Many of you know that I lost my parents, a sister, Wendy, and her friend on March 15, 1999 – the Ides of March.
Every year since then, I have marked that day: early on, I would stay home from work and be miserable. It was too much to try to be ‘normal’ when I was grieving so deeply. Between late February and late March, I faced heartache on days that should have been celebrated: February 26, my parents’ anniversary; my mother’s birthday; Wendy’s birthday; and even my birthday, which was the last time I ever saw the four of them.
Every one of those days was tough to get through, but not as tough as the day: the 15th, the Ides of March. For a long time, I was unable to function on that day; it was overwhelming, and I couldn’t manage much more than taking flowers to the graves, awash in tears. After several years, I would take flowers to the graves and spend the day in quiet reflection, but I no longer took the day off from work. I would still be overcome with the memories, preferring to keep to myself that day.
For the last few years, the day has passed much more easily for me. If I let myself, I can easily be swallowed up in that quicksand of sorrow, but I don’t want to do that, because it’s hard to return when you sink so low. So I have deliberately tried to go the other direction and find some happiness in that day; it’s tough but necessary. This year, I am happy to report that I am attending a dear friend’s wedding.
In the last fifteen years I have become a different person. That sudden and catastrophic loss changed everything. My heart was shattered, but in healing, it became more open and loving. I have become more compassionate; living through those terrible times when I thought I might never recover broadened my capacity for love and understanding. My empathy for those who are struggling is deeper than it ever was.
But I am also afraid. I am more fearful than ever before of things I cannot control. I worry constantly, and I can’t seem to stop. I know my anxiety won’t change a situation or make things better; and I know that being concerned and worrying are two different things. But no matter what I tell myself, the worries creep in. I no longer believe that things happen ‘to other people’ – they happened to me and my family – so I keep wondering what will happen next. It is always — always — in the back of my mind.
My mind reels with ‘what ifs’ for every situation. What if that driver crosses the center line and hits me? What if this plane goes down? What if a prowler shows up when I’m home alone? What if something happens to my children and I am helpless to do anything? I am mostly able to manage the worries, but some days they take over, and when they do, I am an unreasonable, agonizing mess. Nevermind that many of the things I worry about are not going to happen; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that once the fear arises, all reason goes out the window, and I become a frightened child.
I have also noticed that my memory is not as reliable as it once was. I think the trauma of that incident was a huge factor. My recall of those first days and weeks is rather muddled, which is understandable, but even long-term recollections of my childhood and young adulthood are gone. Wiped from my mind. I can’t remember movies I’ve seen, books I’ve read, or things I’ve said and done. This is one of the hardest things for me to accept.
My priorities are different now, too. I used to envision myself having a successful career, great investments, and a busy social life. Those things changed. Now, I value time with my family more than I ever did. After the crash I stopped balancing my checkbook and lost interest in building my investment portfolio; instead of hoping to maximize my profits, I only cared to have enough to pay for my sons to go to college. I prefer gifts of time and experiences to material things, because I am always aware that time (and life) is short.
My internal turmoil during those first few years matched both the external chaos of the tragedy and the subsequent upheaval among my siblings. It was an exceptionally difficult time for us all, and with emotions running so high, conflict was inevitable. There was a lot of anger and pain, and I think we learned more about one another than we ever wanted to. But that time also taught me to look deeper into people’s hearts for their motivations. The roller coaster extremes of emotion, the irrationality, the impulsiveness, and the inertia that I experienced all taught me to take a second look at situations instead of merely reacting. I try to see the underlying issues that make people act and react the way they do.
Using myself as an example, I realized that stress and emotion cause people to do crazy things sometimes – things that are uncharacteristic of them. At times, I was sure I was going crazy. I lost interest in my life in general and sunk into depression. I acted strangely. I would hope that people who saw me like that realized that the crazy person wasn’t really me, but a product of what I was going through. So I try to extend that same understanding to other people. Who knows what their back stories might be?
Not a day has passed since March 15, 1999 that I don’t miss my parents and sister; the gaping hole in my heart is still there. So I’m marking the day. I’ll take flowers to the graves, but then I will go to the wedding and enjoy myself. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4).
I spent some time in the pit of despair, and when I crawled out, the world was different. But I was different, too. Not all of it was change for the better, but that is life.
Had a moment last weekend that both surprised and shook me.
Our dear friends are on vacation right now, and they got word on Sunday that their dog, a handsome boxer named Prince, had run off. The gate had been left ajar, and the noise and fireworks from a neighboring party had frightened him. He is an old dog, half blind and half deaf, who is on regular medication. We love that dog, so we went to help look for him. Other friends and family members were already in the area, canvassing in a radius of a few miles from his home.
