Remembering Aunt Virginia and Terms of Debridement

My fearless Aunt Virginia Thompson died at age 96 on this day in June 2020 from a withering body and what I suspect were lingering complications of undiagnosed COVID she contracted in December 2019 before testing was available. I learned much from our time together in her final years on this earth, including the intensity of her faith and the ferocity of her resolve.

            In May/June of 2018, I accompanied Virginia on her weekly visits to the  Presbyterian Hospital Dallas Wound Clinic. She was treating a stubbornly angry wound she had suffered from somehow hitting the outside of her right ankle on the inside of her wheelchair wheel. It refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options. 

            At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, August 5, 2018, my mercurial first-born son, Elliot Everett Wright, would soar off his motorcycle, over the inadequate barrier on the elevated LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp and into the arms of the angels. Little did I know that this extraordinary human would take his last shallow breath on an otherwise-normal Sunday, at the very same hospital and place where he took his first breath on a Sunday, just 26 years prior. The strange confluence of these significant events still takes my breath away.

            Grief is an obtuse companion—how it ebbs and flows but also is always present. Some days, it takes effort to breathe, and others, I am able to skim along on the surface of things. But I have been thinking about the weeks leading up to the day Elliot died, after which nothing has been the same—the encounters that were, perhaps, preparing me through some strange cosmic stratagem to carry the unbearable one day. On these biweekly visits with Virginia to the wound clinic, I definitely learned something powerful about grief and the importance of pain.

            On our first visit to this chaotic clinic, I was struck by the sheer volume of patients, all seeking some sort of pain relief. There were not enough chairs for everyone. I stood. There were babies, teenagers, grandfathers, society matrons and athletes. Pain is the great leveler. I saw one disturbingly gaunt man slouched in his wheelchair with his bandaged ankle plopped in the lap of a young man with a green mohawk and an illegible tattoo on his exposed upper arm. He might have been his son. The man spoke with a gusto that filled the room. I think he must have been a teacher.

            “I believe in word economy,” he proclaimed. “I read that boy’s paper, and he used commas like he keeps them in a saltshaker.” I chuckled, but no one else in the room reacted.

            “Ms. Thompson!” the out-of-breath nurse shouted as she cracked the door.

            That was Virginia’s married name. More accurately, her “formerly married” name—the fragile identity she’d maintained for more than fifty years after Don left. I grabbed the handles on the wheelchair she usually propels with her own two feet, and we were off down the hall, meeting Dr. Moran at the door.

            “How are you doing?” asked the chestnut-maned doc as she ushered us in.

            “Just fine,” Virginia quipped.

            “This is not uncommon,” said Dr. Moran, “but it’s a bear to heal. It’s a problem of pressure. I’ll bet you sleep on your right side, don’t you? We must offload the pressure. That’s all there is to it.”

            “Offload.” Ah, there’s a lesson, I thought.

            “This is gonna hurt . . . a lot,” she warned as her nurse squirted the swollen, red ankle with lidocaine.

            “This is what we call debridement,” Dr. Moran explained. “We have to remind the body how to heal. We need to remove the dead skin that gets in the way. This sends the body’s healing properties and enzymes to the wound to liquefy the rancid eschar and slough. ”

            Virginia winced and closed her eyes tightly, but I could tell she wanted to show Dr. Moran she could take it, whatever she dished out. Then, I saw one glistening droplet run down her wrinkled cheek.

            “Are you OK?” I asked quietly. I have never seen her register pain, and she has endured much in her life. She nodded.

            “I know that hurt . . .  Uh, Ginny, more lidocaine here,” said Dr. Moran. “We need to rally all the resources we can to heal this bugger.”

            Virginia took a breath as the kind and efficient tech wrapped her puffy leg with focused precision. Moran gave us a list of instructions and pointed us to our next stop—radiology in the main hospital for an x-ray.

            I am grateful for these times with my venerable aunt. She shared so much about her life and so many of my family’s deeply hidden wounds. And this memory reminds me that sometimes the healing process requires a seismic jolt, or two or three—like removing the dead tissue multiple times, if necessary. We can’t let unattended wounds just scab over and pretend like everything is OK while the tissue underneath continues to fester in dank darkness. Ignoring pain does not relieve it. And it takes as long as it takes.

            Yet the loss of a child is a wound that will never heal completely. The tenacious scar tissue in my heart will always be there, but maybe, eventually, I can find a new way to live with the bittersweetness of the disfigurement. And maybe, talking (or writing) about my losses can help me get to that place—kind of like debridement of the spirit. It’s French – from débrider, to remove adhesions or to literally unbridle. Grief must be witnessed to help lift the weight of its bridle. Grief needs air to heal. 

