Tag Archives: death

The Death of A Child

Five years ago, on the Saturday morning of my first day of winter vacation, I was woken up by a phone call from one of my best teacher friends, Erica. Sobbing into the phone, I could barely make out her words.

“He’s dead. Ashton is dead.”

Ashton, a sixth grade student in our school, had been shot and killed the night before while sitting in an idling car with his father. The spray from the shotgun hit him directly, killing him while critically injuring his father.

Returning to my third grade class two weeks later I knew that I had to provide my students opportunities to grieve their schoolmate and friend, though I had barely processed it myself. I spent most of my two weeks of vacation sitting in a numb hollowness, repeating Erica’s words over and over.

What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot.

On the day of the memorial for Ashton our class gathered together to share memories of Ashton. During one of our conversations the students talked about their fears, and how Ashton’s death had made them afraid for their own lives. Then Kelton said, “Why do they keep killing us kids?”

Without hesitating Miles replied, “Yeah, because I wanna know how tall I’m gonna be.”

I can’t tell this story without crying. I can’t type this story without crying.

The meaning and poignancy of Miles words hit home in a new way one year ago when I gave birth to my own son. With his birth I joined the ranks of women all over the world who watch their hearts walk around outside their body.

Becoming a mom took gasoline to the flame of love in my heart.

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When news of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri hit my newsfeed, I knew what I was supposed to do. An unarmed black teenager shot by the police. I’m supposed to shake my head and think, “What a shame.” I’m supposed to like the status updates of my liberal friends who post articles that shed light on the racial tensions present in our country, acted out in the riots that have broken out since Michael’s death. I’m supposed to be outraged.

And then I’m supposed to let it go. Because people don’t want to see that shit in their newsfeeds.

But I can’t let it go.

Because of Ashton. Because of Miles. Because of Michael.

How tall would Michael have become? Where would the aging lines have formed on his face and around his eyes? What songs would he have sung to his children?

I can’t stop thinking about Michael’s mother and the gasoline flame of love she has for her son. The same love that burns in my heart.

What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police.

And I think about all the people for whom this news never goes away. I think about all the mothers who aren’t given the option of deciding whether or not to “let it go”. I think about all the children who grow up scared.

“Why do they keep killing us kids?”

I still don’t know how to answer Kelton.

Shouldn’t every child get to see how tall they will be? Doesn’t every mother grieve for her lost child? Isn’t it time we stop killing kids?

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Death by Death

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”  Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird.”

Book thief quote

I have struggled to write this post for months.  And then, I just decided to take it “bird by bird.”  Still, it has taken me weeks to post it.  No, it still isn’t perfect.  But, in the spirit of being a “good enoughist,”  I pushed the button today.

 A dear friend’s husband died last April from lung cancer (he never smoked); he was 43. This is not supposed to happen and an uneasy chill entered my soul. I felt powerless and incensed:  what is God thinking?  Then, not long after, three dear friends of my husband died in rapid succession, leaving behind a bereaved spouse. As we left the last memorial service, I briefly decided (in a very self-absorbed way) that God might be putting me through “widow” school. I mean, my husband is significantly older than I am and maybe I needed to be ready for the next stage of my life – when he shuffles off this mortal coil.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?  I did manage to recover from this moment of temporary insanity after remembering that not everything that happens is all about me.

I found the unfathomable grief deafening.  And terrifying. I hugged everybody and murmured worthless words that I desperately wished were comforting. But I felt powerless and STUPID. I had no idea how these graceful widows actually felt.  NO CLUE.  I could sense the sorrow, but I could not feel it with them.  I was an outsider – but I really didn’t want to be an insider, despite my clumsy ineptitude.

 For death, as Hamlet notes, is the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”  Although, Hamlet cannot possibly be right, as his dead father paid him a visit only a few scenes before he uttered these words.  Of course, Hamlet was not in his right mind.  I relate to Hamlet a lot.

 There was a lot of death last spring and summer.

 And then, the unthinkable happened.  My dear friend Nancy was diagnosed with incurable cancer.  Nancy: the definition of what it means to be alive.  She was whole-hearted, full of zest, passion and love.

