Cherishing Elliot’s Memory Forever:  Building a Fund to Empower Dreams and Perpetuate Hope

I’m not sure why.

But I have had trouble moving forward with setting up a fund to honor my son Elliot’s memory. Peculiar, because typically, my to-do list is my go-to coping mechanism. Human doing, as opposed to human being, as they say, but I‘m learning. Still, this particular task has overwhelmed me in persistent ways since Elliot’s shocking death three years ago. Maybe the concept of a memorial fund is just too much to bear on top of everything else. Or maybe it’s because Elliot’s passions defined him so thoroughly that containing them in an administrative apparatus feels inadequate. Regardless, as Roland Barthes states in his brilliant book, Mourning Diary, “The finality of death is unavoidable.” 

Maybe I’m just stuck in denial.

But it’s a murky, dark, and anxiety-producing kind of denial. From the lingering questions about what actually happened that horrible day, to festering fantasies of his being spirited away by some secret dark-web intrigue, to a myriad of other what-ifs and inconsistencies, there’s no relief. Only an agonizing series of dead ends that fail to scumble the sharp edges of my broken heart.

Grieving this way feels excruciating and relentless.

As I travel down this exhausting and painful road, surrounded by a pandemic and a world in constant turmoil, I have come to realize that it is imperative that I recognize and cherish every shift, every exhale, every glimmer of possibility—no matter how tiny. Though they are not always easy, these baby steps are where meaning lurks, and in grief, meaning is essential for survival.

Therefore, I am taking a step.

Elliot’s father, Max, and I have decided to move ahead with creating a donor-advised fund with the Communities Foundation of Texas in memory of our sorely missed son, Elliot Everett Wright. We are still ironing out the details, but we will be launching it soon. And you will have the opportunity to participate as we amplify Elliot’s memory together.

Here are some initial musings . . .  

The Elliot Everett Wright Tsundoku Fund: Empowering curiosity, passion and purpose in memory of one wild and precious life—well-loved and well-lived, but far too short.  

We lost Elliot Everett Wright, our brilliant 26-year-old first-born son, on August 5, 2018, in a sudden and tragic single-vehicle motorcycle accident in Dallas, Texas.

A remarkable human, Elliot had more passions and interests than are possible to name, many emerging from books. And as a confirmed Japanophile, as well, he was wryly fond of the concept of tsundoku, the practice of collecting books—so many in fact, that they surround you in piles everywhere, read and unread. I believe this notion is quintessential Elliot—reflecting his insatiable curiosity on so many levels. His Uncle Doug said it best in his eulogy, “Elliot was a perspicacious boy—and the closest thing I knew to a human encyclopedia.”

In this spirit, we are creating a special fund in his memory—to fuel fervent passions that make dreams come true. Having ignited so many lives during his truncated time on earth, Elliot’s spark will never be extinguished. Through his “tsundoku fund,” he will continue to brighten the minds and hearts of fellow travelers, artists, learners, rebels, scholars, musicians, poets, and raconteurs who share his “perspicacity.”

Like piles of books, their projects are ”journeys ready to be taken,” but they require an angel gift, a timely contribution. The fund will likely consider proposals of all types—with a focus on education, literacy, music and travel. Currently, we are thinking grants may support:

  • Scholarships
  • Fees for classes, workshops or online certifications  similar to the one he pursued in Red Hat Linux programming that changed his professional life)
  • Travel to explore or study
  • Instructor-led lessons/training for any high-stakes pursuit, such as riding a motorcycle or flying an airplane
  • Open-source coding, music or literacy initiatives

Tax-deductible contributions will be welcome when the fund’s link goes live.

So, stay tuned . . . Please share your thoughts and ideas with me.

A View of the Summit: A Writing Retreat’s Unexpected Narrative Arc

It felt like kismet when I received the email.

“I’m writing because we just had a cancellation on the St. Paul writing retreat, and you’re number one on the waiting list,” it said.

And there it was — the inciting incident that launched my story.

When everything seemed to fall into place, I felt confident the August retreat would provide a welcome creative escape and a nurturing 60th birthday present to myself. After all, August is the most wicked of months. Since the death of my oldest son, Elliot, in August 2018, conflated with too many profound losses in recent years, I have written to grieve — and frankly, survive. Finding my writing roadmap was my objective for the week, but the universe had its own unique take in that.

