Is Scott Simon violating some societal taboo?

Elizabeth Gaucher:

I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t begrudge him his choice. Everyone deals with death in his or her own way. I hope he doesn’t regret this. It begs the question, is it best to wait to write about grief, or is the moment the truest time?

Originally posted on We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down:

Scott Simon is the host of NPR Weekend Edition. He's been tweeting his mother's dying days, garnering praise and criticism along the way. The fact that this has become such a big story reveals our society's thoughts about death and grief and what's appropriate.

Scott Simon is the host of NPR Weekend Edition. He’s been tweeting his mother’s dying days, garnering praise and criticism along the way. The fact that this has become such a big story reveals our society’s unease with thoughts about death and grief and publicly expressing those thoughts.

Perhaps you’ve heard of NPR’s Scott Simon this week—he’s getting a lot of attention for tweeting his thoughts and observations as he sits at his mother’s deathbed.

As with any public figure’s actions, Simon is getting both praise and criticism. I read through the negative comments posted to the Los Angeles Times article—here’s a sample:

  • “That is just creepy”
  • “Ratings must have been down”
  • “This guy needs to seek mental help”
  • “Can’t even someone’s dying days be afforded some dignity?”
  • “Ghoulish. Disrespectful. Selfish.”
  • “Rather he used his Mother to garner favor and a story as well as pity.”

But what Simon…

View original 663 more words

To Everything, Turn.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  – Ecclesiastes 3

My family said goodbye this week to our patriarch.

My grandfather was nearly 100 years old, and his presence in this life was powerful. He was loving and strict, easy to laugh and just as easy to eagle-eye you into a corner if he was concerned about your direction. He fought the Nazis. He gathered wildflowers. He ran businesses and raised a family. He loved life, and life loved him right back just as hard.

So saying goodbye has been a challenge. I spent the first week after his death in a weepy haze. I know it’s perfectly natural that a person this old should pass away, and yet I just didn’t really know how to let him go. He has presided over all of the most significant moments of my life to date, and thinking about how to anchor anything without his involvement has been difficult. I just kept thinking, “He’s gone.”

Then, it happened. At a 30-plus family member dinner on Saturday night, the cousins started dancing.

These were the little ones, ranging from 3 years old up to 10.  Some of them knew my grandfather, but many were too little and lived too far away to have any memory of him. I had been agonizing over the fact that they would never really know him, that without his guidance and influence our family couldn’t go on as it had been, that this gathering would be the last of the great family gatherings because without Poppa we would not really know who we were going forward.

“Look,” my husband said nudging me, “It’s a cousin conga line!”

All of the little ones had lined up and were kicking, dancing, and laughing their way through the restaurant we had reserved for the night. I can still see Jennings’ face. My first cousin once removed, he is a live wire and known to be the child who took Poppa’s death the hardest to heart. This was his first real family loss to death, and yet here he was, leading the party.

In that moment, I found myself looking away from the past and toward the future of my family. As The Byrds’ song suggested, I turned. Instead of seeing what was lost through heartbreak, I saw all that is dancing before me into the future.

Such moments are a rare gift. When I was younger I can remember older generations losing loved ones and me wanting to scream, “They are gone! I am right here!” Now I see the pivot point.

And now I turn.

(This piece first appeared on January 22, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)

 

Lopaz | a sonnet for my grandfather

Lopaz

And then the Lamb invited me to look,

and I beheld a faithful flowing steed

with one glorious hoof atop the Book

my life faithfully kept in word and deed.

My ears perceived a gentle rising call

emitted from a distant room beyond

my sight, and all those lost to me were tall

and gathered locked in bright eyes wet and strong.

In life I rode in boughs the wooden frame

painted to color life but pulseless ran

amidst the kingdoms, rivers, stones, by name

I called them mine; yet now I rein my plan.

Gesturing to the stable my mother

stands before my sisters and my brothers.

I wrote this in honor of my grandfather, H. H. Sims. He is transitioning from this life to the next, the last of 10 children raised in Fayette County, West Virginia. Lopaz is the name they gave their rocking horse; he’s really more of a gliding horse. He has served many children through the generations!

