It’s Sunny Today and it Helps

My altar

It has been a difficult start to 2023. Already, toward the end of 2022, I noticed I was not moving and exercising nearly as much as I should. However, I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel like running. I didn’t feel like taking walks most days either, though I would typically try and get out around the lake while at work. I know I’m in mourning. Will always be in some form of mourning. Have been in mourning for so long. I come back to my brother’s death so often—how there was hope and then there was none. Mom lived with her diagnoses for many many years. Dad lived with his for three. There’s a level of processing that happens during those years that doesn’t take away the grief, but provides time to reflect, prepare. I have had a number of dreams since Gary’s death where I’m sure he’s not dead but just lost. In one, I was looking for him and thought I heard him in another room and was frantic to see him to let him know that people thought he was dead, but I knew he wasn’t. In another—a dream when I was in the throes of covid—I was sitting with him and told him I didn’t think he was dead, but that he had just been misplaced in another dimension. Basically, my heart is broken. But one doesn’t get through life without a heart broken into pieces over and over.

And 2023 started with covid. On 12/30/22 I thought I had a sinus infection and didn’t give it a second thought. At 2:15 a.m. on 12/31/22, I woke up and felt a blockiness in my chest—like a lung full of congestion. I leapt out of bed and took a test that came back positive almost immediately (I barely had to wait 3 minutes to see the positive line). I took another, thinking something might be off with a test that turned positive so quickly, but the second one did the same. I moved into the guest room to quarantine and spent a hellacious week in there. I had heard from friends that their experience with covid was mild, but mine was definitely not. Coughing wasn’t the primary symptom though it was one. It was mostly my head and sinuses and body aches. My faithful companion Jojo seldom left my side, which I appreciated so much. She left only to eat and potty and then came right back and stayed by my side. Spence took a photo of me asleep with Jojo sitting next to me, looking over her shoulder at him. I didn’t know he took it at the time (a perk/con of living with a photojournalist), but when he showed it to me after I was better, I was shocked at the fact that I looked ready for the coffin. Completely drained of color. I did survive, happily, and am so grateful to my immune system, but that time being beaten up from the inside out as my immune system fought the covid virus did not leave me feeling ready to get up and move my body once the fight was over. I was tired for days and days, even after I was ostensibly over covid. And I am better today than I have been, but still dragging a bit when it comes to exercising for its own sake. Last week, Spence and I went on a 4.3 mile hike and I felt invigorated when we were finished, but also thirsty and a bit achey. I came home and slept for 2 hours. The question I’m looking at now is how do I return to a routine of movement? One that I look forward to again? (The cold weather doesn’t inspire me to get outside, unless I’m heading to the woods.) Considering a treadmill, but maybe a space for resistance work is better? I don’t know.

In late 2022, I spoke with my therapist at length about grief, my brother, mom and dad, and how sometimes it feels like I don’t have anyone anymore, even as I know that’s untrue. I have Spence, who is my favorite person on this earth, and terrific friends. But losing your entire nuclear family is unmooring. I miss them all the time. She and I discussed the future and finding things to look forward to or setting goals. She reminded me of some work goals I had set and met in an earlier timeframe, and when I turned 40, that was the year of running and getting to my first half-marathon. Some weeks after that conversation, I realized what I wanted to turn my attention to more fully: Buddhism. I have been informally studying and reading about Buddhism since I was 16, when I was introduced to it by the Beat writers. It has always, always resonated with me deeply and helped me in so many ways when my parents were living with cancer—remembering to live in the moment and not to get carried away by what ifs. Not an easy balance to strike, and I wasn’t always successful, but it was there as a guiding light. When I lived in South Florida, I remember driving by a Buddhist temple on my way to an assignment and thinking how much I’d like to stop, but being too intimidated—I didn’t know what kind of rituals were required before walking in. When I knew we were relocating to our current town, one of the first searches I did (outside of vegan restaurants) was for Buddhist temples. There is one only 20 minutes from my house and it is a Zen temple, going back to the roots of my first introduction! I started attending some online meditation sessions in late 2021 (online sessions were a covid precaution), but didn’t get into the habit. Then I spent 2022 preoccupied with Gary and his diagnosis. In his absence, and in realizing all the people who are gone from my life now, I realized this may be the perfect time to fully turn my attention to Buddhism. It has been in my life as a thread all along, but now, at mid-life, I could practice it and study it more intentionally. The fact that this house is likely our home base for the rest of our lives (even if we snowbird it to a second home) and it’s only 20 minutes from a Zen Buddhist temple fills me with gladness. I enjoy all the teachers and have been to the Koan Cafes, the Heart of Buddhist teachings, and join their morning and evening meditation 2-4 times a week. I hope to take the precepts at some point when the time is right. It’s also nice to be building a community nearby. At one of the sutra services, the Five Remembrances was chanted and that night I wrote it down and hung it above the altar I have dedicated to my deceased loved ones. I think some may read this and feel sad/pessimistic, but, for me, this is the essence of it all. Recognizing that nothing lasts forever is what makes the current moment so luscious and beautiful—it’s going by quickly. Soak it all up.

