Becoming My Father

I did two things for my father in the ten years or so before he passed away in December of 2014.

The first was to help him finish his memoir, The Other Belfast – An Irish Youth, and self-publish it so he could hold a real book in his hands and know the stories he told and wrote for forty years would finally be read by others around the world.

I’m proud to say I helped him accomplish that because his last five years on this earth were not good ones. He was whittled away to nothing mentally and physically by Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia until he couldn’t even remember me most of the time. This is his book.

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The second thing I did was dig up every old cassette I could find of his karaoke recordings and turn it into a CD with help from Rick Balentine – Composer (remixing) and Ryan Silo (cd design). I’m so glad I did because it’s a treasure to me now. Good Lord, could that man sing. If you like American standards, click on the link at the bottom of this post and have a listen to the song samples. Here’s his CD – 

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I named it “Get Rickerby Up For a Song!” because that’s what somebody would inevitably yell every time he was at the pub.

Every now and then, I mention his book and CD on some social platform because promoting his legacy helps ease the grief of losing him, particularly to diabolical brain diseases that leave only a shell of someone who was once full of passion, and the life of every party.

I remember listening to these old songs on the car radio for hours during long road trips and banging my head against the window hoping to knock myself out. (jk)  Now I love it, as my dad predicted I would, eventually. He tried to tell me the music I listened to when I was a teenager was garbage. and that someday I would come around and realize what real music was, but I refused to believe it. I’m pretty sure he’s laughing at me in heaven. I hope he’s still singing up there, too, because it was his greatest joy down here. 

Journey to God (poem)

 

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I know most won’t read this because it is very, very, very long, so to the one or two who do, pat yourself on the back for not being afflicted with the A.D.D. the Internet has stricken 99% of the adult world with. I really opened a vein for it, so I think it will be worth your time. Thanks.

And to those who think a rhyming poem can’t be profound, please get out your Ouija board, contact Hank Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Bob Frost and Billy Shakespeare (et al) and take it up with them. 

Journey to God

An old man passed away one night.
He’d had a good, long life.
and all that he regretted
was leaving his beautiful wife.

To others, her glory had faded
as the years had claimed their fee
but to him, she was just as lovely
as she was at twenty-three.

He saw his high school sweetheart
and remembered her sweet, shy smile.
He saw his bride in a gown of white
walking toward him down the aisle.

He saw her asleep in a hospital bed
as she cradled their newborn child.
He saw her quiet and thoughtful,
then passionate and wild.

He was so possessed by thoughts of her,
he hardly noticed he had passed.
He was still alive in spirit
and all his pain was gone at last.

He was surprised at how easy it was to die,
like shedding worn-out clothes
but even more to see himself below
as his spirit slowly rose.

He felt no urge or instinct
to return and get back in
for he knew the body on the bed
was never really him.

It was always just a vehicle,
now broken down and old.
What he’d walked around in all his life
was just a vehicle for his soul.

He had to laugh for, being dead,
he had never felt so great.
He couldn’t help but realize
this was a natural state.

Death was not the end of life,
just one more stanza in the poem.
It was not a sad departure
but a return to his true home.

But the cries of his dear wife
would not let him leave this plane.
He could not bear to leave her
while she was in such pain.

He saw her cry and hold him
as he lay still in their bed
and heard her whisper, “Rest, my love”
as he floated overhead.

He wanted to hold her and let her know
that he was free from pain.
He wished he could tell her not to cry
for they’d soon be together again.

But the wall between life and death
proved too thick and strong to breach.
The woman he’d held every day of his life,
for now, was out of reach.

So he cried, too, thinking of her
so frail and helpless there,
alone with his lifeless body
in the home they used to share.

Though at first he was elated
to be free of that painful shell,
he longed to return to tell her
that his soul was alive and well.

So as he floated like a feather
through the purple, misty air,
his sorrow and loneliness mounted
and he fell into despair.

When from far away, through the haze,
a strange melody reached his ears,
sung by a chorus of angels
to soothe and calm his fears.

He followed the voices, clear and sweet,
and could hardly believe the sight.
Radiant beings with glowing eyes
were guiding him toward the light!

