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Posts Tagged ‘death’

As long-time readers of my blog might recall, at the end of April every year I write about my mother as a way to remember the anniversary of her death.

I was kind of on the fence about writing about her this year. I didn’t really know what I wanted to say. It’s been a long time.

It’s interesting because after someone dies, it doesn’t mean your relationship with them comes to a full stop. You still carry on with it, only it exists in your own head instead of in the outside world, for the most part. Anyway, my relationship with my mom has been a bit turbulent this last year. I think that’s a good thing, but it does leave me feeling a bit more ambivalent than I might otherwise feel.

But then I got an email this afternoon announcing the sudden death of a colleague of mine. She was fine, in good health. I saw her two weeks ago. She was hit by a bike while taking a walk one morning early this week, and she received a head injury, and that was it. She never woke up.

I don’t want to offer you platitudes. I don’t want to offer myself those platitudes either.

Sudden death, or really any kind of death, makes you consider what is actually important.

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Living every day as though it’s your last sounds great but is really bad advice. We can’t actually do that. If you think about an agrarian society, for example, if everyone lived as if today was the last day, no one would bother to work the fields. Why would they? And then everyone would starve to death unless they lived in the type of climate where you can gather enough on a day-to-day basis to survive.

In other words, living every day as if it’s the last limits focus too severely.

But you can think about what matters to you and try to spend at least some time and focus on that every day. Sometimes it might only be a little bit. Sometimes it might be more.

The trick is, we don’t want to subsume ourselves to the fear of loss. We don’t want to become the captive to the idea that there might not be a tomorrow, that today is everything, that failures can’t be followed by successes, that there will never be another chance, that if you don’t give everything today, you may lose what you care about tomorrow. The fear of death can keep you so tightly in a cage.

So where does that leave us?

I was talking to my friend on the phone today, and I asked him what I should write about for this blog post. He gamely came up with a bunch of ideas, all of which I rejected, and we went on to talk about other things. And of course, it’s one of those other things I would like to write about.

We were talking about Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar acceptance speech last year. I hadn’t seen it, but after hearing my friend talk about how it had been a little bit out there, I checked it out after I got off the phone. I don’t want to talk about the part of the speech that was out there, though. I want to talk about something he said before that part.

He said he wanted to thank his mother because she had taught him and his brothers to respect themselves. And he’s realized that respecting himself made it a lot easier to respect others.

Yes.

So today that’s what I have for you. Love, yes, Connection, yes. But also one way to achieve those things in a healthy way: respect. Self respect first, and then from a true respect that lives deep within us will come respect for those around us. And with respect comes empathy and kindness and empowerment. That’s what I think is important.

I wish my mother had taught me that, the way Matthew McConaughey’s mother taught him. But she didn’t, and that’s okay. Luckily we can search for other teachers, and sometimes we can teach ourselves things instead. And here we are.

We can’t determine how long we get to live. And we can’t control how long the people around us get to live either. But for me, trying to cultivate inner respect is a way out of the trap that is fear, and then I can focus on how I really want to be living for the time I do have.

Happy April, Mom. Thanks for this time.

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A few months ago, Robert Jackson Bennett, Ferrett Steinmetz, and I wrote a series of blog posts that Ferrett called a “death-triptych.” I read Robert’s, then I wrote my own, but I didn’t read Ferrett’s. Well, I read the first sentence, and then I stopped because I knew it would hurt me to read it. So it’s been sitting in an open tab ever since, waiting for me to be ready.

Well, a few days ago, I was finally ready.

And this is the part of that post I want to talk about. Ferrett says:

“And I think: Gini is not a guarantee.  There is literally nothing in my life that is a guarantee now.  And I think: You were foolish to think that it ever was.”

This thought, that nothing is a guarantee, is not about death per say. It’s about life, and it’s about the human condition. It’s about how we experience life after we’ve been through trauma.

