Sorry Business

       “The truth comes out of this hairbrush.” – Dula Nurruwuthun

If I could, I’d create a pole so high
it would pierce the sky, and still
would not be as tall
as you walked in this life.
I would summon truth
from my brush made of hair
to tell of your life’s essence;
the white of your pure intellect,
the green of your calming garden,
the red of your fierce heart.
It would whisper
the rose-gold of a Perth sunrise,
sigh the deep blue of absence
and shimmer like tears
to keep your spirit company
until the weary wood lies down,
the colors fade like daylight
to velvet night,
and I am left with
this sorriest of business.

-for Rachel Cheetham Moro, 1971-2012

On the islands north of Australia, the mourning period is known as sorry business. Some funerals include carved personal totems with designs applied by brushes made of human hair.
~ from an exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum

© 2016 Jackie Fox

An earlier version of this poem appeared in Issue 11 of Touch: The Journal of Healing

(Editor’s note: Rachel died four years ago today. Reposting this in honor of her indomitable spirit.)

What Survives of Us

Pam and me at my book launch party, September 2010

(Editor’s note: Watching “Being Mortal” on PBS last night inspired me to repost this June 2012 post about my friend Pam. She controlled the end of her story.)

“What will survive of us is love.” -Philip Larkin

Pam broke the news on December 9th, over dinner at our house for an early Christmas celebration. She had stopped all her cancer treatment because her oncologist, who cried breaking the news, told Pam there was nothing more they could do for her. She was calm when she told us how she could feel her body shutting down. My brother-in-law Jeff, his partner Eddie and I cried. Bruce, my husband, did not, but he got a huge lump in his throat.

And then Pam did something I will never forget. She talked about how grateful she was for the life she had and for everything she had been able to do in 40 years. She talked about what a wonderful vacation we had together in Napa in October and about how much fun we were going to have that weekend.

And we did have fun. We went to the Old Market the next day and watched the Dickens carolers. We had lunch in our favorite French bistro. We sipped chocolate martinis in our favorite bar. We toasted being there, in that moment. Our standard toast two years earlier was “Here’s to getting to.” We had started counting toasts in Napa with ridiculous numbers; toast 4,205 or 5,622. We kept that going now.

In the breast cancer Twitter community we talk about being fearless friends. I am so far from fearless. I was scared for Pam all the time, and so was Bruce. We were afraid of what might go wrong when we were traveling together or she was visiting. Jeff was driving her somewhere one day toward the end and she suddenly went “Oh! Oh!” and scared the daylights out of him, but she had seen some fast food drive through she wanted to stop at for iced tea or a shake or something. What allowed us to be there for her was her incredible strength and steadfast refusal to let that thief cancer rob her of her joy in life. If she was tough enough to handle it, so were we.

She never stopped being interested in life. She wanted to know everything about our lives. She wanted to hear about school and work and food and wine. Bruce and I spent the weekend with her in her Kansas City home in early March, a month before she died. She said if you want to come, you should probably come sooner than later.

She took us shopping and to lunches, to a speakeasy and dinner with her parents. We got pedicures and she brought champagne in her tote bag. She cooked. She drove–like a bat out of hell. She hugged me so hard when we left it was like being hugged by my cowgirl cousin, who throws hay bales. I could feel her spine. When we called to let her know we got back to Omaha, she was at her son’s baseball scrimmage, in spite of pain that had kept her on the couch. None of us will ever know what all that effort cost her. When the hospice nurse started coming to her house, she told Pam she wasn’t taking enough pain medication, but Pam had to do this her way. She put off the shrinking of her world as long as she could.

After she went to hospice, she was talking to my sister-in-law Anita about something Anita had made for dinner and said, “I want that recipe.” She knew she was never leaving the hospice; she was tough enough to make the choice to go there. You need to know this isn’t denial. This is insistence on being alive.

One of my favorite stories about Pam was from the night of my book launch two years ago. She bought a carrot cake at the restaurant where we had dinner because I mentioned I liked it. (She was like that. If you liked something, she remembered it and you ended up getting it as a gift.) We brought it home after the party and she set it on the kitchen counter. Jeff and Bruce and Eddie and I were all dithering–too late, too many calories, blah blah blah. Pam didn’t say a word. She pulled five forks out of the silverware drawer, came back to the cake and stabbed all the forks into it. We mauled that cake.

That was how Pam lived her life, and how she faced death. Straight on, no dithering, no excuses. If I can be half the woman she was when my time comes, it will be because she taught me how to live with joy and light and love, and how to face death with grace.

Here’s to you, Pam. Toast 10,373 and counting. I’ll raise my glass to you for as long as I live.

525,600 Minutes

(Napa toastEditor’s note: Today is the second anniversary of my friend Pam’s death from metastatic breast cancer. This post originally ran in April 2013.)

This picture is from October, 2011, when my husband Bruce, his brother Jeff, and our friend Pam went to Napa. Pam’s hand is in the lower right in the picture. You can see how swollen it is in spite of the lymphedema sleeve peeking out from the bottom of the frame.

It was Pam’s idea to take the picture of our hands raised in one of our many toasts. She knew we were making memories to last the rest of our lives, in her case, six months. She gave framed copies to all of us for Christmas.

It’s been a year since she left us, a year filled with memories and disbelief that she’s actually gone. We started letting go of some things and hung to others as long as we could. Bruce still has a picture of Pam as his cell phone wallpaper. I swapped mine out a few months ago, but like him, saved her texts. When we went on our second pilgrimage to sleep with the sandhill cranes in March, we planned to laugh over the text messages she sent on our previous trip. We were both shocked to see her text messages had disappeared. It felt like she was being erased.

