Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

My Grandma Pat is Dying

I laid two candles down.

I have a book she gave me that she said was too complicated for her, about religious archaeologists. I put it on the altar.

I poured out a glass of water.

I am Sarah,
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Patricia,
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Eliza,
daughter of Mary,
daughter of Irish mothers unknown.

I struck match to metal and lit one wick.
I called in my grandmother’s ancestors.
I called her mother Margaret Loretta Burke.
I called her father Robert Joseph Art.

I called out the names of her mother’s Irish ancestors:
Frank Burke and Eliza Conners,
Thomas and Ellen Burke,
David Conners and Mary Dowd,
Mrs. Ann Burke,
Barney Dowd.

I called out the names of her father’s German ancestors:
George Art and Katherine Pills,
Adam and Catherine Art,
John Pils and Mary Burzee,
George Arth and Wilhemina Wernersbach.

I asked them to watch over her, and to welcome her when she is ready to move on.

I lit the second candle. I asked them to watch over those of us who are afraid to let her go.

I spent the time it took the candles to burn down reading the book she gave me, connecting in to her Hospice bed across the miles. I spent my time reading also connecting into the thread of her that lives in me.

And breathing.

[A look into how I use my ancestor work in practical applications.]

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Why We Funeral

The day before Easter, my Uncle Norm died. He was my dad’s younger brother. He lived directly across the street from me. His was the second sibling death in the family in three years. And it hurts.           
And even in dealing with this grief, another death is looming. And my heart feels like it’s drowning. What do you do when you’re drowning? You focus on one small thing at a time to get yourself above water.
Everyone else’s lives continue at a frantic pace but you are stuck simply trying to remember how to breathe.
I don’t live in the same place as my family. It makes death hard. I don’t have my own vehicle, and I haven’t been able to drive distances since my accident. My recovery also makes public transportation difficult. For now I have no choice but to grieve from here. Here, where no one else knew the people I lose from home, where no one else can or will grieve with me.
For a moment, I wish professional keening was still a cultural thing. I could hire a handful of women to bring over casseroles and cry with me and let me tell them my complicated stories.
We still don’t really talk about grief. Not outside of wearing black while standing inside funeral parlors. My mom had a funeral outfit. I remember the nights she would come home from work and get dressed up in that blouse and those slacks, with hose and heels and make-up. Sometimes a friend would come over and they would go pay their respects together for an hour or so.
I remember. But what I didn’t see was that grief is hard. I sit on that edge uncertain as to whether or not I am grieving the loss of them or the loss of the relationship I will now never-get-a-chance-to-have. Maybe it’s both. It’s probably both.
I think the beginning of grief is largely uncertainty.

One of my first jobs besides babysitting was getting paid to sing at weddings and funerals. Singing at funerals is so surreal when the families are unknown to you. You need to be both a comfort and a catharsis.
The main aspect of a funeral is to lay the body, the sacred vessel of the beloved dead to rest based on their wishes. It’s a way of capping the respect and affection you had for them. It’s a way to wrap up the end of their story.
And that’s great.
[I do think that there will be a tipping point where we have to be accountable for the ecological impact the way we dispose of our dead, of the carcasses left behind. I think that point has already come. No more chemicals. No more sealed vaults. Our bodies were meant to decay in the earth and feed the soil. So we have to change our relationship with death. And our bodies. And how we connect soul/spirit/anima to flesh.]

