Archive for the ‘death’ Category

Ten Quotes

January 2, 2013

My publisher asked me to identify ten quotes from Swimming with Maya for promotional blurbs. OK, I thought to myself, how hard can that be?

But I delayed, blaming it on the demands of the holidays. Finally, on New Year’s Day, I sat down with a hardback copy of my book and began reading.Maya Book Cover

Swimming with Maya is a crisis memoir that plumbs deeply the intense shock, grief, and anger that followed in the wake of my daughter’s accidental death. What I wrote in those pages about events now twenty-years-old continues to move and amaze me.

I read page after page, tears streaming down my cheeks, putting colored paperclips on passages so raw they take me right back to the afternoon Maya died and I made the decision to donate her organs and tissues to people in need.

The last third of the book is about how I healed my grief. Those stories – how I wrote my way, slowly and haltingly, to acceptance, worked out long buried family patterns in therapy, sought out people who inspired me, including the man who received my daughter’s heart – are the light that draws me as a reader.  Of course, I know how the story turns out.  Yet there are moments I’ve forgotten and reading about them makes the experiences alive and fresh again.

Here’s one from Chapter 3: “Maya’s chest rises and falls. The ventilator hisses, the computers beep, fiber optic cable snakes into her skull. I never knew love could be so big, that it could expand to allow even this. I have a premonition of lifelong grief rolling toward me, but I know that, once again, I am being asked to give my daughter her freedom.”

maya-19-bday-004

That was the moment I realized I had no right, nor any power, to hold my daughter here. I had to let her go. I gave in to her coma and ultimate death because they were hers not mine, a destiny I could never have imagined. That moment of surrender marked me for life.

This was not an easy book to write, nor is it easy to read.

So why read it? Is there something to be learned in these pages that is valuable enough to offset the pain?

I believe we read to experience life vividly. Good writing puts us inside the mind and heart of the writer, creating a world we can inhabit, a safe space to vicariously experience another’s life.

Swimming with Maya is vital testimony about how losses can be healed. It was worth writing.  I hope you find it worth reading. A paperback and eBook version will be available early in February from Dream of Things press at http://dreamofthings.com or you can visit the  Amazon website today at http://www.amazon.com/Swimming-With-Maya-Mothers-Discovery/dp/1931868344 for the hardback version.

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The Why Question

December 18, 2012
Question Mark

Question Mark (Photo credit: auntiepauline)

Their smiles kill me.  A six year old’s gap-tooth grin flashes on the TV screen and I sob. As a grieving parent with 20 years of experience – and believe me, grief is a job – I mourn knowing there’s always more in the bank of tears. The mass killing in Newtown deposited a payload.

“Tears are the silent language of grief,” one blogger posted, quoting Voltaire.  At this moment, America is writing an epic of sorrow.

“Just wait for the funerals. Our heartbreak has just begun,” I told a friend who was crying outside the grocery store.

What can anyone possibly say to families in Newtown, Connecticut whose children will not be there to open presents on Christmas morning? For the rest of their lives, at every family gathering, there will always be a missing person.

Will tougher gun control laws or increased access to mental health services – or any of the dozens of other things we might do – bring them comfort? I hope so. But nothing we do or say will bring back their sons and daughters.

My 19-year-old daughter Maya died not because anyone willfully harmed her, thank God, but because of the confluence of bad luck and bad judgment. For years, the question why looped through my brain.  Why did Maya get on a horse bareback? Why did she end up with a devastating brain injury instead of a sprained ankle or broken arm? Why didn’t I teach her to be more careful? Why wasn’t the horse fenced or tethered? The litany is endless.

” Why” is the Big Kahuna in our search for meaning. In the wake of the mass killings in Newtown, the why question will take center stage. Even when we’ve plumbed the motives of the shooter in excruciating detail, we will never know for certain why he went on a murderous rampage aimed at six-year-olds.

After Maya died, a friend gave me this button: “Clinical studies show there are no answers.” Finally, I let go of asking why. But it took years.

“What” is a far better question. What will we do now as a society to protect our children? What can I do to comfort others and myself? What will bring more love and compassion into this world? Searching for those answers might actually lead to change and healing.

Our president asks, “Are we really prepared to say we are powerless in the face of such carnage?”

I hope and pray our answer is “Hell, no!” Let’s channel our energies into finding practical, loving steps forward.

Tears are, indeed, the language of grief. But that language, when we listen with care, can ultimately lead to a commitment to do better by ourselves and our kids.

The Look Challenge

October 18, 2012
A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as take...

A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as taken from Walnut Creek (Panoramic made from a 14 image stitch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The premise is simple: find a passage in your manuscript or book that contains the word “look,” post it on your blog, and tag five other blogging writers to do the same. Seems to me like a great way to introduce readers to other writers, so I’m all in.”

