Roberta F. King

Author site for the memoir, He Plays a Harp

Archive for the 'Death and Dying' Category

05 February
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Being That Person

There comes a time in your life that you are that person. The person that knows someone well, maybe better than anyone else, and you know it will be you who has deliver the eulogy when that person dies. I volunteered for the job, to deliver the eulogy for my friend Phil Chmura. I didn’t wait to be asked, because sometimes you just have to be brave, step up and say what has to be said. In our lives, where relationships can be virtual and thin, it is a honor to have deep and long lasting friendships, as I did with Phil.

This is the text of my tribute from his service last week.

Phil, in December 2016.

Phil, December 2016 at Donkey

“There is a part of me, most of me actually, that can’t believe my friend Phil is dead. Just 12 hours before he had his stroke and began to die, we sat around our kitchen table, listened to music, ate bean tacos and drank some beers. It was a pretty normal night, other than the elephant in the room—his brain cancer. We talked about it in generalities—he was glad the radiation was over and was happy to be back home, he was concerned that his hair was falling out and he was hopeful about the immunotherapy that would begin in a week or so.

Every day after his Melanoma diagnosis, just like normal, we talked, texted or emailed. Our conversations were upbeat, oddly so. I never remember Phil being so positive. I began to believe, truly and honestly that he would survive this cancer. We talked about that often—about believing that medicine and science would provide a solution. I had faith, because ­he believed he’d get better.

But that didn’t happen and my best friend died.

In writing his obituary I realized, I really didn’t know Phil that well. Most obituaries have a birth and death date, an education and work history and a list of hobbies. I didn’t know, until after he died how old he was, I had to ask his sister. Age didn’t matter to him.

I knew that Phil went to Catholic schools and a bunch of colleges—Muskegon Community College was his favorite—he was a perennial student there. Did he ever get a degree from MCC? He probably never bothered to fill out the paperwork—learning for the sake of personal inquiry was more his style.

He lived in a few places outside Michigan and I threw him at least two going away parties—but he always came back home. And when he lived away—he was gone from my life. We’d write occasional letters or send postcards, but that was all. Eventually, he’d show up back in Muskegon and we’d resume our friendship.

Phil worked on and off during the time I knew him—he took a few drafting classes at MCC—he told me once that he didn’t like drafting much, but was pretty good at it, and drafting jobs paid the bills. When he was out of work or between apartment leases, he lived with my husband Pook and me, for a few months at a pop. There was always space for Phil in our house.

Me, Pook and Phil

Me, Pook and Phil at Burning Foot

One of the things I loved about Phil was that he rarely told me no. I can’t say I made a lot of unreasonable requests—foot massages, babysitting our son in a pinch, dog sitting all four of our dogs over 30 years of friendship, grabbing a six pack of beer if he was headed our way, a long bike ride around Muskegon Lake on a Sunday morning, a cake for dessert, taking our present dog, Lucy, to the veterinarian for emergencies, a butt squeezing or her shots. He volunteered to poke my black and throbbing toenail with a red-hot needle. He assured me he knew what he was doing, “My mom is a nurse,” he said. He did me a solid with that hot needle.

I might have met Phil on quarter beer night at JP Allen’s, or perhaps it was it the night that Bobby Packingham’s art exhibition opened at the bar. I know for sure that it was at JP Allen’s, that old place downtown, now long gone. I remember standing with Phil, and Pook and looking at Bobby’s art before we settled into that big side booth where six friends could comfortably sit. There would be three pieces of art that booth, one on each wall. It’s funny now, to think of art—good art—hanging in a packed, smoky bar. But that’s how things were when I met Phil.

Phil was my intellectual and literary companion. He would scour library, estate and yard sales for books for first editions or other books that he thought I’d like. He’d strike up Twitter conversations with well-known authors, Susan Orlean, specifically and send me phone pictures of their Tweets. A few times a week he’d email me articles about something one of us was interested in—articles about Frida Kahlo or other artists we loved, new books by good authors, politics, conspiracy theories, music and pop culture that involved Madonna or Barbie. We swapped and shared books and he helped stock my Little Free Library. At least once a year, we would drink and talk about driving to Montana and arranging an accidental/on purpose meeting with author Jim Harrison—and when Jim died and so did that scheme.

