Thoughts about Death: Apologies, Henry Scott Holland, but Death is SOMETHING and Our Loved Ones Are NOT in the Next Room

The first photo I took of Gary, a few weeks after we met

Today marks 14 years since Gary Frank Barnabo, my first husband, died in Sydney, Australia.

In the days and weeks immediately following Gary’s death, I received countless, heartfelt, beautiful letters and notes and cards. A dear friend sent the famous words of Englishman Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), from a 1910 sermon delivered when Holland was Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. (If my friend is reading this post, be certain I loved and appreciated your caring for me, then and now; it’s Holland’s words about which I protest.)

This piece is often referred to as In the Next Room or – horribly, in my opinion — Death is nothing at all. Different versions abound on the Internet; I share here the words sent to me:

Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Pray, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant, it is the same as it ever was: there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.

In particular, this poem’s first two sentences and final sentence grated on me at the time (though I agree with the other sentiments) and still grate on me today.

Seriously, what NOT to say to the recently-bereaved is, ‘Death is nothing at all.’

OK, OK. I think I know what Mr. Holland meant: he’s speaking figuratively, metaphorically, saying the person is in the ‘next room’ of Heaven, or some kind of beautiful afterlife, where believers trust we will meet again in perfect love and joy.

As it happens, my faith is such that I believe, too. I believe there is far more to life on this earth than we humans can ever comprehend.

But I have lost a brother and uncle in an automobile accident, my first husband to cancer, my father to a painful albeit 86 year-old death and too many others to untimely ends — and I know I’m not alone in this — to think ‘death is nothing at all.’

Death is SOMETHING! It is EVERYTHING when it happens. For a time it is all-powerful, all-consuming and all-painful. And, literally of course, the person is NOT in the next room. They are in our hearts and minds but we pine for them. We yearn with all our being for their presence, their voice, their touch but they are not in the kitchen or the loungeroom or the bedroom. They are not there.

We weep. We grieve. We mourn. Two days after my brother Rob and Uncle Ted were killed in an automobile accident, my mother said, ‘Don’t be angry with God (I wasn’t, but she worried). God is grieving with us.’ I believe this. I believe God was grieving with me and Gary’s sons when Gary took his last breath on this earth and in the weeks and months that followed. I believe in the Footprints prayer that God carries us when we cannot walk on our own.

Gary and his sons at Kennebunkport, Maine

I understand the impulse that seems to have swept the world, to rename a funeral a ‘celebration of life’ but, gosh, sometimes I want to scream, ‘We are solemn! We are sorrowful! Life is NOT the same as it ever was! We are grieving this person’s death!’ The societies in which people scream and wail and pound their fists know a lot about how to grieve.

I know, too, that the response to a death depends on many factors, including the person’s age and stage and the circumstances of the death, not to mention the survivors’ relationships with those who have died. Sometimes death relieves suffering and for that reason alone is considered a blessing.

Even then, I assert, death – death from life on this earth — is NOT nothing at all.

I know Mr. Holland believed in eternal life, but he could have acknowledged that in our messy, earthly life, death is a life-changing something! The only ‘nothing’ that comes into it is that nothing will ever be the same again.

For quite a while, all is NOT well. It may be well, even perfect, in Heaven and for that I am thankful. But for those here on earth, even those with a strong faith, it’s not always so easy. My heart breaks for everyone who is grieving and I know that although time does help, it’s not always as much or as soon as some people hope.

Today I acknowledge the impact of a person’s death on his or her loved ones, and give extra thanks for the life Gary Frank Barnabo. I’ve written about Gary before, about our meeting and how lucky I felt throughout our marriage; about the kind of person he was and the gifts he gave to the world; about the tradition I’ve developed to scatter red rose petals in his memory each August 2nd – at Shelly Beach in Sydney, his favourite place, or wherever I may be.

Gary and our son when we lived in Connecticut

This afternoon, I scattered rose petals in the Felixstowe seafront gardens, onto a group of ferns since it was too windy to do much else and Gary loved ferns.

Then I came home to Clive, my second husband, who helped me find joy again, and gave deep and heartfelt thanks for him as well. I gave Clive a red rose for his desk, as always. Red roses for love, for the men in my life.

Thank you for reading and may all those who are grieving eventually find peace.

