By a series of coincidences, I’m officiating a wedding today. The niece of my wife, who died in 2007, asked me to perform her wedding. I put off getting ordained until shortly before my cousin Jimmy died ten years ago. Though I didn’t do his wedding, I was beyond grateful that he married Alissa before cancer got him. To see him suffering but also making such a loving gesture before he died made my heart swell with peace and love. As for today, I’m not the least bit nervous about it. No matter what unexpected things might happen (and they always do), the truth of weddings is that they only require five seconds of activity to be legal. That people jump and take the risk of marriage is an awesome thing. It is just a piece of paper that doesn’t amplify the commitment between them. But it is still the fundamental way to tell the world that you intend to be with your forever person, whether it’s like my cousin Jimmy who died a month afterward. Or my wife, who died a month short of eleven years with me. It’s impossible to know how much time lies ahead of us. We all get embroiled in the million things that occupy and fill our days. Behind it all, if we are lucky, is the one person who loves us and looks at us like the last french fry in the bottom of the bag. If you are lucky enough to have that one person who is always in your corner, even while they roll their eyes at you, almost nothing in life can derail you. Planes fall out of the sky, tornadoes rip through our homes, and people leave us unexpectedly. Don’t forget to look at the person you’re with and silently say thanks. Even if you’re listening to them slurp coffee from the cup or watching them leave their darned cup on the sink. We do all the things that fill our lives and sometimes forget that invisible things like love are by far the only ‘things’ that matter.
I’ve noticed that most of the people around me don’t have one. An advanced directive isn’t the same thing as a healthcare proxy. If you’re going to do one or the other, I recommend a proxy because it entrusts your decisions to someone you designate to make decisions for you. You can do an Advanced Directive if you’d like to stipulate exactly what medical care you prefer. Otherwise, you can trust your named person to do it for you. Just don’t entrust this sort of thing with your brother-in-law Bob.
Because I’m not into privacy, Erika is my primary, and my favorite cousin is the alternate. I like to joke and imagine the doctors huddled in my ICU room. “So, what does X want to be done?” Either Lynette or Erika will look them in the eye and say, “He was adamant that he wanted no life-sustaining artifices, but he insisted on a coffee colonic each morning at 4 a.m. Oh! And to be defibrillated in the nether regions twice a day. Set the phaser on maximum, please.”
I imagine everyone knows my general wishes: I don’t mind CPR once or twice if it results in a positive life afterward. I never want to be airlifted; whatever happens, I want it to happen near my home and life. I don’t want to be sustained for any period other than briefly. And if I need to be defibrillated in the nether regions just for amusement, please go for it. It’s exactly what I’d want you all to tell the doctors if only to see their reaction.
It’s been quite a while since my emergency surgery. I’ll never forget that Monday afternoon after work. And I often think about the calm day when the plane crashed at my residence. I don’t think I imagined such a calamity when I skipped work that day and drank my cup of morning coffee. Days like that can and will happen to everyone. Unless you’re certain immortality is at your disposal, it’s wise to make sure you have someone designated. And if you’re married? Name someone for you both, just in the unlikely case that you’re both incapacitated.
Just to give you a little push, most people don’t know that millions of us have inactive aneurysms. Most never cause problems. They can rupture or cause symptoms at any time. I’m not telling you that to make you cringe. I’m giving that example to demonstrate that the universe has a quiver of surprises for us. We are biological machines filled with opportunities to tap on our shoulders.
If anyone reading this doesn’t have a healthcare proxy, they aren’t complicated and only require the signature of two witnesses. I can direct you to where to make one – or I can email you a blank form you can fill out.
I hope all of you add this to your list of “musts.” Otherwise, when the unimaginable happens, your friends and loved ones will scramble to figure out a way to make these decisions for you.
Not related, this morning just before 7 a.m., as I watched a visitor valiantly attempt to rouse a friend at a nearby apartment, I looked up above the horizon to the west to see a long, streaking shooting star blaze into the atmosphere. It was singular and probably high into the sky. But it streaked for a couple of seconds as it obliquely burned into visibility. That meteorite is us. I hope your time here is long and joyful. Don’t forget to take a few moments and add my recommendation to your to-do list. It’ll help your circle in the event you need it.
(PS I didn’t mention a Living Will, which is also a great resource.)
This is a delicate post, one written with the intention of reminding people that there are subtleties to traditions that others might not consider.
