“You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek. But first… first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see thangs, wonderful to tell. You shall see a… a cow… on the roof of a cotton house, ha. And, oh, so many startlements. I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto your salvation.” – Blind Seer, O Brother Where Art Thou
Woodland Valley State Park, Catskills, Phoenicia, NY. 1982.
A spring morning snow outside our tent offered the comfort of a favorite blanket. The cool, moist air mixed with the tendrils of smoke from the smoldering campfire of the night before. A rustle of sleeping bags. A call of a blue jay. The sound of the river nearby and trees clattering, branches dancing. As the dawn light cast a green-blue haze through the translucent nylon, Brigid leaned over to me and whispered “have you ever had a butterfly kiss?” “No, I don’t think so,” I smiled, turning my head slowly, our faces so close, noses almost touching. “Don’t move. Close your eyes. Imagine a butterfly.” I did as told. The faint feathery wisp of Brig’s eyelashes brushed against my cheek. She gave me a butterfly kiss good morning.
Mind you this was truly a love of friendship, completely plutonic and proof that boys and girls, men and women, could be close friends. Brigid was three years older than I, as I was but a mere freshman in high school and she a senior. I had been taken in by this group of older friends due in part, I recall, to my work in theater. The camaraderie of the stage creates lifelong bonds that remain with me to this day. Among the many theatrical forays: Chicago, Pippin, Chekhov’s The Seagull, Studs Terkel’s Working, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Sam Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth. Classmates Ian, Michelle and Kiri were part of the same trip. We were all just enjoying our Thoreauian escapade into the wilderness. Brigid, whose mother “Jo” was the school librarian and her father, Dennis an Irish historian of note, was a dear, dear friend. With red hair aglow, a passion for art and literature and a raft of quirky sayings and habits, she was a light in my life. She bestowed upon me my other moniker: “Mookie.”
Brigid went on to Yale, writing furiously, winning awards and was a rising star. There she met her fiancée, Chris Noël, and upon graduating they returned to Chris’s homeland in Vermont. Chris took a role teaching at what is now Vermont College of Fine Arts and Brigid took an administrative job at Goddard College. When I moved to Vermont a few years later, I would meet up with them now and then, in their downtown Montpelier apartment with their beautiful dog Romeo, also known as Romers. They were in love and just beginning their own journey. I loved them both dearly and they were very kind and generous. Chris kept me laughing so hard I would cry.
Chris’s family became familiar friends. He and Brigid were ultimately nominated for a children’s show award for their Christmas tale “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.” set to words and video for the Rabbit Ears Radio Series with Amy Grant and Chet Atkins. On their journey to the ceremony in California, Brig and Chris shared the hilarity of these two country bumpkins stepping out on the red carpet in LA and she being mistaken for Molly Ringwald.
It was January 28th of 1992 when Kiri called me in Putney. On her way to work, on a snowy Route 12 in Berlin, Vermont, Brig’s tiny Honda was hit head-on by a larger SUV. Brigid, our beautiful, loving Brig, was dead. The howling and moaning of loss punctured my heart. My insides collapsed. At her service in Montpelier, at the Unitarian Church, I could only speak of dark clouds. At the reception back at the house, a mini-Irish wake of sorts, I seem to recall her brothers, all with profoundly Irish names, (Brendan, Kieran, etc.) each had their own bottle of Irish Whiskey, to douse the pain. It was not enough. Back in Philadelphia, at a beautiful Catholic Church, the plaintive wail of Mick Moloney, a friend of the family, and the Uilleann bagpipes echoed through the halls and up past the spires to help us through the emotional debris left behind.
Years later in his book, In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing: A Geography of Grief, Chris writes of the “grenade days.” While his is certainly a journey of grief, loss and mourning, it is also a profoundly deep love story. I highly recommend.
“The split second before it explodes, a bomb will inhale oxygen enough
to feed its detonation. If it’s in a small container, it will suck at the walls,
causing a near vacuum. On grenade days, as I call them, my chest almost caves in. The pin has been pulled but the grenade refuses to explode; it’s just about to. The violence would be a relief. Everywhere I go I go gingerly, because although I do want it to explode, I also want to take care of it before it does, because it’s a soft little bomb, very very tender somehow at its center, and as crippling in its demand for constant protection as for its threat.”
His website speaks eloquently on all things writing, the writing process and on grief itself. Brigid’s collection resides at Yale. Her butterfly kisses reside in my heart and on my cheeks, ever since that beautiful morning.