Or, as Myke Cole says:

“PTSD is what happens when all that is stripped away. It is the curtain pulled back, the deep and thematic realization that life is fungible, that death is capricious and sudden. That anyone’s life can be snuffed out or worse, ruined, in the space of a few seconds. It is the shaking realization that love cannot protect you, and even worse, that you cannot protect those you love.”

So the question becomes how do you go on living, once you have this knowledge? Once you know how fragile everything in your life is? Once you know how quickly you can lose what you value most? Once you know that sometimes nothing you can do will be enough?

My answer is that it is really, really hard. Sometimes you try to construct meaning into your life, like Myke talks about. Sometimes you question why you’re doing anything at all even while you continue to go through the motions, like Ferrett talks about. Sometimes you bend over backwards to create something, anything, that might be different, that might be a sure thing, that allows you to enfold yourself in the comforting fiction that you have some control over the vagaries of life.

And then there's always ice cream, which makes many things at least slightly better.

And then there’s always ice cream, which makes many things at least slightly better.

Sometimes you live your life with an intensity that other people cannot understand. Your emotions are heightened because in some way, you’ve entered into the cliché of living life like today is your last day: like right now is the last time you’ll have with a loved one, like every decision could have a lasting and significant impact, like any small sign could be your only warning of impending doom.

Instead of fear of the unknown, you have fear because you’re intimately aware of just how bad things can get.

And sometimes you become very adept at finding a nice, comforting rhythm with which to end essays like this, like the kind that Ferrett wished he could find but couldn’t. And the thing is, those uplifting positive statements are true. I believe in them with all my heart. I believe in making the most of the time you have, and I believe in keeping the heart as open as you can stand, and I believe that people can be good and noble and beautiful. I even believe that people can change. And I believe that making a difference in somebody’s life–even a small one–really matters.

But the truth is complex. And just because I can see the meaning, the stuff that makes life worthwhile, the positive outlook, that doesn’t mean I can’t also see the dark monster skulking under the bed. Life is freaking terrifying. It sometimes leaves us with too little to hang onto.

In the face of this reality, all I can do is put one foot after another and try my best to be the person I want to be, because of the rich tapestry of my life or in spite of it. It’s not much, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Oh, look. I found a nice, comforting rhythm with which to end this essay too. What a shock.)

 

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On Tuesday, Robert Jackson Bennett and I started following each other on Twitter, and we chatted a bit, the way two writers on Twitter are wont to do. He mentioned that he wanted to write a blog post about his anxieties about death at some point, and I encouraged him to do so in spite of his reluctance. In fact, I said if he wrote the post, I would write about it too.

I kind of didn’t think he would do it. But he wrote this beautiful post, which is very much worth your time.

So. Here we are. And I have to keep a promise to write about death.

I’ve been afraid of death since I was eleven years old. At that time, my mom was clinically depressed, and she was suicidal. Death, I understood, could come at any time, and it was very, very real. All of my questions about death, all of my uncertainties, came with the very high stakes of immediate relevancy.

I hear that teenagers have this period of time in their development when they think they’re invincible. I never had that. I knew I could die. I knew life was an appallingly fragile thing, and I knew tomorrow might devastate me, leaving a hollow scream where my heart had once been. I knew tomorrow might never come.

I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I tried anyway, of course. I watched for signs of imminent doom. I learned to read people. I was inconveniently present. I sang “Candle on the Water” over and over. I never let my mom leave the house or go to sleep without telling her I loved her. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough. But it was all I could do.

When you live like that for long enough, it changes you. By the time my mom died of cancer eight years later, I had formed an intimate relationship with death and uncertainty. And one way this anxiety about death manifests itself is in my relationship with time.

You see, I never feel like I have enough time. Surprisingly enough, this hasn’t resulted in me being a workaholic or dashing around an overscheduled life. What it does mean is that I’m very aware of the passing of time, and I care about doing what’s important to me right now, or as soon as possible to right now.