And despite the word incurable, I was certain Nancy’s cancer could be cured.  We just needed to find the right remedy, the right doctor, the right hospital.  I researched treatment options for her cancer like a woman possessed and efficiently put together a binder with tabs and places to record symptoms and medicines and tests and infusions and never-ending visits to doctors. I accompanied her to meet with docs to get a second opinion.  I kept very busy looking for solutions.

 Because Nancy could not die.   Who in their right mind thinks this way?

And despite my will for her to live, Nancy, the soul I loved and cherished, began to leave her life here on this earth.  Slowly, steadily, gracefully: on her own terms.  Even though I didn’t want her to leave – not just yet.  Well, I never wanted her to leave.

This is because I still didn’t (and probably still don’t) have a handle on this death being part of life thing.  There is this tenacious piece of my soul that refuses to accept that we cannot be with those we love forever and ever.  I understand that suffering is part of life – but death?  Who in their right mind thinks like this?

 Nancy knew this about me.  So, she kindly and gently helped me understand that she would die.  Despite my “valiant” efforts to help her get cured.  I drove her to chemo whenever I could.  I meditated and prayed daily, imagining her surrounded by healing blue light, as the therapeutic poison dripped into her veins.  When I arrived at her door after being away for three weeks, Nancy no longer could walk on her own and she was breathless even when lying down.  Her energy, which always had seemed boundless, had been stolen from her.  She appeared to be looking off in the distance most of the time and it was difficult for her to talk.  I think part of me knew that Nancy had begun to disembark from this world and she was seeking her way to the next.  But my heart refused to acknowledge it.

So, I was the friend she asked to come to the “end of life” discussion.  I think she knew I needed to hear the devastating news directly.  Frankly, it never dawned on me, as I drove Nancy and her daughter over to the hospital for what I thought was the next round of chemo, that there would be no more life saving efforts.  I saw that Nancy seemed even more depleted and made a note to ask the doctor for a blood transfusion, because I was sure her hemoglobin was too low.  I chatted away like we were going out to lunch.

 With my notebook and pen in hand, sitting next to Nancy in her wheelchair, furiously taking notes as the oncologist, in a detached voice, talked about the failed chemo and continuing tumor growth, I asked, “ok, what’s next?”  But nothing was next.  Well, no cure was next.  And no, there was no need for a blood transfusion.  I was filled with dread and my heart began to hurt, like someone was beating me on the chest.

 As the doctor left the room to get the papers to “release Nancy to hospice care,” I just kept writing furiously, vowing to stay in my head, ignore my breaking heart and silently prayed for a medical miracle despite this damned, seemingly indifferent doctor.  Nancy’s daughter had been softly crying and quietly apologized.  The room was so quiet, except for the sound of my pen scratching senselessly across the pages of my notebook. And then, Nancy said, “Allison, don’t apologize.  Your crying is perfectly normal.  Of course you’re upset.  I’m the weird one. I’m so detached.”

And with that, despite my heartache, I laughed – as did Nancy – as we had laughed together so many times before when sharing the sorrows and joys of our lives. Allison’s tears were soon mixed with laughter (Nancy’s laugh was one of the most infectious on the planet). I said, “Thanks for sharing that.  I am so glad you noticed your detachment. I thought it was just me.”

It was at that moment, I got it.  She was getting ready to depart – and looking towards her next life, in “the undiscover’d country.”  How like Nancy to help me see what I did not want to see.

For years, Nancy and I had talked as only good friends do as we “fast-walked” the Chicago lakefront path, often meeting before dawn to fit the walk into our hectic schedules.  But now, Nancy embarked on a journey that only she could take, with her family and friends at her side, but yet, alone, all by herself.

 I hated that she was alone.

 Nancy was the friend in the past 10 years that often helped me whenever I felt most alone.  She listened, supported and laughed, no matter what. Despite my relocation 1300 miles away, we i-chatted most days.  Often, she greeted me as soon as I opened my laptop in the morning.