Loss is part of life. Without rain there would be no sun. For most of us participating in this shared exercise, of joining me in this journey into the unknown, we have lived lives relatively unscathed compared to those who have suffered inexplicable tragedy. The loss of a child. Genocide in Rwanda, Darfur. Famine in Somalia. The Holocaust. Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires. Suicide bombers ripping family members to pieces. 9/11. Rape. Murder. Hate-crimes. The list is endless. Despite my own personal earthquake, there has not been a day I do not consider myself lucky. My moments of despair are reserved for my private spaces, either alone, with Barb or with my family. The dam has cracked but it has not burst. I am waiting for that event…I am not ready. I know it will come. Yes, this cancer is elusive, stealthy and, frankly, sucks. But for now, I will take in every breath with delight.
There are moments when a surge of tears and emotion push through the door and they come at unexpected times. A certain song, a view of a river or mountain. Anything related to my children, my parents, sister, Barb or extended family and friends but especially Hannah and Libby.
Last week, as I was participating in orientation for faculty and staff at Putney School, I was sitting in between rows of carrots at a garden plot while Peter, his assistant from the Farm crew and Marty from the kitchen outlined the logistics and benefits of having a source of food right on campus. As I sat in the dirt I found myself touching the soft green carrot tops. They were cool. Comforting. I welled up. I have no idea why. The simple beauty in the seemingly mundane. Simple gifts.
“They” say there are many stages of grief as first outlined in the book On Death and Dying , published in 1969 by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. A remarkable woman, by her own death in 2004 she had been inducted into the American National Women’s Hall of Fame, was awarded over twenty honorary degrees and her essays and books had become required reading for anyone entering the field of psychiatry. Her work on caring for those with AIDS and HIV, in helping the medical establishment develop a protocol for empathy, and the care of the terminally ill are legend.
In the Kübler-Ross Model, the Five Stages of Grief, are, in no specific order, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, also known as DABDA. Not everyone experiences each stage nor is there any intended chronological map or rule book. At this early point, I would say I am immersed in such a soup of emotion I cannot fully comprehend nor do I feel it necessary to obtain all the answers which would be futile anyway. “Embrace the unknown” my dear friend Sara shared.
As with divorce, death or any other life-changing event, each experience is unique and there is no “one way” to experience or process. It is easy to throw stones, a dangerous tactic, as we all live in glass houses nobody has all of the answers.
The brilliant and controversial author and self-avowed Atheist Christopher Hitchens expresses his own thoughts and approach to death and dying as he faces the realities of esophageal cancer:
Another friend, who experienced two tours of duty with the Vermont Army National Guard in the Ranger Battalion as an Army Lieutenant Colonel has not yet returned from the emotional abyss of trauma after his second tour. He saw things, experienced events, which have seared themselves into his being like a white-hot branding iron. The death and mayhem he witnessed cannot be spoken of or written about with any fairness or accuracy. There is no “closure.” Just night sweats, horror and the gnawing agony that you are forever changed. I think of him often – his family, and the experiences of which he can speak little.
Such events as cancer, which sadly, are a common thread which connects us all in some way, at some point in our lives, thrust you in front of an enormous mirror. Or rather, you are suddenly placed in a room made up entirely of mirrors. You are forced either into a state of denial and cover your eyes, or you must look at yourself from all angles in ways which you never dreamed possible. Unsettled arguments or disputes are placed in new folders: “to let go/unfixable” and “address/fix”. Things left undone to do, or to let slide. Things to say you always wanted to say or things to decide not to say.
In a very strange way I feel liberated, empowered. Then there are the what I call “Clint Eastwood” days, where I, steely eyed, hand on holster, want to wear a t-shirt and have a bumper sticker on my car that reads; “Don’t mess with me, I’ve got cancer.”
I get the spiritual odyssey thing. I get, at it’s most rudimentary level, the Buddhist notion of being truly in the moment and I am still a greenhorn, with velvet on my antlers. I have so much to seek and learn. I want to. I am a lobster yet to shed its carapace. I will never forget the metaphor applied by then Dean of Students Lorne Johnson at Putney School, many years ago, when he spoke at an all-school assembly. I believe he was addressing sexual harassment and homophobia at a time when such topics were rarely raised. I will never forget his words:
“Humans, like lobsters, need to grow. And, like lobsters, in order to grow they need to shed their shell. And in order to shed their shell they need to be in a safe, welcoming environment. If humans, like lobsters, try to shed their shell and are vulnerable, in a dangerous place, they might be injured, or worse. It is our job as a community to provide a safe place for all of us to shed our shells so that we may grow and prosper both as individuals and as a community.” I am in a safe place. I am surrounded by love and protection. My shell has been shed and I am ready to grow.