Mostly funerals are for those left behind to grief. It’s a place we’re allowed to grieve. The coming together of family and loved ones is a soothing balm. You’re not the only one who feels like time stopped. You get to share funny stories and poignant stories, about what a good person they were or lament the loss of time to smooth the broken edges of your relationship. And in some way the ritual should serve those who gather together.
I think about this a lot. The funerals I have been to that were officiated by someone who did not know my beloved dead were laughable. They were bordering on farce—as if the officiant had never performed a funeral before. But the ones I have attended, led by someone who could keep themselves composed, but who had love for the dead were brilliant and moving and beautiful and stirred the ghost of them in me.
I take notes as I grieve. Connection matters. Without connection we are just flesh. So we come together to grieve to make it real. To reconnect a new reality to an old one. If everyone is grieving they are truly gone. When we know that whether or not anyone grieves a death, they are truly gone.
I regret missing my Uncle Dave’s funeral. I know I’ll regret missing my Uncle Norm’s as well. But this time I am not well or fit for travelling. So I gather up my thoughts and I request them to make sense.
I’m still trying to figure out how to grieve alone from hundreds of miles away.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Nine Years After the Gunfire

Photo by David Marsland, with permission through Creative Commons 

It started at 10:30 in the morning. 

It was Friday April 3, 2009. We were getting ready to go work downtown for First Friday. We heard the helicopters low overhead. We lived a few blocks away from the American Civic Association, where a gunman had blocked the rear exit of the building with his father’s truck and then entered the front door firing.

His name was Jiverly Wong and that is the only attention I shall give him.

He didn’t speak. He just fired bullets. He stepped into an ESL class and shot thirteen of the sixteen people in there. He made hostages of students from other classrooms. Police arrived quickly and at the sounds of the alarms, the gunman shot himself.

It was 10:33 am. He fired 88 rounds from a 9mm Beretta. He fired 11 rounds from a .45-caliber Beretta.

A wounded receptionist, Shirley DeLucia, 61, crawled under the desk and called 911. She stayed on the phone for almost 40 minutes, relaying information as it was happening to the police, at which point the SWAT team entered. They didn’t know the shooter was dead. They found two more semi-automatic pistols on his body.

By 2:33 it was over and the American Civic Association was empty. The streets were not. As I made my way through them—I wasn’t even thinking about getting across the bridge—my city was in mourning. Families were grieving together, openly weeping. It’s still hard for me to think about. It was overwhelming.

In four hours my city was changed, forever altered. I could feel it on the street, covered in news vans and dressed-up reporters from every channel I had ever heard of and a few I hadn’t. We don’t forget. Every time another mass shooting happens we remember. Every time a mass shooting happens, every survivor is thrown back into the moment where they thought their lives were about to end.

At the time, it was the largest number of deaths due to a single-person mass shooting. It saddens me to think that there have been so many that we don't remember them all. And sadder yet to think that because they weren't young, white school children, we are often one that goes unremembered.

This is not a competition. There is no competition in death. In death, everyone loses. But there are tender truths revealed in how we respond. They should all be remembered.

As I finish this, it is 2:33 in the afternoon and I honor those whose lives were lost that day, nine years ago. It cuts a little deeper this year, considering the current tone of our country concerning immigrants. What makes us different makes us stronger:

  • Almir Olimpio Alves, 43, a Brazilian Ph.D. in Mathematics, a visiting scholar at Binghamton University, attending English classes at the Civic Association
  • Dolores Yigal, 53, a recent immigrant from the Philippines 
  • Hai Hong Zhong, 54, an immigrant from China
  • Hong Xiu "Amy" Mao Marsland, 35, a nail technician, immigrated from China in 2006
  • Jiang Ling, 22, an immigrant from China
  • Lan Ho, 39, an immigrant from Vietnam
  • Layla Khalil, 53, an Iraqi mother of three children
  • Li Guo, 47, a visiting scholar from China
  • Marc Henry Bernard, 44, an immigrant from Haiti 
  • Maria Sonia Bernard, 46, an immigrant from Haiti
  • Maria Zobniw, 60, a part-time caseworker at the Civic Association, whose parents were from Ukraine 
  • Parveen Ali, 26, an immigrant from northern Pakistan 
  • Roberta King, 72, an English language teacher substituting for a teacher on vacation, who was a local substitute for many years

Just down Front Street, the American Civic Association Park has a memorial to the thirteen victims, showing thirteen doves in flight that shine as lights at night, as seen in the accompanying photo.