Mr. Stuck and I touched base with other searchers and then drove slowly around, up and down driveways and in and out of neighborhoods, calling for Prince. We had dog treats and water and flyers with his photo and some contact numbers. We spoke to several people, but nobody had seen him. There had been a sighting earlier that morning, but he was skittish and wouldn’t come when called. He was within mere feet of the caller, and he knew her — but he was scared and ran off.
As we drove around, our route doubled back upon itself, took us down unmarked roads, and would have gotten me lost had I been alone. Fortunately, though, Mr. Stuck has uncanny skills when it comes to navigation, and he knew precisely where we were at all times. In fact, as we drove down yet another dirt road, he pointed out a driveway and said, “That’s where Jon lived.”
“Jon?” I said. “Jon who?”
“Jon! You know, your friend, Jon?”
I was puzzled at first, and then I realized what he was saying to me; I realized where I was. ‘Jon’ was my late friend Jon, who died in 1994 at the tender age of 32. We had just passed the driveway where my friend Jon’s parents had lived, the house I had visited so often, in happy times and sad. It was a big house for a big family; like me, Jon was the youngest of seven children. The house sat up on a bluff and looked down over the water; it was a very lovely home, and I enjoyed visiting whenever I could.
I had Mr. Stuck drive past again, because it looked so different. I couldn’t see the house from the end of the driveway, but I knew he was right. He said, “It’s all overgrown now — it’s been 20 years since you’ve been there, I’m sure.” He was right, but the address was there on the sign, and I knew that address — I had written so many letters to Jon when I was in college, how could I have forgotten?
The search for Prince was pushed out of my mind for a moment while I digested what I had seen and tried to steady myself amidst the onrush of memories. How could I have forgotten, indeed. I had driven past the main road from which the driveway branched numerous times on my way to our friends’ home, only a mile or two beyond, and yet I had never ventured down the old road to the old house. Maybe it was a subconscious effort to protect myself, to save my heart from remembering that painful loss. I decided it was an unforgivable travesty of our friendship that I did not even remember where he had lived, and I have been beating myself up ever since.
Recently, I had begun allowing some of those memories back out of cold storage after reading a post in Boles Blogs about Kaposi’s Sarcoma. It brought back so much of the times in the 80’s and early 90’s where many of my friends and acquaintances became infected with HIV (called HTLV at the beginning) and subsequently succumbed to full-blown AIDS. I don’t like remembering that time; it was harsh and ugly and heartbreaking. Whispers mentioned friends from college and from my social circle who were ill or who had died. There was a lot of fear and a lot of unknowns back then.
I remember the phone call. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and my apartment looked out over the water. I was happy to hear from Jon, but immediately noticed something different in his voice. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Jon told me that he and his partner, Carl, had recently been tested, and they both came up positive for the HTLV antibody. “That only means we’ve been exposed to the virus, not that we’re sick,” Jon hastened to explain. “We have no symptoms, and we’re fine. Don’t worry about us.” My heart was leaden with the news. Nobody really knew about this ‘gay cancer’ that had recently been making the news. All anybody knew was that it was taking gay men down with frightening speed, and it was not a nice way to die. It was a disease associated with suppression of the immune system, which meant that any and all opportunistic infections could swoop in on someone who couldn’t fight them, and that person would die.
I was scared for my friends. I read as much as I could about AIDS and its treatments, its victims, its politics. People were (rightly) terrified to get this disease — a death sentence — which was thought to be passed along on dirty needles or via exchange of bodily fluids, but nobody knew for certain. Families turned their sons away, friends no longer hugged, and a deep suspicion fell on gay men. Blood banks clamped down and denied donations from anyone suspected to have been exposed. Dentists and health workers began donning masks and gloves to deal with people for fear of exposure.
It wasn’t long after the phone call that Jon’s partner, Carl, became sick. He could no longer lift his arms; he lost a lot of weight; he became very weak; and developed lesions. He also developed thrush in his mouth. It was horrible to see him wasting away, frail, miserable, and terrified of dying. He had constant diarrhea and pneumonia, and seemed to contract any infection that came around. His parents came from Ohio to Washington State to bring their son home to die. They put a few of his things in a bag (just a few — they didn’t want to touch anything for fear they’d get sick, too), carried him to the car, and drove away. They didn’t even let Jon and Carl say goodbye.
All letters were returned, unopened. At some point, one came back stamped, “DECEASED.”
Jon eventually developed AIDS, although that is not what ended his life. He lived a very long time in final stage AIDS, which was pretty rare back then. It is difficult for me to reconcile my memories of my lively, wickedly smart and funny friend with his sad, final years.
Mr. Stuck and I spent about four hours looking for Prince, calling for him down many dirt roads. On one of those roads, I found something I hadn’t been looking for — a hard little knot of memories buried deep inside. Prince was found several hours after we drove home, safe but tired and hungry.
I will write more about Jon, because his friendship was a stalwart place in my life, and because he deserves to be remembered better. He taught me many lessons through his living and his dying, and I am forever grateful to him.
