Tag Archives: death

The Death of a Friend-Rosella Clemmons Washington

I lost a friend on Monday.

Her name is Rosella Clemmons Washington.  A jazz singer, mother, wife, sister and friend and one of the most joyful people I have ever known.

The truth is, though, that I let her go 18 months ago.  I let my new job, my life, her life, our schedules, get in the way of seeing each other.  And now, I will not see her again until I die.  And I am so very sad that I was not a good friend.  I was a lapsed friend.

Sure, I called.  I left voice-mails.  I sent email and posted on her Facebook page. So, I can try to convince myself that I reached out, I tried.  But I didn’t persist.  I didn’t insist.  I did the polite thing — I didn’t want to intrude.  But somewhere, deep in my bones, I knew Rosella was dying.  And I should have just driven to her house, knocked on the door and fallen together with her into each others’ arms.

If I had, it wouldn’t have changed her outcome.  Rosella had breast cancer.  She beat it once but lost to it in the second round.  She fought.  Chemo and radiation every week.  Every day was long and longer.  She stopped singing, silencing a voice that was so rich, so full, so beautiful that I really believe she is in the heavenly choir, tuning up for her first performance right now.

We met at work 30 years ago.  For 15 of those years, we talked, laughed, celebrated our birthdays, cried, ate out, dined in at each other’s houses.  She was at my daughter’s wedding;  she sang Ave Maria from the balcony with no mike.  There wasn’t a dry  eye in the house.  I was at her wedding and the birth and death of her first child, her daughter, Debra Rose.  She was pregnant with her son the same year my daughter was pregnant with hers.

Cyndy and I were there when Mark Isaiah was born 2 months early  – touched his long, long fingers, nicknamed him ET and hugged the wonderful woman who was his Mom.  Rosella used to hand me Mark Isaiah as soon as I came into the house saying, “he will only stay still for you.”  When he was old enough to walk, little Mark would fling himself into my arms, running his still long, thin fingers through my hair, leaning in for hugs and laughing.

But once we moved to another county and Mark Isaiah started playing sports, Rosella and I had to work hard to find days that worked for both of us.  My schedule was more flexible so I wrapped around hers, going to her house, having lunch with Mama Rose, listening to Rosella brag about her now rapidly growing son, and watching her eyes glow when she looked at him.

But time and tide continued to pull us further apart.  I would go to a concert of hers and drop by to see her at her new home.  Sometimes she would drive out to our house and sit on the deck and give me her wisdom and counsel.  I was struggling at work, doing too much, being trivialized, feeling sorry for myself and not doing much more than complaining.

Rosella frequently opened these counseling sessions with her favorite line for her  stubborn Irish friend, “Does God have to hit you with a 2 x 4 to get you to see what’s right?”  Apparently, the answer was yes.  My sister, and we knew somewhere back in time we had been sisters, was always right, always there to offer advice or consolation and always, always laughing.

So, when I called to sing her Happy Birthday in October of 2012, I got voice mail.  I thought, okay, she’s busy.   But she didn’t call back.  When I called around the holidays to see if we could get together, I got voice mail again but I said I understood.  Holidays, family…but somewhere in the back of my head, a mall voice whispered, “What if…?”  I didn’t answer.  I emailed her instead.

When I called in February and said I wanted to come and see her, there was no reply.  When she finally did call back, she sounded so tired.  She told me she was battling cancer again.  I offered to take her to Philly for treatment but she had to go on weekdays and I was working.  I offered to come up on a Saturday, sit with her, hold her…but she said she was not fit for any company after chemo and radiation.  I told her I understood.  I told her I would do what she wanted me to do but wanted to help.

But she said her friends were helping with the transportation and her church was helping her at home.

I told her I loved her.  She said she loved me too.  And I never heard her voice again.

This morning, I sit here knowing that I should have shoved aside all my reservations, been impolite, driven up to her house and intruded.  Because I might, just once more, have seen, held and hugged this woman who I loved and still love with all my heart.

Rosella’s death has taught me not to wait, not to be concerned about societal restrictions, not to lose another friend without having the chance to say, just one more time, how precious they are to me and how very much I love having them in my life.

Good by Rosella.  I know God was glad to get you back home but I miss you, my sister.

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Filed under Death & Dying, Life & Death, Religion

No Death; No Fear – Thich Nhat Hanh Was Right

I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life
5 years ago.

I got some of it.  No, I got a lot of it.  But I just couldn’t get how I could face death and not be afraid.  Not my death but the deaths of my parents, the deaths of my brothers, Mike and Bob.

