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.

Rabbit Rabbit

I saw another rabbit blur
across my path today.
“Say rabbit, rabbit”
on the first day of the month—
for luck

For today,
tomorrow and
yesterday, still
braided in
conflating ache.

I saw a rabbit.
in a lush garden—
on a blustery day
of grace, all about grief
stricken souls
longing to fill chasms
of anxious loss.

Pain and peace together,
as one, contained
in this quiet space—
sacred, witnessed
healing.

But where are you going?
Where are you now?
Is that you . . . a sign?
So urgent and quick.
Darting—
across the graveled grass
playground, where
your brother once ran.

I follow but cannot catch you.
I tiptoe but cannot touch you.
I reach out but cannot hold you
in this life,
“late for a very important date”
in your quixotic Wonderland.

Detached but curious,
Elusive but Spirited
Away—forever
Hiding in the shrubs.

Leaving me,
heart-heavy,
heart-sick,
heart-full.

May your mischief
with my mourning
mix
in memories,
and mysteries,
everlasting
love

The Nature of Grief: How I Learned to Pray

HELP. THANKS. WOW.

The brilliant  Anne Lamott says these are the only words you need to pray in tough times, and they are resonating with me deeply at the moment. Anne is a wordsmith of the most succinct order. Love this—especially since I have been grappling with the concepts of pray and faith for much of my life—but more so, lately.

As Anne demonstrates, prayer does not have to be complicated, but it can be tricky. I think she and I are on the same page about what it’s not—a wish list for existence or a direct line to the heavenly fulfillment department. In fact, I have intentionally discarded the practice of praying for thingsfor outcomes and events that I want or wish to prevent for myself or others.

Prayer does not work like that. At least, it never has for me. I don’t see God as a short-order cook or a divine delivery service. Wouldn’t that be nice? Order up! But if God functioned like an anthropomorphic Amazon.com, I think we’d have a very different kind of world. Grace delivered—overnight? Imagine . . .

Regardless, I’m thinking the universe’s operating system could use a reboot, as Elliot would always recommend when things got stuck in my cyberworld. Or possibly, a scalable upgrade? Doesn’t a cloud-based solution make perfect sense? Just sayin’. But I digress.

I may sound a little jaded, but I come by it honestly. I have been traveling this bumpy spiritual road for more than half a century, with my tail up over the dashboard, as my dad used to say. So instead, I now pray for alignment with divine order, that is, the radical acceptance of what is—and the strength to live with whatever happens in this world I don’t comprehend, whatever that might be.

After the death of my oldest son, Elliot, forever 26, almost three years ago in a still-unexplained motorcycle accident, I know that praying for anything specific is pretty much pointless. There is some greater agenda far above my paygrade at work. I have even tried praying in present tense: He is safe. We are whole. There are no guns. COVID is eradicated . . . the list goes on. But that’s not it, either, because the vastness of all creation is simply beyond all knowing. Period. 

I have gathered lots of empirical data on this. My conversations with God have been constant and frequent for as long as I can remember—when Elliot was riding those damn motorcycle(s), driving those Hot Wheel-sized Miata roadsters —and indulging in other more ambiguously risky behaviors, of which I have only sketchy knowledge. And when I was  navigating the terminal illnesses and dysfunctions of the rest of my dwindling family.

I think the playwright analogy feels most apropos. Could Hamlet ever ask Shakespeare for a different outcome? “Dear Will, uh, I’ve changed my mind. I really do believe in marriage. Can you forget about what I said about that nunnery thing?” Or could George and Martha prayerfully seek divine guidance and couple’s therapy to disentangle their codependent vitriol in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Nope, not going to happen—impossible. It’s not part of the construct. The two worlds will never directly intersect.

Here’s what I do know.

All we can do is hold others (and ourselves) in our hearts and minds with compassion—wrapped in the fierce energy of love and light. I believe prayer is more about recognizing and summoning God’s universal love to fill our own souls with peace and comfort. People say prayer “works,” but I’m not sure exactly what that means. Yet I do believe in the electricity of prayer—the dancing quarks of psychic energy that ricochet in our hearts and out into the quantum field. That’s the essence of God—in all of us. I have definitely felt that phenomenon—like the waves of love engulfing me on Elliot’s 29th birthday last week. Yes, prayer is real — but not in an “I’ll have fries with that” sort of way. We have no clue what’s driving this massive creation business. None. More questions than answers. A complete mystery. We love in spite of all of it—not because of it all.