Nowhere to Stop | a short essay on place

I prefer the road to the left after crossing the Kanawha River. Today a spiral staircase appears out of the rock face, and the last step drops just in front of my car.

My eyes have seen these delicate tiers, must have seen them, thousands of times. I was conceived in these hills. Only now on this autumn afternoon do the little elevations register.

Gorgeous golden sandstone, sculpted beyond pure function into art, I realize I have missed them all of my life because they are nearly one with the rock, tight to the white line of the road.

One has to have distance to see them.

I promise myself I will return, slow down, but when I go back I can’t pause. There are people behind me. They are pushing me along.

Next time, I will make it happen.

Next time, I will look for a place to pull over and take a photograph, but next time I realize there is no place to stop. One side is rock and one side is guard rail. There is no margin.

Who built you?

I drive this Appalachian road up from downtown Charleston because I can. There are other ways but I choose this one every time. It winds in unsurpassed beauty each season across water, over railroad tracks, gently up and up into layers of gracious homes and luscious trees. Every yard travelled pulls me more deeply into a sensed but barely visible past. At one turn there is a tiny set of graves. I must stop, unless turning right. If I turn right I may miss the dead, so focused I am on the Children’s Consignment Fair sign or the Old Colony Real Estate sign.

I promise myself this time, this time, I will focus. I will see those stairs to the top. I am sure they must no longer connect to anything, the mansion they once served long gone. I am certain the stairway’s connection has dissolved.

As I pass, unable to stop – there is nowhere to stop – I see where they lead.

They still climb to a house. I see young, contemporary dark wood in shocking contrast to the one hundred year old organic mineral steps; this is not their builder’s home, but I recognize this place. It is the home where my father’s friend lay dying for years, unable to live in this world and unable to find purchase in the next.

When I passed on the road above I would avert my eyes from this place. The pain was alternately dull and ripping to be outside looking in. I stopped looking. I stopped seeing. I stopped passing on the road above.

The road below brought me the staircase. I drive as carefully as I can, the visual distractions now equal between the captivating winding stairs and the dangers of looking too long.

There are others behind me, and nowhere to stop.

In a Man’s Voice: Life and Love, the Inseparable by Robert S. Boone

Rob Boone

After a stint in the Navy, Rob began a nearly decade-long career in sales. Since relocating to St. Albans, West Virginia, from Tampa, he’s turned his sights to more creative pursuits: writing, acting, and designing.

When he’s not doting on his seven-year-old daughter, Jessica, he spends his time reading, writing, learning, and generally questioning the norms of the world at large. You can find him at RBoone.com.

Blogger’s note: This essay deals with first love, but it is not that simple. It takes you on a journey over many years, and asks you to live and then relive with the writer one of the most agonizing events and its aftermath that a young life can know. I believe this essay allows a unique view into the way young men can internalize their emotional world to such an extent that it causes them harm. I am awed by Rob’s courage, both in sharing this story and in the way he lives his life today. I am reminded that we so rarely get a glimpse into the private pain and triumphs of our fellow human beings…thank you, Rob, for sharing yourself with us.

Life and Love, the Inseparable | by Robert S. Boone

What follows is a story as yet untold to the blank page, and yet in the narrative of my life, is perhaps the only story deserving of being penned.

I was twelve when I first met her, standing on my front porch with Justin, debating a potential trade between Andre Dawson and Ken Griffey baseball cards.

Engrossed as we were in the possible trade, we didn’t hear the two girls walking towards us on the pavement, finishing a walk around the neighborhood block. When I looked up, I saw an amber-haired girl of about my age with a mischievous smile ask Justin if he wanted to climb trees later that day. He confirmed as I stood, mute. Soon they walked around the corner and disappeared. I asked Justin the name of the tall girl, and Justin replied, “Jess.” I kept repeating it. It rolled off of my tongue.

I spent much of the rest of that day in anticipation of seeing her again. Annoyed by my constant questions about her, Justin finally packed up his baseball card collection and led me to Nikki’s house.