“Do you remember me, John?” one of them asked,
“We were buddies in World War Two.”
“Do you remember me, John?” another voice called,
“You used to call me Grandpa Lou.”

“Hey, John! It’s me! Your brother, Joey!
I came here when you were ten.
I’ll bet you never thought
you would hear my voice again.”

This went on for hours and hours,
spirits wanting to say hello;
reunions with those he had loved so well
in the world and the life below.

His emotions were tossed seeing those he had lost
in the maelstrom of earthly life
where often the good are taken too soon
and heartache and sorrow is rife.

But there were two others he struggled to see
till he finally grew panicked and sad.
He said, “Wait a minute! Somebody tell me –
where are my mom and my dad?”

His brother whispered, “John, don’t worry.
They’re here and they’re happy you came.”
Then he saw them, bathed in golden light,
and their faces were just the same.

He cried with joy as he hugged them and said,
“Oh, I have missed you so.”
For years, he wished he could see them again.
Now, he could not let them go.

He was happy to hold them, to look in their eyes,
and laugh as they had before.
He was relieved that death is no different from life.
There’s just no pain anymore.

He told them he’d grown to appreciate
all that they’d done and said,
and as nice as it was to tell them now,
wished he’d told them in life instead.

But like most, he denied the fact of death
and refused to believe they could die.
He never allowed it to enter his mind
as the months and the years flew by.

Till he found himself standing beside their graves
and it finally sank in they were gone.
He was angry at God who allowed death to be.
It all seemed so senseless and wrong.

“Why are we given these feelings?” he had cried,
“And love that grows deeper with time?
If we’re bound to lose it all in the end,
then creating this world was a crime.”

And just the way he had wished
he could soothe his wife’s dismay,
his parents heard his anguished cry
and wished the same that day.

For they had already found their way home
to the fountain from which we all spring.
They had freed themselves of their mortal shells
and their souls had taken wing.

Now here he was, with them again,
and his joy could not be contained.
If only he’d known death was only a door,
his faith would never have waned.

“If you want to swim in the ocean,” they said,
“Just think it and you will be there.
Your body can’t slow you down anymore.
You’re as light and free as the air.”

“Remember those Sunday’s down by the sea?
Those summers that seemed without end?
Just close your eyes and imagine that time
and we’ll all be back there again!”

But he worried that God would not let him stay
and that all this was too good to last.
He feared that he would be banished
for his faltering faith in the past.

But his family and friends just smiled and said,
“John, you have nothing to fear.
A few things they said about heaven down there
are far from the truth up here.”

They said you had to go to church
for God to hear your prayer
but God can hear the softest whisper
anytime and anywhere.

You search for Christ was constant.
You fought for your faith since birth.
And the kindness you always showed in life
is the sole measure of anyone’s worth.

God doesn’t demand blind submission
or condemn you for questions or doubts.
It’s men that said God was vengeful,
a dictator who bullies and shouts.

You thought you needed pure faith
or God wouldn’t hear your call
but the times God tried to help you most
were when you had no faith at all.

You thought that sins were punished
with torture and endless pain
but the threat of hell is not for God
but for the church’s gain.

We don’t need a hell to burn in
or a devil to torture our minds.
Judgment takes place in our conscience
when we’re shown God’s vast design.

It’s not only the enemy of man
who compels us to do wrong.
Good and bad are side by side
within us, all along.

It all comes down to choices –
light or dark, right or wrong,
and they make or break our happiness
in life below and life beyond.

Every sin comes back to haunt us,
no matter how big or how small
and the pain we caused in earthly life
returns to us, after all.

We each have our own individual hell
and a battle none but us can fight.
Millions of souls are still spinning out there,
trapped in perpetual night.

For until they cure their own blindness,
in darkness their souls will bide.
God doesn’t force us to come back home
but patiently calls us inside.

Some men look at evil
and label it “God’s will”
but God gave life, and death for rest.
Only men can kill.

And some say God is dead
or he was never really there.
How else, they ask, can one explain
so many unanswered prayers?

How else can one explain
the pain and horror on the earth?
This has been the central question
since the dawn of mankind’s birth.

But like a mortal parent,
raising a baby all alone,
God did his best to teach us
then left us on our own.

