Category Archives: death

Open Caskets

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Last night I attended the wake for a magnificent young man who died of a heroin overdose. He was the epitome of sunshine.  The line to get into the funeral home was endless for the entirety of the scheduled three hours for people to come and pay their last respects.  There were young and old brought to their knees in fits of sobs.  There was a video being looped of highlights of his life, the smiling and happy him that he will be remembered for.

I spoke to his mother on the day after he died and in her flurry of processing the pain and logistics of losing her son she mentioned that there would be an open casket.  This didn’t come as a surprise since the majority of non-Jewish funerals I’ve attended include the opportunity for mourners to “view” the body of the deceased that one last time.

I’ve learned that the casket is generally just feet away from the receiving line made up of the distraught and suffering.  Last night and in the past I have done everything I could to avert my eyes in order to avoid the reality and finality of death but to no avail.  At a funeral for another young man who also died from an overdose, his arm was outstretched with a rosary draped across his fingers.  I will never, ever be able to unsee that.

Last night I watched as people knelt in front of the casket, weeping, howling in pain, some touching the body, others whispering to him.  Some brought flowers and placed them in the coffin, some went up in groups in order to support each other.  When the priest came to speak I had to stand in the back of the packed room but the casket, and this sweet young man’s body was directly in my line of vision.  It made no sense to me that he was being put to rest in a suit.  This was a kid who had pink hair, piercings and wore black concert tee-shirts.  I keep thinking how appalled he would have been to know that people were seeing him for the last time in an ill-fitting suit.

I watched as his teenage brother slumped in a velvet chair in the receiving line, at first with a bored look on his face and a split second later burst into tears.  His 19-yr old niece who was the most visibly devastated throughout the evening came up to me and wrapped her arms around me, sobbing, repeatedly saying that she wished she had told him more how much she loved him.   I had to tell her over and over again that he knew how important he was to her.   It seems clear that she will never forgive herself for what she perceives as the worst of transgressions.

I’ve heard that wakes were traditionally held as a way for loved ones to watch over a body in the hopes that the person would “wake” up.  I’ve since read that that is a total myth and am much happier knowing that in the Irish tradition, a lot of drinking is involved.  Either way, as much as I want to understand it, I just can’t wrap my head around the desire to see a lifeless person laying among stark white ruffles particularly someone who was once so full of life.

 

 

 

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The Crumble of My Life

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The above is a summary of my life, all 50 years of it,  on a 22 x 27 piece of poster board.  It’s not one of those “inspiration boards,” used in team-building or ice breaker exercises.  In many ways, it’s the opposite–the sort of “anti-inspiration” board not seen and replicated on sites like Pinterest.

I work as part of a team that leads a 14-week employment program for homeless adults, most with serious addiction issues and criminal pasts.  The goal is that by the time the students graduate, they will be employed and ready to start rebuilding their lives with pride and a great sense of accomplishment.

Each class starts with 14 students, 7 men and 7 women, as young as 21 and as old as 65. The first couple of weeks are spent on self-reflection and group interaction, and culminates in the creation and presentation of something called a “Life Map.”

I had heard a lot about this project during my first week of work and had the opportunity to see some completed ones on the walls of the classrooms where the students had moved on to the next phase of the curriculum.  The images and words, clipped from magazines or written out in pen or marker, were very similar– syringes, bottles of alcohol, prison bars, and words like “loser,” “sex,” “hope,” and “God.”  As soon as I learned that all staff have to create their own, and then present them to a class, I was compiling my own, isolating themes and images that I would share.

Without question, my life is interesting and I wanted the students to know that.  I wanted them to know that I too have experienced trauma and tragedy but that I have managed to succeed and maintain a wonderful and incredibly happy, full and fun life.