When we lose someone, we lose a part of ourselves. Most of us foolishly think we’re prepared. We’re not, of course. It’s a visceral punch that permeates our bodies and takes occupancy of our minds.
Those around us feel the same loss in a different, diffused way depending on their connection. I don’t need words unless that’s what you have to offer. I’d prefer a silent hug just to acknowledge that you care. Even carefully spoken words, ones drowning in heartfelt emotion, can evoke an unintended meaning. I’ve been guilty of it, even when it was the last thing on my mind. When someone loses a loved one, their filter is either wide open or often warped. Words and actions can take on meanings that no one intended. Even gentle, loved-filled words.
One of the traditions of the past is that friends and loved ones send flowers. They add beauty and are a physical manifestation of the fact that their thoughts are with us.
For some, such plants and flowers can be a burden. Each of them requires attention, effort, and longevity. Because they are hallmarks of a loved one’s passing, it’s difficult to disregard their care. When you do make the choice to send flowers, please understand that not everyone is equipped to give these plants the care and honor that is intended. Those left behind are already dealing with grief and likely a long list of to-dos involving the logistics of someone passing.
Speaking from my point of view, I love nothing more than to hear stories and see pictures of whoever passed. If you have pictures of someone I loved who died, please share them. If you have stories, tell them. It allows us to see our person in a different light and through different eyes.
All of us have organizations that we support. Whether it’s organ donation, animal care, homeless causes, or cancer treatment, the money spent on flowers could do tremendous good out there in the world. This in no way negates the love or thought that sending flowers might. For me, I’d rather you share pictures, hugs, and stories and spend the money on something meaningful. If sending flowers is a sign of adoration and respect, then certainly sharing pieces of someone’s life is equally, if not more, an indicator. And, because it’s me, if you want to show love and caring, give the money to an organization (or even a person or family) who could benefit.
I apologize to the floral industry for my viewpoint. Sending flowers is a tradition cemented in the past. I’m not speaking for everyone! But I do know a couple of people I love who were burdened by the reception and care of flowers after they lost someone. If someone requests donations in lieu of flowers, please understand that they are expressing their wishes. Don’t hesitate to send flowers if that’s what is in your heart. But also don’t hesitate to do something different if you know the person would rather you do, especially if those flowers require time and care that the grieving person might not have.
As for everyone else, if you don’t have a will, a living trust, and a way for those left behind to take care of you and your belongings upon your death, please take care of those things. Despite what we think, life surprises all of us at inopportune moments. For any of us, this could be the last day we walk the earth. Part of our responsibility as adults is ensuring that the people we leave behind don’t suffer as a result of our lack of thought and planning. Adding avoidable suffering to someone grieving isn’t a loving act.
I wrote the little bit below these words a few weeks back and was reluctant to share it. We weren’t real-world friends; we were weirdoes connected by only words. And maybe it’s arrogant for me to share it at this point. That makes me laugh because Penni would say, “Hardly anyone uses social media to talk about the depth of their life, the good and the bad. They’re going to think whatever they want to anyway, and that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”
Penni: For Your Thoughts
I had a fan for years. She read anything I ever wrote across all of my platforms. One of the reasons I made an impression on her was that she, too, lost a spouse suddenly when she was younger. She encouraged me to share and overshare. To jump into being an imperfectionist and just write. She enthusiastically asked for and read many things that no other person had ever read. She often got amused because it was obvious she outclassed me in intelligence and humbly deflected my insistence that it was true.
Her burden must have been incredibly heavy. I don’t know how, at my age, I can still be shocked. But she would have laughed at that and told me that of all the people in the world, I should know everything’s eventual. And no matter how wild the stories sound, they were all lived and earned.
Her stories are over now. I don’t want to get deep into the thicket of what happened; truthfully, we found out about her death in the weirdest possible way. Her passing wasn’t in the news. It was an exercise in craziness just to get a confirmation of her death from the police.
It’s obvious that the only way to show my appreciation for her enthusiasm and support is to do what she always told me to keep doing.
I’ll include one of the few messages I kept of hers.
