popping their respective corn — on every channel. No plan, no strategy, no conscience. No method to their external madness — exacerbating my clandestine grief.

It’s Only a Test

Wear a mask. No, don’t wear a mask.
A mask does no good — but it might.
We have more than enough PPE. We are giving it away.
We don’t have enough PPE for the front line.
We’re “opening up” for business now. The case numbers are climbing daily.
Inject disinfectant in your lungs. It’s interesting. No, not really.
Just kidding. Are you laughing? I was being sarcastic. Can’t you tell?
No, I wasn’t.
The virus lives for three hours on most surfaces. No, ten. No, five.
We really don’t know.

Test, Test, Test.
Just disinfect everything. But you really can’t.
You may have had COVID already, or you could be asymptomatic.
Or, you probably had it in January or maybe December.
You’ll be fine — unless you are not.
You probably have immunity. If we could test you for antibodies.
But you will probably get it again. In the fall.  We all will.
The antibodies may not be enough.
When it mutates. And it will. Or, maybe it won’t. Or, it already did.

Test. Test. Test.
But we can’t test you right now. We don’t have enough.
Anyone can get a test. If they need it.
But not if they want it. Just ask. But not me.
I’m positive I’m negative.

Test, Test, Test.
But, not yet.
The tests are flawed.
They are broken. We can’t trust them.
We should not have released them. But we need more of them.
Trace all contacts. When? Now? How?
The virus lives in the vents. But it’s not airborne.
Sure, go inside. Have a seat but try not to breathe much.
Have dinner but wear that mask.
Shutdown your salon, but you have the right to open up.
Freedom has a price.

Test, Test, Test.
Sacrifice your life of the economy, silly.
Wipe down your groceries. No need to wipe down your groceries.
Wear gloves. Don’t wear gloves. Gloves don’t help. Wash your hands.
Only 25% of you can go out – go to a restaurant . . . but not to a bar.
But social distance. Just not at the same table.
You need to figure out what 25% capacity looks like. That’s up to you.
Washington doesn’t care –  much. About anything but the election.

Test, Test, Test.
But, don’t go out unless you must. To buy things. OK.
We need you to buy things, more things.
Work to feed our kids. The virus is deadly to kids.
Go to the store. Stay at home.
Don’t buy meat, but the packing plants will stay open.
Don’t buy toilet paper. The supply chains are fine.
Go to the movies. The theaters are closed.
Go outside. Don’t go to the parks.

Because—
There’s no vaccine. We are working on it though.

Popcorn style, it is — like living in a Twitter feed, asynchronous messaging and desynchronous realities. About 50% of us long for compassionate, competent leadership — demoralized by complete empathic failure, peppered with pernicious pouts. Unpredictability is the only constant.

At home, I am grateful for my shelter, but the walls are closing in. I have millions of things to do, but I do not accomplish much. Spinning my wheels. Then, suiting up to go out, decontaminating upon return, and again and again. All those Zoom meetings in between. I am busy but empty and scared —  about our world, mostly.

Every day unfolds differently than I expect — but wrapped in soul-numbing sameness. My days progress popcorn style. What day is it, anyway? Perhaps, the pandemic is internal. There is no plan. Is that the lesson? Be grateful for the ambiguity, Elaine.  Breathe. Soak in nature. Be gentle with myself. Peace is an inside job. But, hey, that’s another story . . .  for which I will need plenty of popcorn.