Category Archives: Grieving

“Without them, there is no this”

This is a polished version of the email I sent to my local NPR station for its Valentine’s Day program. The title of the show was “Without them, there is no this.” He solicited stories from listeners about the people whose love changed and/or sustained their lives. Reflecting on those people in my life, I was prompted to spill some words and see how they flowed. Not entirely smoothly, it turned out, but the content was compelling enough to read on-air. (Or there was a danger of dead-air.)

I’ve edited and extended it to make it a better read, but some turns of phrase remain unchanged.

My love story starts before my birth, when a social worker phoned Mary Maida, a 59 year old widow living outside of Boston. The social worker was interviewing members of a potential adoptive family for an infant yet to be born.

The social worker asked, “Would you feel like an adopted grandchild would somehow be less than a natural-born grandchild?

Mary replied, somewhat angrily, “What? I only have one grandchild! I need more, and I don’t care how I get one!”

And from the day I arrived into her family, she was the singular person who accepted all of me, with joy, and without any evident disappointment. The connection with her was seamless; I would have done anything for her, and she did everything for me. When my mother warned that she might be too ill to see me in a play, or come to my college graduation, or attend a night dinner in the city, my grandmother always surprised her with a Yes… but it was no surprise to me.

Even though she was legally blind, she could spot me walking in unexpected places, and ask my aunt to pull over. My aunt wouldn’t understand why, and then she would recognize me. I served as a benchmark for her less happy things. My aunt and mother let me know that she realized her
eyesight was failing when she could no longer know me by sight on our semi-regular visits.

And when her mind began to fail, somehow she always managed to give me her precious moments of lucidity – a gift of love if there ever was one.
She passed away in May 1998, a few hours after I left her room, but not before I could wash her hands, wipe her brow, and cry.

The following nine months were laden with grief. Levity came, ironically, in the form of my own layoff. Of course, there would need to be a new job, and rent, and all of the other notes and obligations. But losing her physical presence helped me find the words to express what she gave me: unconditional love. It also was a clue to what I would need to start giving to myself, no matter how many of my own weaknesses I acknowledged, or how much of the past vexed me.

And so, around the end of those nine months, I began a new job. On the first day, my eyes fell upon the man in the office next door, and kapow! He was the man who would become my husband – though I didn’t know it at the time. I was just angry that I had to work with someone so gorgeous. We became friends over the first few months, and then started dating, albeit in secret.  When he moved away to Seattle, we stayed together.

I left the other love of my life, Boston, to be with him, and we married in 2002. He met me at a time when I was grateful for everything, and while those moments have been less frequent than they should be, he always makes it clear to me that he is grateful for the choice we made together, to be together. It has not been easy for either of us, but we have done our best to weather the challenges in each other, and to find the right, honest, kind words to overcome those challenges.

Everyone has their issues, the questions that vex them. (I think, had my grandmother and husband met, they likely would have shared the position that neither of them have issues; a chuckle within itself.) And for me, one of the challenges of my adoption has been the lack of fit, which wasn’t simply a family issue. Where do I really belong? Who actually gets me? Can I be understood and accepted just as I am? (I’m not saying it’s an exclusive question set to adoptees, though that part of my own history was a major component of my young life and trying to understand who I was, really.) And all of those questions are separated from the nerve center, which is, “Am I lovable? Who would, who could love me?”

I feel my grandmother and husband have given me that love. My grandmother did it for over 31 years without blinking. My husband has been doing it for 12, sometimes blinking back tears (as have I). The pregnant pause between them gave me the time I needed learn and understand my grandmother’s love for me, to begin learning how to love myself, and be ready to begin to love another.


Filed under grandchildren, Grieving, growth, Love, marriage

the agony of disconnection

This draft has been sitting in my box for so long, wordpress thought it was written in 1999. It wasn’t, but it was written well before President Obama was elected. I shudder to think of the examples of how people thrive on demonization now, but think most of what’s here is still the core of the problem we’re facing as people.

This is in memory of all we lost that day, including the opportunity to be better connected as a people. Rest in peace, Fred.

A while back, I wrote about the exceptionally personal experience I had 8 years ago, as someone one degree of separation from the tragedy of September 11. But rather than go on a rant – I do enough of that, and others have already expressed sentiments in ways more articulate and moving than I could – I’m reflecting on a result I would call the agony of separation.

Some thoughtful writers have already talked about the distance they felt from the day’s events, and from the aftermath. After all, there were no calls to reduce consumption of any sort, only to trust that people in the government would act in our best interests, as long as we trusted them. The contrary, that any question or exploration of their actions would be the equivalent of treason, kept many people quiet. Too many people.

From the start, then, we take the tragic events, the loss of lives, and decide that grieving is too much, unless met with unreflective aggression, not just in retaliatory action, but also in words, in thoughts, and what we allow people to talk about publicly. This is more then than the loss one never stops grieving. We move from the commons into a bunker.