“…remember when you explained the 10% or the Bald-Head rule to me? People around you aren’t going to see the same light others do. Their familiarity with you and the idea of you they have in their head will blind them. X, you’re creative. And you are your own worst enemy. You already say you’re an imperfectionist. Run with that. Be weird. Write about whatever the hell you want to. With your heart on your sleeve and a curse word on your tongue. Just don’t stop. You’re going to do it anyway. Eff the critics who never take a chance. If I can appreciate you, others do too. You’re going to get into trouble with people if you do it right.”
Now, I note her absence in my posts and on my blog. Just silence.
Note: this isn’t about me. I didn’t experience a loss, so save up your warmth and regards for the next person in your life who needs it when the wheel spins in their direction. 2023 is going to be a year like the rest: no matter what we think approaches, life always winks impersonally at us. We have to smile back.
Yesterday, as the new year swung into gear on a lovely, warm, and beautiful January morning, I left work. It wasn’t quite spontaneous, yet I accompanied Erika to a funeral for a co-worker’s father. Erika experienced a particularly harsh aftermath of her brother’s death last year. Such events often leave us raw, scarred, and vulnerable to the emotions welling up without provocation. It’s hard for some of us to feel free just to let our wellspring of hurt come out, even when it might not have its genesis in the moment.
I attended another funeral last Monday. The disparity between the two services astonished me.
Several of us took advantage of the odd holiday schedule and drove to support a woman who was lucky enough to have two loving parents until recently. The funeral home was packed. The family had arranged to have a photo memorial of their patriarch playing. The snapshots clearly defined a man who loved music and family. His casket was a beautiful and simple wooden one without polish or needless adornment. If anyone needed a demonstration of what he must have been like as a man, this served well.
The service was two songs, an obituary reading, and a eulogy from a friend whose hands had seen decades of work and life. His voice trembled with age, but his words were simple and direct. To be able to contain your message in such a way is a gift. Anyone would be lucky to have a speaker for the dead with such experience and love. I’m paraphrasing his message, but it was this: “His passing was tough. But I knew him and the family. He loved and was loved. And he wants y’all to go on like it was before.” Even with his broken voice, he said more than most people say in ten thousand words.
Like the man the family was sending off, the funeral was simple. It was finished in about ten minutes from start to finish. Ten minutes compared to the forty-two million he’d walked the earth.
Because of the incredible weather, we lingered outside in the beautiful January morning air. All of us knew we were experiencing a miraculous display of nature. Rain and storms were rolling in later. I heard someone say that God must have opened a window for the family that morning.
Our co-worker didn’t need us there for support. It’s obvious her family is more than equipped to do what their patriarch asked: live as if.
I have no claim to being the historian, the biographer, or the speaker for the dead for Marcia. I included the picture because it’s a rare one in which every person is smiling, all convened for a family wedding.
I arrived at the church early yesterday. I’d seen people outside and chatting as they always do before funerals. I took a few minutes to sit in the car, looking across the open area behind the church, my mind returning to the 90s and remembering another life. Not just the person’s life being heralded a few minutes later, but also mine swirled into a questionable collection of thoughts and memories.
Faces I hadn’t seen in well over a decade, some in fifteen years. I was once connected deeply to many of them. The children of the family? Some towered over me, their faces alien yet familiar. I hugged them all. I take my job as the Hug Ambassador seriously. I had to remind myself that I was in attendance for a funeral; the truth is that some of the warmth I used to experience with some of them came flooding back. Those who held a place in their hearts for me still told me plainly merely with their faces and enthusiasm upon seeing me. Seeing people after such a prolonged absence will gauge and plunder your feelings across a spectrum of emotions. All those lives, swirling inside and around a community we all share, were brought back together to send off someone who managed to make it to eighty-four years of age. She was the head of the family in what I call my Life 1.0. When I thought I was experienced and prepared for anything. Oof. Life reminded me that I was in store for a box containing both beautiful magic and dark shadows.
I remembered the first time I met Marcia. My deceased wife, Deanne, cautioned me, and she was right. Marcia mentioned the first time I met her that she wanted her large assembly of children to take care of her when she retired. We were sitting at Village Inn, having met her after our night shift. I had a lot better time than Deanne did. I acted like… myself: irreverent and fast-talking when her Mom veered into wild territory. Marcia had experienced a lot in her lifetime by the time I met her. It was written on her face and etched into her words even then. Deanne and her Mom argued often. It didn’t help things when it amused me when they did. Marcia didn’t quite understand at first how Deanne and I got together. So, I told her the truth: I was oblivious to Deanne’s attention, and Deanne took the reins and announced that I was coming over for dinner. Deanne was ten years younger than me and, at first sight, very outgoing.