Without going image by image and word by word here, my map has four pivotal dates, highlighted in yellow;  my date of birth, the day my mother was found dead, my daughter’s birthday and the day I married for the second time.   I presented a pretty happy childhood, the luxury of growing up so close to Manhattan where my father gave me access to wonderful cultural experiences.  I moved on through boarding school, college and landing in Boston, sprinkling the hard truths about my mother’s serious mental illness (and eventual suicide) and my parent’s divorce into the narrative and moved onto the present day.  The students were pretty stunned and surprised and incredibly gracious in their comments.  But, this isn’t really about me.  It’s about them, and their lives.

One by one, the students presented their maps, required to speak for at least 1/2 hour and not to go longer than one.  Many things struck me as each one bared their souls, flayed open to their deepest nerve. Most of them had lovely childhoods, much like mine, going on family vacations, eating together as a family each night, learning the value of an education and hard work.  A couple of them grew up vacationing in rented summer cottages in the mountains or on a lake, camping and fishing with their fathers, and laughing with their mothers.  And then, again, in most of these cases, a sudden switch in their narrative, in at least 4 out 5, the death of a parent while the students were still teenagers  lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

I’m blessed not to have an addictive bone in my body.  I certainly would be hard-pressed not to fall to pieces if I had my coffee taken away, but drugs have always scared me.  I’ve smoked plenty of pot in my life, tried coke once, and as much as people say I would love it, would never dream of taking hallucinogens.  I tend to STOP drinking the second I feel a little tipsy and was able to quit smoking cold turkey.  So, when my mother died when I was only 21, I turned to other things like music, writing and friends without ever feeling the urge to numb the pain that I never seemed to experience.

The drug of choice in almost all of the students is heroin.  In some cases they started with other opiates like pain killers, but when they became too expensive switched over to the widely available and cheaper heroin.  Most swore they would never shoot-up.  Most ended up doing so, multiple times a day.  When the youngest in the class, a 21-yr old walked us through his timeline, he described this transition by pointing to a picture of a syringe and said, “This is where the crumble of my life began.”

In what will seem like an utterly selfish reaction to these presentations is my wondering and fear of what my 13-year old daughter would do if I died.   She has the addiction gene in her bloodline and it terrifies me to think of how missing me, how tragedy of any sort could trigger the similar reaction as these people have had.   She has shown me absolutely no reason whatsoever to have this fear, but she’s at the age where I tried pot for the first time and where a lot of my friends had started sneaking sips of booze from their parents liquor cabinets.  I naively believe that this isn’t happening in her middle school or that she is nowhere exposed to those temptations.  All I can do is pray that she’ll turn out okay, that she’ll make the right choices, and that her life will never crumble.

The Bucket List

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This past summer while searching for fresh ideas to use in the juvenile lockup where I lead a group, I flipped through a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the kind of title I would normally stay away from, thinking it was faith-based or so overly cheerful that I would be unable to relate to its content and tone.  I was surprised to find that among the 1,560 bits of advice and wisdom there are some gems.  I would end each group by having each young man read 5 of their choosing in front of the other residents.   On the day the program closed due to lack of funding for youth programs, I gave them each a copy with a personal note jotted on the inside cover.

Among the snippets of wisdom, listed somewhere near “Plant a tree the day your child is born,” and “Have friends who own a truck,” this one struck an immediate chord with me:  “Make your bucket list and keep it in your wallet.”

Since May of this year, I have been incorporating this exercise with the groups of adult male and female felons I see both in jail and in their halfway house-reentry programs.   It’s become the kick-off to a 4-week goal-setting group that I’ve created and of everything I’ve done with them for the past year this has been, by far, the most fascinating.

I’ve had a 22-year old black man just wrapping-up a two-year sentence for drug distribution share that he’s always wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle.  I’ve had a 50-year old white woman tell the group that her biggest wish is to fly a kite with her now adult children.  A middle-aged Latino man who has lost all contact with his children dreams of bringing them all back together for a family portrait.  Perhaps the most agonizing for me was having connected rather strongly with an initially very reticent 25-yr old man from South Boston who just yearned to “be normal,” which to him meant getting married, having children, and eating dinner together every night.  The day after he shared this, he had a near fatal heroin overdose in his room and after being hospitalized for three days, was sent back to jail.