The Five Remembrances

(Shakyamuni Buddha, from the Upajjhatthana Sutta)

{I am of the nature to grow old;}

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health;

There is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die;

There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change;

There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions.

I am the beneficiary of my deeds;

My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

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The brown sheep in red pants

I chose to wear red pants to my great-aunt Kay’s wake. I’m trying to move away from thinking of funerals as a time of solemnity and thinking of them more as celebrations of life. My aunt, while trying to decide how to dress Kay, mentioned her favorite color was red, and she asked the people at the funeral home if it would be okay to dress her in that color. Of course, they said. I thought I’d wear the color in her honor.

I saw my reflection in the glass doors of the funeral home as I approached the building and questioned my flashy clothing choice. I was nervous. I hadn’t seen much of my Ohio family since April 2019, when my mom died. Before then, relationships had frayed a bit due to strong and differing political opinions. Then the pandemic struck and the differing opinions continued regarding vaccines. When I made a short weekend visit to see my stepdad in 2021, I skipped out on plans to visit my aunt and uncle because they hadn’t been vaccinated. Then my brother became ill with pancreatic cancer and I spent many weeks with him and the conversations between family opened up due to their concern for Gary.

Though Gary left Ohio and never returned, like me, he fit in well with the rural mid-west culture. He was retired military. He collected guns. He was not overly interested in politics and certainly didn’t let political opinions make him angry. He would laugh at how worked up our mom and I got over 45, even if he agreed with us. He was also quite thoughtful and analytical and would always look into issues on his own to be sure he had the information correct. He was a responsible gun owner and didn’t see a problem with certain limitations on ownership if it meant keeping the public safer. He was open-minded about my veganism, never teasing me about it and he enjoyed some of the food I made for him while I visited him in the last year of his life. He was a bit of peacemaker, getting along well in nearly any community he entered.

Once he died, which happened in July 2022, I felt unmoored…like I had no one left in my family, even as I have aunts, uncles and cousins. My mom, dad, brother, grandma–all the people I grew up around were gone. Only my great-aunt Kay was left and I made sure, on my drive back to New England from packing my brother’s Tucson apartment, to stop and let her know that Gary was gone. I’m not sure she understood me. It was clear she was unwell, but I wanted her to know.

When I got the call from my uncle that Kay had died, I was not surprised. She was in her 80s and hadn’t been well. But Gary and I were supposed to face this together, and her death amplified his absence. Now, really and truly, everyone who supported me on a daily basis in my childhood was gone.

On this trip home, I made arrangements that set the visit apart from any visit before. At the suggestion of a colleague at work, I decided to fly instead of drive (a prospect I dreaded). I stayed at a hotel instead of at my mom’s house. Now that my stepdad lives there alone, I thought it would make both of our lives easier (there’s only one bathroom, after all), and I think he agreed. I rented a car instead of borrowing my mom’s truck. I maintained the type of independence I’m used to having everywhere I go. In my head, I set up ground rules for conversation. I reminded myself that I didn’t have to offer anything. I could quietly mourn my great-aunt and listen to conversations and then return to New England.

The first people I saw upon entering the funeral home were my cousin, a year younger than me, and two of my uncles. I was delighted to see my cousin and after walking to Kay’s coffin to say goodbye to her–and seeing relatives I hadn’t seen in years and years–I returned to chat with my cousin.