The song “Seasons of Love” from Rent asks how you measure a year, or 525,600 minutes. “In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights’–then asks “How about love?” and urges us to “Celebrate” and “Remember a year in the life of friends, Remember the love!”

525,600 minutes later it still hurts like hell, but we remember the love.

My other posts about Pam:

The Gift

angel devil bra not flippedIt showed up on Tuesday. When I got home from work a very large box was on the kitchen deck. I figured it had come to the wrong address but it had my name on it; then I saw it was from Pam’s husband and slowly started connecting the dots.

It was the angel-devil bra that Pam modeled in May 2011 at the ArtBra KC event. The people who won it at auction gave it to her, and she displayed it on a dress form in her bedroom. It showed up practically a year to the day after the last time we saw her.

After shedding a few tears and raising a glass of Pam’s favorite Pinot Noir in her honor, we gave the bra and dress form a place of honor in our closet. I sent Eddie a thank you email and he said he knew Pam would want me to have it. He also said that I would truly value, appreciate and enjoy it.

He was right.

Pam artbra cover

Sorry Business

       “The truth comes out of this hairbrush.” – Dula Nurruwuthun

If I could, I’d create a pole so high
it would pierce the sky, and still
would not be as tall
as you walked in this life.
I would summon truth
from my brush made of hair
to tell of your life’s essence;
the white of your pure intellect,
the green of your calming garden,
the red of your fierce heart.
It would whisper
the rose-gold of a Perth sunrise,
sigh the blue of deep absence
and my tribute would shimmer like tears
to keep your spirit company
until the weary wood lies down,
the colors fade like daylight
to velvet night,
and I am left with
this sorriest of business.

-for Rachel Cheetham Moro, 1971-2012

On the islands north of Australia, the mourning period is known as sorry business. Some funerals include carved personal totems with designs applied by brushes made of human hair.
~ from an exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum

© 2012 Jackie Fox

Published in Issue 11 of Touch: The Journal of Healing

Racing Against Time

I can’t stop thinking about a bottle of wine.

Not any bottle–the bottle Bruce and I sent our friend Pam the week before she died.  We found out that K.R. Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards was doing a wine tasting in Omaha on March 29th. Rombauer was one of the vineyards we visited during our Napa visit with Pam in October. She picked it out, and it was one of our favorites.

We decided it would be great to get him to sign a bottle for her, and he did. He was gracious and wonderful.

We had spent the first weekend of March with Pam and knew we didn’t have time to spare. The wine tasting was on Thursday night and Bruce overnighted the bottle on Friday. When Pam got it on Saturday, she sent the following text (I can’t bring myself to delete her texts just yet):

“I GOT . . . I GOT IT!!!!!!!! In luuuuvvvvvv pitter patter: Thanku so very much friends!!!!!!!”

She displayed it on her fireplace mantel. On Sunday, April 1, she went into the hospital. She remained there until Thursday, April 5th. After spending the night at home and having in-home hospice care stop by, she decided to go into hospice on Friday, April 6th. She died on Monday, April 9th.

We drank the wine with Pam’s parents last month when they spent the weekend with us in Omaha, and toasted her. I think we’re up to toast 12,000-something by now.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what a close call that was. We wanted so badly to give her one last bit of joy from that trip, and we were so lucky it got to her in time.

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to write this. If it has a point, I guess it’s that if you have a chance to do something for someone you care about, do it. Even if their life is approaching its end, don’t give up on them. Their capacity for joy may be the last thing to go.

And if they’re not “officially” in the last stage of life–why wait? One of my favorite quotes is from Henri Amiel, who said, “Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind!” I’ve always loved that quote, but now that I’m older I finally appreciate what it means.

Grief is Not A Disorder

 You may never have heard of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic guidebook. The fifth edition is currently in draft form and scheduled for publication in May. It was first issued in 1952 and the fifth edition will be the first update since 2000. (When I was a mental health worker in the 1980s, DSM-III was being used.)

DSM-5 has been in the news recently because of the way it plans to reclassify grief.  Previous versions of the manual have excluded grief as a depressive condition. Meaning if you went to your doctor and reported feelings of deep sadness and loss, insomnia, inability to concentrate or loss of appetite that lasted longer than two weeks, your doctor would find out if you had lost someone close to you. 

Sure, your doctor might have prescribed something to help you sleep. My dad’s doctor did for him after my mom died. But by making grief an extenuating circumstance in diagnostic terms, the manual signified grief as a normal part of life. No more, if DSM-5 proceeds without further edits. You could very well be diagnosed as depressed for having a completely normal response to a loss, and prescribed antidepressants when the best healing agent is simply time.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about grief, it’s that it’s not linear. It won’t be resolved in two or three or six months, much less two weeks. The respected medical journal The Lancet said it beautifully. “Building a life without the loved person who died cannot be expected to be quick, easy, or straightforward. Life cannot, nor should not, continue as normal. In a sense, a new life has to be created, and lived with.”

I trust doctors will continue to use their common sense, no matter what the final DSM-5 looks like. But as Allen Frances, M.D., wrote in Psychology Today, “If DSM-5  remains completely tone deaf and intransigent, it simply will not be used.”

Grief is a part of life, like love or joy or pain. It is not a disorder, and treating it as though it were is a big mistake.