Tag Archives: death

Short fiction – Burying the past

The sun was hot and I was sweating. The velvet chair cover against my bare thighs felt strange, like wet dog. The Rabbi finished herding the guests into a semi-circle behind the chairs, which were reserved for family, and began to speak. The gist of it was that we were all invited to help bury the deceased. I’d been to Jewish funerals before so I knew the drill; we’d file by and toss some dirt onto the coffin. According to this Rabbi, though, it was “…customary to put in three shovelfuls and to turn the shovel upside down for the first one.”

How did you shovel upside down? Did you hold the shovel end and balance a bit of dirt on the handle? I tried to picture that and instead flashed on the first and only time I’d seen Deborah doing drugs. She’d forgotten to lock her bedroom door and I opened it just as she used her very long pinkie nail to scoop up some powder, bring it to her nose, and inhale. I was too young at the time to fully understand what I was seeing, but there was no mistaking what she did next. She put her index finger up to her lips to indicate that I wasn’t to say anything. Then she narrowed her eyes, pointed at me, and slowly drew that same finger across her throat. That I understood. I was only six, but I knew what she was capable of.

That was a lifetime ago. I’m forty now. Deborah had just turned fifty. My parents were quite young when they had her; it was a shot-gun wedding. You would think, with a ten year separation between us, that I had been a mistake, and you would be right. That was never one of the family’s secrets, nor was the fact that Deborah was their favorite. I glanced to my right. My mother had her head on my father’s shoulder; his arm wrapped around her. I couldn’t hear her crying, but I could see my father’s arm moving up and down as her shoulders shook. He sat stoically, staring at the Rabbi, with tears streaming down his face. I flicked a fly off my skirt, unmoved.

Deborah’s drug problems consumed the family. They chipped away at us until there was no family left. Even after she moved out, ostensibly to go to college, she absorbed everyone’s attention. Her absence was as large as her physical presence. In and out of rehab she bounced, ruining lives along the way. During one rehab intermission she lived with my grandmother in Rockaway. When she left, all of Grandma’s jewelry went with her. She stole from everyone and sometimes when she wasn’t in rehab she was in jail.

The Rabbi touched my father on the shoulder and gestured toward the grave. My father stood up and pulled my mother with him, propping her up as they walked the few feet to the mound of dirt next to the hole in the ground. My father let go of my mother long enough to take the shovel, turn the rounded side up, and stick it into the pile of dirt. Now that I saw how it was done I felt foolish. I may even have blushed a bit in my secret shame. My father handed the shovel to my mother and she flinched as if she’d been burned.

“I can’t,” she moaned. “I can’t.” And then, just loud enough for the family in front to hear, she whispered, “I can’t bury my favorite child.”

My throat tightened, as if there were an obstruction that made it impossible for me to take a breath. I stood up, peeled my skirt from my legs, and did what I should have done many years earlier. I walked away.


Palliative care for the living

Today I went to a talk called, Planning End-of-life Care, given by Dr. Ira Byock, the author of Dying Well and The Best Care Possible. Dr. Byock is, among other things, the Director of Palliative Medicine at Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center. He is a very polished, engaging speaker; authoritative, charming, and occasionally amusing. I picked up several one-liners that I hope I’ll remember when next I am in need of a bon mot at a cocktail party, but on the whole, I was disappointed.

My father is not aging well. No one has told us that he is dying; he could well live many more years, but how is one to know? While he has good days and bad days, the bad days are getting so much worse that the good days don’t have to be that good to qualify! He is very weak, his voice is soft, and he spends most of his time sitting with his eyes closed even if he is not actually sleeping. It is difficult not to interpret his condition as the beginning of the end. I was drawn to this talk, billed as “A Palliative Care & Advance Care Planning Public Forum,” seeking enlightenment about what’s down the road, even as we continue plan for his long term care.

I interpreted the phrase “Advance Care Planning” to mean that one could plan for the necessary care in advance. That was a mistake, because aside from hearing platitudes like, “Care involves physical, emotional, social and spiritual aspects,” I didn’t learn anything particularly actionable. I was hoping for answers to questions like, when do you give up and move your father to a nursing home; is it practical to teach home health aides how to use a hoyer lift; where do you get a hoyer lift anyway; and if the patient can’t walk does that necessarily mean they need to be confined to bed?