We talked about her work and I eavesdropped on my uncles who were talking about guns and hunting. I told her the story about finding my brother’s extensive gun collection after he died and she laughed and said, “My dad mentioned that he had a lot of nice guns, and I told him, well, you know if he left it all to Shannon, she’s going to turn those guns in to be melted down.” I was surprised by the comment. Both by what she was assuming about me and the fact that she wasn’t wrong. That had been my first thought, but it changed for reasons I’ll explain in another essay at another time.

I told her I wanted to show my uncles some of the guns Gary had in his collection and she excused herself to go out and have a smoke. I interrupted my uncles, two men who have always been fun and funny and I have a lifetime of stories about, and I told them the story about Gary and his collection and swiped through photos of the collection on my phone. I think talking about Gary’s death is difficult for them and there wasn’t a lot of conversation, except between the two of them as they talked about Gary and his firearm collection.

One of the funeral home workers interrupted us to say it was time to head to the cemetery, and my uncles, who were pallbearers, walked away without much acknowledgement of the conversation we’d just been having. Maybe I was being overly sensitive, but at that moment, I felt really and truly an outsider of the family. I am not interested in smoking, gun culture, hunting—all topics and habits that help this group relate easily. Even as I tried to connect via my brother and his guns, it didn’t work and left me feeling more disconnected.

As I sat in my car, waiting for the funeral procession to start, I realized how well my brother connected with so many people. I briefly thought it would have been better for him to be here than me, not in a woe is me/pity me sort of way, but because he was so clearly in the family fold in a way I wasn’t. I know my family love me and have all been there for me in numerous ways. I just wonder how someone can grow up entrenched in the same culture as the rest of the family and grow up to reject it almost completely. They see me as a woke, liberal, anti-gun, pro-choice, child-less progressive New England nutter, and I don’t disagree. Except I would call myself child-free.

The graveside service was lovely as was talking with relatives I hadn’t seen in so, so, SO long. Overall, the experience was much better than I anticipated, with sweet conversations, and I was glad I attended. My aunt, the one whose political opinions are much, much different than mine and who can be insistent on everyone knowing what they are, invited me to eat dinner with her and the family. This is something I have done innumerable times in my life, usually with my mom and brother. They told me where they were going and I said I would try to make it out, but that I wanted to stop by and see me stepdad first.

As I left the cemetery and weighed whether to join the family for dinner, I realized how well everything had gone and decided not to. We had enjoyed our time together, but it was best not to press our luck. Instead I joined my stepdad and three of my mom’s closest friends for dinner, and the conversation touched on everything. Except politics.

Wintering

I recently wondered if I was depressed. My interest in getting up early to go walking or running has diminished almost completely. Each morning, I am cocooned in my blankets, flanked by my dogs and I am not interested in starting the day. It is such a pleasure to rest there, warm and sleepy.

Just a few weeks ago (August/September), I was getting up early to run/walk and enjoying it. Feeling good. But just like that, the weather cools down and I can barely roll out of bed. And when I do, I feel a bit “blah” about everything. Just unmotivated. Uninspired. Not sad, exactly, but not like myself. (I tend to think of myself as upbeat and positive. My mom used to call my a Big Ball of Sunshine when I arrived for a visit.)

I think about my brother all the time, especially when I’m walking to and from my car at work. I realized one day that I will never get over losing him so abruptly and quickly. And I don’t mean that in some hyperbolic sense, overwrought and emotional. Of course I am filled with grief all the time—for losing all my family and close friends—but it ebbs and flows and strengthens and lessens as the hours go by. That is the nature of grief. But the swiftness of my brother’s experience will always leave me breathless and astonished.

Maybe I’m depressed? I thought. It’s not like me to be this unmotivated to move my body. And when I do, I feel better. When Spence convinces me to hike or go on a walk, I feel better almost immediately. When I’m at work, I feel good, too—interacting with my colleagues cheers me. Perhaps it’s just getting out of my own head that helps.