Visit with a Beloved Ho-Ho-Kus Piano Teacher

Miss T, a wonderful teacher to hundreds of piano students

Once in a while, an unexpected opportunity arises and we do something we wouldn’t normally do. Such an occasion happened for me today.

Without calling or writing ahead of time, I rang the doorbell at the Ho-Ho-Kus home of my former piano teacher, Miss Takayama, or Miss T, as I’ll call her (though she later married and became Mrs I and is now widowed). The petite but très formidable Japanese woman pictured above opened the door and greeted me with her beautiful smile.

I’m not sure Miss T remembered exactly who I was, but she welcomed me warmly and invited me in; I told her Clive was waiting so we stepped back outside and the three of us talked there.

Miss T told us she taught piano for 72 – seventy-two!! – years. She said, beaming, ‘I’ll be 99 next month!’ – that she was born in 1918 and her birthday is June 4. She lives on her own in the same house in which she taught hundreds of children to play the piano.

I was fortunate to be Miss T’s student from kindergarten through eighth grade (then took up cello, to join the high school orchestra — sadly, Miss T only taught piano). Every Wednesday I trudged up the hill, walked down her driveway, through her garage and into her basement studio. She reminisced about this today, saying because her mother, then her husband, lived upstairs she never felt it would be right to have her teaching studio in their family space.

I must offer huge thanks to this blog’s readers Sue and Candice G for their recent comments about Miss T, especially Sue who wrote that Miss T still lived at her Ho-Ho-Kus home. These comments appeared this week on one of my most frequently-read posts, Downtown Ho-Ho-Kus: 1960s and Today. Originally published in 2009, the post continues to receive regular comments from former residents. A number of us, when sharing special Ho-Ho-Kus memories, include piano lessons with Miss T.

When I read Sue’s comment, I knew I only had a day or two to react, if I wanted to try to see Miss T on this trip. This morning, I bought a birthday card. Though I normally consider it rude to ring someone’s bell without calling first, we leave tomorrow so I decided this afternoon, after spending time with my mother, I’d take a chance.

For any of Miss T’s former students who may be reading this, she is as bright and vibrant as ever and I’m in awe of her strength and determination to remain in her own home. ‘All my memories are here,’ she told us today.

After chatting for a short while and not wanting to overstay our welcome, I asked Miss T if we could take a few photos. She kindly agreed to stand beside her front door plaque, which reads, in addition to her name, ‘PEACE to all who enter; GRACE to all who depart.’

I found this very moving as it truly captures the spirit of this wonderful woman. She was a part of my life, week after week, for nine years, not only at each Wednesday lesson but also on the days in between, knowing she expected me to practice and I’d better do so! Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, Miss T was a steady, demanding (in a good way) and reliable figure throughout my childhood and early adolescence.

Thank you, Miss T, for your expert instruction, your encouragement and enthusiasm for my playing and for giving me the gift that whenever I was joyful or grieving or just needed to vent my emotions, I could turn to the piano and find comfort.

Clive took this final photo, which he promptly labelled ‘the long and short of it’. I couldn’t be happier Miss T opened her door to me today.

Thrilled to see this petite but très formidable teacher again

Heartfelt thanks from me and all your grateful students, Miss T. Wishing you the most joyful of birthdays as you approach your 99th year.

Mom at 93

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Mom as a girl in Paterson, NJ

My mother, on her 93rd birthday, had a lovely, busy day. She wrapped red, white and blue ribbon around a metal frame to make a Memorial Day wreath for next Monday’s USA holiday. She leaned on her walker and without complaint or other assistance made her way down the long hallway to morning exercise and back again to the dining room.

At lunch, Mom enjoyed vegetable soup, spaghetti and meatballs and – after blowing out her birthday candle – chocolate ice cream. Yesterday, at our small family party, she happily consumed birthday cake, several chocolates and a little glass of champagne.

Adjectives that still describe Mom: loving, empathetic, polite (the staff repeatedly tell me how kind she is to one and all), brave, sometimes anxious, almost always positive and always a shining role model of how to live with soul-deep courage and beauty and grace.