And like a meddling father
who a child would push away,
God can’t live our lives for us
and he can’t cushion the way.

To take every hint of pain from life
would remove our right to choose.
If you really stop to think it through,
we’d gain less than we’d lose.

Some see the misery of human life
and ask God what it means
but the only way He could end it
would be to make us all machines.

So God does not stop evil,
though it hurts Him to let it be.
He can’t both rule with an iron hand
and allow us to be free.

The place that folks call “hell”
where sinners meet their fate
is distance from the light of God
and time to contemplate.

For once you feel God’s presence,
all your pain and sorrows cease.
All your questions then are answered
and your heart is filled with peace.

Men bent the words of Jesus
To control the multitude.
They took his divine message
and made it low and crude.

Men have always struggled for power,
from the caves to the streets of L.A.
Why wouldn’t they twist the word of God
and tell us we need them to pray?

The ring kissing, Hail Mary’s, and rosary beads,
right down to the Pope’s princely nod,
at best, is only good theater,
a bureaucracy between man and God.

You see, God is not some tyrant
who needs a chain of command.
You find God in the eyes of the aged
and in a baby’s hand.

You find God in a sunset
so pretty it makes you cry.
You find God in every warm embrace
and in a lover’s sigh.

You find God in generosity,
and in the meek and mild.
You find God in any gentle soul
who kneels to help a child.

You find God in the soft, pink light
when a new day has begun
and in the flower by the window
as it opens to the sun.

And yes, you find God in the dying
as the light fades in their eyes
and their spirit slowly slips away
to its true home in the skies.

God is in every one of us.
We can feel it when we’re young.
Then we’re snatched up by the world
and into the fray we’re flung.

We grow cynical and weary
and forget all that we once knew
when the peace and joy God gave us
has lost its native hue.

Oh, if only they knew, John! If only they knew!
What a wonderful world they might win
if they could only see past their differences
to the spirit that dwells within.”

He was shocked by these new revelations.
His mind spun around and around.
The chains that tethered his spirit in life
Lay shattered in pieces on the ground.

His parents said, “Welcome to heaven.”
He felt a peace he never thought he would know
and though his mortal life had just ended,
it seemed like a long time ago.

Then a hush fell all through the firmament.
Impossible colors filled the air, far and near.
His peace grew so deep, he sobbed out loud
and his mother whispered, “Look! God is here!”

– Mark Rickerby

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Living Well, Dying Well

In December of 2014, my father died after five years with Parkinson’s and Dementia, and breaking his hip, then being tortured by a grossly incompetent medical staff at Kaiser Permanente’s hospital in Panorama City, California. I won’t go into detail but it was a real trip to hell and the staff were the demons running it.

My dad died on December 21st, his young dog died without warning four days later on Christmas Day (also from a brain problem, ironically), leaving my mother completely alone. Then, as if all that weren’t bad enough, her house was burglarized. She not only felt sad in her empty house, but afraid, too. 

As I was dealing with the burglary, my father’s sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was found dead on her bedroom floor. She had been dead for four months but nobody noticed because she was an agoraphobic recluse. She lived badly and died badly. A tragic end to a tragic life. More irony (or something more) – she died within a week of my father, even though she was twelve years younger than him, and she didn’t even know he had passed. It was as if my father’s soul, free of that broken body, found her and said, “Come with me, sis. This is no life for anyone.” Maybe his dog died to be reunited with him, too.

We will all die, and usually badly, in physical terms, from some diabolical, incurable (is there any other kind) disease or combination of them. This is the inherent courage of living – knowing the end will come, but waking up, getting cleaned and dressed, smiling at strangers, and making the most of every day anyway. We all deserve a medal. There is valor in just staying positive and living life knowing the end will come, whether or not we believe in heaven and the continuation of the soul.