Phil and our dog Lucy

Phil and our dog Lucy

To me he was always Philbert, but also Spill, Phil-in, Philanderer, Philosophy, Phildirt and others. He was my Phil-in when I ran for Mrs. Asparagus in 1989. When Mike was in the hospital having spine surgery, Phil went with me to the Shelby High School Cafetorium and escorted me into the program where I was introduced as “Roberta King, wife of Mike Miesch, escorted by Phil Chmura.” I was lucky to be named runner up. We called him Spill because when we were painting our first house he took a full gallon of paint up a ladder to paint the eves—and dropped it. Boom. Paint everywhere. After we recovered from the mess and the loss of $10 of Sears house paint, we just laughed.

There’s one thing that Phil did, for which I will always be grateful. Last spring he started bugging Pook about taking a drawing class at MCC with him. Phil was never much of a pesterer, it wasn’t in his hippie nature to nag. But he brought up the art class enough times that Pook finally agreed to enroll. It had been maybe two decades since Pook had done any serious drawing, but off to MCC he and Phil went—and drawing began again. Two days a week for three hours they attended class and made art until Phil got sick. I thank Phil every time Pook takes out a piece of paper and starts to draw.

We’re here today because of art—this Museum and the people here gave Phil great pleasure and meaning in his life. While I didn’t think of it before he died, art was one of the things that was always present in our friendship—from JP Allen’s to MCC to those odd performance shows we went to in people’s garages to author readings and art exhibitions here—the red thread of art kept us together.

According to myths in both Chinese and Japanese cultures, the gods tie an invisible red cord around the ankles of people that are destined to meet and be together. People with red cords are meant to authentic friends, even soulmates, regardless of place, time, or circumstances. This mystical red cord that binds two people is believed to tangle or stretch but never, ever breaks. Death does not break the red cord.

In your program, there’s a red cord. Take it and use it to remember our friend Phil. Wear it on your wrist or your ankle, use it as a bookmark or tie your keys with it. And when you see that material reminder of Phil, think of what he meant to you and the connection that death cannot defeat.”

23 September
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Birthday. Not Birthday.

I wouldn’t want to do the math wrong and make a mistake about how old he’d be today, so I pull up the calculator on my laptop just to make sure. Noah was born on September 23, 1988 so today he would be 28 years old. Without ritual it’s hard for me to remember his exact age. When you take away the cake, singing, presents, dinner out and the old Scooby Doo birthday banner; the marking of another year becomes nebulous.

I’ve lost my ability to imagine what Noah would look like as an adult. I guess he’d still be very thin, tallish and he’d have a good head of sandy curly hair; men from my side hold onto their hair. But that’s as far as I can take that vision.

I have a better mental picture of what his day-to-day life would be like had he lived—it was something we were looking ahead at, preparing for, like gazing down the highway a half mile or so, to see what the traffic is doing. I expect that he’d be living away from us by now, probably in a group home with other young men with disabilities. He would have aged out of educational programming two years ago, so he might have a job somewhere. He worked at Meijer for a bit in high school–he might have stayed on there, slapping circulars in the hands of incoming shoppers. I imagine that we’d still travel together down to the Keys in the winter and maybe he’d drink a beer with us.

Bleeding HeartsAll too infrequently, Noah visits me in my dreams and when he does, he’s never older than he was when he died. He visited once as a fully mobile person and walked right up to me. In that dream, I was awestruck by his ability to move on his own, “Noah, you’re walking!” I said. His gait seemed a little stiff, perhaps from all those years of sitting in his wheelchair. In that dream, he just smiled his crooked smile and then walked away without me.

Maybe I can’t envision him growing older because he isn’t any older, he’s stuck at 17. Today isn’t really his 28th birthday—Noah ceased to age on the day he took his last breath.

Today is, more accurately, the anniversary of his birth-day.

So, it has been 28 years since we first brought him into the world and 10 years, 7 months since he left us. It’s all just time, an ancient measurement system based on the movement of the sun and the moon, and it truly  passes like a white hot flash. Those 28 years, those 10 years are just gone.

What give me the worst sort of ache though, is the sense of drifting from him that I feel. I still miss him every minute of each day, but his presence, which used to be so powerful, is fading and like the passing of time, there’s no way to bring him back.