I did perk up when Dr. Byock said that for palliative care at his hospital, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, “You don’t have to be dying; you have to be mortal.” Hmm. Well, Dad’s mortal. If that’s the criteria, shouldn’t there be some palliative care group that we can call who will come in and show us how to provide him with a better quality of life while he’s alive? I’m sure that all the nurses in the audience who were collecting CEU for attending found the talk worthwhile. I could have stayed in bed.

Taking care of an elder at home can be a labor of love, or an act of desperation, or a little of both. Every day is a new adventure. Two bad days in a row are cause for grave concern. Two good days in a row are proof that we are worrying unnecessarily. Do you need more than that to understand how crazy making it can be? And if all the caretakers end up crazy, who is left to help my dad?

Please believe me when I say I’m not trying to hustle my dad along. But quick, unexpected deaths that result from a heart attack, an accident, or an “Act of God” (to quote insurance companies) have got to be easier than watching a slow decline. As Byock said, “Death is a natural disaster that awaits us all.” We can rail against it all we want, but, “We’re going to die. Let’s get over it!” I’m not ready to get over it yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t quote him over drinks one night soon.

Holding Silvan, a memoir

Memoirs aren’t easy to sell, unless your last name is Kardashian, or your nickname is Snooki. Even beating cancer (which sounds like a hell of a story to me, because who doesn’t like a tense medical drama with an upbeat ending) probably wouldn’t be a good enough hook to hang your memoir on these days, unless you’re The Nanny herself, Fran Drescher, author of Cancer Schmancer. However, buried in the glut of memoirs by celebrities that are full of TMI and low on substance, there are stories to be found, told by real people like you and me, that will resonate as only a tale of true life can. Holding Silvan, a brief life, by Monica Wesolowska, is one of those stories.

holding silvan cover

As you can tell by the title, this is not a happy book. It is the story of a couple who are told shortly after the birth of their first baby, Silvan, that he was born severely damaged and is unlikely to survive past a year. The outcome of the book is determined early when Monica and her husband decide that Silvan should be allowed to die. The heart of the story is the struggle to defend that decision, while learning how to cherish the time they have with their son.

Ms. Wesolowska’s writing is unsentimental, but the power of the emotions is inescapable. She writes of a hike she takes with her husband while Silvan is still in the hospital. “He is enduring his grief by keeping busy, by consulting outside doctors, dealing with insurance, filling the car with gas while I am left free to feel every ripple of emotion. The postpartum hormones coursing through me amplify my grief, make it come in waves that bowl me over. But I can’t stay like this all day. I can’t sustain this drama. The feeling is passing. The need to be prostrate is gone. There is nothing to do but go on.”

On the surface, Holding Silvan is a book for others who have experienced the loss of an infant. It is comforting to know that you are not alone in the world, that others truly understand your unique pain. But I’m certain that some who share that pain will read this book and rail against the couple for the choice that they made. The public debate over how to manage healthcare for those who cannot speak for themselves has been raging since before Karen Ann Quinlan was removed from life support in 1976. If you are the sort of person who believes in life at any cost, then this book is not for you. If, however, you understand that emotions are not black and white; that we all project our feelings onto others; that quality may trump quantity when it comes to the days of our lives, you should read this book.

The subject of Holding Silvan is an infant, but the message of the book applies to all. Life can be cruel, and tough choices need to be made, but our memories sustain us, and there really is nothing to do but go on.

Short fiction; untitled

I wrote this in 2002, as an assignment for a writing class for a scene in which setting was of primary importance. I’ve always loved it, so I thought I’d share it with you here.