Little did I know, this retreat would become the subject of my writing, as opposed to the enabler of it.

Perhaps that’s why the impact has been so seismic. Kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I was searching for something outside myself to help heal my shattered soul. But what I encountered was the startling real-time reality that said process is — and always will be — an inside job.

I realize now this transformative experience was less about my creative path and more about my grief journey.

Though I thought I had packed light, I arrived with some extra baggage. Turns out grief behaves like a clingy companion who never checks out and never leaves — brazenly taking up residence in every cell of your body. Sometimes, I feel like my son Ian’s lizard, Carlton, except I can’t ever seem to shed my stiffening outer layer of skin.

So, for this grief-ladened former extrovert, jumping into a bubbling broth of bright, witty women — who also happen to be ten perfect strangers — was a little like diving headfirst into 35-degree plunge pool. Game on, sister. Like riding a bicycle, yes, but also a stark reminder that I have become a completely different person since Elliot’s death.

“Be gentle with yourself,” said one of the angel voices in my head.

On paper (or online), this immersive writing experience felt almost magical — the “Oz” of writing retreats but still layered with complexities. At the top of the list was the pandemic. It was my first time on a plane in a year and a half. In her follow-up email, retreat leader Jess Lourey assured me they were following “Minnesota COVID guidelines,” and they had cut the attendance in half. It still felt strange. Then, there was the Twin Cities location — packed with backstory for me, now viewed through the traumatic lens of George Floyd’s tragic murder last year.

On the plus side, there were memories from my salad days as an intern in the mid-1980s at The Guthrie Theatre, including wacky adventures with my college pal Peter, who was a Minnesota native. It was a time when anything felt possible. From Mary Tyler Moore to Prince to friends in the area, it seemed like the ideal destination after an extended period of debilitating grief and isolation. There would be yoga, meditation, healthy food, and a community of brilliant women, peppered with sassy literary insights from Jess, accomplished writer and professor.

As I approached the shadowy Summit Avenue manse on that first day, it dripped with 19th century charm in a Grey Gardens sort of way. Its cluttered elegance felt both inviting and unsettling. Shabbier than chic, the front porch was festooned with overgrown hanging plants and clusters of peeling lounge chairs with faded cushions. Dangling strands of greenery enveloped the tattered lanai like a lacy antique tablecloth draped over my long-deceased grandmother’s dining table.

My room was on the so-called “garden level,” termed euphemistically since the vine-wrapped transom windows, barely peeking above ground level, had probably not been cracked open since 1925. I tried to appreciate the quaint appeal, but I was struggling to sleep and breathe in the dank basement room with no air conditioning. And the fans they dug out of the closet did not help the sullied, stagnate air situation at all. It felt like a blast furnace at night.  

This was not my beautiful retreat, nor the 60th birthday experience I had envisioned. Once again, my yin clobbered my yang. The blessing and the curse;  bitter and sweet; excruciating and transcendent. It was overwhelming, really—a mosaic of epiphanies, fears, tears, laughs, gold nuggets, connections, wine, hugs, more tears,  sleepless nights, perspiration, Kleenex, mucus, chocolate, thick coffee, and abundant charcuterie.

Let’s just say it was complicated.

In particular, a worsening runny nose and cough came into full bloom on day two, and an IM to my doctor to check symptoms resulted in what I feared.

“Yes, Elaine, get a  COVID test,” she instructed. “The variant is causing milder breakthrough symptoms in vaccinated people.”

I shared my concern with Cindy, one of the hosts, and she said, “Oh dear. I’m sorry. We don’t have liability insurance to drive you to get a test.”  

I was stunned, but fortunately, angels on earth do exist because Lea, my retreat compatriot, came my rescue. Survival mode is my natural state, so I did what was hardest for me—asked for help. My therapist would say I was over-functioning, but I needed a ride. Lea had driven from Rochester, Minnesota, my pal Peter’s hometown, so she had a car. We had hit it off on day one. I knew Lyft would not drive me to get a test, and I had no transportation.