26 October
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Days of the Dead

Papier mache skull for Noah’s shrine.

I made my first shrine for Noah on a Sunday afternoon ten months after his death. At Mass that All Saints Day morning, I was shaken from my reverie when our priest read the names of parishioners who’d died that year. “Noah William Miesch,” he said. Noah was included on a list of people I only vaguely knew, older people mostly shut-ins and the very ill whose names I’d seen week after week in the parish bulletin. That day we were urged to remember our dead loved ones, so I came home from church and built a shrine on the kitchen cupboard with a box of pasta, a photograph of Noah and a SpongeBob toy.

Over the last eight years, I’ve created increasingly elaborate shrines for Noah and incorporated some traditional Dias de los Muertos objects—mostly skulls and skeletons—which Noah liked. Oddly, the last Halloween Noah was alive we were at Mackinac Island and he dressed as a skeleton for the festivities there. I place that ironic photograph on the shrine each year. Day of the Dead celebrates the lives of people who have died, not that they are dead. This is the message I tell people who are interested in my book, too.

I’m careful to not commandeer this holiday, being sensitive that my ethnic heritage is mostly Swedish, not Mexican. I think respectful cultural appropriation is okay—it’s part of being a citizen of the world and forming relationships with people who are different than me. Adopting cultural traditions is part of being inclusive and being included.

I’m happy to share that I’ve created a shrine for Noah that will be on view at Grand Rapids Public Library starting October 29. There are a lot of shrines at the library each year and I hope you’ll take the time to stop by to see them. On Saturday, November 1 at 1:30 PM, I’ll talk about my altar along with with other altar-makers and I’ll be reading a bit from my memoir He Plays a Harp, too. Come celebrate.

Photo of Noah as a skeleton. He’s with Mike and Tasha.

21 July
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Member of the Tribe

It was a hotel with one thousand rooms, but even in that expanse, recognizing the bereaved parents was easy. We were the worried-looking people with name badges on blue lanyards and big photo buttons of our kids. Though we didn’t pack them, Mike and I had our big Noah buttons by noon the first day of the conference. A volunteer assembled the buttons onsite with a hand-operated button machine. Ours were made from a scan of a worn sixth grade picture that Mike carried in his wallet. I must have missed the memo about bringing a nice photo of your child to the conference for a big button and ours looked worn. Some parents wore two and even three buttons—one for each child that died. I can’t imagine that, which is just what people say to me when I tell them my son died.

So, in our own way, we chose to show our belonging to the group by what we wore. A big photo button and name tag badge with the name of our deceased child printed next to ours told everyone that we were part of the bereaved parents tribe.

Conference Goer from Across the Way

Conference Goer

Across the skywalk from the Hyatt Regency O’Hare where parents and siblings gathered for national conference of The Compassionate Friends (TCF), Exxxotica, the Largest Event in the USA Dedicated to Sex and Love was holding its annual show. They were easy to spot, too. The Exxxotica women wore bum-showing shorts or skirts, sometimes with leg warmers and stilettos or with thigh-high boots. They wore cinched up bustiers with bellybuttons showing, There was lots of black and hot pink clingy material and spangly sparkly tops. They showed inches and inches of cleavage and were generous with their colorful eye makeup and lipstick. They had plenty of ink, too. I spotted a leg length snake working its way from an ankle around the calf, up a thigh and up into the front of a short skirt. The men, for the most part, carried women’s stuff—bags of whatever people in the erotica industry need to have on hand. When you’re toddling around on seven-inch heels, you don’t need to be schlepping a heavy bag.

It was an odd mash up and I wonder about what the hotel conference planner must have been thinking at booking time.

The last night of the conference, I wanted to get a picture of one of the participants from Exxxotica. I needed proof of this unlikely convergence. Mike and I walked the musty and warm skywalk over to the Rosemont convention center after the closing candlelight ceremony for TCF. The skywalk was carpeted, which seemed to be contributing to the dank smell. We passed several possible photographic candidates, but they weren’t interesting enough. Finally, I spotted the one. She was at least six feet tall, but with her spiked heels it was hard to truly gauge her height. She was probably as old as me, and easily seventy pounds lighter. Her makeup was heavy and her expression worn. She’d probably been working a trade show booth since noon. I wondered if she was repping a line of dildos, or was it lube lotion, leather goods or videos? I didn’t ask.