19 Oct 8:45pm. Saw the therapist today. I hope this is all normal. Sometimes I feel I’m going crazy. She tells me I’m not. Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ll ever get through this.
20 Oct 9:30pm. I wonder what my husband thinks? I don’t want to bore him – if he asks me how I am, I guess I’m just the same. Every day. Nothing changes. Will my marriage survive? Will I? He’s got to be tired of this. I am. And my kids probably wonder who I am anymore – certainly not the Mommy they used to know.
22 Oct 10:10pm. I always seem to do this before bed, don’t I? What a nice way to go to sleep. But it’s the only time I have to myself – and since I’m always thinking of it anyhow, I guess bedtime’s as good as any. Any quiet time for me is painful. Sometimes noise is easier – but I frustrate so easily now – I’m a real shrew.
25 Oct 9:15pm. Going to bed early tonight. Hope it helps. I’m always so tired. The therapist says grieving is hard work and wears you out. I agree. I could stay in bed all day most of the time if I had the chance. Mom, I can hardly stand it without you. Dad, I miss you so much — I try to hear your voice in my head so I don’t forget what it sounds like. I am so terrified that I will. Wendy, it feels so awful to lose you — you were so young and full of life — I wanted you to grow old with me and still be shuffling in the kitchen and ‘popping’ your cheek.
27 Oct Weds pm. I didn’t work today. Guess I tripped and fell. I’m a mess. A damned stupid, blubbering mess. I’m so tired. Maybe I’m coming down with something. Isn’t it funny that my pen from the funeral chapel fits so nicely in my journal? Why is that funny? Boy, if someone reads this someday they’ll probably have me committed.
It feels strange reading these pages again. Almost voyeuristic. Can I be a voyeur of myself?
Having dinner last night with friends, and Mr. Stuck declares that on Saturday night, I must have been having a bad dream, because I was yelling, “Help! Help!” in my sleep. I don’t remember doing it, and I don’t remember the dream, thankfully. When I yell like that, I’m normally struggling or fighting against the dream, and the yell comes out despite the strangling paralysis of sleep.
Mr. Stuck says, “It’s not a good way to wake up, let me tell you.”
I was afraid of this. Opening that journal opened up the corresponding emotions that had settled like silt on the floor of my heart. Now they are stirred up, and God only knows what will come of that.
Amtrak Saluki passes March 15, 1999 crash site on March 15, 2013. Inset: memorial plaque.
“Take a deep breath,” she said.
Just over two years ago, my friend Bobbi Emel asked if I would be interested in guest posting for her website, The Bounce Blog. Bobbi’s blog is a great resource for personal development and a great read, as well: she’s a psychotherapist in Los Altos, CA, who specializes in helping people cope with grief, stress, and anxiety. I guarantee you’ll find something interesting and helpful there.
Bobbi and I are childhood friends, and when we reconnected through Facebook a few years back, we were able to catch up on the years in between. When she asked me if I’d like to share my grief story on her blog, I was honored to do so. So here is my story.
Don’t it always seem to go That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
~ Joni Mitchell, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’
‘I feel your pain.’
Shortly after President Bill Clinton uttered those words in 1992, they became a catch phrase, often spoken mockingly or in jest. Obviously, Clinton did not literally feel the pain of the AIDS activist whose comment prompted his response. Nevertheless, it helped portray him as a compassionate person who had empathy for the common folk.
Of course, it is quite impossible to feel someone else’s pain, because we are all unique, and so are our responses to events and situations. Two people can experience exactly the same thing but have completely different reactions. We can sympathize by comforting and reassuring someone who is going through a rough time in her life, or, if we have also been in that situation, we can empathize, sharing our own experience with it. Compassion, earned by shared suffering and the desire to alleviate it, is a building block of love and friendship. It is a hallmark of caring. You never show compassion for someone you care nothing about.
When you suffer – through injury, loss, or physical or emotional pain – you learn truths about yourself. Among other things, you find out what you can manage; you learn to prioritize; and you attain a new perspective. Life changes for you; you gain depth of understanding and a renewed appreciation for happiness.
Fourteen years ago, I skipped along through life like most of us do, concerned about my own situation: my husband and kids, my job, and my social circle. I was healthy and happy, and life was good. I did not give it a lot of thought because that is how it had always been for me. I could not truly appreciate how fortunate I was.
In a moment, all of that changed. Life pulled the rug out from under me, and I tumbled into another reality. The truths of my situation changed, and I was completely overwhelmed. My journey back to normal (whatever that is) started that day, although I did not know it then.
I stand before you today a different person than I was those fourteen years ago: a stronger person. I now know that I can take whatever life throws at me and still come through. My priorities reflect what really matters. I am still on that path I started that day, but now I am counting my blessings, not the least of which is greater understanding.