            People may think talking about Elliot, Aunt Virginia, her son, or even my parents will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are the tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. But pain does play a role— signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources—calling in the Navy Seals of the heart. Though the body possesses miraculous organic self-healing capabilities, sometimes the process hits a snag. It stymies, and it needs a little help to progress.

            With grief, we must do just that—debride it, as many times as required. Don’t cover it up with a bandage or pretend you are OK. We are not OK, because the pain of our grief is our barometer of love. That never dies. As complicated as our relationships might have been in life, we never stop loving—particularly those lives we brought into this world. We must revisit the pain that makes us physically wince to move through it. It’s a necessary cringe—with the caveat: Don’t build a condo there.

            We don’t always know why healing pauses, but we do know why pain exists—to tell us something is terribly wrong. Pain is a potent teacher. But senescence can happen to wounds. Senescent comes from the Latin senēscere, “to grow old.” In medicine or biology, it refers to cells that are still metabolically alive— but are no longer capable of dividing. Dormant.  Merely existing, not thriving. That’s why they need attention. Or else the virulence of unattended wounds will manifest somewhere else.

            Therefore, we must tell and retell our stories—that is our task as humans. That is why we are here on the planet. Finding situations and people who will listen and support us unconditionally is essential—people who give us the space to remember our losses and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never completely emerge from this suffocating miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words). In fact, a friend/mentor in my grief support community says that to endure grief, we need two things: faith and community. Together, they help us expand our worlds beyond the loss and give our festering wounds the room to debride.

            Having lost Aunt Virginia, Elliot, and almost all of my family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is constantly conflating, deepening, expanding and shifting—but it is always there. Still, grief is what makes us all excruciatingly human. Let’s fiercely embrace the pain—and each other.

            Godspeed, Aunt Virginia.

Quantum Ghosts

I watched another incisive and provocative film as the snow fluttered into my courtyard this weekend — “A Ghost Story.” It’s a beguiling yet disconcerting film about a woman’s loss of her husband, a musician, in a tragic car wreck close to their home. Aside from its unflinching and brazen gaze at the enormity of grief after a sudden loss, the film explores the concept of the cyclicality of time. It’s the notion that time is not linear — and the past, present, and future are infinitely entangled and concurrently unraveling in the universe’s quantum ball of string.

Shrouded in a bedsheet with eyeholes haphazardly snipped like a trick-or-treater, Casey Affleck appears as the deceased husband trapped in some sort of cosmic purgatory, eerily looming in his wife’s space as he watches over her achingly authentic attempts to grapple with grief. Given its lingering pace, excruciating at times, and perplexing narrative arc, I almost expected to see Rod Serling lurking in the corner, too. I’m not sure if it was the macabre whimsy of the strange, costume-cloaked figure — or the shy, poignant presence of his spirit, but it felt like filmmaker David Lowery peered into my soul for a brief instant.

The real twist comes when the bereaved wife moves out of the house they shared, and the bedraggled ghost remains. He is stuck there for decades, seeing residents come and go, but he also finds himself thrust back into the past — until the spiral of time circles back around again to the couples’ most recent time in the house. In one particularly potent scene, we see the mischievous specter make the very same loud bang on the piano that had awoken the couple at the beginning of the film — when they searched to the living room and were not able to find the source of the noise.

The glimpses of overlapping time and space are both unsettling and comforting somehow. On one hand, they reinforce the omnipresence of those we lose and love, but they also remind me of the peculiar events I experienced around my 26-year-old son Elliot’s death. Two days before his mysterious motorcycle accident, I was at home in the afternoon and heard a crash in my office at home. I ran up the stairs, walked in, and saw my treasured porcelain doll on the floor, shattered.

She was the first doll I ever acquired for my small but precious childhood doll collection. I loved her. We had reunited when I found her in an old, tattered box cleaning out my parents’ house after their deaths in 2014. She had been perched on a shelf of books Elliot had left behind after he moved into his own place. The entire bookcase was filled with his scholarly volumes, always reminding me this was his room, as well as my office — another example of his tsunkoku. It shook me to the core at the time —though I was not sure why. I even mentioned it to Ian, Elliot’s brother who was home from the summer from college. There was no reason she should have fallen that day — no vents nearby and the cat was asleep on the couch downstairs.