There was a lone tree in her backyard, majestic if a bit weary, and a group of five bright-eyed conquerors  would spend the next five summers abusing its branches in our race to the top. The finishing order was always the same: Nikki at the bottom, egging us on, Jess midway up the tree, Justin a smidge above her, Heather weaving her way from top to bottom and back, unable to maintain one position- and I perched on the top, heaving back and forth with all my might, begging the tree sway to my command, a combination of childish exhilaration and the adolescent urge to impress the girls.

Inside of me, something was happening, the significance of which no twelve-year-old boy will ever understand. I wanted to be around her, to be with her. That much I knew. I didn’t realize until much later that I was falling in love.

This love overtook me. At first, I resisted a bit, eventually succumbing completely on a cool spring day. I led her on a walk to the Front Street bridge, just a mile or so from home. We talked, though all the while I was desperately trying to summon the courage to kiss her. After what seemed like hundreds of attempts, I finally concocted a plan.

“I have to tell you something.”

“Okay. What?”

“It’s a secret…”

She shot me a puzzled look, and I told her to lean closer, as if, though no one was around, secrets cannot be uttered unless whispered in close quarters. When she leaned in, I raised my hand to her cheek, slowly tilted her head towards mine, and I kissed her. I believe to this day that, for just a few moments, the world actually revolved around us. Taking its cue from my heart, time stood still, until she pulled her lips slowly away from mine, and she smiled.

“I’ve been waiting for that all day.”

From that kiss, as I was hers, she was mine.

I realized then that I knew nothing of happiness before I saw the smile on the face of my Jessica Rose. The winds shifted a bit when she smiled, giving the world a moment to catch its breath.

Years later, on a blistering Valentine’s Day, just a few months after she had moved out of the neighborhood to Belpre, I looked outside my window and cursed. A blizzard was overpowering the town, and I had yet to see my beloved. I hopped on my bike and weathered the storm, arriving at her doorstep some fifteen miles later, with no feeling left in my fingers or toes. I knocked on her door with a single rose between my teeth, again cursing the cold that made my teeth chatter so hard I thought I might bite through the stem. I sat on her doorstep for thirty minutes, laughing, talking, and loving. Then I straddled my bike and set off for home.

She died the following winter. On November 9, 1997, she ran a red light, and was broadsided by a semi truck. She was killed instantly, as was one of her passengers, while another girl, a mutual friend, was badly injured.

Nikki called me that Sunday morning. Still asleep, I felt a slight alarm at Nikki’s sobbing, but was too groggy to attach any significance to it. She told me that Jess had been in an accident. My neck stiffened a bit as I sat up on the edge of the bed. Still, nothing registered. So she had been in a wreck? So what? This was Jess, after all. The idea of her being so much as injured was beyond my comprehension. I waited somewhat impatiently for the rest of the story, going over in my mind the idea of calling Jess soon to make sure she was okay.

And so I was unprepared when Nikki’s words came through the receiver:

“Robby… she’s dead.”

I don’t know what I felt in those first few seconds. Perhaps it was numbness. I suspect, though, that it’s more likely that I felt every emotion that had ever manifest itself coursing through me, until I couldn’t stand the weight of it, and I put my hand through the nearest wall in an attempt to somehow give the terror a chance to escape into the recesses of that wall. I dropped to my knees,  and I sobbed (much as I’m doing now).

An hour later, still sobbing uncontrollably, we were in the hospital lobby with Jess’s parents, who gave the doctor permission to ask me if I wanted to see the body. They never doubted what Jess and I had shared, and they knew, somehow, that I needed to see her. I nodded. When they pulled her from the freezer, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her mouth. That very mouth that had breathed life into me so many years before was frozen in a look of horror, agape and stiff. That image is still very fresh in my mind.

That was my junior year in high school. If I ever so much as picked up a pencil for the next two years, I have no recollection of it. I was made to see a psychiatrist, who put me on anti-depressants which I pretended to take. Friends and family worried about me constantly, and had every right and reason to do so. My world had been shattered, and I saw no reason to participate in what was left of humanity, for she was the only member of it who had mattered. She had been my life, my love, my Rose.