Though I was vaccinated, I could not rest until I knew my status. How could I run the risk of infecting the retreat bubble with COVID? What would happen then? No one was masking. After all, I had come for Texas, where hospitalizations were rising. I was feeling my anxiety ramp up. Handling this was distracting and stressful, to say the least. Shattered any Zen vibe that might have been brewing. And a COVID test was definitely in sync with a restorative retreat I imagined. 

After extensive online searching with my dear Lea’s help, we found the only test available that day at a sketchy “emergency” COVID lab located in the industrial outskirts of St. Paul. It required prepayment, but I was game. We hit the road like Lucy and Ethel trying to find William Holden at 21. It was as hysterical as it was annoying. There were even some madcap antics when we could not find the poorly marked entrance behind the thick, uncut grass. We thought it was scam.

Lord, we giggled and gasped our way across the Twin Cities, laughing through our tears. And miraculously, for a couple of hours that afternoon, I felt my crusty lizard-grief skin dissolve into a puddle of silliness. For just a brief moment or two, I felt like me again — me with a cold, that is. Thank you, Lea for that unexpected glimpse of joy and your extreme generosity.

Not surprisingly, more intrigue ensued as I had to follow up when the results did not appear as promised within an hour. Apparently, the technician had stepped out for some wild rice soup, I guess, but they eventually found him, and it was negative. Thank God.

Back to our program in progress, Jess, our charming, brilliant and earthy retreat guru, was deep into her spectacular curriculum. It’s all a little foggy to tell you the truth, but I can tell from my notes that she offered a keen understanding of how to construct a narrative. It was all about finding clarity and giving yourself permission to sink into the power and value of your story. She was a font of practical knowledge, too — all the brass tacks and tricks to get ’er done. Meanwhile, Cindy, her perky and polished partner in crime, orchestrated our delicious moveable feasts and morning yogas with unflappable panache. Exhaling felt good — especially when the congestion cleared a bit.

But the heart connections among the women were the highlight. It’s ironic that words elude me to adequately describe the experience of a writing retreat, of being in the presence of these amazing soul sisters, but that’s probably because it feels as ephemeral as the tiny fuchsia morning glories that bloomed for only an hour or so in the sprawling backyard each day. Finding authentic community is rare — particularly in the brave new pandemic world. There was a little Oz in the mix.

So, in spite of the mayhem, I believe this week was a long overdue investment in my muse and myself. It taught me to go on cherishing the beauty in the tiniest glimmers of grace. I am grateful for the memories, motivation, momentum, and minor mending of my fractured heart. And I could not wait to get home to my air-conditioned bedroom.

Because there’s no place like home.

It’s All Grief to Me: 5 Things Grievers Would Like to Hear

Thankfully, I have found several groups for bereaved parents on Facebook. Yes, they are the yin to Facebook’s otherwise troubling yang, but the shattered hearts convened in them are full and present. They weave together the bitter and sweet, the dark and the light, the loss and the love. Thinking of Leonard Cohen’s wisdom, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

These sacred conclaves provide safety and warmth in the midst of grief’s pervasive miasma. They have exacting parameters, like “Loss of an Adult Children,” “Sudden Death,” “Parents Who Have Lost Sons,” and “Refuge in Grief.” And their openheartedness is as transformative as it is devastating. In fact, their kind words often keep me functioning on my worst days. It’s a level of knowing no one else possesses. 

Part of the pain of living with the death of a child is the ancillary awkwardness of engaging with other people in the world every day. The tragic reality of losing a child is a stark identity that seeps into every interaction, whether expressed on the outside or fiercely contained on the inside. Every conversation is a reminder, ladened with trenchant decisions about what to say, how to say it or whether to say it at all. It’s like having two or three people arguing inside your head all the time.

A recent question on one of these precious groups sparked a deeper dive into my own lexicon of grief. A member posted, “What do people say that helps you most?” This intrigued me, as I thought taking inventory of what resonates with this group of irreparable hearts might help other humans who stumble around those struggling with grief or who avoid them completely.

Let’s start at the top. This list is full of contractions, but then, so is grief.