I became obsessed with this prayer notion following a profound  Faith and Grief retreat I was invited to attend two weeks ago. The leaders, Mike Shaw and Fran Shelton, brought a gentle, Christian perspective, but the experience was faith agnostic, open and affirming of all spiritual paths. There were no dogmas, no rules. The space was a loving container of inclusiveness, breath and spirit. Nourishing, bittersweet grace.  

We convened to consider the wisdom of the Clifton Strengths, a business-performance coaching tool, in the context of grief. As we identified and unpacked our unique personal strengths, we also were encouraged to expose and sit with the most uncomfortable truths of grief, such as lament, guilt and anger. Feeling our emotions fully is essential to forging the strength to live with devastating loss and find a way to carry grief and gratitude simultaneously. I am deeply grateful for this loving group—and the mystery that has enfolded me through their support.

Mystery is part of grief, death and life, too. It’s ambiguous, ephemeral and vague, but at the same time, it might be the only safe place for my heart right now, still shattered and precarious. There is a sort of cosmic mooring in the acceptance of not knowing. And yet, it’s also so unsettling.

Mystery is my only certainty.

I think that’s why my fascination with nature has intensified so—like being mesmerized by a spiderweb. It’s a potent symbol of the persistence of creation, the unending circle of life, and our microscopic place in the scheme of all things—another concept that is both comforting and overwhelming. I’m reminded of an image from a late-career Eagles song, “Waiting in the Weeds”:

The ebb and dart of a small gray spider spinning in the dark,
In spite of all the times the web is torn apart.

I love these lines  so much, and I am energized by connecting dots. The exercise grounds me somehow, giving me a place in the grand mosaic of things—a sense of value, a way to be, belong and contribute. That’s probably why I am such an avid collector of information and asker of questions—to accumulate more data and fodder for connections. After all, it’s one of my Clifton Strengths—Input. But lately, there are just too many questions with inadequate answers. No answers to so many and many, too heavy to carry.

I am weary.

I’m tired of my own curiosity. So many questions that lead to pain, confusion and despair. Oh, how I want the moment to be enough, free of all the baggage, but I am such a different person now. I can’t get used to it. I want to feel more like the “Possibilities Elaine,” again, more hopeful and content. Perhaps, as I continue to notice nature’s eternal cadence, my heart will feel more at ease. I will cherish my oneness with creation . . . and with the raw mystery of it.

The ironic addendum is that in the wake of questioning prayer at the Faith and Grief retreat, I wrote a prayer. As Hamlet would say, “There’s the rub.”

Source/God:
Help me accept the deep mystery of all creation—
that is beyond, all knowing, as I carry the bitter and
the sweet in peace that is beyond, all understanding
my thanks for the Divine gift of your love everlasting.

Help me harness my unique strengths and talents.
to see, serve and enrich others—enveloping
me as I find meaning in the darkest of hours and
glimmers of grace in the deepest of sorrows.

Help me embrace your infinite comfort and
wisdom in the profound acceptance of what is—
as I encounter each new moment in wonder
and gratitude for this “one wild and precious life.”

Wow, Elaine

What are your thoughts about grief and prayer? I would be honored to connect.

Imitating Art: Between the Method and the Madness

“Why do you wear black all the time?” Medvedenko asks.

“I’m in mourning for my life, I’m unhappy,” replies Masha.

These familiar lines that open “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov may feel a little stiff and melodramatic out of context, but there is truth in them. This classic nineteenth century drama set on a Russian country estate explores universal themes that transcend time and place, such as love, fame and regret. So, the fact I resonate with Masha’s malaise is not surprising. I have always adored Chekhov. I remember recreating many iconic moments during my thespian days at Northwestern—cavorting through waist-high snow in the bitter sub-zero cold.

“This is just so Chekhovian!” we’d announce between the method and the madness.

It’s been decades since then, but the poignant words possess a different kind of relevance today. Mourning is draining. And most days, I am merely surviving. That said, I know that mere survival is not sustainable. It’s not living, but I think I’ve lived there most of my life. Gratefully, there have been countless glimmers of joy and grace along the way, but I think it’s time to recalibrate—to find new and durable meaning, since the worst of all nightmares has happened.