It also means I hate wasting time doing things I don’t think are important. I don’t like running errands. I am the worst carpool participant I know because I calculate exactly how much longer I’ll be driving instead of already being at an event or doing the next thing I want to do. I don’t like how long it takes to clean my house or brush my teeth or cook my food. I get very restless when I’m waiting. Meanwhile, I am perfectly happy spending hours talking to a friend or walking around with my dog or practicing singing or writing or teaching a student or sitting on a plane so I can see or experience something amazing. I am either approaching infinite levels of patience or else I’m struggling to find any patience at all.

Amy and Nala

I know in my gut there will never be enough time. I love the world so much, how could there be? I will never have enough time snuggling with Nala, and I will never have enough time to write all the books I want to write, and I will never have enough time to learn all the things I’d like to learn. I won’t have enough time to meet all the people I’d love to meet, and I won’t have enough time to see all the places I’d love to see.

And most painfully, I won’t have enough time with the people I love. They will all die too soon for me, no matter the circumstances. And I will die too soon to love them as much as I want to love them. And all of us will be wiped away, our lives and loves and stories forgotten.

What, then, is left? How do I deal with this anxiety around death?

I love with everything inside of myself, even if my heart breaks repeatedly. I notice what is precious to me, and I hold it close. I celebrate being alive right now, and I celebrate that you’re alive too. I grieve when you leave because I refuse to downplay your significance in my heart. I laugh and I play and I work and I do things that scare me. It all matters to me, and when it doesn’t matter to me, I ask myself what I need to change so my life will become more in line with what I care about.

Robert Jackson Bennett said: “Maybe this is what I think the human condition is: shrieking and raging at the universe to pay attention, begging it to understand that this matters, and hearing silence.”

I’ve been hearing that silence since I was eleven years old. Bad things happen, and they change how you see the world, and you know it’s happening and you don’t want it to happen and then it happens anyway. And you can never return to that place of innocence that you never appreciated until you lost it.

But we still have choices. We can choose to be ruled by our fears, or we can cultivate bravery. We can give up, or we can work for what we care about. We can be silent, or we can tell our stories. We can close down, or we can open up.

If the universe answers with silence, so be it. We don’t need the universe to tell us what matters. We already know.

Death is always there, lurking in its otherwise deserted corner. Every moment it stays there is a victory. Every achievement I make, every milestone I reach, every hug I give and every connection I strengthen. Every breath I draw, every story I tell, every place I visit, every song I sing, every day I make the smallest bit brighter for another person. Every time I look into your eyes and we have a moment of truly seeing the other person standing there. They are all victories, and they all matter.

I am afraid to die, but I am so lucky to have this chance to live.

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Well. It’s the end of April, and as always at this time of year, my thoughts are with my mom. But instead of talking more about her, I’d like to talk about how our society deals with the issues of dying, death, and grief.

I was in college when my mom was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of breast cancer and later given a terminal diagnosis (meaning this cancer was going to kill her). I was struggling with what was going on, and most of my peers couldn’t really relate to my problems, so I decided I wanted to join a support group. I was on a college campus, so how hard could it be to find one?

There was no support group on campus. There was no support group in the Santa Cruz area. I found a grief support group at a local hospital, but I was only allowed to begin attending once my mom had died. No support was deemed necessary for dealing with the traumas associated with watching someone die slowly, apparently.

Eventually I gave up. I didn’t have a counselor on campus to talk to. I didn’t receive any support. About five months after my mom died, my voice teacher, who was as close to a mentor as I had in college, was berating me for not having it together as much as a fellow student whose mom had also died. As you might imagine, this didn’t exactly do wonders for my morale. Grieving, I learned then, was not acceptable, even though I was functional and doing all the basic things I needed to be doing (going to class, completing my assignments, feeding myself, etc.).

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This is all bullshit. When people have loved ones diagnosed with terminal illnesses, they need support during the time before death. That time is just incredibly wretched. Bad news streamed into my life in a steady torrent, and watching my mom suffer while I was completely helpless to do anything about it squeezed my heart in an unforgiving grip. The uncertainty of when hung over everything else, a promise of future misery.