But it’s more than applying bunker mentality to communication. It’s also who’s doing the fighting. Economic factors (extra income, the only possible path to college) have put our most vulnerable people into military service. When they return, they’re both damaged and denied the resources they need to recover – not unlike the denial of resources and information they faced on the ground, in harm’s way.

In this bunker culture, there isn’t a lot of encouragement to substantively connect – yellow ribbon magnets repel question authority bumperstickers, and vice versa. I see one of those magnets in the parking lot of my child’s daycare center, and wonder how I would talk to the mom who drives the car. We would talk about our children, I suppose, and I would ask when her family member is coming home, and wish a safe and healthy return. Anymore than that, and there is a serious potential for bunker communications, shutting down, dropping connections. Or would we not even talk at all, as the wrinkled John Kerry sticker (not exactly question authority, but close enough in our media and politically illiterate culture) would serve as an effective deterrent to even the most surface greetings.

Broadband bunker communciations fully support the agony of separation. Information sources that sides rely upon are often suspect, and the louder suspect sources tend to come from one side. You know how it goes; “You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Who is this “us,” anyway? It is not the citizenry. How do you listen to someone who parrots Fox entertainers? Who has the interest, never mind the time, to read comparatively? Who would raise their hand and claim to be a media illiterate?

At the same time how does that person listen to me about the state of our nation in real time across the table, words at a breathtaking clip, all citations, disdain and by most standards, obscene privilege? How does that person communicate the realities they face

Where do we find the encouragement to stop, listen, connect? Is it even possible? Blogs certainly foster communities of interest, but my limited experience shows the only tangible evidence of crosspollination being the troll. I admit it, I don’t need to read another Clinton-bashing site as long as I live. Not because I think he was perfect – far from it – but because what they say is born of hatred of him, and while the hatred is real, the accusations range from overdone to truly bizarre.

And it is that unwillingness to ask and listen that stops connections from happening, that makes for gaps, for misinformed assumptions, for danger, for a strange sort of agony – one of a nation, unable to look at itself in the altogether.

Unlike the majority of my fellow Americans, I flew within two weeks, across country. And again the following week. And then in a ping-pong trip across central and western Europe. I can’t tell you what a mess I found – a tangled mess of ideas presented to me at every turn by colleagues from all parts of the globe. It wasn’t a bad mess, though many of the ideas were unpleasant, theories from the thoughtful to just shy of deranged, and a lot of anti-American sentiments. But the best part of that tangle was the chance to acknowledge it, and to listen. Not to agree, but to listen. To connect.

Whether it was at home or overseas (I lost count of the number of times I flew to Europe in the last 4 months of 2001), it became even more important to connect. To listen. To not dismiss. To understand, if only a little, and to consider and act on solutions. To untangle misunderstandings, while seeing some snarls were beyond my abilities to know at the time.

In my own way, because of my work and its very nature (I was a Communications Director of an international technical organization at the time), I was serving as an ambassador through listening, responding, asking.

I have to say, I wasn’t afraid of ideas, of people presenting them. I was glad to have the chance to hear it directly. To give a response if I had one, to simply say “I don’t know about that” if I didn’t, and to offer my own views if it seemed as though there was any interest.

Watching some television yesterday, I noticed how tender the wounds still are for people not separated from the events of the day. Whether it was by location, or personal loss, or identification.

Back to that tragic week in 2001 – I was loading the trunk of my rental car in Downtown Boston on the way to my own bridal shower, when my friend handed me a copy of Time she had saved for me. I remember seeing for the first time photos of people jumping from buildings – the scenes broadcast in every other country around the world.  I literally screamed, dropping the magazine into the trunk, and extending my arms, my hands palms up. What I wouldn’t have given to be able to catch even one person – an irrational, impractical, emotional, visceral, true response. It wouldn’t have mattered what they believed, who they voted for, what they watched. When faced directly with the loss of a human being, with suffering, only connect.

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Filed under Complexity, exploitation, france, Grieving, loss, Opportunism, Politics, September 11th, Wars

Help our neighbors, Love thy neighbors, the Ogbujis

You have a night out for the first time in six years, leaving your young children in the care of able babysitters, and come hope to find the house on fire, your six-year old and two-year old dead, the sitters injured, and your 14 month old child fighting for her life. You lose her a few days later.

And what you decide to do in the moment is to help others understand how to protect their children from such a fate.

This isn’t a page from the Worst case scenario book; it’s what’s happening now to a much beloved family in the Sussex neighborhood of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The Ogbujis have a strong neighborhood, strong ethnic community and church to support them, but imho, there is no such thing as too many people reaching out in ways to help them in the face of this devastating event.