“Hi, do you mind if I take your photo?”

“Sure,” she said cheerfully. She let go of the arm of the man who was escorting her. She smiled and posed against an unfinished trompe de l’oeil painting of a window. I took two images with my phone.

“I just wanted a photo, well, because we’re from the bereaved parents conference. We’re in the same hotel as you guys,” I said. “You know, bereaved parents and erotica in the same hotel. I just thought it was interesting,” I stammered.

Big photo button“Oh. So did we,” she said, nodding. “Who did you lose?”

I told her a bit about Noah’s life and death as we walked back toward the hotel. I was glad she asked, and we were happy to tell her about our son. She steadied herself on her companion’s arm and we fell behind them a few steps. We parted as the doors opened from the smelly skywalk opened to the marble floors of the hotel lobby. Her heels clicked as she and her companion strutted toward an elevator.

I’ve thought about this brief meeting and how the tribes we represented that weekend are on the fringe of what’s considered normal in American culture. Death and sex are two topics people are generally uncomfortable talking about. So here we were, parents celebrating the lives of our beloved dead children, mixed up with other adults reveling in their sexuality and simply looking at one another in wonder thinking: how do you do it?

27 February
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Odd Day, Even Year

noah scans-113

Noah in a hammock with a hibiscus.

Like a birthday, wedding anniversary or any important date, the anniversary of Noah’s death is one we note. It’s on my electronic calendar as a recurring date, The Day Noah Died, as if I really need reminding. It is on our wall photo calendar with a picture of him and the words, Noah’s Day on February 27. He died in 2006, an even year just after the end of the winter Olympics in Torino.

Eight years seems like a long time for him to be gone, I miss him just as much now as I did when his death was fresh and Mike and I were navigating the first days, weeks and months of being Noah-less. This anniversary is a little bit different and perhaps a bit less bitter. With the upcoming publication of my memoir, He Plays a Harp, I feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to do five years ago: I’ve created a permanent reminder of him and our life. People sometimes ask me if writing his story has been cathartic or healing and until now, I said, “no.” I truly didn’t believe that writing about Noah could heal or fix my hurt. I’ve re-thought that premise and I’ve come to realize that writing about bad experiences can heal and help.  (It also helps to have found a wonderful publishing team in Principia Media). I’ve written and exposed very personal parts of my life, my emotions and my relationships with Noah, Mike and Tasha. I still feel profound grief from his death, but I don’t feel as fragile as I did eight years ago.

The writing has strengthened my relationship with Noah. I never believed that people could have a growing and ongoing relationship with someone who isn’t in this world, but as with using writing to heal, I believe that Noah and I are closer than we were when he was alive.

Today is Noah’s Day and I honor him for helping me write our memoir and giving me seventeen years+eight more years of inspiration.

 

 

05 September
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The Signs

I’ve always been open to signs, you know, like an answer to a meaningful question via the appearance of a rainbow, a bird crossing my path or something else that tells me what I need to know.  Though I’m open to signs, I can’t think of a time when I actually had a meaningful sign.

Until today.

Heart Rock

Heart Rock

I found this rock, or chunk or concrete while I was running. I picked it up and ran home with it in my hand and the moment I spotted it, I thought “Ah! A heart rock for Sally.” Sally is my friend from the Neahtawanta Inn in Traverse City. She collects heart-shaped rocks. Her husband Bob Russell, died August 23 from cancer, which he fought for almost three years. I met Sally and Bob when we stayed at the Inn in 1988. I was pregnant with Noah. While Noah was growing up, we stayed there, too. I like to think that they built the accessible room at the Inn just for us! I’ll bring that rock to Sally, in memory of Bob.

While running, before I found the rock, I was thinking about meetings in the afterlife. When someone dies, I’ll say a little prayer to Noah (since he’s an angel now) and ask him to keep an eye out for whomever might be arriving. I don’t know if Bob was a heaven-believer or not, that isn’t important. What matters is that Noah is looking for him, to welcome him to a new place.

Before I ran this morning I received an e mail that chapter from my memoir that I’ve been working on as a stand alone piece was accepted for web exclusive publication in Brain, Child, a literary journal for mothers. Other authors who’ve been published in it include Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler. The piece I submitted is titled, The Orders and is about when Mike and I chose to sign do not resuscitate orders and allow natural death orders for Noah.