Grief doesn’t have a timeline. Grief doesn’t disappear overnight, or in a month, or in five months, or in years. And grief affects people differently. When someone is dealing with something like this, processes to get support should be made simple, not complex and unclear and obviously involving much jumping through hoops. Instead people have unrealistic expectations and they simply don’t want to talk about it.

Grief takes the time it takes. Sometimes it crashes into your life and all you can do is try to hold on. Other times it creeps in stealthily, quietly, and you wonder what’s wrong with you and why you don’t feel more than you do. Years may pass and suddenly it jumps out at you when you least expect it. And it gets mixed in with all sorts of emotional experiences: fear, anger, relief, shock, numbness, hysteria, throwing yourself into your work, the ache of emptiness, recklessness, hopelessness, a gnawing sensation of searching for something.

There is no way to sugarcoat the truth. Having a loved one diagnosed with a terminal illness really sucks. Losing someone you love really sucks. Being reminded of your own mortality really sucks. And dealing with our society’s stupidity about these things makes it suck even more. After all, everyone dies at some point–why does it have to be a subject shrouded in silence?

And this doesn’t even get into the way our society treats those who are seriously ill and/or dying. Luckily we have people like Jay Lake documenting both the ways our society gets it wrong, and his experiences dealing with cancer.

We can do better.

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My short story “The Box in my Pocket” has recently come out in the anthology Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, which is available as a paperback and an e-book. Here it is directly at Amazon (paperback and Kindle e-book) and B&N (for the Nook).

I wrote this story in January of 2011.  I remember thinking of the story seed, writing the first line, and then the story had its hooks in me. I put aside the novel project I was supposed to be working on in order to write this story instead. (And given that I usually become quite single-minded during my novel writing time, this is saying something.)

Yes, that is my name on the cover. 🙂

This story is one of the most personal I have written to date.  The point of view character is a teenage girl who is losing her mother to cancer. This character is not me, but the situation is one with which I am intimately familiar. Well, except for the fantastical element, of course. That part didn’t happen to me. Really.

Normally I shy away from writing anything too autobiographical. Bits of me will inevitably worm their way into the words I write and the telling details I choose; I am never completely separate from my work. But early in my writing days, I found myself defending characters’ behavior in a story I had written, saying, “But this actually happened exactly like this.” It didn’t matter, of course. It didn’t work in the story. Real life doesn’t always translate well into fiction. People don’t always behave in “believable” ways. So now I don’t tend to write with real circumstances in mind.

I do not, however, avoid writing about the emotional truths I have experienced. “The Box in my Pocket” is one emotional truth of what it feels like to lose a mother at a relatively young age. It deals with the dual themes of death and memory, both of which I find myself addressing in my fiction repeatedly; my fascination with them never seems to fade. It asks the questions, how do we deal with loss, and how do we finally let go (or do we hold on forever, and at what price)?

As for the anthology itself, Warren Lapine is its editor, and it includes stories by Mike Resnick, Harlan Ellison, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Kelly McCullough, Barry Longyear, and many other writers, so I am in extremely good company.

 

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It’s the end of April, April 26th, to be exact, and as always on this day, my thoughts are with my mom.

Her death at age fifty really brought home to me the reality of mortality. All things must end. We have a finite amount of time. It made me realize how important it is to prioritize, to make things happen now because there might not be a later, to fight against becoming stuck in a daily routine if it makes me unhappy.

Her death taught me the importance of shaking things up.

You want to know the truth? I don’t like shaking things up. It’s scary and uncomfortable. There tends to be a fair amount of risk involved, as well as failure and disappointment. It can be hard to decide when to shake and when to let things settle.

But when in doubt, I’d usually rather shake. I remember the finite life span of human beings. I remember my mom’s unhappiness, and how she couldn’t shake things up to make her life better. And then it was too late.


