Jilly D.

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

In Anniversary and memorials on November 9, 2011 at 3:16 am

This guest viewpoint was published in today’s Ithaca Journal.

An endless loop of images, sounds and events plays in the theater of my horrified mind. Specific details brand themselves red-hot into memory. The hour, the day, the week, the month, the year, the decade before it happened replay backward and forward as my mind searches for clues to the mystery of my lover’s suicide two years ago.

As a reader, I rode a wave of grief memoirs that began with Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” and continues today with Joyce Carol Oates’ new book, “A Widow’s Story.” Other fine examples include Megan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye,” Gail Caldwell’s “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” Heather Lende’s “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs” and Kate Braestrup’s “Here If You Need Me.” Ithaca author Diane Ackerman has recently published “One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing,” her memoir of anticipatory grief.

The deaths of husbands, mothers, fathers, children, friends, even pets have been the subject of touching recent bestselling memoirs that affirm readers who suffer similar kinds of losses and create compassion in those who can’t even imagine. But none of these recent books tells a story about losing a loved one to suicide.

Jill Bialosky has written a new memoir, “History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life” (Atria Books, 2011). When I picked up her new book, I thought: Finally, someone who might understand; someone who might have answers. Suicide makes for a different kind of grief — an incomprehensible one, because your mind can’t find its logic. Even though our losses and circumstances are quite different, her story resonated with my own journey toward acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Bialosky tries to understand why her half-sister, Kim, took her own life at age 21 in 1990. During the past 20 years, Bialosky has been an editor at W.W. Norton as well as an acclaimed poet and novelist, nursing along her own brilliant memoir of grief.

“History of a Suicide” begins with the simple facts surrounding her sister’s suicide in 1990 and opens up a narrative on the effect that suicide has on those who remain behind. The book starts out like a good mystery or detective story. Bialosky wrote this page- turner in plain language. She weaves together her sister’s diaries and the words of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath as well as those from doctors and psychologists. The author speaks straight into the reader’s heart with unflinching bravery. A voice filled with emotional honesty, Bialosky offers the reader both solace and clarity.

Bialosky doesn’t find the answers in social demographic factors or family dysfunction. The abandonment of Kim’s father at an early age and their mother’s depression are tragic elements, but not explanations. Bialosky offers a profoundly personal and poetic investigation of her half-sister’s death. Part psychological autopsy, part love letter by Kim’s unfinished life, Bialosky’s memoir mirrors the minds of those loved ones left in the wake of suicide. While the details of her story are unique, the relentless search for meaning is not.

The unanswered questions left in the wake of such an unexpected end haunt survivors. Bialosky writes beautifully and sensitively about this quiet quest. She will never really know what it was like for Kim in those final moments. Or, if anyone had done anything differently, would it have changed the trajectory of her sister’s short life? For all the forensic analysis applied to one young woman’s decision to end her life before it had really begun, at the end there is only the mystery. The reader is left with a sense that this feeling of no end to the “what ifs” is central to grieving in a way distinct from all other kinds of grief.

Twenty years of mourning Kim makes her an expert on what happened and how, not why. Bialosky helps the reader understand Kim and the inevitability of her death. Without judgment and filled with compassion, she lets Kim tell her own story and she shares her own with these opening words: “Kim’s suicide has forever altered the way in which I respond to the world around me.”

Mourners need specialized support after loss by suicide. Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services offers individual and group support for anyone dealing with such loss. Most people in Ithaca think SPCS works to prevent suicides, but we also need to remember the important work they provide to those like me and Bialosky and others whose lives are changed irrevocably by a loved one’s suicide.

Jill Bialosky will be in Ithaca on Saturday, November 12th, to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services of Ithaca, NY. She will speak at 3 pm in the Borg Warner Room of the Tompkins County Public Library.  This event is open to the public and it will be my pleasure to introduce her to the Ithaca audience.



Latkes for lunch

In Mourning, Pictures and memories on November 7, 2011 at 1:04 am

Friends made in the past year through a Sudden Loss support group came to my cottage for brunch today. Sunny and warm, the morning greeted the dogs and I in our usual manner outdoors at dawn. With the extra fall-back hour, I had the house cleaned and furniture moved to accommodate the big table for a meal.

Fried the bacon. Autumn Harvest pasture raised pork and naturally smoked without nitrates from Interlaken, NY. I’d made the Cortland apple sauce days earlier; cooking the apples whole skins on to put through the old Foley food mill. Peeled the six large organic Russet potatoes and finely minced a yellow onion.