My father’s miserable last month of life, made infinitely more miserable by the ghoulish staff at Panorama City’s Kaiser Permanente hospital (with a few rare exceptions), would have been completely hellish except for one moment at the end, after the morphine drip that would end his life had begun, when somehow, he opened his eyes and searched for me in the room full of friends and family. A friend said, “Mark, he wants you.” I was sitting in the corner with my face in my hands, crushed that I wasn’t able to save him. I looked up and saw him reaching for me. I rushed to him and held his hand. He couldn’t speak because his throat was ravaged by numerous botched tube placements. (Another thing Kaiser stole was my father’s right to say goodbye.) He pursed his lips, pulled me close, and gave me the last kiss he would ever be able to give me. I hugged him and told him I loved him, that it was okay to go, that I would take care of mom, and thanked him for all he had done for me. I asked if he understood and he nodded yes. I thank God for that moment now, and am still baffled at how he was able to reach through his brain diseases and all the drugs flooding through his system to give me that moment. A golden moment if ever there was one. I have despaired greatly since his death, about how he died, so without that the despair would have been infinitely worse.

Which brings me to my point – dying well. That moment said everything there was to say about my father. He had a rough upbringing in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with loveless parents, crushing poverty, and almost daily fistfights, but he never complained. He came to America and started a business that flourished for 35 years while others rose and fell around him. He lost his stomach to cancer at 45 and was cut down from 200 to 150 pounds. And again, he never complained. He never complained or made the slightest whimper in the hospital despite his hip and femur being broken in four places, despite his throat being so dry his tongue cracked open, despite the hospital staff making every mistake it was possible to make out of a combination of incompetence and heartlessness. And he didn’t complain as morphine ended his life. Instead, he reached for me and gave me a kiss.

I thought of my dad when the actor Gene Wilder died recently. He was asked in an interview why he didn’t act anymore during his final decades. He was sent scripts constantly so demand for his talent was still there. He said he didn’t like all the cussing and vulgarity. Decency and integrity like that is almost non-existent in Hollywood, where money and attention are usually the only factors considered when making a decision.

Gene Wilder suffered with Alzheimer’s Disease during his final years. He said he rarely went out because children still recognized him as Willy Wonka and he had trouble smiling so he didn’t want to make anyone sad. He didn’t get bitter and hostile because life was dealing him a terrible hand. He was good, sweet and kind to the very end despite his troubles. He lived well and died well.

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While writing this, a scene from the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams came to mind. A patient (played by Peter Coyote) was very angry and bitter that he was dying young. Patch was determined to help him make the transition more peacefully. Here’s the scene:

When I was in my early twenties, I climbed over the wall of a cemetery one night and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles, trying to summon up something, anything, that would prove to me that there was something beyond this life. I had been told that Ouija boards could be dangerous portals for demons, but I didn’t care. My faith in God had been destroyed by atheistic philosophers like Bertrand Russell and I desperately needed to know if we were immortal or worm food. I chose that night for this “seance” because it was Friday the 13th, and not only a full moon, but a blue moon, too. I figured the timing couldn’t be better. But nothing happened. I sat in that hole in the ground in dead silence until I felt enough like an idiot to pack it up and go home.

But maybe something did happen. My brother had a troubled life filled with drugs and prison and died of an overdose at 37. My mother had breast cancer twice. My life wasn’t exactly easy, either. Maybe demons stay below the radar and do their damage instead of making flashy displays like they do in movies. Life doesn’t feel like nothing to me. It feels like a mystery. It feels like a struggle between good and evil. I can feel the devil push me one way and God push me another. We can write it off as imagination or believe in something larger than ourselves. It’s always our choice.

But no matter what the ultimate truth is about the afterlife, there’s one thing I know – life wasn’t given to us to spend it in misery and sorrow. It just feels right to be happy, generous, kind, loving. I don’t understand people who spend their one, short life buried in greed, anger and/or hatred. Such a waste. Kind of like having a sumptuous meal prepared by the world’s greatest chef then pouring ketchup all over it.

Timothy Leary said dying is one of the greatest things any of us will ever have the chance to do. He was right. How we die is perhaps the largest reflection of who we truly are, beneath all the surface behavior and easy words. Depending on how we live, we will die with integrity or despair. *

My goal is to have the same smile on my face on my final day as I do today. Death shouldn’t extinguish the light within us. It already takes enough.

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  • Erik Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development.

 

Perspective

(Warning: Content may be unsettling.)

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I was an insurance adjuster once, a truly unremarkable job that required a lot of driving. To make matters worse, I worked in Los Angeles, which is world famous for heavy traffic and road rage.