Could I be a writer if I didn’t believe in shaking things up? Could I be a blogger? I don’t know. I’m guessing I couldn’t be a blogger because blogs tend to shake things up. Any blogger worth her salt will have to occasionally offer up an opinion, and people will disagree. Shake, shake, shake. And without that extra push to make life happen for myself, would I have found the courage to spend so much time writing? To attempt a novel? To send stories out to be rejected? All these choices shake things up.

I worry when people my age (thirties) tell me how much they want to travel, but they haven’t been anywhere. I want to say, I hope you’re not serious. I hope travel isn’t actually that important to you. I hope it’s a nice dream that provides a pleasant thought diversion. Or else I hope you’re just being polite, like me when I say how amazing it would be to learn to knit (I don’t actually care if I learn to knit or not). Because otherwise, what if it never happens? What if you never shake things up enough to make it happen?

This is why priorities matter so much. So we can decide when it’s important to shake and when we can take a break, be laid back, and let things sort themselves out. It’s like my experience with Las Vegas. I live a short flight away from Vegas. People I know are going to Vegas all the time. It’s never been a real priority of mine to go to Vegas, so I sat back and figured it would happen when it happened. I chose not to shake things up.

And guess what? I’ve still never been to Vegas.

So in a way, today is about remembering my mom AND remembering the power of shaking things up. I don’t want to be a people pleaser anymore? Then bam, I’ll learn more about it, I’ll push myself to change, I’ll ruffle some feathers. I want to be a writer? Then bam, I’ll take risks with my writing, I’ll go out there and meet people in my industry, I’ll leave myself vulnerable, and I’ll commit myself fully even knowing failure waits right around the corner.

Hi, Mom. This earthquake is for you.

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Thirteen years ago today, my mom died.

Yes, I still keep track.

My mom was fifty years old when she died. I was nineteen. She died of breast cancer. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer when I was sixteen. She was in remission for a while, and then developed a different kind of breast cancer (the nastiest kind) in the same breast. She died about a year and a half after that second diagnosis.

I don’t talk about my mom very much, except to my husband, who never met her. But I think about her. Sometimes I think about her a lot, sometimes less. This year I’ve been thinking about her more than usual.

My mom and I

I thought about her when my husband and I made our first lemon meringue pie. I used to help her make the same kind of pie. I thought of her when I saw the large doll house at the Smithsonian because she loved  doll houses and miniatures. I thought of her when I made my first story sale because when no one else believed in me, she did, and I know it wouldn’t have come as a surprise to her. I think of her when I teach the song “Think of Me” from Phantom of the Opera, which I sang at her memorial service and was one of her favorites.

When we have an important relationship with someone, it doesn’t end when they die. Just as we create stories about our lives, we create stories about our relationships, and when the other person dies, we become the only one who can affect that story. But it still continues, and as I get older, I gain new insights into my mom. I wonder how she felt about various aspects of her life. I see things we have in common that I never noticed before.

In many ways, my mom was a very troubled woman. This is the aspect of her that the family has often dwelled upon…when they bring her up at all. But she was also a truly great woman, and this is how I remember her best. She was brave and possessed an infinite well of compassion. She was the best listener I have ever met, and she gave the best hugs. She tried to change herself, and if she didn’t necessarily succeed, she taught me that it is worth the effort. She always had time to read aloud to me, and she took me to the library twice a month without fail. She loved Christmas and little dogs, waterfalls and the ocean, children and long hot showers. She also had horrible fashion sense and an inexplicable love for bad made-for-TV movies. And she loved me with all her heart.

I have a lot I want to say, about death and grief, about society’s sometimes dysfunctional attitude towards these things, about not knowing what to say. Some of these things really need to be said, even if they’re uncomfortable or inconvenient or painful. But today is for my mom. I really miss her. I think I’ll always miss her. And you know, I’m glad of it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because I love her as much as she loved me. And we were lucky enough that we both knew that about each other before she died.

Happy April 26th, Mom. I’m still thinking of you.

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