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Working girl, Sea Girt NJ, 1944 – oh those days at the shore

People Mom still knows in person or in conversation: her parents (long gone), me (her only surviving child since 1973), Clive (most of the time), her grandson and – surprisingly to me, because she’s a more recent addition — her grandson’s wife. Mom indicates vague recognition of other names and memories (her two nieces, her Ho-Ho-Kus friend Betty W. & Atlanta friend Edith C.) when we talk simply and quietly about the past.

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Mom and her grandson, Ho-Ho-Kus NJ

Mom’s Alzheimer’s is progressing, as it does. I’m no longer able to reach her on the phone every day, our nearly ten-year-old ritual. She no longer remembers I’m calling and doesn’t think to return to her room — often the only time I can get her is just as she wakes up. I try not to think about losing this precious connection.

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Mom with her daughter and grandson, 2012

How can I live so far from my mother? The reasons are complicated and some are private. I’ve fantasized for years about bringing Mom to me, first in Australia and now in the UK. Due to many factors, including her need for and contentment with familiar territory and the absence of any other family should something happen to me, I have not seriously pursued this path. This situation, at this stage of my mother’s life, is one of my life’s greatest challenges and greatest sadnesses.

I pray I will know what to do for my mother, what is right and best for her each step of the way as her disease continues to progress. I pray she will remain content and feel loved and cared for by those physically and emotionally close to her.

I thank God for the life and love of Dorothy Dilts.

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Red roses for love — Happy 93rd birthday, Mom

God bless you always and happy birthday, Mom.

The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 3: Five Stages of Emotion (and our first selfie)

Our first selfie, 2016

Our first selfie, 2016

Yesterday Clive and I composed a draft of our annual Christmas letter, known on this blog as the dreaded Christmas letter.

Previously, I’ve shared my thoughts about this exercise in The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 1 BC (Before Clive) and The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 2 AC (After Clive): Separated by a Common Language or Maybe Just a Comma.

The process demands a review of the past year and a reckoning with what happened, what we did and didn’t do, how we handled certain events and what we hope for looking ahead.

This year I observe five stages:

  1. Gratitude – for blessings of family, friends and activities we’re able to enjoy.
  2. Guilt – for living far from loved ones, especially my 92 year-old mum because she’s unable to travel to us.
  3. Frustration – that I went off the rails with my weekly blog posts at the end of May and am not making fast enough progress on my Paris memoir.
  4. Self-criticism – who besides us cares about this letter anyway? Everyone has positives and negatives in their lives. That said, we’ve always tried to keep our tone and content positive.
  5. Acceptance growing to satisfaction – send the darn thing anyway. Not all our friends are on Facebook and some tell us they enjoy our letter. As time goes by, the letters becomes valuable to us as a body of words and images that render and reveal and help us remember the stories of our lives.

Despite my stated goal at the end of 2014 to learn how to take a couples’ selfie, we have not exactly mastered this skill. However we did attempt one selfie in 2016. In the interest of honesty and openness I have shared it above, but to me it is prima facie evidence that we have a long way to go to take a proper selfie. Clive says latent skill is evident because we got the Eiffel Tower between our heads.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and joyful holiday season with whatever cards, letters and/or photo traditions you may or may not choose.

Cheers and thanks for reading.

Continue reading

Nine Goals for May

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Part of the plan: Paris is always a good idea

  1. Spend time with my son and belle-fille in New Jersey.
  2. Spend time with my mom in NJ and help her celebrate her 92nd birthday.
  3. Find time to connect with friends in the U.S., if not on our short visit in May, then on our next trip in July.
  4. Resume work on my Paris memoir. Try to complete the next chapter but don’t overly stress as long as good progress is made. Write in Paris before going to New Jersey.
  5. Enjoy being out and about in Paris when we return there from New Jersey.
  6. Keep up with friends, activities and appointments in Felixstowe before we depart.
  7. Remind myself we knew the first 6-7 months of this year would involve a great deal of travel, mostly to see family. Try to be mindful of the need to pace ourselves along the way.
  8. Get over lingering jet lag and weariness I’m still feeling from a month Down Under.
  9. Be grateful we’re able to, as per our motto, ‘Travel while we can.’
Clive calls it our travel roundabout

Clive calls it our travel roundabout

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Alzheimer’s Descent: No Serenity Prayer Here

Today with my fresh-from-the-beauty-parlour Mom

Today with my fresh-from-the-beauty-parlour Mom

New Jersey, Thursday

My mom’s descent on the Alzheimer’s path continues.