I hated that Nancy was leaving.

Like Mary Magdalene, who clung to the earthly Jesus, I wanted to hold onto Nancy.  She knew this about me.  And even as she suffered through the final stages of cancer, she tried to help me let her go.  Slowly and lovingly.

I last saw Nancy and hugged her a few days before Christmas.  She died 3 weeks later.  On her terms.  And I grieve.  Every day.

 I realized at Nancy’s memorial service how much trouble I was having letting her go, despite her work to help me in my stubborn quest to keep her immortal. I fled the service quickly, consumed by grief, and I continue to struggle with the swiftness of her death (barely 6 months after diagnosis).  I watched cancer, that evil beast of a disease, ravage her body, once the epitome of strength and endurance. My yoga teacher, my shiatsu specialist, the woman who did 100 things a day could no longer sit up for more than a few minutes without being out of breath. But cancer never took away her wisdom, her beauty, her sense of humor, her love, her kindness, her empathy.  So selfishly, I wanted her to stay.  Despite her suffering.  Some friend.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?

 I know I must help clear the path for Nancy’s spirit to “move on” – these are the instructions I remember from the memorial service.  And I panic every once in awhile that I am hurting her by not clearing the path properly.  I’m not experienced in this death business.  Honestly?  I hate leaving places once I am having a good time.  Nancy and I used to joke and laugh about this difference between us – we would be out at a gathering or watching our boys play baseball together, and I would linger at the end, hugging everyone goodbye (sometimes twice).  And I would look to hug Nancy goodbye and she was long gone…she always said she knew when it was time to leave and that drawn-out goodbyes were not her style.  Clearly.

A dear friend, and widow, who despite her own grief, has gently reminded me that the souls that leave earth still visit us.  And though I sometimes claim to be an unbeliever in the spirit life (like Hamlet), most of me believes that we are watched over by those that have gone before us.  And so, every morning at my workout, when I clasp my hands together in a yoga pose and gaze over my left shoulder, I say softly, “good morning, Nancy.”  And sometimes her laugh enters my ears and I see her briefly smiling before me, surrounded by blue, healing light.

 And every day, I work to sweep the path for her, always wondering if I will get any better at this, death by death.

nancy  Continue reading

In the aftermath of horror and in the midst of grief, we must dance to heal and survive – or bake cakes.

Baking Cakes

Baking Cakes in Kigali  by Gaile Parkin

Cakes.  Birthday Cakes.  Bat Mitzvah Cakes.  Graduation Cakes.  Christmas Cakes. Humans the world over bake cakes to honor, to celebrate, to mark an important ceremony.   The cutting of a cake at a wedding is a symbolic, social ritual: the bride and groom cut the cake together and share a piece  to symbolize their union and their promise to forever provide for each other, before distributing it to wedding guests. Cakes signify celebration and sharing, no matter where one is from or what language one speaks.

Gaile Parkin’s soul-warming story centers around cakes and celebrations  in the most unlikeliest of places:  Kigali, Rwanda, scene of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The novel opens only six years later, in the living room of a philosophical  and “Professional” cake baker, Angel Tungaraza.  Angel is a pragmatic, hopeful and proud native Tanzanian, who has relocated to Rwanda with her husband, Pius, and their five orphaned grandchildren to build a new life after the death of their only two children.  Angel is undergoing the “Change”, putting on weight, but still enthusiastically creating colorfully-iced cakes which she sells to friends and neighbors to help support her family.

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Parkin’s debut novel was first published in 2009 and is divided into 14 chapters.  Each chapter centers on a specific celebration and Angel plays the role of the “everywoman” cake baker as the stories of the celebrants, the attendees, and Angel’s family, friends and neighbors unfolds.

Angel is determined, good-natured and warm-hearted and seeks to help other others find their inner strength and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the genocide, “”those hundred days while violence was tearing this country to pieces like a chicken on a plate”. Much of the narrative centers on Angel’s apartment block in Kigali, the home of aid workers from around the world and native Rwandans whose paths cross and whose lives intertwine.  These characters experience a shared humanity despite their varying origins, races, traditions, and cultures.