Is that what my grief is trying to tell me?

When I ask grief that question outright, the short answer is this: “Well, Elaine, this totally sucks, and you are completely screwed.” However, if I sit with it a bit and get curious, I discover some nuances and layers. Though the pain of losing my brilliant and complicated 26-year-old son Elliot Everett Wright far exceeds all other losses in my life combined,  I find it also acts as a kind of an accelerant, like a flammable substance CSI might detect in the ashes after a horrific fire. Grief is a ubiquitous, unstable chemical compound that can ignite seemingly innocuous psychological debris in a heartbeat. The spontaneous combustion of new griefs inflaming ancient wounds makes carrying the most unbearable of all losses even more painful.

And while we are pondering incendiary substances, I am reminded of the potent odor of turpentine spirits that would hang in the air and seep into every surface of our suburban house growing up. My mother, Ann Cushing Gantz, a passionate artist who was profoundly frustrated by the fickle art world, liked to repurpose B&M Baked Bean jars to soak her paint-caked brushes. The small, amber-brown containers covered every table, every shelf and ledge in her cluttered studio over the garage—messy and mesmerizing, like an overgrown garden of potted pigment. I can’t think of my mother without catching a whiff of that bittersweet aroma—stringent at times, but strangely appealing. Anything can trigger a grief pang, even years later. And every loss is its own.

Like putting out fire with gasoline, my efforts to quell grief’s urgency simply don’t work very well. And it’s hard to separate it from its grave context. At first, I thought Elliot’s loss had its own private room in my broken heart, but I think compartmentalizing it increases the internal friction. I wish I could find a way to disengage it from the rest of the root system. I don’t want to go under like someone hanging on to a bag of rocks in the middle of a pit of quicksand. 

My grief is shouting at me—but so is everything else. All the experts say I need to feel the ache of this unimaginable loss to find a way to carry it, along with the rest of the baggage I seem to have brought to this place of fresh awareness. I will never reverse the agony of losing my precious Elliot and the relationship we might have had, but one day, I may be able to soften the sharpness of his absence—if I create a space for forgiveness and empathy for myself and the other players in my drama.

“Forgive to live,” Grief says. “But never forget.”

 I guess I’m just not sure what to do next.  

“At this rate, it may combust into a blaze you  cannot extinguish,” Grief warns.

It’s an inside job, as I say so often—getting grounded in the now and establishing healthy techniques to soothe my fractured nervous system. I am no longer that frightened little girl who grew up in an atmosphere of confusion, resentment and secrets. So I need to stop trying so hard to fix things that aren’t mine to fix. It’s all bigger than I can ever imagine—a mystery beyond naming. That is where I need to live.

So now, I’m remembering a different Masha from another Chekhov play:

This Masha says, “I’ll go. . . . I’ve got the blues today, I’m feeling glum, so don’t you mind what I say [laughing through her tears]. We’ll talk some other time . . .

Perhaps, I’ll adopt the countenance of  this Masha—from Act I of “The Three Sisters.” Laughing through her tears. Acknowledging the hurt but finding a way to laugh. She might be on to something. Recently, I read an article recently in The Atlantic that said the expression of seemingly incongruent emotions can actually help moderate intense feelings—tears of joy, smiles of sadness, etc.

“Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions,” asserts Yale University psychologist Oriana Aragón. “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well,” 

Well, Masha, for now, I’m going with that . . . laughing through my tears, and we’ll talk some other time, my dear.

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.  

______________________________________________________

“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.

Shirt, Shakuhachi and Saxophone

Easter is a complicated and befuddling holiday—so many meanings, layers, beliefs, rituals and memories, but one stands out for me. Easter will always remind me of Elliot. In 2014, Easter Sunday just happened to merge with his spectacular fourth-year saxophone recital at the University of Toronto. His precise, riveting and affecting command of the instrument mesmerized and stunned his rapt audience of devote fans. I remember feeling there could not possibly be enough room in my heart to contain the flood of joy, love and pride I experienced in those remarkable moments.

On Easter, I do my best to stay steeped in the beauty of that sacred space seven years ago—which feels like both a lifetime and a heartbeat. As I honor this rare and extraordinary human, forever missed, I endeavor to embrace the grace and joy of this glorious memory—and the notion that love never dies.

So, here are two poems.