I know how lucky I am that she’s content in her surroundings and receiving excellent care. Most of all, I’m blessed she’s still her wonderful self at heart, warm and loving to her family and the people around her.

As mentioned in Mom and the Memory Thief, I try to focus on the present moments with Mom and resist the (at times powerful) temptation to rant and rage in a futile waste of energy against the disease.

Mom is not yet living in a ‘memory unit’ but will soon need that 24/7 level of care and protection. She and her almost-94 year-old ‘boyfriend’ (as she calls him) can no longer help each other as much as they used to, because both are dealing with their own physical and mental limitations. They still have meals together and hold hands at the music programs.

As for me, I seem to have reached the point where I feel no amusement whatsoever at various Alzheimer’s ‘strange behaviour’ or ‘losing one’s mind’ stories and jokes. They’re funny, until it happens to your mom.

So many things we cannot change. I’ve lost people I love (not counting ‘normal’ old age) by automobile accident, cancer and now, at an increasing pace, to Alzheimer’s. The ‘Serenity Prayer’ counsels us to be accepting, but I’ve never ‘accepted’ these losses with anything remotely approaching serenity.

I do accept that everyone experiences loss, and pray that my mother will continue to feel happiness and contentment in her life.

Thank you for reading this post. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Room for Writers at the Orwell Hotel, Felixstowe

Room for writers at the Orwell Hotel

Room for writers at the Orwell Hotel

Felixstowe is blessed with two writing groups, both of which I enjoy immensely. Both are friendly and welcoming, so if anyone nearby has the urge to write, feel free to come along to a meeting any time.

Today marked 2016’s first gathering of the Orwell Writers League, named after the hotel in which we meet. I arrived early, in case any members of the group preferred not to be photographed.

The Building

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Orwell Hotel on a cloudy afternoon, Felixstowe

This grand Victorian structure opened in 1898. It sits on a busy roundabout at the top of Felixstowe’s main shopping street, across from Great Eastern Square, the town’s original railway station (now small shops) and near today’s station.

Inside, you’re greeted with dark panelling, gold wallpaper, burgundy patterned carpets and soft lighting from chandeliers, sconces and lamps.

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Bar at the Orwell Hotel

The first thing we Orwell Writers do, on our way in, is order a coffee or tea at the bar. Just before the meeting begins, one or two staff members kindly deliver them all together.

Clive, my son and I have shared an English afternoon tea in the hotel lounge and attended Felixstowe Book Festival author talks in His Lordship’s Library and the Elizabeth Suite. We enjoyed a friend’s farewell dinner in the Buttery and danced the night away at a wedding reception in the ballroom. We haven’t had a drink in the bar lounge but it always looks inviting to me.

Bar lounge at Orwell Hotel (several customers not in photo)

Bar lounge at Orwell Hotel (several customers not in photo)

The room for the Orwell Writers, the Furneaux Suite, is on the first floor (U.S. second floor). There’s a lift, but most of us take the stairs. They only creak a little as you go up, adding to the ambiance.

Stairs at Orwell Hotel

Stairs at Orwell Hotel

Room for writers

‘Our’ room, pictured at the top of this post, has pink and cream striped walls, a very long and very well-polished table, burgundy armchairs and drapes, portraits nestled in arches and a deep pink ceiling.

After several decades in a large corporation, I feel at home around a conference table.

I love the character of the room and the characters in the room. We usually number 8-10 on a given day. Though we differ wildly as individuals, when we’re in this room we’re all writers. We share current projects, do specific exercises to develop our skills and, when requested, provide peer-to-peer feedback.

Perhaps in a future post I’ll write about the other local group, the long-running Felixstowe Scribblers. This evening group meets at the Library, by definition a wonderful writers’ venue. The room is plain, with fluorescent lighting, formica tables in a ‘U’ shape and orange plastic, stackable chairs. Though the setting is so different, the writerly camaraderie and support is the same.

Sometimes a room surprisingly takes your fancy. I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries, but not too much in Victorian rooms. This probably explains why I have such a soft spot for the Orwell Writers’ room.

Other end of the  conference table & room, Orwell Hotel

Other end of the conference table & room, Orwell Hotel

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Washington, DC.