  1. Nothing

Say nothing. This might seem counterintuitive, but it makes perfect sense. This is about just being present, just saying you are present. That’s all. In pre-COVID times, it meant hugging, sitting next to you on the couch or just holding a hand silently. I think this is the ultimate comfort in grief—like sitting shiva in Judaism. You don’t have to talk or offer beverages or speak. Just be. Allow the pain without fixing, evangelizing, entertaining, cajoling or minimizing. Human presence is a divine gift and a relief. In writing, it translates as “I have no words, but I am here.” Or “my heart is with you.” The grace is in the spaces between.

2. “I am here.”

“I am here” gives a voice to the above. This response ranked high. As grief guru David Kessler says, “Grief must be witnessed to be healed.” Strange but true. “I am here.” “I see you.” “I hear you.” “I am here for you.” “I am here anytime, day or night.” “I am here when you need to talk or when you don’t want to talk.” This is the power of presence.

3. Say their names, share their memories

Casual acquaintances frequently shy away from saying my son Elliot’s name, and they sometimes visibly cringe if I do. But I love it when someone asks, “Will you share a favorite memory of Elliot?” Or says, “Let’s talk about Elliot. Remember when he  . . .” or “I want to tell you a story you might not about Elliot.” Saying their names keeps their memories alive—so personally and poignantly. The invitation to share a memory somehow propels his memory into the present moment instantly. He doesn’t feel so gone. For a brief  moment, it’s more sweet than bitter.

4. “I will never comprehend your pain.”

Every grief is different—as unique as every loss. Though we may share commonalities in our stories, the essential pain is our own. Offering acknowledgement of this can be very comforting and healing—like a specially compounded ointment. “I can’t possibly begin to know your pain or how you go on.” “I have no idea what you are going through, but I am here for you in any way I can be.” I suppose this is a riff on “I am here,” adding the shared dimension of incredulity.

5. Speak from your heart

You don’t have to fix. Just feel. “My heart breaks.” “My heart hurts.” “My heart bleeds.”  “My heart is next to yours.” “My heart is with you.” There is something visceral and intimate about these statements. It’s both physical and emotional. Elliot will always live in my heart and in the hearts of all those who adored him—the agony and the joy in one place.

I am in no way suggesting we should script such things. Far from it, but I would like to see us cultivate a greater ease and openness with loss—allowing space for its enormity to expand. It is scary, but we are here on the earth to be in relationship—to be better at being human in the hard times.

But as a grief-averse culture, we simply don’t have the everyday language around life’s most painful events. I find this ironic since the pandemic has made the immediacy of grief as much a part of life as the joy of birth. And yet, the social dialogue is still tense, brittle and detached. So much so, we continue to default to the perfunctory, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” How did this happen? I’m sorry . . . for your loss? It does not even make sense. You don’t need to apologize for my loss. And “sorry” is a flimsy word, like trying to put out a fire with a Dixie cup. Just feels inadequate.

In the ebb and flow of the pandemic, we are in a both/and world—forced to learn a new way to be as we live. There is no new normal. Perhaps, a new tolerable—with the occasional glimmer of joy. I want to learn to carry the loss and the love together, the grief and the grace. Grief will always be a part of who I am down to the marrow—not just something that happened to me I have to get over. The tap dance of OK-ness is utterly exhausting. But the dark pit of despair is no place to exist, either.

So, I’m not going to list the ridiculous clichés. You’ve heard them. You may even say them. (No judgement.) But here are a few other great words worth sharing from the collection:

This totally sucks, but I’ve got you.”

“I want to know everything about Elliot—when you are ready.”

“You will get to a place where the sting of the pain softens a bit. Until then, I will be here for you every step of the way.”

“I love you. You are loved . . . always.”

“It’s OK to not be OK for as long as it takes. Allow yourself to feel and grieve at your own pace.”

“If you want to share your pain, I will catch what I can. I am here to sit or listen, and hold a space for you.”

“I can’t take your pain away, but I do have a shoulder to cry on and ears to listen.”

Megan Devine, another one of my grief gurus says, “Acknowledgement makes things better even when they cannot be made right. It’s a radical act to allow others pain and sit beside them with it.” In the end, grief is love.

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 probable connections to the cosmic unconsciousness, like “Quantum Ghosts”.

Could it be true that everything really is happening at the same time—like some quantum ball of tangled twine in another dimension of the time and space continuum? 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 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.  