Go to the Web site of the Sussex Community Association to find out how you can help our neighbors and fellow parents, the Ogbujis. I’m connected to Chimezie and Roschelle through my work community, and by reading this, you’re connected too.

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Filed under charitable giving, family, fatherhood, Grieving, help, loss, love thy neighbor, Motherhood, Ogbuji, Ohio, Shaker Heights, support, Sussex Community Association, tragedy, we're all neighbors, web

to boston, for the living

I brought my bags to the car at 10:30pm, teeth numb from tiredness. I had my shortest east coast trip to date up ahead, two dresses, a stomach eliminator, and directions to a friend’s vacant condo in South Boston. Longer lines than I expected at SeaTac, including guys with golf bags in the shuttle bus. Sleepwalking to and through the terminal, I ended up in a first-class seat, but not enough time to get real rest – as we stopped and deplaned at MSP.

By the time I got to Boston, all I wanted to do was take a nap. Instead, I and the cabbie got lost on the way to my friend’s home. I had him let me out on A Street, figuring I’d have an easier time navigating alone. (I was right.)

My friend’s home reminded me of other places she had lived, though this was the smallest of all the abodes I had visited. She’s petite with a great (artist’s) sense of proportion, and the scale of the place suits her – it was almost as if I was visiting with her artchitectural equivalent. Southern exposure and a balcony revealed a city aroused and asleep.

On the way into the ‘Tute, the obligatory pilgrimage to Rosie’s Bakery, and my politeness to other customers won me a “hun.” Though overtired and in town for a somewhat sad occasion, I was invigorated by the company of my colleagues. My drop in dinner at the Blue Room was also welcoming, and delicious. It was good support, a grounding, for the next day or so.

In addition to meetings, I was in Boston to help others celebrate the memories of a colleague who had passed away suddenly last spring. To be there for the living, not unlike the wakes and funerals of my own family traditions. But different, in that there was this space, the space of a year, to bring one’s thoughts together and reflect on what we knew of him and remembered of our interactions with appreciation and perhaps less rawness.

As for myself, I still can’t quite believe my colleague is dead. Perhaps that is the way it is when one dies suddenly, as did his wonderful wife months in advance of him. It’s not to say that the shock is absent after a long illness, but the shock of the sudden loss is, well, pretty unfathomable. And throughout the year, I kept wondering when he would appear on the telcon.

The memorial service, which revealed whole lives unknown to some of us, but with the clearly identifiable character of our colleague, was a pleasure and comfort to those in attendance, particularly his children. But I have to say, I still keep hoping to hear a sardonic remark in his wonderful dry voice. That voice! May it, and much of what he said, continue to live on in us. Rest in peace, Alan.

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Filed under Blue Room, boston, cambridge, death, death grieving loss memorial, Grieving, loss, memorial, Rosie's Bakery, single life, travel, Uncategorized

heartsick, inspired

Some thoughts on the Edwards’ press conference yesterday, which left me somber and not a little heartsick.

A counselor mentioned the unusual, strange public-ness of the announcement. I agreed with her, but took exception from the perspective of media – that in the current media climate, they made the best decision they could, to be proactive (even if coerced) rather than reactive; to communicate privately to those close to them first, and then present a brave (and loving) face to the public.

Regardless of politics, their union is nothing short of inspiring. They love and respect each other, they celebrate the best of each other, their example is one that would serve any aspiring couple.

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Filed under 2008 elections, cancer, children, courage, Elizabeth Edwards, Grieving, heartbreak, heartbreaking, inspiring, John Edwards, loss, Love, marriage, Motherhood, Politics, public discourse, public experiences, public relations

the horror! the horror!

Years ago, an old boyfriend used to suggest to me and others that I should be sent cards of condolence at the start of Daylight Savings Time, as I would be grieving for my precious lost hour of sleep.

Now, I hear on NPR that the US is shifting the clocks three weeks earlier, to next weekend. Prepare for the renting of pajamas and gnashing of teeth.

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Filed under daylight savings time, Grieving, sleep

half a lifetime away, and now

Twenty years ago last month, I thought I had put the newly identified (to me) behavioural world of sexual harrassment behind me. I had found a letter in my campus mailbox signed by the chancellor regarding a case I had brought against  one of my TAs, confirming that yes, not only had all reported incidents happened, but that they were in fact sexual harrassment and were not acceptable behaviours in our community.

The letter was a surprise; after the university panel issued its decision in my favor two months earlier, the TA filed multiple appeals at the urging of his attorney (known professionally as Dick, I kid you not). Little envelopes would appear in my mail slot, with resolutions that took a few bits off the remedy (the university, not the defendent, would pay for my lost wages to attend the hearing, for example), but the decisions and conclusions remained intact.