I mourned with reckless abandon, as if grief were my only skill. If I loved her as much as I claimed, then I must grieve with the same intensity. To do otherwise was to tarnish not only her memory, but our love itself. I must not succeed in anything, for to succeed would be an admission that life could go on without her. I must not experience joy, much for the same reasons.

I adhered to this philosophy for longer than I thought possible. I did not succeed in anything. I did not experience joy. Indeed, I took a certain pleasure in my misery.

See, Jess?

Do you see how much I love you?

I am not willing to participate in life without you.

Aren’t you proud?

See how faithfully I am honoring your memory?

My negligence bore many side effects: wrecked relationships, strained ties with family and friends, and a descent into severe, and frequent, binge drinking to numb the pain. For years, I sabotaged every chance I was given at happiness.

Then I realized what a schmuck I’d been.

She wouldn’t be proud of me. She wouldn’t even recognize me. In fact, I no longer recognized me.

As I write this, I search for a moment- a singular place in time in which this epiphany struck, an external circumstance that would serve as a metaphor for the awakening. There is no such moment, however. The truth is much simpler: it was a choice. All that had been raging inside me dimmed to a dull flame, finally allowing for new growth, and the change had occurred, not through the influence of the world around me, but despite of it. I recall stumbling upon a quote from Carl Sagan:

“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

The universe was not standing still because I had lost my love; in fact, it did not care at all. Incredibly vast as it was, and the lives of two such tiny creatures so insignificant, the universe was completely indifferent. How amazing, then, was the fact that I had known her at all? If we are but a speck of dust in an inconceivable existence, how spectacular that she had walked by my house that fateful day and invited me to climb trees with her? I had known a love that most desperately seek their entire lives, and the odds against that happening were, quite literally, immeasurable. If rarity begets value, I had stumbled upon the most valuable piece of knowledge in existence, and that value resided inside of me, by way of her mere existence.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. There are days, less frequent now, that still terrify me, because those are the days when I cannot for the life of me conjure the contours of her face. She sometimes appears as nothing more than a blur when I close my eyes. I carry her with me everywhere- to the grocery store, on my morning walk. Her memory is now a source of infinite wonder and joy, and those sentiments serve her memory much more faithfully than sorrow and misery ever could. As with any struggle, any misstep, any divergent road, the change came from within, because only by living is life truly honored.

Robby and Jess

My childhood began as if on a hot-air balloon ride, and Jess was the flame that thrust me into the clouds. The view from on high was magnificent, and the world looked as it does from dizzying  heights: sparkling, orderly, a perfect grid. That fateful November day, my flame died, and I watched my childhood come crashing back down to earth at a paralyzing speed, thrusting me into the mud and the muck so long forgotten. It was years before I had the courage to lift my head and look at the messy, chaotic world around me.

Once I lifted my gaze and began the slow walk back to reality, though,  I realized that the love that we shared was still with me, and I walked (and still do) with the purpose of a man who has known the strength of love.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Our Mothers, Farewells, and The Departed

Ada was the biological mother of three of my friends, but it was not until she died  recently that I truly knew she was my mother, too.

I spent most of my late adolescence in her world.  I attended 4-H club meetings in her basement, shared overnights with her daughter, rode in her panel van to Jackson’s Mill and Camp Virgil Tate, ate in her kitchen, played ball in her front yard, ran up and down the basketball court at her church, and even hid out in her new basement bathroom the night before I was married.

Ada was synonymous with comfort and a place called home.

She had incredibly good posture.  I wish even in my tallest, straightest moments I could stand like she did.  Her crystal blue eyes always stayed connected to mine when we spoke; in fact, at her memorial service I shared my belief that talking to her was like being in a tractor beam, and the comment received rolls of laughter in recognition.  Apparently I was not the only  person upon whom she focused her full attention when talking and listening.

Trying to pin down her most memorable trait, for me it was this utter focus in conversation.  While that may not sound particularly special at first, consider how many people in your life you can say always — always — give you their full attention when you are together.  She had a husband who was significantly older than she was, and who needed her towards the end of his life as much if not more than her three children needed her in their own growing up, yet she never seemed lacking in energy and interest in others.