One is Elliot’s and the other is mine. I was inspired to write “Saxophone” in a recent poetry class with Megan Adler. We dissected “Shirt” by brilliant musician/poet Robert Pinsky, and I felt a flash of Elliot’s mercurial presence. I paired it with one of Elliot’s most haunting poems, “Shakuhachi,” which describes his love for another eccentric instrument. This piece evokes his unbridled passion for life’s music—and words.

SHAKUHACHI
by Elliot Wright

Someone should not-
ify the authorities—
This can’t belong to me.

I shouldn’t be
allowed to touch it when in
every Japanese

restaurant I’ve been
in they hasten to me with
a fork,

this mendicant ghost’s
pneumatic bamboo carapace,
this severed bundle

of lacquered vacuoles.
Hollowed stock, red bore tender
as a ribbon of

his throat—he who is
surely ululating to-
ward me from the Pure

Land in futile rage.
It came to me woven in
the raft of my

grandfather’s trinkets,
that gregarious poacher,
anxious collector,

lover of things and
strangers—those stop-gap measures
against that vacuum

the mind so abhors.
No wonder, then, that he should
have parted with this

chime-hammer of the
void, this attendant to the
court of nothingness—

this contradiction
given me

SAXOPHONE
by Elaine Gantz Wright

The reeds. The ligature. The body. The bell.
The saxophone’s bourbon-soaked wail lingers—
longing for another coda or infinite reprise

The keys. The mouthpiece. The bow. The crook.
Where is your rarified air, your circular breath—
that was snatched, silent in eternity’s niche?

The tenor. The alto. The soprano. The bari.
Fingers on fire made your practice perfect,
such mania that muted all but your memory

Coltane, Parker, Getz and Halladay—mentors,
brethren, your trenchant troubadours of note—
persistent signs of life and bittersweet balm

Shakuhachi and Linux. Yamaha and Proust—
virtuoso with far too many talents to be
soaring into forever on a regular Sunday

I want one more song on the saxophone,
redux to recall a melody long gone—again
to fill this abyss with your timeless refrain.

Facebook-Found Poetry

I was seduced by a Facebook meme—twice.

And I was so smitten that I posted my own version. It read—”Spell your name, but for each letter, press the first word that comes up in your predictive text.” Who knew this would lead to an enchanting journey? Thank you to Kim Due Vacco and Alex Nicole McConnell for your introductions. Something about the randomness of predictive text captured my imagination, and the string of name-associated words held its own profound, provocative mystery. In some cases, the the obtuse messages felt predictive in an almost astrological or contemporary-version-of-runes sort of way. The oracle of Facebook.

Since I have been marinating in the world of poetry lately, I decided to challenge myself to create a “found” poem. I wondered what might emerge if I compiled these cryptic communications, posted by more than 100 of my Facebook besties, into a coherent (you decide) piece. I love the collective collaboration of this—the genius of the crowd, as they say. Full disclosure though, I did not include every post. I went with my muse and plucked those that felt like they would help me with the overall creative flow. Thank you to all of my eager contributors. This was more fun than I ever fathomed, and I could almost hear Elliot’s snicker as I succumbed to Facebook’s brazen manipulations. Yet the irony is that he triggered the whole thing with my first engagement, which became the first line of my poem. Thank you, Elliot. I appreciate your mischievous ways.

Angels Everywhere

Elliot loved angels in NYC—even
did all.
Very, I did
and now, not more—
and really even after.
Do I—angels need any?
Even love and Ian now exist.

Please have it let—my all
right year.

Get up, your soul up.
Enough.

Let’s look everything
with each lesson
Like you need.
Keep everything
very in need.
And no need can
have everyone
right your love.
And no good enough love—
and
maybe you know we eat the same.
We even need dinner, you.
Good and really you.

Just one night.
Just one a new—
Just about now—everything.
Just use like I expected
Just enough for five reasons,
everyone yesterday

But remember now:
Do everything to the end.
Remember, if they are.

But, both Bobs? And no, no Evanston?
Evansville, really I can’t!

Sorry how and really—if
sorry used sorry
about not sorry
about me.

Very excited, really,
of new I know about—
kids are really early now
Remember, if they are.

So happy about new now — one night,
please enjoy the early read.
Please read it carefully everyday,
but even early right
left you . . .

Peace of life
Love ya’ll

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.