I received this invitation/challenge from my friend Madeline Sharples. Madeline’s book, Leaving the Hall Light On, is the tender and harrowing tale of her son Paul’s bipolar disorder and ultimate suicide. But more than that, it is the story of a woman’s courageous fight to not only survive but thrive after a life-shattering loss. To learn more, visit http://madeline40.blogspot.com

To meet the challenge, I randomly opened my book Swimming with Maya to page 210 and found this passage:

“Sprawling over a broad ridge, Oakmont Memorial Park has a direct view of Mt. Diablo. As I kneel above my daughter’s grave, I look at the jagged face of the mountain. It towers above the suburban valleys east of San Francisco, its saw-toothed outline a sharp, cobalt blue. Almost four thousand feet tall, and many miles around, this place was considered sacred by the native peoples who once lived at its base. I regard it with awe. To me, it is a temple of the gods, of doom, of wild horses – a mysterious place that swallowed my daughter in one sudden gulp.”

This passage leads from the narrator kneeling above her daughter’s grave at the cemetery to a fateful meeting with the man who received Maya’s donated heart, his wife, and their two children. Meeting Fernando and his family changed the course of my grief and my life. So in a way, the passage where I describe looking at Mt. Diablo leads to looking in a much larger sense. Looking at and examining the outcome of my decision to donate Maya’s organs and tissues at the moment she was declared brain dead.

I’ve written extensively about this in Swimming with Maya, and more recently in the Creative Nonfiction anthology, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die, edited by Lee Gutkind. Organ donation and transplantation are miraculous and complicated. Instinctively, I was using “look” in the descriptive passage as a metaphor for the meeting to come when I would look into the eyes of the man whose chest held my daughter’s beating heart.

When Fernando drew me into an embrace, with my head resting against his chest, I heard the strong whomp. whomp of Maya’s heart. I was looking for my daughter that day. And I found her, but not in a way I could touch directly. Maya’s 19-year-old heart was keeping Fernando alive but as I held him I realized in a new, deeper way that Maya herself was never coming back. It was searing, heartrending, and inspiring. I found what I was looking for but not quite.

Because we are visual beings, we are always looking. But do we really see? In what ways does looking and seeing inform your writing and your life? Post a comment and let me know.

Can Cancer be Funny?

October 8, 2012

Hell, yes! Tig Notaro, interviewed today by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” proves you can laugh and cry instantaneously. In a now famous stand-up routine she delivered at an LA theater Largo, in early August just days after her breast cancer diagnosis, Notaro broke her cancer news in the opening lines of her monologue.

“Hi, welcome. Hello. I’ve got cancer. How’re you doing? I’ve got cancer.”

Audible gasps, uncomfortable titters, and downright belly laughs filled the room.  One woman broke into tears and Tig, not missing a beat, just kept saying. “It will be OK. You’ll be OK.”

It’s hard to explain why this is side splitting. You really have to listen to it. Its not so much what she says, but how she says it. Without a trace of complaint or self-pity. Notaro just puts it out there with vulnerability laced with irony in a way that makes you laugh and cry almost in the same moment.

And not just the fact that she has cancer – in both breasts. But that in the last four months she got a hideous bacterial disease, C Dif, that ravaged her intestines, then a week after she got out of the hospital her mother died. Completely unexpectedly and tragically. Then her girlfriend broke up with her. And three months later – boom – she has cancer.

She riffs on how God never gives us more than we can handle, one of the funniest parts of the bit, musing, “Really? God is insane.”

Louis CK, a friend and supporter of Tig’s, put the monologue on his website and you can do download it for $5. Best five dollars I ever spent.

Happily, Tig told Terry Gross that she only has a seven percent chance of a recurrence following her double mastectomy at Sloan Kettering hospital. She’s moving on with her life and her career, now more famous than ever because she took a huge risk and broke her cancer news onstage in real time to a group of (mostly) strangers.

I love so many things about this: humor in the face of death, resilience, trusting the creative process, being vulnerable and in the moment with a roomful of people you don’t know. Mostly I just love the way Tig talked straight to me on the download, just the way she talked straight to the people at Largo that night. And I love Louis CK for making this monologue available on his site and promoting his friend’s work.

Maybe our culture is really maturing in its attitudes about death. You think? When we can laugh about cancer, I say that’s progress. Swimming with Maya has little snippets of humor woven in, but it’s not what you’d call a funny book. Next time out, I’d like to to make readers laugh and wince at the same time.

Kudos to Tig Notaro. Long may she wave!

The eyes of Christina Taylor Green

January 18, 2011

Last year in this country more than 6,500 grieving families said yes to organ donation. For 2011 we know many thousands more will give the gift of life. Among them: the family of Christina Taylor Green, the youngest person to lose her life in the Tuscon shootings. Only nine when she was killed, Christina came to see her congresswoman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords because she wanted to learn more about how government works. As President Obama said in his eulogy for the victims, Christina saw the world with the innocence and hope of a child.