I receive a substack called Culture Study and it’s excellent. The author recently asked the community to share what they are reading/listening to. I’ve gotten so many great recommendations from this substack. One of the first comments I saw was for a book called Wintering. The commenter wrote “the message is timely as I’m preparing for both literal winter and the metaphorical one I’m dealing with as I navigate a divorce. Ready to hunker down and tend to myself in the next few months, and hopefully emerge in the spring as a brighter, stronger shelf.” Her comment resonated with me. Rather than feeling guilty over not being my usual active self, maybe just see that winter is coming and with it, a time to turn inward and tend to my heart and spirit. To sit with all the changes in my life, in the lives of people I love, in the communities I’m part of. To hold close those I’ve lost and those I’m privileged to still have with me. To just wrap myself in my blankets, get a cup of hot chocolate and a book and be still. (I also bought Wintering)

Summer’s End

It’s raining today, which is absolutely fitting for my mood on the unofficial last day of summer. I don’t recall ever feeling summer end with such finality. Even as someone who hated returning to school—I can still feel the dread that crept in my heart as the first day drew closer—it wasn’t so much the end of summer, but the start of school that was the problem.

This summer started off with great joy—a new pool! Something I had wanted for so, so long. I texted photos to my friends. I told my brother I was a capitalist pig, installing my pool and buying first class airline tickets to see him. He assured me I was not and said he was happy I got my pool and could travel comfortably. We have so many texts from before July—jokes, stories, rants, photos, doctor updates. Then July came along—the month of Gary’s birth—and summer changed precipitously. There was hope for a new treatment at the start, and none by the 12th. By the 18th, he transitioned. Remembering it makes me breathless. The speed of it all. It’s so destabilizing.

I returned home just before the start of August. I canceled a pool party I had planned for my friends from work. I used the pool for exercise more than relaxation. I started spending less time in the pool. When the air is cool, the water feels cool, too, and I must have a low tolerance for cold water. There were fewer scorching hot days that made me excited to get in. A week ago, I went to clear the filter basket and inside was a dead mouse. It startled me—having an above ground pool means we don’t deal with animals finding their way in the water. But this mouse did. I had planned to get in the pool after clearing the filter, but I couldn’t make myself get in. As a germaphobe, all I could think of was the mouse soup I’d be swimming in. I cried off and on all day—wept and wept. Spence didn’t understand why I was so bothered by a dead mouse, but it felt more symbolic to me. This notion of joy being polluted, tainted by death. Summer—where the pool was my refuge while I processed my brother’s situation—ending and this poor, dead mouse being a manifestation of it all…fouling the very water I had found sanctuary.

And, of course, Gary is gone. Even typing those words now makes me cry. We had so much hope. And now I know last Christmas was our last one together. New Year’s was our last one together. Our hikes and meals and movies and books and conversations—they were the last.

I thought pretty seriously about shaving my head as a sort of symbolic, cathartic, visual mourning. I watched videos of women doing it; researched how long it would take for hair to grow back (my ultimate plan is to let my hair grow all one length, but with an undercut to grow out, I thought it might also make sense to shave it all and start fresh). I pulled my hair tight away from my face to get an idea of what it might look like. I slept on it and cried and cried. Was relieved when I woke up the next day and hadn’t shaved my head. Went to my stylist who assured me she could help me grow out my undercut without shaving all my hair off. It would take years to grow back to the length it is now. But it’s nice to know that shaving my head is always an option.

Instead I wondered what I could better do to honor Gary’s life? How can I best represent him and our parents in the world? While I was attending an event earlier this week, I briefly thought about sneaking out early, knowing no one would notice, but it occurred to me then that one way to honor Gary’s life would be to fully put myself into the world. He doesn’t get to be in the world anymore, so I need to fully embrace the opportunities around me to put myself out there more often, talk to strangers, go to events, be in the world. Enjoy it. Enjoy people. Don’t sneak out of events.

During one of our visits in Tucson, Gary and I were walking around a park near his apartment, watching people play pickleball. We were trying to understand what the balls were like—tennis balls? Wiffle balls? As we were walking around the courts, one of the players was leaving and Gary stopped and asked him. He gave us one of the balls to hold and when I told him I was interested in learning to play, he told us to keep it and gave us directions for a place that gave lessons. When we left, Gary said it was so cool that the guy was friendly and gave us one of his pickleballs that I could learn the game with. This curiosity and openness—carrying it with me, letting it move me, reminding me to laugh and find joy, be joy—that is a way to honor Gary and our parents.