The truth is that I had a lot more patience with her Mom than she did. I’ve found that to be the case universally. Most of us tend to grow too familiar with our family, and even the slightest oddness inspires us to imagine jumping into a well to escape them. It passes, of course. Especially when we realize that we probably irritate the blazes out of those around us equally. I know that Marcia hated that I took her baby girl away from her. But Marcia was also the one person we had with us when we married in Eureka Springs. As much as I unnerved Marcia sometimes, it’s hard to hold that in your heart when someone passes.
So, I hugged everyone in sight. I tried to avoid saying something stupid, including all the clichés accompanying death. I’ve continued to learn that everyone says something that rubs people the wrong way, no matter how innocent the intention is. I’ve said my share, and I’ve also listened as people said some incredible things to me while surrounded by death, grief, and discomfort. I watched most attendees respond reflexively to the litany of protocols of the Catholic church. Religious calisthenics, someone once called it. And I listened, my mind going back to the years my life overlapped with Marcia’s. As I sat in the pew next to one of Deanne’s brothers, I listened to the odd lilt of the priest’s voice and of the older male singer. The brother sitting next to me is much older now, of course. He was always irreverent. He and his sister Deanne used to annoy the piss out of each other. Older age suits him. Had Deanne still been alive and been sitting with us, I can only imagine the wild exchanges of inappropriate commentary we would have shared. Deanne and Joe would have traveled conversationally between insults and dark humor in a blink of an eye.
Marcia was cremated, a fact that surprised me. She was angry at me when Deanne died because she wanted her daughter buried. I pushed her irritation aside, maybe a little too confidently. Deanne and I had returned from a funeral in my hometown about a month earlier. We did what people do in those situations: we talked about what we wanted upon our demise two hundred years in the future.
I loved being invited yesterday. I made the picture for her obituary, one that was a composite of two pictures taken at one of her son’s weddings. That time frame was the quintessential “Marcia” most people hold in their minds. I realized I was a proxy for Marcia’s youngest daughter, the first to leave the family of six other siblings. That realization softened me more than I expected. It’s strange to think that if Deanne had not died so young, the arc of my life would have looped around to the same moment all these years later. All those experiences and years would have been replaced by the first arc of my life. Yet I still would have ended up in the same moment and place.
After the service, I went to Ancestry and closed out the chapter of her life by adding her date of death. Now, anyone looking for her will always find my family tree for her. It’s become a ritual for me. Closing out with that certain finality of a date and time. In a few days, I’ll add a hundred pictures to her tree to preserve them as long as the internet survives. 84 years is a long time to walk the earth. Yet it is also insufficient.
People, time, love, death, loss.
We march in time. If we are both lucky and unlucky, we will have enough life to see a parade of people precede us. It is both daunting and a gift.
It was a joy to see all the faces and to hug them. It also stabbed me a little because it was the life and family that I took for granted because the person connecting us was so young and left so early. Put aside were all the petty annoyances and dramas that characterize families. Just people, each trying to get through it and make sense of it in their own way. For me, it was literally another life ago.
Even when it’s truly someone’s time to go, it feels like a robbery. We’ll all convene and observe the rituals and expectations. But no one experiences a person the same way that another person does. Some experienced Marcia with both love and irritation, as a daughter, as a son, as an in-law, or as a friend. I don’t think I dishonored Marcia by saying she was brash, opinionated, and often argumentative. In her defense, most of her children inherited that predilection.
Maybe I overthink things, but I don’t think so. I think all of us have a long series of wild, contradictory, and disparate thoughts and ideas when someone dies. That’s probably an accurate way to go about it. Because people are complicated, and when we’re living a life that overlaps theirs, we don’t understand them.
I took time today to find more pictures of Marcia for her Ancestry entry. And I re-read Deanne’s calendar pages for her last year of life back in 2007. Even her short comments about arguing with her mom (and then mine) made me both laugh and remember her Mom truthfully, through both Deanne’s eyes and mine.
And to be remembered? That’s a feat all by itself.
You’ve been gone many years. 2013 was two iterations of my life ago.
You left a legacy of which you weren’t aware.
You have beautiful grandchildren from a daughter you never knew of.
She found out today that you’re her father. That’s staggering news for anyone who wanted the simple truth and simplicity of an answer.