Thanks to Christina’s parents’ decision to donate, two other children have had their sight restored. John Green, Christina’s father, says the knowledge that Christina’s corneas were able to help other children in need has been a great comfort to the family. Donation is a powerful act of generosity that affects donor families as profoundly as the recipients of their gifts.

When the unimaginable happens – a child dies – families who are able to donate can find a powerful sense of meaning even in the most senseless or tragic death. Knowing that something positive has come from your loss changes the course of grief. That’s been my experience in the wake of my daughter Maya’s death almost 19 years ago. In our case, because she was in an irreversible coma and declared brain dead, Maya was able to donate solid organs as well as tissue (including her corneas) and bone. Ultimately, our gift saved the lives of four people, restored sight for two, and may have helped upwards of 50 people with bone and tissue grafts.

Maya lives in our memories. She also continues her physical existence through the many people helped by our gift. I have been fortunate to meet two of those people – the man who received Maya’s heart, Fernando, and the woman who received her liver, Patti. Over the years, knowing Patti and Fernando has brought comfort, inspiration, and a very special bond of friendship. Both of these extraordinary people had young families at the time of their transplants in 1992. In my darkest hours, knowing that those children could still grow up with their parents soothed my heart.

A few years after Maya died, I imagined what it might be like for the two people who had received her corneas to be looking at the world through her eyes. Learning about Christina’s gift of sight brought back the feelings that inspired that poem. Here it is.

New Eyes

1.

The red squirrel darts across a pine branch,

pauses, flicks its tail this way, then that.

The December day is clear and fine.

I describe this to you,

although I don’t know if squirrels

or weather interest you.

Why tell you about your sister

or Christmas,

the clothes I still keep under my bed?

As if speech could stitch the living to the dead.

We are here, you see.  Our eyes still

wander over the everyday,

gulping it down.

2.

I imagine the gloved hands

of a surgeon, a touch

delicate as snow;

Stainless steel carving

sight out of you

grafting it to new eyes.

When she came to

did her eyes leap

to catch the world

as it ran at her?

Or, looking in

a borrowed window,

do strangers fall into the dark of you?

3.

The Hebrew word for heaven

means “another place.”

Daughter, I think of you

in alternate space,

a membrane so thin

I could reach across

our worlds running side by side,

invisible tracks, a delicious passing

or the squirrel’s flick of tail,

first on your side, then on mine.

When children die

October 22, 2010

In the last 24 hours I have learned of two families who recently lost young children – their tragedies came at me out of the blue.  I find myself wishing I could sit with the parents and listen to their stories. Since my 19-year-old daughter died suddenly in 1992, I’ve learned many things. One is how sorrow can hollow you out and make space for a new life, one you might never choose for yourself, but one where you miraculously reweave what was torn apart. The other is that telling our stories is a profoundly healing act. And these two things are inextricably linked. It was through telling my story over and over – writing it down and rewriting it again and again – that I learned to live with Maya’s death.

When your child dies, the world ends. It literally stops. You don’t believe you can ever be part of ordinary life again. And for a while you can’t. I was as close to insane as I ever want to be for the first two years after Maya died. I sat in therapy sessions and grief support groups and Compassionate Friends meetings wondering how I would be able to draw another breath, let alone heal and move on with my life. The sight of a blond head moving through a crowd made me search frantically for my missing child. For years. I simply could not believe she was gone forever. I tried to imagine how I could live the rest of my life without Maya, and back then I couldn’t see a way forward. Now I’ve lived through the grief and told the story and I know it is possible to survive. I wrote my way to recovery, making the unreal real.

When I hear of a mother or father who has lost a child I want to sit down next to them in a quiet place. I want to extend comfort and hope even when there is none, even when each moment seems so fathomless, and the loss a bottomless pit you can never climb out of. Every bereaved parent travels this road in his or her own way. At our support group meetings we used to say that there is a word for a child who loses its parents – an orphan. But there is no word for a parent who loses a child. In our culture, we don’t like to imagine what the death of a child feels like because it triggers all of our worst fears. I understand why we shy away from such a profound loss and yet I wish that grieving parents found more support in their daily lives.

Swimming with Maya is my attempt to extend that support. I can’t sit side by side with every grieving parent who may read my book, but I hope somehow that it brings comfort, and shows how it is possible to survive and ultimately live a new kind of life. I’ve also learned much from parents who have never lost a child and yet who choose to read the book. They say it’s taught them to treasure the ordinary moments with their children, and to be more present even in difficult times. This makes me deeply happy.

The children in my life now – my granddaughter Lucia, my neighbors Lily, Edim, and Logan, my great nieces and nephews, the children of my colleagues, even children in supermarkets and on airplanes whom I will never know – remind me that life goes on. There are always children to love in this world, spunky, unpredictable, lively little characters. Whether they are ours or not, we can honor their lives and the struggles and joys of their parents through the stories we listen to and the stories we tell.


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