May we all be reminded that violence is a choice. Choose love. Choose kindness. Choose life.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Beginning I Saw in the End

Grandpa and me
I was speaking about my accident this morning, and about how my Grandpa Riddle came to me just before I woke in the hospital ICU. And I thought about how it’s almost the day he died. I always think of that when spring first comes, because that comes next. And I wanted to revisit this post, as it’s timely.

My Grandfather's Crossing Over
It’s been fourteen years since I sat in the hospital room with my Grandfather, watching him dance with death. There is no winning in the dancing, just an end of the music, the last pulling of strings humming in the air, becoming vibration with no sound, and then… memory. Waiting with my Grandfather, my heart was already heavy with the loss of my grandmother, three years gone. I could tap my grief out for you in my own soft shoe, but we all know the face grief wears, and the mask grievers don.
This story is not about the darkness of the waiting and unknowing. I saw the light in the death. I saw the mystery of the unknowing. I saw the hope in the grief.
He was struggling to breathe. We were painted in the room, separate tableaus across the same canvas. What happened to me did not happen to them. I was not ready to say goodbye to him, our rock, but I was ready for his suffering to end. I didn’t think he would be better off without us but I was ready for him to be free. I was ready to deal with my grief on my own time, not his. Being ready to accept the death made all the difference for me. In that room, with the clicks and the whirrs of the equipment and the slow, low rattling of his lungs, I was prepared to wait.
I was praying in my head, words my heart couldn’t bear to speak, telling him it was okay, that we would be okay. I don’t know how I knew he wasn’t going to wake up. I think we all did. But we hoped. Sometimes when death comes, hope is a dangerous blade. The fact was we were there because he had decided he was ready. Cancer may have claimed him, but his death was on his terms.
We never really talked about death as a family, as a neighborhood, or as a culture when I grew up. Someone died and everyone put their funeral outfit on and we were sad and gave those grieving some space and then life went on. It tells a lot about my family that they allowed the soft chanting from the corner of the room where I sat. Music helps me move through emotion more easily and we were all doing what we needed to do in those moments.
When it happened it was quick. One second. It felt as if someone opened a door in the wall beside me, soft wind rushing in, and that second stretched into season as winter welcomed in spring and spring turned to summer and the smell of tilled earth, warm with worms, tomatoes and cucumbers, filled the air around us. I was ready for what was coming. I felt the shift as it happened.
One person turned away. One person died and one person cried out. I was aware of two realities. The air in the room stopped moving and I heard the sound of a toe tapping as a green light stepped into the room through the wall beside me. I held my breath, afraid to shatter the moment. On the bed, my grandfather smiled and lifted out of his body. Whatever you want or need to call it, his spirit, his anima, his soul leapt towards the light that smelled like my childhood summers and blinked away.
I was back in the room and the warmth that held us there was gone. He was gone. The sudden cold sterility of the room was disarming. So quickly, the heat from his body was dissipating. I stood apart from the moment and the grieving. I wanted to stand in sorrow but I was left in wonder.
When I remember that moment, what I remember was that it was not awful for me, but left me full of awe for my experience and the gift I was given amid such a welling of sadness. Somewhere in the universe, in the ether, in the springtime around me, the energy I saw leave that room still lives, whether transformed, absorbed, scattered or inhaled, and the warmth of the man I loved became something new.

[Original post published March 23, 2011.]

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My Mother's Irish Ancestors

The birds are singing their spring songs outside, despite the snow, and St. Patrick's Day marks our turning towards the equinox. The days are lengthening and in my little garden, the tiger lilies are thinking about peeking out of the earth with their bright green shoots. And I am thinking about my Irish heritage. I was surprised to discover recently that all of my known Irish ancestors are found in my mother's family tree.

The first to step on American soil was my 7x great-grandfather David Calhoun, born in Dongeal in 1690. He settled and died in Connecticut. I feel I have to admit that David's grandfather was from Scotland, so his family blood was Scotch-Irish.

