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Today is my Anniversary

Today is my anniversary. The clock moves on, pages pulled from calendars,  life moves on, people move on. But dates remain, along with the people for whom they mean something. This date means something to me. But not to anyone else. Not anymore.

And so the day goes on. Lisa is at a funeral. I am at work. I’d be at the funeral too, but today is the last day of mid-term exams, and the last day before the winter break. Taking off today was simply not going to happen. People move on.

Bob was a friend. A radical in the style, location and times of the Chicago Seven, a musician, a photographer, and political activist, Passover and Hanukkah at our house, jam sessions – his funeral is today. Cancer. Everyone seems to die of cancer. Ryan wondered what to do with his anniversary with Joyce, after she died. He didn’t have to wonder long. He died a week ago just about two years after she did. Cancer. He is no longer worried about his anniversary, how it will feel when it comes around, how it feels when it’s here, whether to mention it, not mention it, toast it, ignore it. Bob was older. Early 70s. Ryan was in his 40s.

And I’m in my 50s now. Late 50s. I was in my mid 40s then, when I first wondered what to do with this date. Lots of people have died since then. But not me. So I’m still wondering. Like my father wondered. His father, too. Now, no more wondering.

And wondering how much longer I will feel this way. How much longer will this date still have this charge? If the answer is for the rest of my life, how much longer will I still wonder what to do with it?

I’m not looking to leave anytime soon, but I do want to know what to do. How to notice it, and give its proper due without tripping over it, without ignoring it, which I could not do. Would not do. Would not want to do. Could not forgive myself if I did. 

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2021 in Family, psychology, Social

 

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Empty Chairs

It is coming onto to Passover. A month ago I invited people over to share seder with us. The first time in ten years. More years. The first time I have celebrated passover since Lee died. The first time I have written died instead of left. The anniversary of my first year in my new house.

I asked Lisa if she wanted to have Passover in our new home. She said yes. She was excited. That was all I needed.

We used to have a house full of people. In the haggadah, the book that has the order of the seder, the Passover celebratory supper, it says we recline on this night. It is one of the four questions asked by the youngest child. Mah nishtanah, ha-laylah ha-zeh,mi-kol ha-leylot. Why is tonight different from all other nights? Why do we recline tonight when all other nights we sit straight? We recline to represent our freedom, the freedom from bondage. In our house there was no choice but to recline. Forty-two people in one very small house left us sitting, reclining, leaning and otherwise enjoying the story of Passover on the floor, leaning against the sofa, on the sofa, at makeshift tables, draped over each other, waiting for the Angel of Death to pass us over..

Each year we did this, and people would come. Students who could not get home would hear about it through Hillel, the Jewish student group, at UF. From Santa Fe Community College. Neighbours. Friends.Jews, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists. Everyone brings something. We tell the story of Spring, of rebirth and renewal, because passover is, at the root, a Spring holy-day. We tell of release from bondage, real and metaphoric, and how those who have been slaves but are now free must then reach down to others, extend a hand, to help lift them to freedom. How those who have been freed must never enslave another. A holy-day of social action, equality, and freedom.

I’d even take red streamer paper and cover the outside doorposts and lentice-piece, as the old story says they were painted with the blood of the sacrificed lamb, to tell the Angel of Death to pass over our home. There would be no death here tonight.

Some days earlier we had met Joyce. And she was invited. Her first time in our home for the woman with whom we had become instant fast-friends, and not even a place to sit. There would be no death here tonight.

Sef and I baked matzah, the unleavened bread, the bread of haste, and prepared the house. The seder plate was set. People arrived. We told stories, sang songs, ate bitter herbs, broke matzah, tasted salt water, enjoyed charoset, tolerated horseradish on, and those of use who did not like it, made fun of those of us who enjoyed the gefilte fish. We hid the afikomen (a small piece of matzah) for the children to find, for there were many children there, including our own, and we left a cup of wine for Elijah, in case he should arrive at our door. For Elijah, and all those who are missing, being missed, absent. Metaphoric. Abstract.
This year we have invited people. Most have not responded. One person said she understood this was an honor, and, with appreciation, told me she would be away. Others just said they’d see. They don’t understand – it isn’t game-night. It isn’t just a friendly invitation to come over for a drink. It’s Passover. It’s a different world, it feels like. I don’t know how they don’t get it. But, also, I don’t know how to explain it and have no real desire to.

I know the right people will be there. Lisa. Arlene. Family. That is family. They are family. The nextdoor neighbours will be there. The children are far away. Anyone else, it seems not. There will be no need to recline this Passover.