I know the grief will ease even as it never leaves. It will shape shift and overwhelm me at different and surprising times. But the feeling of this summer, filled with great delight and hope, and then sudden, awful grief, is imprinted on me. For better or worse, I will always be able to recall it.

As a Means to an Ends and For Its Own Sake

I published this essay on LinkedIn. Thought I’d share it here, too.

My brother joined the Air Force when I was a sophomore in high school. He had graduated from vocational school with the idea of becoming an electrician, but things weren’t coming together, and our father suggested the military. I was so angry and sad when he left, and a bit irritated at our dad for encouraging him. Four years older than me, he was an incredible source of security.

The military had a profound effect on him. He became disciplined and focused…qualities that weren’t lacking prior to the military, but that came into sharp relief after he joined. And he reenlisted over and over.

In the meantime, I had decided I wanted to go to college. I can’t understate how completely out of left field this came to my parents. My mom had been an excellent student in high school, but went into the workforce right after. My dad had quit school in the 8th grade to go to work, and was ultimately drafted and went to Vietnam. He would earn his GED when he was 36. There was no talk about higher education in my home. The goal was graduating high school and then finding work to support yourself. However, there was a lot of reading in my home, and we all stayed informed on current events. I adored reading and fancied myself a writer. It was when I read a novel where the protagonist attended Columbia and became part of the writers’ scene there that I decided, I, too, would like to go to college and be surrounded by artists and writers

When I told my parents, they supported me and helped me find my way, especially my mom. We were all clueless. There was so, so much we didn’t know, but they did what they could. My dad told me years later that when I came and told him I wanted to go to college, he thought to himself, yeah, I don’t see that happening. In his mind, college was for straight A students with money, and I had neither of these things. But he kept it to himself and I went about my way, blissfully ignorant but willing to figure out how to make this plan work. 

I graduated from Ohio University and got my first full time job in West Palm Beach. My parents were thrilled. College to them was not learning for its own sake, but for getting a better paying job than you could with a high school diploma. Happily, I enjoyed both approaches to college, and was pleased to be paid for my knowledge after I graduated. My brother had started taking classes while in the military. He decided he’d also like to earn his bachelor’s and would ask me questions about the process, or have me read his writing assignments. The military took priority, however, and he would often put classes on the back-burner while traveling the world— something I envied a bit, even if I wasn’t cut out to be in the military.

After a few years in my first full time job, I decided to return to graduate school. My mom, the most practical, play-it-safe person in my life, thought I had lost my mind. Why would I give up a good paying job to go back to school? (And there were times after I graduated, which happened during the recession, when I asked myself that question.) But she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which reminded me life was short and there was no time like the present to make leaps of faith, so I did. My brother, still working on his degree when possible, started referring to me as the smartest person in the family, which made me laugh.

Eventually I started a job in higher education that allowed me to build my skill set and move into other positions that aligned well with what I wanted to do with my time—talk to people and tell their stories. My brother retired from the military in 2015, after nearly 24 years, and finally dedicated his focus to finishing his degree. He was great at economics and all things computer related. His plan was to go into IT security. He finished his degree just after turning 50. I wanted to surprise him for his 50th by arriving on his doorstep unannounced, but he was not big into celebrating birthdays, and I knew he was stressed about the work he had to do to finish the semester. When I told him what my plan had been, he thanked me for knowing him well enough to not follow through. 

Then, in November 2021, just four months after turning 50, he learned he had metastatic pancreatic cancer. In one of our video conversations after learning this news, he said, “Look what came in the mail today,” and held up his diploma. He graduated magna cum laude. “I’m actually glad all this happened after finishing my degree,” he said, referring to his diagnosis. “I’d be pissed if it happened before.”

That outlook is something I think about when I remember that conversation. Gary died July 18, 2022, just a few weeks before his 51st birthday. When I learned about his diagnosis last year, I was so angry because he had just finished his degree and was getting ready to start the next chapter of his life with a job he wanted. But when he said he was happy to have finished his degree before all the health challenges started, he reminded me that education is its own reward, regardless of what you do or don’t get to do with it. He spent the last years of his life immersed in formal learning and he loved it.