The sound of a neighbor’s lawn mower and the slight breeze from the open windows made it difficult to concentrate at the computer. Abandoning further attempts at productivity, Amelia rolled her chair away from the desk and went downstairs. She picked up her book and a rag to wipe the pollen off the rocking chair and went out the door. As she ran the rag lightly over the seat of the chair she grimaced, noting that the green paint was already starting to fade from the arms. She draped the rag over the rail of the porch and dragged the rocker to the far corner so she could be closer to the wisteria. Scott had planted the vine three years ago as little more than a shoot, and although it had already grown up the side and across the top of the farmer’s porch, the cascading blooms were concentrated near the few feet closest to the roots.

It was still early in May but the clematis vine, which Scott faithfully trimmed back every fall, had already woven itself thoroughly through the balustrade, providing the illusion of privacy.

Amelia opened her book and started to read. The sun made her eyes water and shading them with her hand didn’t help. Her attention wandered. She was distracted by several large bumblebees who were working in the wisteria. It wasn’t so much the noise they made, which was considerable, but a childlike anxiety that they would turn on her. She couldn’t remember whether or not bumblebees actually did sting people, but she was prepared to err on the side of caution. She glanced up at the ceiling. Scott had said there was a hole in the soffit that he’d seen hornets going in and out of, or maybe wasps, she hadn’t been paying attention. Whichever it was, she knew for sure that they were dangerous. Scott was going to spray something in the hole to kill them, but she didn’t know if he’d ever done that.

She contemplated moving her chair closer to the door, away from the bees and hornets, but a glance in that direction reminded her that she’d never watered the plant with the little purple flowers that was hanging from a hook in the ceiling near the stairs. She pushed herself angrily up from the chair, setting it rocking, and walked the length of the porch to the watering can that Scott insisted on keeping handy so he could minister to the garden whenever the spirit moved him. As Amelia reached down for the handle she saw her face reflected in the water. She watched as a tear made its way down the side of her nose and fell in, causing small ripples where previously all had been still. She watered the plant, despairing of ever learning what it was called now that Scott was gone.

The chair continued to rock after she’d gone in the door and back up to her computer.

Why wait for the New Year?

It’s not easy to come up with an idea for a blog post every week so it’s hard to resist the temptation to take advantage of a subject as obvious as the New Year. I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions so I can’t ramble on about that, however, I received a phone call at the end of the year that got me thinking. It was from a high school friend who had had a tough year, following a series of tough years. Despite everything he’s been through, his sense of humor was still sharp and acerbic and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. As we were winding down, he told me that he’d gotten his license to sell financial services and would I be interested in some life insurance?

I’m not very good at keeping my thoughts inside my head where they won’t get me into trouble, but this time I prevailed; conflicting emotional responses battled it out and called it a draw. My first reaction was irritation; so, we’re not old friends catching up? The next was sympathetic; I knew how difficult things had been and I appreciated his need to do whatever he could to keep body and soul together. While I kept all that to myself, I did allow as how I did not need insurance.

When we hung up, I thought about how lucky I was compared to my friend, and how tenuous it, writ large, all is. You can live responsibly, take care of yourself and your family, help friends and neighbors, but there are still so many things that are out of our control that even the best laid plans can come to naught in the end.

In the past year, two friends have had to give up their homes due to the recession-driven mortgage crisis (or was it the mortgage crisis that caused the recession?). These were good, responsible people, not ne’er do wells trying to beat the system.

Other friends lost parents and siblings and other loved ones this past year. I often rail against the birth/death system. It seems like such a bad plan to me. And the older I get, the worse a plan it seems. PBS did a two-part documentary on Woody Allen recently. Someone asked him if his relationship with death had gotten any better as he got older. His answer boiled down to no. Why do people think his preoccupation with death is strange? To me, it’s one of his most endearing qualities. I’m a little freer to concentrate on other things knowing that he’s worrying about death enough for the rest of us.

Years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I haven’t actually read it, but I’ve always loved the title. He wrote it partly as a response to his son’s death at fourteen from an incurable disease. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that reading it will be a New Year’s Resolution, but I will add it to my list of things to do.

I will, however, resolve to try to remember that even when we don’t know it, bad things are happening to people so we should hold everyone in kind regard. I’m going to try to do that ─ every day ─ because it doesn’t seem like something that should be reserved for the New Year, does it?