To see Ada was to feel joy.  I remember hundreds of times I saw her.  Sometimes it was unexpected, like in the grocery store.  Other times it was entirely anticipated as she opened the front door to her home and her face lit up as she exclaimed, “Liz!  Come on in, it’s so good to see you!”  Whether at her front door or in the bread aisle, her presence was consistent and loving.  She was what I think everyone dreams of, sometimes even subconsciously, when they dream of a mother.  She was one of her parents’ eleven children.  As a middle arrival, maybe that is where she learned the skill of managing younger and older people equally well.

This past weekend I drove up to her house for the first time since her death.  It was all routine until my car reached the first familiar bend in the road that for thirty years led me to the place Ada raised her family, extended and otherwise.  My chest felt oddly hollow and I took a moment to make sure my heart was still beating.  I took the next turn, and the car rose up the hill which would crest in the homestead I sought.  There was that strange chest sensation again as I reached the driveway and my eyes rested on the place where Ada no longer was and never would be again.

The house is empty, save for a few remaining personal things, their destination and ultimate dispensation to be determined by Ada’s children.  It is a strange place to me now, this domestic structure that for decades held some of the happiest times in my life.  I’m not sure what I expected, but I think it was to feel some of Ada still in the house.  The truth is, I didn’t feel her there at all.  I felt very sad, and I began to process and manage some of the larger grief I feel beyond the acute pain from the event of her death.

When a person and the home they built disappears in a physical sense, it is a heavy thing.  Forced to deal with this passing, I had clarity about Ada and all that she shared with me as an anchor in my own psychic landscape.  I remember a similar feeling when my beloved Uncle Guy died, a physical feeling of loss, like a gaping wound was echoing a cold wind on aching walls.  The deep desire to put my hands on my lost mother, to feel her and see her and hear her again, is still intense.

I know from losing my uncle that the ache will diminish but never fully go away.  When Ada died, one mysterious term kept popping into my head: “The departed.”  While I am not Catholic, I am familiar with the concept of the departed from the prayer that reads,

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

The spiritual concept of a soul having escaped the limits of what we know is, for me, spooky and compelling.  Something about a person’s essence having made an exit with a sense of other-worldly destination rings true in Ada’s unexpected and heartbreaking death.  She departed.  She is somewhere else now.  I can’t see this place, or touch her there or hear her voice, but I feel strongly she is in a new home, where she is greeted — always — with complete love and focus.

As we like to say in Christian parlance, “The tomb is empty.”  That is a metaphor, but it is also reality.  I love you, Mrs. K.  Thank you for everything.  You shaped my life, and I will never forget you.

Image credit: Mary Cassatt

What Child is This?

Christmas Eve is only hours away.  There are so many joys to celebrate, and so many blessings to treasure, and yet the world reminds us in ways loud and quiet that life is also fraught with suffering and loss.

A man died, frozen to death, under a bridge in my hometown this week.  His body was discovered several days after he died, covered in frost.  His name was Robert Hissom.  I didn’t know him, and the circumstances of his death suggest it had been a long time since anyone knew him.

This post is not about analysis or solutions, it is simply a recognition that this man was once someone’s baby.  Somewhere things went horribly wrong for Robert.  Some people say he was probably mentally ill, that he was an addict, an alcoholic, a “loser.”  These things are either speculation or opinion at this point; regardless, they have nothing to do with the sadness that comes over the heart and mind at his lonely death.  What is certain is that he was once a little boy who played, and went to school, and had friends, and had dreams.  He wanted to be loved, and protected, and to grow up to have a great life.

The happiness associated with Christmas is tempered with the understanding that the babe faces a solitary and agonizing death.  If Robert’s story speaks to you in any way, please consider one more gift commitment this holiday season.  In Charleston, West Virginia, I recommend contacting Covenant House to find out how money, advocacy, time, and donations of food or clothing can help someone in trouble.  If you live elsewhere, please contact the nonprofit in your community that works to address chronic homelessness.

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Image credit: Social Exclusion Housing