As I’m handing out index cards and pencils I tell them that nothing is too small or too big.  I use my two most extreme as examples, the first being “Eat a giant turkey leg,” (I always clarify by referring to those huge drumsticks you can get at county fairs and say that I want to walk around eating it like everyone else and not just bring it home and eat it at my dining room table) and the more far-fetched, “Own an apartment in NYC and a house in England.”  I give them about 7 minutes to brainstorm without holding back and then I ask them to share, which they almost always do.

To be fair, to level the playing field, I always share mine with them (It’s become a bit weakened and faded by the constant folding and refolding.) I tell them that I keep it with me, as suggested by the way the advice from the book is written, so that I can refer to it and cross things off once I’ve accomplished them. I read it in the exact order as it appears above and until about three months ago, when a young man said that he always wanted to visit his grandmother’s grave, my list ended at “House in England.”  Interesting where and how our personal light bulbs are lit.  My mother has been dead for almost 28 years and I had never visited her grave.

Soon after adding it, I read my list to a group of men who had just begun the 4-week workshop.  I blew through it pretty quickly and a young man said,  “Whoa.  Wait a minute.  How long ago did your mother die?”  When I told him he asked, “What are you afraid of?”  Every week these people astound me for moments just like this.  The rest of the group joined the questioning and urged me to do it.  I don’t think they trusted my eagerness to do it probably picking up on the hesitancy in my promise to do so.   So, when I made a concrete plan to go to Long Island where she happens to be buried, I promised them that I would go.  This past Thursday night at my last group before I left, one of the guys asked how I was feeling and if I was ready.  He then made me pinkie-swear that I wouldn’t back out.  It was that mutual tugging of our little fingers, that bond that I know as a parent you NEVER break, that guaranteed that I would make it.

I have indeed been afraid and I have been lazy.  Afraid of finding an overgrown jumble of thorns and tumbleweed around her grave and afraid of finding an empty headstone.  (In the Jewish tradition when someone visits a grave, we leave a rock on the headstone to signify that someone has been there.)   I have been to Long Island, less than 15 miles from the cemetery endless amounts of times since she’s died and I’ve always come up with excuses not to go.  Shame on me.

My brother and uncle explained what to do once I got to the cemetery–to check in at the front office, tell them who I was there to “visit” and they would give me a map of where to find my mother.  During the drive there, my husband at the wheel and my 12-year old daughter in the back, I found myself looking as the miles ticked down on the GPS, my heart racing as we got closer.  I pictured myself falling to me knees, crumbling in a mass of sobs and snot, and, on the flip side, not having any reaction at all.  I asked my husband and daughter if it would be okay for them to stay in the car while I found her grave and that I would wave them over when I was finished reacting in whatever way I did.

I got out of the car and scanned the headstones, knowing hers would be pretty close to where we were.  I slowed down when I spotted her last name, my last name.  The first thing I noticed was a weird little sketch under her name (again, I think it’s Jewish tradition to just have the last name on the headstone and the full name on the footstone in front) which looked like an abstract cup of coffee with steam coming off of it.  I actually laughed a little because besides in the morning, my mother had a cup of coffee every day at 3:00.  I’m sure whoever chose this design didn’t pick up on this.

Seeing  her full name, her dates of birth and death, and then her life roles listed, “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Grandmother,” on the footstone did it to me.  I bent down to wipe off the puddle of water that had formed from the rain and stared at those words and those dates.  I cried quickly, neatly and quietly before calling over my husband and daughter.  My husband came up behind me and put his arms around me, asking if I was okay.  I was okay.  I don’t think I felt any particular sense of closure (I wasn’t really looking for that) but I had made a promise, to myself and a handful of people who have become a strangely wonderful and influential part of my life.  I can’t wait to see them this week to tell them that I did it, to hear their cheers and receive their high-fives.

Next up is that pesky 5K.  After I do that, I will be rewarding myself with the biggest turkey leg I can find.

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