I mourned like everyone does.  Crying, missing them, wishing they hadn’t died, regretting the loss of time — time I should have spent with them when they were alive.  I beat myself up for lost opportunities to tell them how much they meant to me, how much I would miss them.  I’ve lived the last 35 years with regret.

I believed what Joseph Campbell wrote in one of his most widely known works, The Power of Myth.  “All life is loss, loss, loss.”

The loss of my parents and brothers was devastating at an almost cellular level.  But here, this morning, in the cool aftermath of violent thunderstorms, I felt something else, some small pull to another view of loss.

In that instant, everything changed. I learned how time works.

It always seemed to move too fast for me.  This morning I discovered that time is neither fast nor slow.  It’s almost opaque.  The word “linear” no longer applies.  It is as though we are wandering through it.  Past, present and future are all there, in the same moment, even when we don’t recognize them.

When I try to analyze this  new relationship with time (having it, losing it, wasting it), I get anxious.  If I just let go, everything I ever thought I knew about time dissolves.

Each moment feels rich, full, amazing.  Listening to crickets chirp now as they always have and always will.  Watching geese gathering now as they always have and always will.  Seeing the meteors of Perseid, Leonid and all the others falling in the late night sky as they always have and always will.  Loving my family — no matter where they are – as I always have and always will.

It is as though this Universe in which we live and die is gently sharing this tiny but profound thought; the ones who have gone ahead are still here, living within the engine of the universe that keeps rolling before, during and after they left this place we call Earth.

It’s funny because for almost half of my life,  I could not hear the Universe at all, could not understand why people so dear to me had to die. The same Universe that just 2 months ago had to hit me in the forehead with a 2” x 4” now whispers to me and I can hear her.  She offers me comfort.  She lifts a corner of the veil of the infinite – the place we came from, the place we will go and lets me peek underneath.  And I soar into it.

Listening to the roar and the sigh of this place, seeing light and dark in their purest forms, leaving this body, being everywhere and nowhere, all at once, knowing, feeling, being  joy.  My very essence, my soul or spirit, if you will,  joins the stream of all others who were and will be.  My body is no longer along for the ride. Aches, pains, cares, shed like my skin as I rise into the infinite.

I went where Jill Bolte Taylor traveled when she had her stroke – part of everything and everything is part of me.  This is what I saw on my brother Bob’s face at the moment of his death.  Ten years old, grinning, blond hair being ruffled in the wind as he turned to wave good-bye to me then walked over the hill behind our barn in Pine Grove.

I knew when I came back to my body, this chair, this room, this morning…I knew that this is the secret of the universe.

I still know.  This is death; this is life ever after.

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Filed under Death & Dying, Life & Death, Love and Marriage, Mysteries

When Brothers Die – To Bob

My older brother, Mike, died 5 years ago.  I wrote about him on my blog.

I have not written of my other brother, Bob, who died of a brain tumor, too.  I have not written of this man whom I loved without reservation, with all my heart.  He died just 2 years ago on Memorial Day.  He died in just 2 weeks.

I have not been able to write about him.

To the world, he was Robert J. Duffy, poet and plumber, father and friend.  To me,  he was my best friend, a safe place to be, a soft spot to land where I could be exactly who I am and never think twice about it.  He was a man of so many talents and so much intelligence, so much life.

In 2 weeks he disappeared before my very eyes.

As I did for Mike’s family, I stood for Bob in the hospital.  I stayed with him, sleeping in his room, fighting for him, for his comfort, for his peace.  I argued with the neurosurgeon who wanted to do one more surgery.  I argued with the ICU nurse who wanted to watch soap operas while my brother’s life drained away.

And I argued for my brother to be taken home, the only place he wanted to be, the only place he wanted to die.  I slept by his hospital bed in his living room, holding his hand although he was no longer there.  I read poetry to him.  He was a published poet and I was not good at it, but I read, anyway…

And when he died, his daughter Becky and I were by his side.

This year, his wife decided to give away Bob’s books.  I understand why – the need to move on, not to turn the corner and see his books, be reminded that he is no longer in this plane. But when the books are gone, his house will feel a bit emptier.  The last vestige of my brother will be gone, the man who used to come downstairs every morning of every visit saying, “Racket, racket, racket, who’s making all the racket?” then hug me and smile, that man will be gone.

And I will be left behind, again.

I miss him every day and this time of year the loss is almost unbearable.  For once, there are no words to describe how very much I miss him..

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Filed under Death & Dying, Inspiring People, Life & Death

A Good Marriage Is Easy To Spot

How do you know your marriage is good?

Passionately and deeply in love?  Want to spend all your waking and sleeping hours with that one person?  Enjoying today, together  but planning for tomorrow?  Moving in, setting up a joint bank account and sharing the day-to-day tasks of living?