I will admit that I do tend to look for connections in unusual places. As I have reviewed the events of that devastating year, 2018, and the months following, I have noticed so many unexplainable synchronicities, events and signs. Though I am confident I will never decode all of them while occupying this earthly plane, noticing them has taught me our knowledge of creation, divine wisdom, time, space and the universe is miniscule.

In fact, last year when I was rummaging around on the internet for answers, I discovered the concept of nonlocality, a quantum theory in which two or more particles exist in interrelated or entangled states remain undetermined until a measurement is made of one of them. When the measurement is made, the state of the other article is instantly fixed, no matter where it is. “In space–time as a whole, it is a continuous interaction extending between past and future events,” said Avshalom Elitzur of the Weizmann Institute of Science So, explaining the unexplainable just got even harder in the non-linear context of time and space.

Boggling.

But this I do know — time might be an illusion, but love is not.

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.

Thanksgiving Looms

Still, I cannot escape the presence of his absence.

As Thanksgiving approaches for the third time since my precious 26-year-old son Elliot left this earth but not my heart, the pain is just as debilitating. Yet it has changed. Now, it’s more of a dull, unrelenting throb or ache—strangely different from the blinding sharpness that took my breath away in those earliest days. This also will be the Thanksgiving that marks the passing of an entire generation in my family with the death of my 96-year-old aunt Virginia in April. And I mourn the passing of Patches, my spirit cat of 15 years, as well.

I am reminded of the revelatory words of a new therapist I have been seeing. She is almost supernatural in her ability to discern the enormity and uniquity of my grief, all its cracks and crevasses. That is its own balm in Gilead. Though she wears one of those plexiglass face shields that makes her look like a part-time astronaut and sits six feet away from me and my crimson damask mask, there is something profoundly healing about the unseen energetic connection between two people that transcends the Brady Bunch squares of a Zoom session. I’ll call her Jackie, and I am exceedingly grateful I found her.

She sees me, the me I am right now in this moment—in all my complicated dysfunction, still struggling to figure out who I am from one moment to the next. And Jackie can definitely identify with the morphing messiness of grief, as she lost her beloved husband about two years ago.

“I think you may have discovered a thin ribbon of space in carrying this heaviness,“ she observes. ”Think of it like the thin layer of air just above the floor’s surface in fire. If you can just find that sliver of oxygen in the room, you can breathe, even if for only a moment.”

I let the profound truth of this statement sink into every pore, cell and membrane. It feels poignantly true, but also elusive and temporal, kind of like my brilliant Elliot was in life. The idea is that this space . . . where the grace happens will eventually expand.

Hmmm, a glimmer of hope, I whisper to myself.

Since that horrible day in August 2018, my life has changed irreparably. But it’s more than that. I have changed—my core being has changed. That might be the most surprising thing about grief. I am not the same person. My soul is different, marred by an opaque, murky stain that no tonic will ever remove. Even my emotional anxieties, which were front and center but healing before he died, have changed. They are much more demanding.

My relationship with everything and everyone has shifted, off kilter and flailing. I’m a Calder mobile that has lost one of its perfectly calibrated arms. I am upside down and inside out. At least, I can say his name without tearing up now. The mornings are the worst, though.  I wake up every morning thinking I am stuck in some sort of lingering nightmare. 

I also find my patience for trivialities and random histrionics is non-existent. Life is simply too short to put up with such foolishness, but at the same time, everything triggers my fear. I am anxious about walking out the front door or speaking to a neighbor who is not wearing a mask. The world has become mostly an antagonistic place—in here and out there, exacerbated by the social, political and health realities that weigh on all of us. That said, I would gladly endure 100 2020s to reverse 2018.  

My ardent quest now, my only option as I see it, is to find some sort of meaning—not in Elliot’s death but in my life. As I have painfully discovered in the last few months, the more I search for answers to the whys of Elliot’s accident, the more dead ends I encounter. No satisfaction. No relief. Just more angst, more questions and more agony.

So, purpose is my focus, and I feel called in my heart to pursue this through sharing my story, through exposing my beaten heart, raw and damaged as it is, as I strive to pick up the jagged pieces I can bear to touch to help me go on—to honor Elliot’s memory and empower his precious brother, Ian.

Until then, I will walk this dark path looking for the glimmers of light and grace—such as a lone egret landing on a fragile tree branch protruding through the creek’s serene loden-green surface like a needle puncturing smooth Asian silk. I will look for the reminders that we are part of a greater whole and the grand mosaic of creation.

There, will be a glimpse of gratitude.