One of my 2013 new year’s resolutions was that come September I’d start sending queries for my memoir to literary agents. I also wanted to see six pieces of it published–that would be another sign it was ready. That time has come, Brain, Child is the sixth. Also, Noah would have been 25 on September 23 of this year and all these numbers seem like a sign to me.

16 April
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His Dad is a Runner

There have been ebbs and flows, months or years early on that I didn’t run, but for the most part I’ve been pounding pavement for the better part of thirty years as a runner. Running defines me. It is part of my person, who I am. As much as I am a wife, a mother, a, writer, a PR practitioner and a vegetarian, I am a runner.

I run alone mostly, in the dark stillness before dawn. I run without music and headphones because running time is thinking time. The hour of running is a time for reflecting, new ideas, planning out my day, problem solving and writing in my head. I sometimes surprise myself when I return home from my five-mile route and can’t remember having passed certain corners or run down specific streets, but I know have, as an hour has passed and I’m sweating.

Despite my love of solitude in running, I love the community and conversation around running. There’s nothing more interesting than a talking with another runner about the details of a specific race route, pre-race/post-race eating, shoe lacing, good bras, race strategy, results and even pooping. This commonality, the shared experience of running and racing is important to me. I’ve mentored novice runners and swapped tips with people who have run as long as I have. I wince when another runner talks about a bum knee, a tight hamstring or plantar fasciitis. We share the love and pain of running and the exhilaration of a race well run. Runners share the disappointment of a race that goes badly and the surprise and joy of placing in our age group. Runners are my community.

That’s just part of the reason the attack on the Boston Marathon was so painful. One of the three deaths in Boston was an eight–year-old boy. He was there, like many kids at races, to cheer on a parent. His dad is a runner.

Kids at races are the best and loudest yellers and the most enthusiastic sign wavers. They ring cowbells, blow whistles, give high fives and yell stuff to strangers like “You’re looking good!” and “Keep it up!” Kids who’d never think of picking up their room or handing a glass of water to an adult, willingly sweep smashed cups and pick up used Gu packages at aid stations.

Where else do kids line up in cheer groups and urge their parents to greater glory?

On April 15, when some hateful person(s) decided to intervene in the sport of running at one of America’s most revered races and killed a cheering kid named Martin Richard. I know from my own experience with the death of my son, that Martin’s parents will never be the same. They will grieve his death for the rest of their lives. I am quite sure, though, his dad will continue to run. Anyone who qualifies for Boston isn’t a quitter. He’ll probably run on his son’s funeral day—I did on my son’s. Each time now, when his dad heads down the chute to cross a finish line, looking around for his cheering people, as all runners do, he’ll think of his son and there will be less joy in the result.

Cheering Girls at Gazelle Girl Half Marathon
Courtesy of Stellafly

 

27 February
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Tolerance of Grief

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of Noah’s death.

I admit, the pain of his loss isn’t as acute as it was seven years ago. But still, when I think of him, I can feel the tightness in my throat and my eyes start to burn.

And I think about him every single day.

That’s the reality of this kind of loss. The grief hangs on and on. It’s become a part of me. As much as I am a writer, a runner, a public relations professional, a wife and a friend, I am a grieving person.  I don’t mind the sadness as much anymore, like running I’ve built up a tolerance to it. Just like going out to run five or ten miles, there’s effort, but not the pain I once knew.

A friend of mine pointed me to a poem by Emily Dickinson, I found the last line of it to be intriguing. It seems hopeful,  aspirational, but impossible.“First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.”

Her word choices describe the early bits of of death very well. I struggle with the letting go part, though. I don’t think letting go is something I’ll ever completely do when it comes to Noah. All that I have left of him are memories. Grief and memories are interconnected and without memories what would I grieve? I grieve as I remember the good times we had with Noah, eating supper, reading books, getting ready for school, the trips we took, celebrating holidays and how he looked, felt and smelled.

As long as I have memories of my son, I’ll have grief in my life. The letting go is something I don’t ever want to do.

Noah on a boat in the Keys

One of my favorite images of Noah, we were boating in the Florida Keys. He was about 15 years old at the time.