The following writing was inspired by my very first creative writing professor at college. Besides instilling a love for the craft, May Harding shared not only herself but her poetry which was meant to inspire each of us, and so it has.
In middle life death cut him down,
severed blood from mind.
His presence, in an instant lost,
we mourned, we could not find.
You we lost in little ways,
stealthy was the going.
Your body robbed you of yourself,
When you died, thought spent the blow,
anguish was bitter true.
You had left us long ago
we know now… and we knew.
~ May Harding
When she read this poem, I’d only experienced the death of one person who had been close to me– my paternal grandfather. May’s poem awakened a sense of introspection within me connected with death, one I hadn’t before considered. I began to question it, and, more so, I began to wonder what effects it had on me– still young and vibrant and very much alive, I was naive to life experiences, then.
Since, I have experienced too much death in my life and of those around me. Each time, I am brought back to this singular poem in thinking what effect each posthumously has instilled within.
Some years back, after picking up the pieces from the fourth death of a young child (all four occurred within a five year span), and, while they weren’t of my own children, they were of mothers who were close to me. As a mom, I just couldn’t wrap my head around how one survives such an experience, and, yet, four mothers I knew well were tasked with such a battle of warrior proportions. I wrote a short story entitled, “The People Who Leave,” addressing what the many people who have left my life have left behind and engrained in me. Some time later, I called up the document on my desktop to revisit it, only it was encrypted in some hieroglyphs I did not recognize, nor could I decipher. I cut and pasted various passages of the text into Google looking for a translation I would never find. I took it as a message that for some reason my story shouldn’t be written, at that time.
Now, many years later, I set about to try again. I’m not sure the purpose more than simply wrapping my mind around how I’ve been affected by each I’ve lost. I believe each person is put in my life for a purpose, sometimes unbeknownst until some years later, after much experience and reflection. Moreover, I think, in life, we hope to leave something behind. These are their gifts to me:
~ Gustave William ~
My first experience of death. It was cold. You were cold, to me, and distant. You graduated from college and you were an alcoholic. How did I know, then, that you were a paradox to me? I was young. I recall seemingly insignificant details that are sketchy at best. But I remember this: you taught me to cultivate a relationship with my father who idolized you. I think you were the best of friends.
~ Augusta/ Nana ~
My great grandmother. Of all of my great grandparents, I remember you best. You were such a regal presence, so full of life. I looked up to you. Next to the word matriarch in the dictionary should be a photograph of you. Stubbornly German, you made your presence known– your needs and wants too; to me, you embodied strength. You were a collector (of elephants– I became a collector, too) and a giver (your coconut cake recipe has been passed down generations). You were a fighter. I hope I learned that from you.
~ Nonni ~
My beautiful Italian, great grandmother who couldn’t speak much English. She would teach me Italian sayings like, “Come sei bella.” She is always sitting in my memories of her and she would take my hands in hers, so soft and warm, and look right into my eyes. She taught me to be proud of my heritage and to compliment others, often.
~ Aunt Florence ~
I’m not sure why I began visiting you… because you weren’t too far to bike to or because you seemed lonely. I have such fond memories of the smile on your face when I’d arrive, sometimes alone, sometimes with one of my friends. You’d make us tea, and, together, we’d pick grapes from your vine. You taught me how to knit; those knobby fingers made such beautiful things. You talked about your children, as if they’d abandoned you, but, really you just missed them.
~ Carmen/ Carmenucci ~
You, your death had a profound effect on my life, but you know that. You are one of the few people who I really feel hasn’t left me. I believe you watch over me. You were such a scooch when you were alive, always teasing me and preaching words of your wisdom (and how often I’ve come back to those speeches and would give anything to hear them again). It turns out you knew a lot more than I gave you credit for (because, then, I believed I knew more than you– turns out that wasn’t so). You taught me so much about life and war and that sometimes life is war, but, even when we’re afraid, we can find the strength to make it through. You taught me about death– how, even in death, to be valiant. As a result, I live in the present and often remind myself that I must live without fear.
~ Paul, Samuel & Albert Celone ~
An interesting set of brothers, not particularly close, and you came in and out of my life at different times. Yet, what I take away from the sum experiences I had with you is a sense of family, and that, no matter the circumstances, family is always there for one another. I find it peculiar that none of you married, and yet you all were so attentive as uncles; it makes me sad that you made me feel so special, but you never had children of your own.