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“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 Woolworths 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. 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—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 plaque. 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.

The 3 Cs of Grief

The gravity of grief is exhausting. I am talking about the micro and the macro of it—the micro being the weight of my own personal confederacy of  losses, and the macro, the gestalt of the world in crisis—the pandemic, isolation, climate change, social injustice, QAnon, Texas’ incompetent leadership, gun violence, the pain of lost children at the U.S. border seeking sanctuary, and the list goes on. Lately, I feel like I have hit a wall, a saturation point that has tarnished all my silver linings.

Most days, I find this perpetual state like a heavy weighted blanket, paradoxically as agitating as it is confining. (That might be my CPTSD talking.) But let’s face it—if you are human, you are dealing with crappy stuff. It’s part of the package, and the last year, two or four, have been tough for all of us. Grief is ubiquitous. Grief is insistent. Grief is oppressive. Grief is obstinate. Grief is transformative. It changes who we are because it changes the way we rub against the world. And yet, it is also one of the most potent reminders of our inherent humanness. As so many smart people have posited, we grieve to the degree we love. So, for those of us who suffer most, grief is never going away, but it may morph. And the exact way it morphs is as individual as a snowflake.  

That’s why addressing and processing grief head-on is essential.  I feel like I have a PhD in the subject by now, but that’s why I talk about so much. It’s what I feel called to do. My meaning. David Kessler, a gentle grief guru, says so eloquently:

Grief must be witnessed. Something profound happens when others see and hear and acknowledge our grief. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Conversely, something goes wrong when it remains unseen.

Profound and true, because the vulnerability of being witnessed authentically is what  restores your sense of wholeness and safety—even if it’s just for a nanosecond. And with a continuous queue of compassionate witnesses, we begin to truly transform and reach a place where we can carry the weight of the  grief burden—and eventually, carry on. We feel carried by the whole, and we realize we need community to heal.

Truly, acknowledging and validating grief is the most gracious gift you can give a broken heart. It opens up a space to breathe and thereby connect. It is the definition of grace, and regardless of your faith proclivities, grace is the place where we encounter the divine. There are no magic words required. You don’t even have to apologize. You really don’t need to say you are sorry for my loss or anything like that. This might be a new catchphrase or hashtag. Grief means never having to say your sorry. Just say you are present, and you cannot begin to comprehend the gravity of my loss. “There are no words. I am here.” That’s it. I consider those who can sit in silence or simply walk alongside me to be my angels on earth.

Still, grief in our culture is tricky because it’s the elephant in room—which translates into instant awkwardness. We don’t have the language for loss. We have never developed the interpersonal grief muscle, but why? Loss is universal, and being seen is the most potent balm. It’s just the closeness, context, and confluence of the loss (or losses) than can tip the scales, adding even more weight. Perhaps these are the three Cs of grief?

Closeness. This is nature or depth of the relationship. Though grief is not a competitive sport, there is particularly devastating wallop losing a child packs. It’s out of order and  life altering—even setting all other aspects aside. No matter how complicated the connection might have been, losing a child is like losing an appendage. You can technically go on living, but you have to relearn how to do everything.  In losing my spectacular and sometimes frustrating Elliot, I find the love and pain often conflate (another C). That intensifies the ache that erupts in these startling moments when I am unable to breathe or stop the sobs. Indeed, context is also a vexing conundrum. (Another C or two.)

Context. This refers to the particulars of your life at the time of the death and after. These factors are inescapable. The context has felt like a tightening vice around my experience. Elliot had found his groove. He had just scratched the surface of his potential. Tragic on so many levels. I just can’t bear it, so I  just keep moving. I try to muster empathy for myself, but it’s a challenge. I am training myself to acknowledge the tough feelings and release them. I’m kind of an emotional nomad—living on the edge and trying not to dwell in the stagnate stew underneath for any length of time. I feel so detached and untethered. Thank God, I have my moments of precious connection with friends but nothing durable. Some days, maintaining the “I’m OK” exterior is so exhausting I just mentally vamp. Tread water. Barely. Put one foot in front of the other. That’s all I can do. Yet something about this bifurcation in the isolation of my silent, compact office in front of three computer screens makes it even more debilitating.          