I’m sorry life took you so early. You’d be older and tired of the habits that deflected you from focusing on what makes you happy.
I can imagine you walking up to your daughter for the first time, seeing her children, your grandchildren. Especially if your smart and handsome son Noah were with you, each of you seeing a silhouette of yourselves in her face.
I’ve done the best I can to give your daughter some closure.
Your daughter will be able to separate what you call mistakes from the fact that you were in the world. She’s here because you were.
I’m humbled by the fact that science and DNA can unlock doors in a way that people couldn’t.
Knowing the past doesn’t change it. Judging it doesn’t color or discolor any of our previous chapters.
I didn’t find out my own dad had fathered a child until 26 years after his death. That I had another sister was a secret for 46 years. There’s no doubt that some of my family knew about her. They chose to rob us of the opportunity to know each other. I understand it even though I disagree. Age gives me the ability to dislike it but also to nod my head to some degree. Most of us are doing the best we can, and such decisions are complicated.
Jimmy, I know that your daughter would have brought you joy. She’s married and loved. She’s smart, kind, and the perfect complement to Noah, who is the embodiment of what you’d want your son to be.
Be proud wherever you are.
I sit in amazement at how life still surprises me, Jimmy.
I would give anything to have you here, even for an afternoon, to watch your eyes dance with joy meeting the daughter you never knew you had. To listen to your stupid, outrageous laugh.
For now, though, I’m still happy with this turn of events.
Maybe we will talk about it one day.
For now, know that you have a daughter who finally got a lot of answers. I’ve shared your pictures and stories with her. Her children can look at the family tree I’ve made and see through generations.
I used a picture of your daughter Brianna when she was 13. It was the month you died. It brings me to tears knowing you had such a sweet young daughter who was hidden.
I woke up around 3 a.m. and could hear the neighbors outside on the landing, their night still in progress.
I retrieved my trusty sheet, put it over my head, and knocked.
“Trick or Treat,” I said. No treats were forthcoming.
My brother Mike would have been 57 today. I don’t know what to say about that. He could have lived another twenty years had his choices been different. If he were alive, I’d prank call him and say, “Good morning, you dumb bast**d!” and then hang up. He’d probably call back and leave a message, “Sew any non-bunching pillows lately?”
The picture is one from Dogpatch: me on the left, Mike, my sister Marsha crouched on the bottom, and my cousin Jimmy on the right. We got to see a lot of things thanks to Jimmy. I restored the faces in the photo. Jimmy’s gone too, but I’ll take a few moments to think about him and my brother today. And I’ll think about my other sister, the one I didn’t know I had for another 40+ years after this picture was taken.
The nostalgia will undoubtedly make me more at peace as the world swirls around me today; my thousands of steps and interactions will remind me of the frozen nature of memory and time.
Each second carries me further away from that moment so many years ago at Dogpatch.
Erika told me that I MUST have more hair. She gave me some dubious “vitamins” with skull-and-crossbones on the bottle. The back label had testimonials from probable probationary or parolee people. I’ve been taking them for a week. I look like an aging English rockstar now that my hair is growing faster than the mustache of my neighbor Susan. Let me know what you think of my new locks – and the color streaks. It will probably grow past my hips in another week.
If you look closely at my goofy picture, you’ll see that my eyes are a little teary. A really good man died this morning. He has so many friends that I wouldn’t want to count the number of memories that will be retold in the near future. Jim’s sense of humor was different from mine in some ways, but the spirit of his humor was massive. We used to joke and speculate about what he might want to be told at his service. I’d write some of it here, but it would shock, amuse, and horrify, and probably some people simultaneously. When a force of nature like him dies, it is a sure sign that all of us will line up soon enough for our turn. No one can look at his life as a friend, pastor, chaplain, counselor, or husband and father and think he had anything other than an outstanding life. He was a rare mix of education, faith, music, and humor. He never once made me feel less than for my skepticism.
I decided to go ahead and post these words despite the fact that most people think they are so dissimilar and disparate.
Jim would appreciate and see the connection.
Life is both stupidity and solemnity, hunger and satiation.
If I had donned this wig and entered the church he founded, the one that held its last service last Sunday and the one I wrote about last Sunday afternoon, he would look up from the piano, smile, and then say: “X is a much better-looking woman than he ever was as a man.”