Every one of these could indicate a strong relationship, a good marriage.  Anyone of them could also be just a symptom of what looks like a good marriage.

The first time one of you makes a bad decision, you’ll get a look at what underpins your marriage.  Lose the savings account on a bad investment and watch the argument rip from money to control and back again.  Or make a bad choice morally – just once and it didn’t really mean anything.  But your partner may not be able to bridge the gap between the before and the after.

The truth is anyone can have a “good” marriage when things are going well.  The acid test only happens when things go badly.

Sometimes, bad choices can make or break your marriage depending on how you and your beloved handle it.  But what happens when no one makes a choice but both of you have to live with the consequences?

What happens when one of you gets sick?  I don’t mean a head cold or the flu.  I mean sick unto death.  In our case, it was cancer.  Will you run or will you stay?

It has been 10 years since our journey began, 10 years of chemo therapy, surgery, hospitalization after hospitalization.  Sitting here, reading my journal from the days when I thought, we both thought, that treatment would be fast, surgery would finish it, tears are streaming down my face.  What happened to my husband, to us, still cuts to the bone.  Our loss runs deep and wide.  Our sorrow is endless.

But our marriage not only survived, it got stronger with every treatment, every surgery, every hospitalization.

Since he was diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I have spent every vacation, every year, in that very expensive resort with very small rooms, a single bed and terrible food.  Hitting 34 hospitalizations in this, the 10th anniversary of our relationship with cancer, we are closer together than ever, enjoy each others company over that of almost anyone we know and wish only for one thing, at least another 10 year of whatever life has to throw at us.

It seems ours is a good marriage.

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Filed under Healthcare, Life & Death, Love and Marriage

Life Is A Choice – What WIll You Choose

This morning I feel the weight of all my choices rushing in to sit on my shoulders. It is a gray wet morning, leaves scuttling across the yard and my life suddenly reflected  in the balance of good and bad choices made in my career and what they cost me.

What I Chose
Work.  Sounds so simple, so easy, but that choice cost me years and years of my life.

I was a “good” employee.  Work on the weekend?  Sure.  Fly to Florida and work there for 5 weeks without a day off?  Sure.  Spend a week out in Yosemite National Park every month for a year?  Why not?  Live in Los Alamos for 2 months while installing a new system?  Will do.

For almost 10 years of my life I literally penciled in visits to my husband, our daughter, my sisters and brothers.  I was never home on holidays.  They were ideal opportunities to install hardware and software in the many locations across the country where I managed up to 100 people on the team at Marine Midland, Newark Airport, Kennedy Space Center and on and on and on.

I was an executive with an expense account, a secretary and all the gold cards you could possibly want.  First class travel, five star hotels, I had it all.  But one day, something changed.

I started thinking about what all the gold in my wallet and my bank account were costing me.  I stood still long enough to do the calculations.  Working 7 days a week,  averaging between 90 and 120 hours –  reduced my six figure salary to an hourly rate of about $10.00 an hour – what the UPS driver was making except he went home every night and had weekends off.

Then I made the mistake of thinking about what my choices cost me.

What I Lost

My Mom
My mother lived west of Roanoke on 163 acres owned by my brother Mike.  If I saw her 5 times in 10 years, it was a miracle.  Usually, I used my frequent flyer miles to fly her here, to our home, for the one weekend out of 52 that I might be in town.

My mom died of a cerebral hemorrhage while I was in Chicago for yet another meeting.  There was so much I forgot to ask her.  So much she could have shared with me.  But I never stopped long enough to ask.  Now I can’t.

My Life
I was married, had a beautiful home on 2.5 acres in horse country in Pennsylvania.  A gourmet kitchen I didn’t use, a suite off the master bedroom complete with jacuzzi that gathered dust between the maid’s visits and years of sunny summer afternoons on the deck that I never saw.  When someone asked me what my house was like, my answer was swift and sharp, “How would I know?  I don’t live there; I just pay for it.”

I clearly remember the night that I knew I was making the wrong choices.

It was Sunday night on Labor Day weekend. Our daughter was in labor at Bryn Mawr Hospital.  She was ill but it was a holiday.  The Pathology Lab was closed and the doctors didn’t know what was making her sick.  Only after our second grandchild was born with strep did they figure it out.  Whisked from the delivery room to the NICU, the baby’s prospects were poor.

But I had a flight to catch.  I was needed back in Florida.  Heading for the airport, fidgeting in the back of the limousine, I could not get a handle on what was wrong with me.  I needed to go; I didn’t want to.  Suddenly my work ethic and my instincts were facing off and it felt like all the easy answers were off the table until I asked myself two questions:

  1. If I got on the plane and the baby died, how would our daughter be able to face his death?  How would I feel about my actions?  About myself?
  2. If I didn’t get on the plane, if I went back to the hospital to hold our daughter’s hand and be held by my husband, would the meeting be cancelled?  Would the business I worked for fail?