Thomas Riddle, also found spelled Ridel, was born in Ireland in 1739. He was my 6x great-grandfather. He hailed from Tyrone County, where he appears on a 1796 list for Irish flax growers. He fought for the colonies in the Revolutionary War as a Private in 1775.

My 6x great-grandparents John Berry, born in 1762, and Nancy Matchet, born in 1767, came to America from Ireland and settled in a small town called Mayfield, in New York. There are still Berrys in Mayfield.

My other Irish ancestors all immigrated to New York, where the Erie Canal was being planned. The unknown parents of my 3x great-grandfather Thomas Burke came to America via Canada, where Thomas was born in 1832. He is listed as living in Lockport in 1855 with his widowed mother Ann. He was employed in "boating."

My 4x great-grandfather Barney Dowd came over from Ireland with his daughters and their families, including my 3x great-grandmother Mary Dowd, born about 1837 in Ireland, as was her husband, David Conners, my ancestor, too.

My Lockportian ancestors all lived in the areas of Lowertown where the Irish who worked on the canal had set up their homes. So in honor of St. Patty's day, I'll set out a bowl of warm honey and milk over sodabread and I'll pour a pint of ale for them. I'll honor those who left their homelands for a country that treated them like vermin. I honor that Irish spirit that allowed them to persevere and plant roots.

[Originally posted March 16, 2016.]

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Our Attachments to the Things That Belonged to Them

Today we put our couch to the curb to make way for a beloved piano. Our apartment is small. We’ve lived in it for over fifteen years so wall space is hard to come by. Letting go of the couch was my immediate thought when we were trying to decide if we could take the piano or not. We only had a couple weeks to decide.
Easy peasey. Couch out. Piano in.
It's an old couch. It was once white with pink and teal slashes of color, an overstuffed beast. I remember when my grandparents first got it. It was I was in my early teens and it was like sitting on a cloud.
When my grandpa died in 2004, a few years after my grandma had passed, my brother and I carried the couch and matching loveseat out the sliding glass doors and into his van. They came home with me.
Over the years the couch has sagged. The cats attempted to tunnel through it. I sewed patches of fleece on it as it dried out and frayed so that they couldn’t. It’s pink and teal slashes paled. It has been so hard to get off of since my accident, and so low to the ground, that I didn’t use it anymore.
Today we put it to the curb.
For a moment, for just a moment, I felt like I was putting my grandparents to the curb.
I just wanted to note that. Of course I did. I didn’t let it stop me from doing what needed to be done. I let myself cry as our friends dragged it to the curb. Just for a moment. The sudden emptiness in the living room reflected the emptiness I still feel in my heart for them. And I always will.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Help Me Thank My Skin Donor

I can’t stop thinking about the man who helped save my life.

On October 31, 2015 I was in a freak accident. I was severely burned from the waist down and in a coma in the Burn ICU at Syracuse Upstate Hospital. The surgeon used cadaver skin to cover my legs which allowed my vascular system to heal and regenerate allowing me the best possible outcome for my graft surgeries.

It did. And my grafts have healed amazingly well.

I can’t stop thinking about him.

I know he was a biker. I’m guessing he died shortly before my accident. I don’t know how long cadaver skin’s shelf life lasts. I’m assuming he died near to Syracuse in a motorcycle accident. From the amount of donor skin they had I am assuming he was a large man. I have been told that the skin bore tattoos and that his tattoos wrapped around my legs for a while. They saved me.

His skin bought me time. Time enough to harvest my own to replace what the fire took from me. And I don’t know his name.

More than anything, I want to say thank you.

If he was your family, your husband, your father, your ex, your beloved friend, and you are open to speaking to someone whose life he saved in his death, I want to say thank you. And if nothing else, I want you to know that something more came of his life after his death, if there can be comfort in that for you.

I can’t stop thinking about the man who helped save my life. And what a gift he left behind. Or how his life touched mine without our ever meeting. I will not take it for granted.

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