Confluence.  The pieces of me, the factors that have come together in this life now—after Elliot. As a single mom of a 24-year-old son, I must constantly remind myself to give my Ian the space he needs to forge his own path. That’s both difficult and easy.  Beautiful and desolate. Fulfilling and draining. I feel I am performing over the center ring without a net, flying the airplane without a parachute—when all I really want is a safe place to land. Emphasis on “safe.”

I know I need to find a way to be in the world. Half of me feels like it no longer operates in sync with the rest of me—the definition of yin and yang. Numb, heavy, confused and anxious. Time is sluggish and accelerating—all at the same time. Perhaps it’s the lumbering repetitiveness of COVID existence—sorrow, grief and isolation make an unappetizing cocktail.  I have lost that unconscious optimistic autopilot that helped me know I would be OK; I would figure it out one day. But now, everything is hard, feels off center and precarious in this context of fear and uncertainty  It’s hard to flex the over-functioning muscle that’s always been my default coping mechanism. I guess my grief therapist would say that’s progress, but I say it’s harrowing. Definitely accounts got the vacuousness, the feeling of perpetual flimsiness. And the futility of this awful, new normal existence.

I am constantly aware of the vast, dank abyss I teeter over. Sounds dramatic, I know, but I am a half, maybe even a third of a person now. Am I missing the part that died with Elliot? Will my heart regenerate. Will my soul? I want the comfort and connection others can bring and simultaneously want to be with alone. I have no interest in banter, but it used to be my fuel, my raison d’etre. Still, I am grateful for so much—an extraordinary son, caring friends, my writing, a new job that challenges me, and a lovely roof over my head.

I am different now.

And maybe, there are more than 3 Cs—maybe five, six of seven. They all apply at one time or another, but the most important one is not a C at all. It’s a G—grace. Cherishing those transcendent moments that remind me I am part of something much bigger than my own rumination.

I must keep clearing the space to let in the light.

House of Comfort

I am honored to be included in this beautiful collection of art, poetry, and essays. “House of Comfort” is part of a series compiled by Gretchen Martens for The Retreat House Spirituality Center in Richardson, Texas. It’s a deeply moving journey—poignant yet powerful, intimate yet universal. Here is a taste:

The Gap

Off-kilter—
Everything feels out of whack,
out of sync—
Uncomfortable in my own skin.
Is there a place between the yin and the yang?
Where nothing and everything meet?
The push and the pull.
The yes and the no
Bitter and sweet
To and fro
Black and white
Pleasure and pain
Progress and regress
Abel and Kane
Now and forever
You and me
Off and on
Captive and free
Stuck there. I am
Like Scylla and Charybdis
the space in between
but filled with emptiness.
What should I do?
[My favorite FAQ.]
Nowhere feels right.
Says the voice in my head,
“Wherever you go, there you are,”
Who is it? Can’t shake it. So bizarre.
Since I lost so much.
Since I lost my baby boy,
Since I lost
My bearings. My heart. My joy.
The thread I hang by.
“Get over it. Buck up.”
[Programming reverb.
Doesn’t it suck?]
How I’ve tried to retool and rewire.
All the trauma and the pain.
Yet tears fall fast in the blink of my eye
“Isn’t it just such a shame?”
A wisp, faint susurrus—Elliot’s breath?
To feel. To embrace. No regret.
To listen. To wonder. To hold. To know.
But where? How? Where did he go?
And where is he now?
“I am here, mom,” he said.
But not really at all.
Mysterious. Dead.
As in life. So prickly
on the other side.
But it’s not right.
Out of joint.
Out of order.
Out of my mind.
I just can’t think.
So many questions.
Nary an answer caught in my sigh.
To how? To what if? And still to why?
Without parent nor child.
Both gone in between.
Mostly alone, half-mother unseen.
A daughter, a sister, a cousin,
a niece, a granddaughter—
not. Rest but no peace.
Together. Alone.
By myself.
There, I go the darkest place,
my miasma in tow.
“You’re fine. Buck up,” she says with a grin.
Not until I feel. [Who said that?]
“Oh, just take it on the chin.”
Those voices are real.
But what I did not expect—
I am here by grace—
to forgive, not forget.

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.