When boarding for First Class was called, I actually walked onto the plane, put my laptop in the overhead, sat down and ordered a drink before I knew I just could not do it.  I could not go.  Leaping up, grabbing my laptop, I raced back up the ramp and into the airport.  Dialing my cell phone, I called my limo back to the airport and ran to the arrival area to meet my driver.

That was the turning point, the moment when I knew that somehow I had sold out all my old values for money and merchandise.  Did I quit the next morning?  No.  It took 2 more years and the death of my boss’s husband to make me wake up.  He died alone, in his garage, in his car, with the motor running.  All I could think was it could have been me who got the phone call, my husband who died.

I woke up.  I realized I was committing suicide – long, slow, deliberate – but suicide nonetheless.

I made a different choice.  I traded in the gold and came home.  My salary went from 6 figures to $28,000 a year.  I came home very night, to spend weekends and holidays with my family and to enjoy time, the only thing we cannot buy.

What choices are you making?  And what do they really cost?

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Filed under Budgeting, Home Ec on Acid, Life & Death, Love and Marriage

Promise Me This

Ah, here again.  We know this place, you and I.

Murmuring heads leaning over a chart, talking about what’s next.  Phones and bells and monitors ringing and beeping.  Soft footfalls in the hall outside your door. The steady whir and click of the IV as it drips fluid and medication into your veins.

Another hospital.  Another time when the outside world disappears and everything in our lives narrows to this room, this bed, this time.

As our future unfolds before my eyes, I ask only one thing.

Will you promise me this?

If I am lying in that narrow bed, if I am dying before you, will you slip in with me, wrap your arms around me and hold me the way you do every morning before we get up?

It is a small act but it would give me the courage to go quietly into that dark good night.  If you are there, nesting with me, my back leaning on your chest, our heads together, your breath caressing my neck, I can reach out and hold on.

I will not be afraid.  I will be loved into the next world, soaring on your heartbeat and the touch of your hand on mine.  And when it’s over, when I am gone, lay your lips next to my ear and says these words – for you.  For me.  For us.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

And know that I am not gone, I am there, just beyond the horizon, waiting to take your hand in mine once again.

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Filed under Life & Death, Love and Marriage

Remembering My Big Brother

As you get older, months take on different significance.  Months that used to be filled with birthdays, anniversaries and graduations now harbor dates where someone you love learned he was dying and months where father, brother, mother, died.

June is one of those months for me.  My brother Mike learned he would die of a brain tumor in June.  I think he suspected that he was dying but the doctors confirmed it on June 11th, 2007.  I spent the next 2 weeks living in Virginia, fighting for tests, for hope, because my sister-in-law could not.  She was in shock; she was  losing her husband of 43 years.  But there was to be no reprieve.

Every weekend for 8 weeks, my husband and I drove to Roanoke on Thursday evening or Friday morning and stayed with Mike and his wife.  We brought wine, and steaks, pies, homemade chocolates and our love.   Days and nights were spent holding his hand, talking, laughing, watching his favorite movies, listening to his favorite music, his only music — classical.

Poignant moments came at odd times like when he stood in his hall, looking at his CD collection and said, “No one will want my music when I die.”  Or the time he looked up and me and said, “Why my words?  Why is this tumor taking away my words?”

How do you answer questions like that?  I answered by taking his hand, holding it, telling him I loved him and slowly, slowly moving him back toward living and away from the edge of his own death.

During those last weeks, he and I completed his last project together – putting the rails on the stairs to his front deck.  Sounds like a simple job but it wasn’t.

Mike couldn’t calculate anymore.  My genius, electrical engineer, computer programming wunderkind brother could no longer do math.  I never could.  But for 8 hours, on a Wednesday, he and I struggled to space the spindles on the last remaining stairwell on the deck.  And we did it exactly correctly.

Oh I tried to do it easy – just aligning them with the spindles on the other side but Mike had lost his math skills, not his personal power.  So, slowly, carefully, dividing to a 13th of an inch, he and I put those spindles in place.  And when we were done, we sat on his glider, on his newly finished deck, poured the last of his 21-year-old Scotch and drank to each other, to the deck and to the day.

Michael died on August 8th, just 9 weeks after he received his death sentence – malignant astrocytoma – brain tumor.  But he lives on, those days and weeks live on, memories, celebrations to a life well and truly lived.

It is June and I celebrate you Mike.

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