I was on my way to a job in the older part of downtown L.A., a burglary at a business with a very generic name, something like “Acme Industrial.” As soon as I got on the freeway, just like clockwork, some guy started tailgating me, yelling, his face all twisted up. I looked down and saw I was doing the speed limit, so I didn’t speed up and I didn’t move over. I wasn’t in his hurry. He drove past me and, as expected, flipped me the bird. I flipped him one back. We exchanged F.U.’s and he was on his way, tailgating someone else up ahead. 

I reached the job and parked, still a little frazzled from the freeway. I entered through the back door. I stopped in the doorway, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. Three grim-faced men in white smocks looked at me. One was rolling out a corpse on a stainless steel gurney. The second was transferring another body from a gurney to a platform which slid into an oven, the interior glowing a searing an angry orange like a portal to hell. The third was sifting ashes in what looked like a cookie pan near the side door of the furnace, chopping it up into a fine powder. 

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Half a dozen corpses were lined up at the rear of the room, the last line they would ever wait in. It finally dawned on me that I was in a crematorium. I felt an impulse to turn and go back outside when one of the men spoke. 

 “Can I help you?” 
 “Uh, yeah. I’m here about . . . the burglary.” 
 “Oh, you need to talk to George. I’ll get him for you.” 

He left me alone with the corpses and the other two men, who solemnly returned to their work. An old woman with wispy, gray hair lay naked several feet away. Her pale blue eyes were dry and vacant like dusty glass ornaments. Somebody’s mother, I thought. Somebody’s wife. I turned away and asked the other two men, “Do you guys ever get used to this?”
“Yeah,” one of them said, “After a while, it’s just another job.”  

The man came back and said “George will be right out” then rolled the wispy-haired woman to the oven door. I had seen enough. I went outside and stood in the sunlight.

George came out and we talked business. When we were done, I asked him about his job, if it ever bothered him. He told me the same thing – “You get used to it.” I asked him how. I had to know. I had a feeling I might need to. He said, “It’s not really a matter of how. It’s like being a cop or a soldier. You either turn your mind off or you go nuts.” 

A few minutes later, I was back on the 110 heading back to the office. I turned on the radio. I needed to hear some music. I found a bombastic classical piece, the kind you’d want to hear while skiing downhill fast with icy wind in your face. It washed my soul like morphine washes pain from the body. 

I called work, said I wasn’t feeling well (which wasn’t completely untrue), and drove to the beach. It had never been more beautiful.

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On the way home, I looked in my rear view mirror and, just like clockwork, some guy was tailgating me, yelling, his face all twisted up. I moved over and let him drive on past. 

 

Art credit – Crowded Beach by Jan Matson

How We Survive (poem on film)

A friend just made me aware of this homemade film (or maybe a short film project for school) made somewhere in England, based on my poem How We Survive.
Of everything I’ve written, that poem gets around the most, which I’m glad about because grief, as we all know, is a terrible burden.
These young ladies actually created some very touching moments. I especially like the ending.

Celebrity Deaths

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Man, what a year. It seems more celebrities died in 2016 than any year ever. For this reason, and also the most contentious election in recent memory, most of us were happy to see 2016 go. 

Some wonder why people make such a big deal out of celebrities dying. “You don’t even know them,” they say. “What did they ever do for you?” It’s because they’re not just mourning that person, they’re mourning the part of their life they represent. 

I remember watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show with my parents when they were young and healthy, the world was new to me, and my little family didn’t have a worry in the world. Good art of any kind can connect us to moments in our lives like a teleportation machine. Paintings, sculptures, even just tabletop knick-knacks, bring back happy memories of the event, day or moment they were bought and who we were with. Songs, books, and TV shows are portals to the past, and the artists seem like friends, even though we may have never met them. 

Now that my brother and dad are gone, I regress a lot (too much, actually), fantasizing about being back there again, all of us whole and happy, the future still unwritten. Then I look at my wife and kids and realize, as hard as it is to let go of what was, of the people I’ve lost and all they were to me, my wife and children are all that matter now. So, for them, I commit to living in the moment again, and that saves me from despairing completely. With my tendency toward melancholy and romanticizing the past, I don’t know what I would do if I were alone. 