But there are people who would be there. And for them, the empty places are no longer metaphor. No longer abstract, but painfully, concretely, empty.

Joyce will not be there. She is dying. Close to death. Close enough that she has been visited by Lee, who sits with her. Two empty chairs.

The Angel of Death is a myth. Or, if not, certainly being able to protect loved ones from its grasp is most certainly. Nothing painted over the door will work. No feng shui mirror will reflect it. No prayers will avert it. Death comes.

This Passover, as we are celebrating freedom, I’ll be noticing the empty chairs. And I’ll be thinking, while we are alive, do something with that freedom. We must. Because nothing will protect us. Nothing will stop death. Old age is never guaranteed, only death, at any time.

This is what I’ll be telling myself so I can, the best I can, turn the empty chairs into something more meaningful than symbols of loss, vacuity, grief. Because I suspect there will be many more empty chairs for me to get used to. More cups of wine to pour that will not be sipped. More memories to step around, to not become lost in, as I open my eyes for each coming dawn, go about my days, close my eyes in the dark nights.

Or maybe I’ll be an empty chair, a cup of wine, a quiet moment.

This Passover I will not be covering the doorposts. There is no need. The Angel doesn’t care. Come or go, we’ll celebrate. With life and death, we’ll celebrate. With love, we’ll celebrate, while we can. And lift our glasses to each and every empty chair and know there is one thing the Angel of Death cannot kill.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2019 in Culture, Family, philosophy, Religion

 

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State of Being

Verbs are words that show a state of being—present, past, future. Transient or continuous. When we use the verb “was/were,” we mean something that has passed. It happened in the past. It is done. It is over. When we use the verb “is/are” we speak of something that is present. Something that exists now, current. An action that is going on right now. This moment.

For the purpose of my question, tense is not important. Past participle, continuous, perfect—none of these important to my question. What is important are simple tenses. Past and present.  

And so I ask, why do we say someone is dead?

We can say someone is alive. To be alive is a continuous state. Continuous, until it ends, either abruptly, or slowly, slowly over a period of time. Suddenly, or counting down, day, day, day. One hand. A few fingers. Done. Present becomes past very easily.

Someone is alive. Then they are not alive. But they are not dead. If we insist on using present tense we should say something that is an actual ongoing state. Something that is active. Her body is in the ground. She is decomposing. Her ashes are disappearing into the snowy stream.

Death is not an active state. It is not something someone does. It is the end of doing. She is alive. She is laughing. She is loving. She is healing. She is holding your hand, raising children. She is putting her feet on the dashboard on a long ride, talking, laughing, singing.  Under your hand, her leg is warm.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2016 in Culture, Family, philosophy, psychology, Social

 

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Collecting Stones

Collecting Stones

Today is the day I collect stones.

Years ago, far away, Jews, before they were Jews, back when they were a wandering tribe of anthropo-theists who believed in a single god that they insistedGrave 1 was unlike any other, met the Canaanites, who believed in no such thing. Before they merged, even back then, we buried our dead in the ground. At first this was in caves. Then, in the ground itself. In areas that were too hard to dig, too rocky, a body would be placed on the ground and stones would be heaped on and around the body. The community would bring stones and the more people who attended, the more stones would be piled. One could tell how important, or how loved, and they are not the same, by how high the pile of stones was.

Still today, the tradition continues. One can walk through a Jewish cemetery and see graves with stones on them. Someone comes to visit and leaves a stone. “I was here.” “People still care about this person.” Over srtre gravetime, the piles grow.

The Hebrew word for pebble is tz’ror—a word that also means bond. In the memorial prayer, El Maleh Rahamim, we ask the deceased be “bound up in the bond of life”—tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that we have been there, and that this person’s memory continues to live on in us, through us. And the practice is not kept to just Jews who have passed, but one may see pebbles on the grave of any beloved or respected. If you see pebbles, you know a Jew has been there. You know the person is loved.

Tomorrow I bury my father. Unlike my grandmother, whom I myself buried, my mother—and soon my father to join her—is buried in a “waterproof” concrete casket buried in the ground over which a concrete lid is placed over which a marble lid is placed and secured with four large bolts. I shooed the workers away and secured the bolts myself. It was not the same, one shovel after another, but it was some closure. Tomorrow I will do the same.

bernstein graveWhat strikes me about this cemetery, other than the non-Jewishness of keeping a body from the elements, securing it from the waters, protecting it from the natural process that brings it back into the Earth, is this—a nearly complete lack of stones. Oh, the graves have stones. They are brought in, small ones, in pockets and handbags and baggies. But there are none to gather—as though the ground had been cleared, swept, scraped free. There should be a sign. “There will be no gathering of stones here. No. We have made sure of it.”