The secret to making good latkes is to know your potatoes. These were wet ones. I shredded the potatoes with a hand grater sans knuckle dermis. Then I put the minced onion and potato shreds into a large white cotton dish towel and squeezed out the excess moisture. This batch proved so wet, I dumped the sopping mess into another dish towel and twisted strenuously as the potato water ran into the sink drain.

The potatoes and onions dumped into a large mixing bowl, I added a small amount of flour and  a tad of salt and baking powder. In a separate bowl, I whisked up a half dozen large farm fresh eggs from High Point Farm in Trumansburg. With a large spoon, I mixed the eggs into the pancake batter until fully blended.

Pouring some of the bacon fat onto the castiron griddle over two burners on the gas stove, I let the pan preheat. Then the pancakes went on.  And over Hazelnut coffee, the conversations about our personal journeys through grief resumed.

Dottie brought the sour cream. Lynn brought the Cornell Orchards’ apple cider. Suzanne brought home baked Annadame bread, and Laurie brought bright green fresh apples which we cut into wedges and shared. Snow Farm Creamery made some special smoked apple raw milk aged cheese I picked up at the Brookton Market that made it extra special in local flavor.

To recognize in our stories how much has changed since we met is to acknowledge the transformative power of sudden loss for me and others. None of us asked for our lives to be turned upside down and each of us felt passive before the force of changes which resulted from our loved one’s loss. Either changes continue to happen to you, or you can figure out how to follow your heart for directions to what you need, desire and dream about.

The friends I made through this support group organized by Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services and Hospicare of Ithaca share memories, questions, and concerns based on our history of sharing those stories. There are few who have the professional skills and compassion to actually assist  and I am grateful to Donna George and Ellen Abrams who facilitated our initial 8 week group sessions.

Many things change. Some changes we invite. Others land on our lap. Some things remain the same. Who you are. Who you are without this loved one who so defined you in loving relations.

You discover again who you are. Same old soul. Scarred. Sad. Still here for some reason.

Share the Moon with me, Sam

In Grief, The Farm, Time and seasons on November 5, 2011 at 2:56 am

I wish you could be there with me to share the moon tonight, Sam. All the stars are out. But you are not. You made a choice. Certainly wasn’t my decision.

I am at peace, you thought it best. I didn’t agree with your reasons even though I can still hear your thoughts and very few words. Quit while you’re ahead; when others owed you and your debts paid free and clear according to your calculations. No long drawn out downhill. You were done paying your ex-wife for a bastard son. You weren’t going to live to see your parents die. You’d broken both wrists and who knows how many ribs and the skin cancer had come back with vengeance. I thought we had it made on our homestead and it wasn’t going to get any better. The best times stood behind us in our rearview remembrances. But you’d rather die than tell me what was on your mind?

How many times did we watch the movie Titanic together? You fancied yourself my Jack. Love at first sight. Like Rose, I would do anything for you and when the ship finally sank and we were alone in that freezing water, you told me to just hang on and never let go.  But when I woke up you were dead floating in the Atlantic ocean and your fingers frozen in my grip.

“Jack, Jack, Come back!” Rose sobbed on the big screen.

I walked the farm’s hedge rows crying and screaming for weeks two years ago. “Sam, Sam, Come back to me! Please, Sam. Sam, come back to me.”  

You can’t.  You’re not coming back.

Two years later, I am not the same woman you left behind adrift on the open seas and in need of rescue. I’ve grown accustomed to living without you. And it’s okay. Just okay. Okay. Even the new grey hairs and lines in my face show the devastation I’ve experienced since you left me.  But now I’m able to carry on and it will be a long time coming with more changes, and that’s okay too.

I’m doing a lot of things different because I am no longer living in deference to your preferences. I eat Asian food with lots of rice. Work on three projects simultaneously and spread out all over the house. Read books in bed. Knit while watching chick flicks. Take long hot showers. Swing dance lessons. Book clubs. Art trail and community potlucks. Hike the state parks, host friends for brunch, meet at Felicia’s for cocktail hour, volunteer at the library, and participate in local political campaigns. I have new friends found in support groups; I could not endure the loss of your love without help. The grief brought us together, but friendship keeps us together. And I am a better person for it. It’s been a painful process but I learned who my real friends and family are and are not. And I’ve learned about what I need, or don’t, want, or not, and begun to open myself up to opportunities I wouldn’t have considered if we were still together trying to farm sustainably. So I’ve changed. So much so that I don’t know that we would be together if you did come back now and I am who I am today.

And in that awareness, I let you go; slowly loosening my grief grasp on your hand frozen in time inside mine. Like Rose in the movie Titanic, I’ll never forget you. I’ll always love you and cherish our memories of sweet dreams. Sleep.