So when I mourn another artist who made my family and I laugh in simpler days, I’m not only mourning that artist, I’m mourning the loss of my own past that their creation was a small part of. This is fine for any of us to do, as long as we wipe the tear away – for them and all the yesterdays we can never live again – so we can see the road ahead. There’s a lot more living to do up there.

How We Survive (poem on grieving)

I once visited Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

It’s a strange place, full of odd, gothic sculptures, many of which didn’t make me feel any better about death. For instance, I could have done without the skulls with bat wings and couldn’t figure out why anyone would want them on a relative’s grave. Unless Herman Munster was buried there. It might work then.

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When I was younger and hadn’t lost anybody close to me yet, death was a fascinating abstraction to me. I was as obsessed with it as your average Egyptian pharaoh. I read all the Time-Life “Mysteries of the Unexplained” books. I attempted out-of-body experiences, astral travel and lucid dreaming. I even climbed over a cemetery wall on a Friday the 13th during a full, blue moon and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles. ALONE. Nothing happened, aside from the heebie-jeebie’s of my own imagination.

I stood in that grave and cursed the devil, daring him to appear to me. I was that crazy. For some reason, I desperately needed to know if there was something beyond this life. I had what little faith had been gathered from my mother saying The Lord’s Prayer to me at night as a child. (They didn’t go to church regularly.) But I needed proof.

Looking back, I think my obsession with death mirrored my love of youth. I was acutely aware even then of how transitory youth is, and how many doors opened because of it – professionally, romantically, and otherwise. But as time passed and death actually came to meet me, most notably in the sudden death of my brother and only sibling, I stopped investigating and making a pageantry of it and instead became more obsessed with living completely, with celebrating life, knowing I would grow old and die someday, too. I still feel that way. As Joseph Campbell once said, people aren’t as interested in the meaning of life as much as they are in living passionately and purposefully, and experiencing their lives completely. The human heart can endure anything except endless monotony; years and years of dull, identical days. The worst enemy of sadness isn’t happiness. It’s fun. Good, old-fashioned, seat-of-your-pants, exhilarating fun. Newness. Exploration. 

So, because I honor life now instead of death, I don’t remember those flying skulls at Pere Lachaise as much as I remember graves like this one. 

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What a message. A lifeless body breaking out of a stone tomb to hold up a rose. Now that is honoring the spirit of a loved one. 

Shortly after my brother died, I wrote a poem called How We Survive. Of everything I’ve ever written, it has traveled the furthest. I’ve received dozens of very touching emails from gracious people taking the time to let me know it helped them through the worst part of their grief. If you’ve lost someone you love, I hope it does the same for you. Grief is a terrible burden to bear. I lost my father last December, so I’m walking that road again, and doing my best to live up to my own poem.

Peace.

How We Survive

If we are fortunate,
we are given a warning.

If not,
there is only the sudden horror,
the wrench of being torn apart;
of being reminded
that nothing is permanent,
not even the ones we love,
the ones our lives revolve around.

Life is a fragile affair.
We are all dancing
on the edge of a precipice,
a dizzying cliff so high
we can’t see the bottom.

One by one,
we lose those we love most
into the dark ravine.

So we must cherish them
without reservation.
Now.
Today.
This minute.
We will lose them
or they will lose us
someday.
This is certain.
There is no time for bickering.
And their loss
will leave a great pit in our hearts;
a pit we struggle to avoid
during the day
and fall into at night.

Some,
unable to accept this loss,
unable to determine
the value of life without them,
jump into that black pit
spiritually or physically,
hoping to find them there.

And some survive
the shock,
the denial,
the horror,
the bargaining,
the barren, empty aching,
the unanswered prayers,
the sleepless nights
when their breath is crushed
under the weight of silence
and all that it means.

Somehow, some survive all that and,
like a flower opening after a storm,
they slowly begin to remember
the one they lost
in a different way . . .

The laughter,
the irrepressible spirit,
the generous heart,
the way their smile made them feel,
the encouragement they gave
even as their own dreams were dying.

And in time, they fill the pit
with other memories,
the only memories that really matter.

We will still cry.
We will always cry.
But with loving reflection
more than hopeless longing.

And that is how we survive.
That is how the story should end.
That is how they would want it to be.