First breath. Last breath. In between, we collect stones.

And, so, today I collect stones.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2015 in Culture, Family, Religion

 

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Already It Is Too Long

Already it is too long 
For you 
To lie there 
With your one eye open 
Staring at nothing, or 
Something only you can see. 
I cannot quite tell 
If you are conscious but 
Incapable of movement, or 
Vacated so fully 
you do not even care to swallow 
However much we may plead. 
 
I ask how you are doing. 
They tell me facts - 
How many squirts of apple juice, 
How many half-teaspoons of pudding - 
But I don't want facts. 
Lives are not made of 
facts and measure and scales and 
What do they know? 
They didn't even know 
Which way to comb your hair. 
So we brushed it back and 
Now you look like you again and 
You can go now. 
Really. It's OK.
 
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Posted by on July 2, 2015 in Family, Poetry

 

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My Novel

At the edge of the waves, at the rising tide, where the surf dug a cliff of the sand, a father was flying a kite. His daughter of nine or ten is digging a hole, arm deep, water filling from the bottom, scoops of mud pulled out one by one. His son stares at the sea. He is seven or eight, and he stares at the sea. His father asks if he wants to fly the kite. His sister asks if he wants to dig. “I just want to go fish.”

His name is Javier or Julian, Emiliano or Felipe and he just wants to fish. He is a young man of nineteen and he is out on his boat. His father is an accountant, or a lawyer, and he wants him to go to college. He presses. They don’t talk. He is a man of thirty-five, and he fishes. His sister has moved far inland. She wants him to visit. Stay. Meet a girl. She says she loves him. She worries.

He is fifty. His nephew calls. Wonders when he will visit. He is fifty five. His father calls. He has not seen him in ten years. Fifteen years. They draw near, fall away, decide to connect, find their egos, fall away again.

He is fifty-eight. His sister has died. She had an illness. Or an accident. She lingered, gave in. He wasn’t there. He is sixty-one, his father makes a last call. His son answers but all he hears is the sea.

He is seventy, and the waves roll up and down. The horizon fades. This is the novel. But I know nothing about fishing. All I know is the child we passed as we walked the beach. He said something. Six words. I heard him. This is the novel. But I don’t know what to write.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2015 in Writing

 

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Silence

I have taken a break to grab some lunch. A small Chinese restaurant. A family of four sits across from me, one table ahead.

This is the family that typifies an average – a mother, a father, both middle aged, a daughter of late teens, a son nearly a teen or recently so.

Each eats without word, but the only silence is among them. Within each there is a shield of sound. Each has headphones on. Earbuds, full phones, hangers, and, for the father, Bluetooth speakers reminiscent of Uhura at the communications console on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Each is listening to music. It bleeds beyond the headphones and earbuds, mixes into a pandemonic of sounds. Loud enough to carry the treble to my table of each individual island at theirs, as they listen, look down, fork, plate, food, mouth, plate, food, mouth, down, up, down, up, wordless, silent.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Culture, Family, Social

 

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Something My Mother Taught Me

Something My Mother Taught Me.

I know this is not what she set out to teach me, but I am grateful for the lesson about life, even if it cost my mother her own.

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2013 in Culture, Family, Poster, Social, Uncategorized

 

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After You, I Insist

I am forty-eight. Not old by a long shot. But still, this year, as I begin to think of myself as fifty, as half-way, I and my friends, my close friends, those long friends, those who have been with me for decades, for lifetimes, and those with whom I cannot recount decades but feel as though lifetimes have been spent in their splendid company, with those friends I have begun discussing who goes first.

Perhaps it is the death of my wife nearly two years ago. The shaking out of any sense of permanence and security. The blowing of the ram’s horn, the clanging of the cymbals, that shocks off the clinging illusion that anything lasts but love.

Perhaps it is the suicides, both successful and non,  that have surrounded me. The conscious choice to leave on one’s own terms.

Perhaps it is just age.

I have been asked to perform a wedding. It is an honour and a joy and I will happily bundle myself up to Boulder to help write vows and join Joyce and her Ryan in wedded (we hope) bliss. I also performed the naming ceremony for her daughter, my god-daughter, Sloan.