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Despite the many beautiful cakes, celebrations and seemingly simple stories, painful, heart-wrenching pasts lurk in the background and the complexity of our world emerges from the pages with startling clarity.  At its core, the book tell us about love, acceptance and the ability to look forward and celebrate a hopeful future in the wake of an HIV epidemic, mass murder, suicide, and hate.  It also looks hard at the ideas of truth, unity and reconciliation and what it means to not only say, but live, the words “Never Again.”

As I was glancing through the pages of this book while writing this review, I realized how much this story – and Angel – stuck with me, even though I first read it 3 years ago.  It is an engaging read – but the hope in this book is a vital force and simply encouraging.   The ability to make something positive, especially at times when there is little hope and much to mourn, is an essential tool to living this gift of our life on this planet to its fullest.  It brings to mind a favorite philosopher of my husband’s, Zorba the Greek, who, after his son died, danced  –

It was the dancing When my little boy Dimitri died…and everybody was crying… Me, I got up and I danced. They said, “Zorba is mad.” But it was the dancing — only the dancing that stopped the pain.

I think Angel would have baked the cake for Zorba’s dance party – and there would have been even more healing and hope.

Suitable for ages 14 and up.  It is helpful to have some background of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 prior to reading (or, like me, you can always zip to the web).

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Saying Goodbye

rumi wound

My dog died. One day running in and out of the house, albeit somewhat stiffly with his arthritic legs. The next day our house is empty, his collar still laying on the kitchen table where I left it when we came home from the vet.

It’s been a week and I still listen for the jangle of the collar, I still anticipate his body coming alongside me, I still automatically reach for the gate when I leave for the day. I wait for the call from the vet, telling me that he’s ready to be picked up. I rub memories over the open, raw space in my mind, and it still stings each time.

It is the most basic thing. We are born, we live, and we die. And yet I am still a five-year-old, I’m still asking, “Where did he go?” It still feels unfair.

When grief comes, it is a train, running between my ears. When death comes, there is a free fall, with the anticipated crash, and the slow, slow, slow gluing of pieces, never quite the same, even when made whole.

This is not the first time death has knocked. That does not make it easier.

The day after he died, I went to school. My eyes were stinging: swollen and on fire. But with new sight. They saw the kindred. They saw the other, grieving, calling out to them with a compassion new and alive.

The light entered the wound. Because we all share the wounds. We all hold pain, some with neon signs, most buried deep. But the light hits those wounded places and asks us to be healed. And the healing comes in community.

At lunch I told Grace, “What you’re going through must be so difficult.” And what I meant was, “I share your pain, I allow you to feel it with me. I have pain, too.”

Maybe, when we step back away from the reading, the math, the tests, and the lesson plans, maybe that’s the best we can do.

It’s what my dog did, greeting me each day with the unbridled joy of getting to be together once more. Licking my hand on days that were hard, knowing without words how to be the best friend, how to give the best gifts. It was all he had to give, and it was enough.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n-Rachel

Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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As teachers we are always looking for a powerful read aloud, one meaty enough that we can teach it for a month, a semester, year after year. This is one of those books.

The basic summary is that a boy named August, who has significant facial deformation, is entering school for the first time to attend 5th grade. Told from several perspectives, you are able to see the bravery of August entering this new world, juxtaposed with his sister’s desire to have a fresh start in High School, and his friends’ desire to be friends with August without being social outcasts.

August himself is so loveable that you root for him from the beginning, and the bumpy, challenging, painful first year made me cry and laugh, ever honest about what it is like to not fit in with all the other kids.

If you’re thinking about teaching this book, it also has some other interesting topics for discussion, such as death, bullying, entitlement, and theater.

This book should be read by all of us. Everyone who has every wondered what to say when they see someone with special needs, everyone who has every had special needs or been a friend to someone with special needs, and everyone who remembers what it was like to want so desperately to make friends in grade school. This book has a powerful message for us all.

(Intended audience: 4th grade and up)

Image Review by Rachel