In spite of this “victory”, it left me skittish, and with one particular point of uneasiness. My advocate, a strong and warm woman, told me that as a warm and outgoing person, I would continue to face occasions where people would feel they could touch me, or otherwise reach out to me. It would be up to me to handle it, and how to handle it. And, also, a sane reassurance that when you said no, most people would stop.

I’ve had a few incidents since, in the workplace, but could handle them effectively… though admittedly with anger. (If I could have said “I smite your stupid scabby head” while waving a scimitar, I would have.) But that was my 20s.

Later, I managed with diplomacy, a little bit of understanding, and a philosophy I learned from MIT ombudsperson Mary Rowe of “the elegant out.” The elegant out is obvious to most people – if your goal is to punish the person, you take one path. If your goal is to change the behaviour, you think of ways that get the behaviour to stop – ideally globally. I found it opened me to a variety of ways to be more effective in work and family matters. I also learned that warmth and kindness (with an occasional sprinkling of snark) was always a net asset.

So imagine how I might have felt to have been the subject of obsessive abusive behaviour at my advanced age. I couldn’t have. Approached multiple times when the person was both drunk and sober, I was at a loss for a solution to the problem, except to use the power of positive thinking to teleport him to a waiting jetliner, out of the country. Also, to give him my back.

Gender, education, ethnicity, culture – all these came together to enhance facets of a set of behaviours that were essentially about power; who should and shouldn’t have it, what can be done to usurp it. I found myself 20 years back in time, trying to understand what happened, what name it needed, where my responsibilities might lie, and how to get it to stop.

The support I received was lightning fast, firm, entirely validating, and a tremendous professional and personal relief; I had to seek out specially trained people to get that support 20 years ago, so I am unspeakably grateful for the level of enlightenment in “regular people”. But now I wonder how to get that knowledge and understanding more globally distributed and accepted, person by person, connection by connection.

Could it be possible that progress in communication and mutual respect can still carry the day? I say, and must believe, yes.

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Filed under 40th Birthday, awkward, civility, exploitation, Friends, Grieving, harrassment, Learning, men, naming, personal, public discourse, sexual harrassment, socially awkward, women

a sad 5th anniversary

Our management meeting was just starting; we were at a site in Cambridge, and our small group was wrestling with network connectivity issues in advance of reading the agenda, when Eric pinged Ralph on IRC. Something terrible was happening in New York. We could only read Eric’s transcription, which stopped with an “Oh my god”.

In the months and years that have passed and the number of times that murder has been shown and edited into “news”, the picture in my mind always goes to my friend’s words on the screen, his remarks about trembling and having trouble typing, and seeing.

A very good friend of mine often flew from Boston to DC for work, and had her flight plans changed at the last minute, making it possible for us to have dinner that night. I wrote her to say how lucky we were she didn’t fly that day, and how I was looking forward to breaking peaceful bread together.

One line came back to me in email. “*Her husband’s name* was on United 175.”

I gasped. He never flew for work – he didn’t have to. He was a doctor who specialized in family medicine, the kind of MD who took you cradle to grave. He was funny, and smart, and he made my friend bloom. And now he was gone, oh dear god. How would they find him? (The thought of it even now makes me choke.)

I didn’t exactly follow him that day, but I left the room mentally. In the blue tangy sky, in grief. My fiance was in meetings in San Jose; his mom called him from Denmark to break the news. We touched base (all hail irc) once his meeting started, and then, with Tim’s ok, I was gone.

I drove to the town where there was a candlelight vigil, and searched for my friend. Many somber faces – many somber children’s faces – and a disturbing encounter with a former soldier talking about hell and damnation in front of his toddlers. I escaped his manic rant, and arrived at my friend’s house. Her sisters were with her, and when she saw me, her shoulders dropped. We held hands, and hugged, and I told her I was there to help her with whatever she needed. I tried to get her to eat a little bit of food (a mantra repeated by all of her friends and family), and told her I would stay the night if she wanted.

Friends and family had found a little television in one of the storage rooms (this was not a TV house) and hooked it up. Within three minutes of getting a focused picture, there it was. Oh my God. She was looking at it for the first time, the second plane, her husband, dying in the corner of her dining room. I was in the far corner of the room; I went to her and said, “We don’t have to see this if you don’t want to.” She gave me a soft look, and I turned off the set, unplugged it, and hid it in a closet.

I stayed with my friend that night, and every other night for the length of my visit. What I remember finally were the sounds – the sounds of heartbreak and loss in an old house, callously interrupted by jets overhead. The screeching shook the small town that had lost 3 citizens, echoing over the harbor, too late to save anyone and too loud, too indecent to allow for grieving.

This morning, like every September 11 morning since, I have been quiet through those hours. I woke on this anniversary three hours behind New York, PA and DC, but with it in all around me, in the warm pre-waking embraces, the need to be held, cared for, comforted, in silence.

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Filed under anniversary, Grieving, MIT, September 11th, w3c, Wars