She told me, you know, I have you in my will. I knew why. She has it that I am supposed to do her funeral as well.

Joyce is younger than me by about seven years. She does Pilates, Jujitsu, dances, lifts weights, fights tigers, climbs poles, eats nails, and I think every bit of her gorgeousness is made of warm, soft and cuddly indestructibility. Near as perfect a human female body as I think anyone could imagine, like an android from a science fiction story. Heinlein’s Friday. And she wants me to do her funeral. Barring a (lucky?) strike by a space toilet fallen from orbit or a sudden disease (like I don’t know those happen) I can’t see her going first. I told her so.

“Well, you’d better quite the Pilates and Jujitsu and start eating crap then, because otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’m going first.”

This morning I sent her a text.  “You know… You are the only person who knows everything. Did you know that?  You had better NOT go first. No one else knows all the stories.”

It’s true, though I’m not sure how this happened. We are very much alike, she and I, in so many ways that nothing I say surprises her. Nothing. She understands it all. She always has. Never a laugh except at our similarities and how funny humans are. Never a shame, or a judgement, or even a question. She knows it all. All about the kids, their stories growing up, about Lee and love and life with her and after her. She knows who I am and how I am and loves me anyway.

Someday, I will be on my deathbed, unless I’m on the grill of a truck, of course, or inside a bear, and there will be stories. That is a good thing. How sad to be dying and be, one would hope, surrounded by loving family and friends, and have no stories. How terrible for the children to have had no embarrassments to recount, no mishaps to retell, no tall tales to let grow over time. It will never be said of me that I worked, came home, slept, and did it again. No, there will be stories.

When Lee died, when we had her memorial, it was stories.  All night. The all night slumber pool party memorial and story-a-thon. I told so many. So did Lee’s mom, and sister. And Craig, and others. And Joyce had her share. She told them in the living room, she told them sitting with the kids, Sef, Alek, Ari, on the kitchen floor, each story leaving their faces a bit more red.  She told them as we all divested ourselves of our various bits of cloth and jumped into the pool. She told them over drinks, and breakfast, and whispered them to me when I could not sleep. She knows the stories.

And she wants me to preside over her funeral. No, dear. No. She needs to tell the stories. So the kids can pass them on. So everyone can laugh, or sigh, or cry, or shake their heads, or wonder how on Earth I made it that far.

And she wants me to preside over her funeral. Joyce, I think you shall have to preside over mine. And everyone better laugh. I know they will.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2013 in Family, Social, Suicide

 

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My fourth book is out and you must buy it. Songs from the Well: A Memoir of Love and Grief

An author must practice promotion. And be utterly shameless about it. In this case, it is easy.

Songs from the Well: A Memoir of Love and Grief.   Out in time for Lee, my wife’s (I cannot use the word “late”) birthday.

From Amazon: Songs from the Well is a memoir, selected from the author’s writings and told in essays and poetry, of the author’s life with his wife, Lee, through her diagnosis with brain cancer and death five months later, to the aftermath of dealing with his grief and facing a life without her.

100% the profits go to the local charity, Cancer Care Center of Brevard Foundation. They do not do research or anything alike that and have no administrative costs. All the money goes to pay for things those in treatment and their families can’t afford due to their treatment. Like water bills. Gas to get to appointments.Rent.Like that.Please please help us raise fund and help those who have gone through this process, but think they are alone.  So buy the book and share this link.

Or just scan the QR below with your phone and it will go right to the correct page.

We can celebrate her birthday with her by reading her stories. By celebrating her. And helping those who helped her when she needed it the most. And, frankly, if you don’t want to read it, buy it anyway. It is $4.95.

It is an ebook. It can be read on a Kindle, or on an iPhone or Android phone with a free Kindle app or on any PC with the free Kindle program or on Amazon with their CloudReader. If it goes well, we’ll do a paperback edition as well, but, for now, ebook was the way to go to raise the funds.

Don’t want to read it? Fine. it is $4.95. Download it into nothing. let is spend it electrons into the free air. But buy it. The idea is to raise money for the Foundation in Lee’s name. And as much as we can by her birthday, 4/22.

And we got it out in time for her birthday. I want to see how much we can raise for them and how far we can get this.

Please buy one, share this, send it out, whatever we can do to help refill their coffers and remember her birthday.

Thanks.

Scan the QR to buy the book! 100% of the profits go to charity.

Scan the QR to buy the book! 100% of the profits go to charity.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2013 in Books, Family, philosophy, Poetry, Suicide, Writing

 

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