Summer of ’77

In Pictures and memories on November 3, 2011 at 2:21 pm

The Mecan River Youth Conservation Camp in central Wisconsin hired me to work the summer of 1977, the year between my freshman and sophomore year of college. My major wasn’t biology but the job suited me like my favorite faded black t-shirt and Levi 501 jeans.

Aldo Leopold wrote Sand County Almanac, and the natural habitat and wildlife he observed came from this landscape. Required reading in junior year American English, I’d loved listening to Leopold’s voice as the words of wisdom popped off the page into my head. I jumped into this bubble of pretend to live Leopold’s legacy.

The Civilian Conservation Corps under Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Mecan River campsite and the Youth Conservation Corps kept this federal program running to put at-risk urban youth to work during summer months. The Wisconsin Youth Conservation Corps ceased to exist in 2003, but I remember that April afternoon in 1977 looking in the college Career Office for summer job opportunities. In the same moment of reading there was a gut sense of recognition; I wanted this gig.

What the job actually entailed proved to be advanced babysitting. Keeping track of urban high school girls and acting like drill sergeants during the day on environmental restoration state work projects did not require any literary appreciation of Aldo.

Each of us camp counselors had to drive a van or a school bus to take crews out on work locations. During the day, for example, we would rebuild trout stream habitat. We’d start by felling tamarack trees and stripping the bark off. Learning to use an ax, sharpening blades, handling saws, these weren’t skills most of these girls would use in their future, but the sense of accomplishment lasts a lifetime. Two to a log, I’d assign pairs to remove the bark as they sat on either end, like the tree was a teeter-totter. We’d lay the skinned poles end to end reshaping the creeks edges into tight curves. Hours of filling in behind the logs with rocks, then dirt, and finally grass seed built up the side of the bank. Twelve girls and I offered rainbow trout habitat for breeding. Working in the sun with our shirts off and bandanas around our brows to catch the sweat, we felt strong and good.

Crews came back into camp by 4 p.m. and participated in sports, “farts and craps” (arts and crafts), skit rehearsals, card and board games, and writing letters home. Mess hall served sumptuous healthy meals after morning and afternoon flag ceremonies. Girls spent two weeks at the camp. The weekends in between groups, counselors had free. The weekends the girls spent in camp, the counselors organized activities.

I signed up to take a busload of girls into the nearest town, Princeton, Wisconsin; a tiny outpost with a five-and-dime, an A & W, a bank, a public phone booth, and not much else of interest to teenage girls looking for thrills. Never having driven a school bus before, I took my lessons during the week from several other counselors who had already driven these big stick-shifting monster vehicles.

Saturday morning the campers climbed on board my big orange Bluebird and we set off for town. It proved a bumpy ride down the highway with boisterous sing-alongs. I’m headed for the A & W and requesting window service. These girls worked hard all week.

I pulled into Princeton and kept the bus in second gear. Then I coasted towards the big parking complex of the A & W rootbeer joint off to the right of the highway. I applied the brake and ever so gracefully came to a stop with the overhang roof of the building atop my big orange school bus.

That wasn’t the last of my driving lessons. One morning the camp director asked me to take the Farmall wagon into Portage and drop it off for repairs at the State Department of Natural Resources garage. He told me the brakes were going and be careful. So I was very careful.

I pulled into the back of the barns and found a row of vehicles parked along the edge of a lot across from four big bays of a garage with all the doors up and open. Slowly I pulled in between two other dark green state vehicles and came to a full stop. I got out of the car and walked towards the garage with the keys in my hand; proud of myself for accomplishing another dangerous driving mission.

Three guys across the lot came out of their work bays into the sunshine and started waving at me. I waved back.

“Hi. I’m delivering….”

Crash. Slide. Crash. Pop. Hiss.

“This vehicle from Mecan River,” I said.

Three guys started running right at me. One waved his red grease rag at me. I turned around to look behind me and saw tall pine trees 200 feet away swaying gently, but there was no breeze. Then I noticed the Farmall: gone.

I ran towards the empty parking space and then forward I followed tire tracks to a precipice. Down 100 feet below in the creek bed lay askew a very wrecked Farmall.

I didn’t get the job again the following summer. I didn’t even get to drive the schoolbus again.

The bonfires and stories of Indian lore, the legacy of Leopold, hearing the loon and seeing the wild blue heron and identifying the natural species, geological formations underfoot, recreating a wilderness space, transforming minds and bodies with good hard work, and swimming and bathing in the small gorges of springfed creeks: my Mecan River.