Still Surviving After All These Years

A long long time ago I wrote a newspaper essay about my mother’s death. A few months after it ran, on the second day of a then-new job, a colleague my age introduced himself and in the brief conversation that followed asked how I came to be hired. When I mentioned that I’d been a writer, I cited the essay, when asked, as something he might have seen or read. At which point the colleague took me aside and in a whisper wondered if it would be wrong of him to share the piece with a friend of his dealing with his own mother’s terminal diagnosis. I replied that the answer depended on how close he and his friend were. But I added that I’d come to discover — it’s what I wrote in the essay, anyway— that with grief there’s seldom an absolute wrong or right.

Six months later, the colleague stopped by my office to remind me of that chat and to let me know that the friend’s mother had finally passed, earlier that week. He told me that while he hadn’t yet shared my essay with the friend, he’d set out to do so that morning. “Which is where it gets weird,” he said.

“The funeral was yesterday. And this morning I called my friend’s sister to ask how he was doing; and I mentioned that there’s something he might want to read, written by a guy I work with, about how he handled his mother’s death. And the sister said, ‘You mean the one in the Times last year by Jim-something with an Irish last name?’” He asked her how she’d come to know about it. “Because,” she told him, “when we came home from the funeral, I gave John a hug and asked him how he was feeling. And he took this beaten-up piece of paper from his suit-jacket pocket, unfolded it, handed me that article, and said, ‘This is how I feel.’”

“A Grief-Stricken Son Survives, Grows After Mother’s Death” (the headline wasn’t my idea) ran as a First Person essay in the Los Angeles Times on page E8 on December 18, 1992. Twenty-five years ago today. And more than once in those 25 years, including as recently as 2015, I’ve heard from people who wanted me to know it’s how they felt, too. Which says nothing so much about what I wrote and everything it seems about how I was living with back then, which was privately, with loss. Something so many of us do.

To talk about my feelings, even at 32, was anathema to everything that was my suffer-in-silence East Coast Irish-Catholic 1970s upbringing. To talk about the death of my mother at just 58 involved levels of sorrow I’d not shared with anyone, even myself. But right after her funeral I knew there were thoughts to be explored about what was turning out to be a tectonic life-shift. I spent the next five years trying to write about it, failing miserably each time, until on the very day on the fifth anniversary, with me now living in Los Angeles — I was working and living in Tennessee when she died, but packed up and left in the wake — it finally just sort of … came out. I sent it to a contact I had then at the Times, who passed it on to an able and sympathetic colleague in the editorial ranks who took it from there.

The Friday it ran — following a lousy anxiety-ridden Thursday night’s sleep — I received some phone calls from friends and West Coast relatives and contacts. They seemed to connect to its theme of the pain of void that follows death. Days later the Times forwarded a small stack of letters from readers of the piece who were also lost in that void. The woman mourning a Dad who’d died two years earlier (“Last November my daughter was married; I longed for him more that day than any other”). The man whose mother’s death had fully uprooted him as a successful high-profile Hollywood executive (“It’s been tough for me to articulate the loss without seeming weak”). The woman still coping with a father’s long-ago suicide (“Time and therapy help, but there is no way to replace a part of yourself when it goes missing forever”). The mid-30s man likewise marking an anniversary that fall (“I have yet to find the peace you wrote about”). The woman reconciling the loss of even an aged and infirmed parent (“It’s like there was life before his death and then life after his death”). The stay-at-home mom who’d read the piece while awaiting word from an oncologist on her own just-diagnosed cancer (“sobbing through my Corn Flakes”). The notes spoke of emptiness. And continued to trickled in. Weeks later, from Phoenix (“wishing you recovery that I relate to”). Nine months later, from Troy, Michigan (“I couldn’t write sooner because it was too painful”). And in 2015, fully 23 years after the essay ran and 28 years after my mother died, from San Diego (“My copy of your article is worn, faded and tattered as it still hangs on a bulletin board in my office; each March on the anniversary of mom’s death, I re-read it and the memories flow”).

Grief surrounds us. Silently. Inside of us, of us. Often begging to come out and be halved, quartered, diminished in some way, by the sharing. Re-reading these notes last week, I remember my own five-year-old grief at the time being eased by them. There are a lot of us out there, I remember thinking, all not saying the same thing because we don’t want to be a bother or to come off broken. Or, worse, because we don’t wish to poke the bear that awaits each of us. “So many of us try to stifle death,” one of the letter-writers offered, “by not talking about it.” True enough. (Especially men, I thought; I know I’d tried.) The letters also helped with my sense of emptiness back then, as I looked ahead to the rest of a new L.A. life that would have to unfold without a particular significant presence in it. Some of those who wrote me were further along that path and doing well. Or well enough, it seemed. It helped to read that.

Twenty-five years later? My father is gone now, too. My mother has a small carload of grandchildren and one great grandchild, all of whom maybe she’ll meet some day. Every one of my parent’s seven children is now older than 50. And that new L.A. life of mine — the one that came of a dream to go to Hollywood and to work in TV, incited by grief — happened: Seven weeks after the essay was published I was invited to join the ranks of programming executives at an actual TV network, and Camelot followed, two decades worth of brief shining moments. It really happened. In fact, twenty-five years later it’s mostly done with, coming full circle when twenty years in I looked around the TV kingdom and saw as much tarnish as polish and opted to go off writing and teaching, including for two recent years at the very Philadelphia university I graduated from so long ago.

I’m in Los Angeles just part-time at best these days as a result — enough to appreciate and miss the serenity that is still my old Manhattan Beach home and to recognize, sadly, seen now at a distance, that Hollywood really is a town of relationships that, in many cases, need a six-month gym membership just to qualify as paper-thin. (One good thing about the town: Twenty-five years later Hollywood, at least in its output, shows that we finally talk more about loss and pain, men especially. Who need to. Thank you, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel.)

As the calendar turns again, now to 2018, I realize that, wherever I am or wherever I’ll be, it’s the year I‘m to turn the age my mother was when she died. I look around a lot these day, viewing life through that lens. Back at the life I moved to Los Angeles for, where that essay was pulled out of me 25 years today. Forward to another 25 years, buoyed by the letters borne of it, now carefully re-archived in my home, for re-reading when needed, which if experience is any indication will be often. The letters and their authors will remain with me. They continue to be part of the living of the rest of the story. I’m grateful to them. This is how I feel.

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