~ Nancy ~
You were my friend, my “little” sorority sister, the girlfriend of my best friend. So smart and funny and pretty, you had everything going for you or so it seemed. I didn’t understand, until you, the depth of one’s demons and to what extent they could be masked. It must have been so hard to keep up the facade. To smile when you were crumbling inside. I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sorry I couldn’t help. It makes me sad that your parents used you as an example for your friends when I wonder if they played a part in the facade. Your loss hit me hard. It seemed selfish and unfair. But, the adult me understands the angst you must have gone through. You have made me a little more sensitive to the secrets people keep.
~ Kimberly ~
Born with a genetic disorder, we knew you didn’t have long for this world. And you almost made it to two years old. I wanted to help– your mom and you. It was important to give you the best quality of life we could. I grew close to you and felt that I made a difference, even though it was hard. Sometimes, I’d cry the whole way home thinking about your strength in the face of your life sentence. Years don’t necessarily equate to the impact one can leave behind. You are proof of that. I believe you made me stronger, more benevolent, less egocentric.
~ Jamie Lynn ~
Well, you were a force of energy– that’s how I’ll always remember you. When you entered a room, you filled it with sunshine. When I think of you, the image is always of you smiling or laughing or dancing. In your nine years, you proved that you knew how to live. Your loss was devastating. It created a chasm in many lives because it was so abrupt, so senseless– hitting us, in the wake of your death, with the fact that you never know if there will be a tomorrow. You were friends with my children, and to recognize their loss at such a young age was difficult to process. There is a photo of you, Kimberly and Ryan (all born within months of each other) that I look at and still cannot fathom that two of you are gone. With your death, I came to empathize with any mother losing her child, I learned how to support a grieving child (actually, three of them), and I learned how life’s twists and turns can change the compass of a friendship. In a way, I feel like I experienced two losses in yours because your mom and my friendship hasn’t been the same. I’m not sure if I just didn’t know how to be a friend to her during that rough time, I tried, or if she distanced herself from me because that’s what she needed. You taught me hard lessons, little girl, for which I am grateful, but I wish we didn’t have to lose you in the learning of them. Please know you are still very much alive in the hearts of my family.
~ Stephanie ~
Your passing, on the heels of two others so close to me, made me question God and my faith. I didn’t know you well. You were so young. One moment full of life and the next gone, all from a common infection, that mothers, like me, nurse our kids through and back to health– every day. Who knew that a strain of strep could halt a life. I felt so sick from your passing that I couldn’t even bring myself to attend the wake, something I’d never been squeamish about before. It angered me that God had taken you. As a result, I began a long journey reevaluating what I believed in. I’m not sure that I’ve found answers, but I have found peace that for every life and every death there is purpose. I’ve also found a tremendous respect for mothers like yours who have no other choice but to go on living the best they know how, even though a piece of them has been torn away. It’s inspired me, really, to look at my own obstacles through different lenses.
~ Mrs. Carbone/ Grandma Moe ~
I questioned your presence in my life time and time again. If I had to equate it to a symbol, it would be of a wall. I recognized the wall you built around yourself, letting few in, certainly not me, except on very few occasions. I also recognize, now, that you developed in me, perhaps inadvertently, a sense of self confidence I didn’t posses before you because you fought me at every twist and turn. It saddens me that it took your impending death for me to see that soft side that was hidden so far behind the wall. It made me realize how many obstacles you must have faced in your life and overcome. For that, I thank you. I thank you because you have made me a more introspective person, a stronger, wiser person, a more sensitive and loving mother, a more dedicated and considerate wife, and, I hope, one day, a more understanding and accepting mother-in-law.
~ Evan ~
On the cusp of becoming a high school student, you had so much to offer the world until you cut your life short in what some seem to question as the fate of a genetic legacy. You, too, were Ryan’s friend. It seemed unfair that at fourteen years old, he’d already lost three of his friends. We all wish we saw it coming, so we could have caught you– fixed you somehow. Your death made me a better friend to another grieving mother. It made me question why so many young deaths in my life– too many to handle, really. It affected me deeply. I look at your brother and sister, today, and think what a loss for them– how the ghost of you must permeate their lives. Your passing made me realize that no matter how much we want to save someone, a person really can only save him/herself– a lesson deferred from the loss of Nancy, I suppose.
~ Gramma Molly ~
I have met three true matriarchs in my life, and you are one of them. You were one of the sweetest, most compassionate and giving people I’ve known. You raised five boys almost single-handedly who are successful, thoughtful, respectful, compassionate, responsible and kind– a reflection of their mother. I don’t know a family who holds their mother in higher esteem than yours– a true testament to how they were raised, and I so envy you for that. I believe you made everyone you met want to be a better person just for having been in your presence. And I’m glad I was.
~ Angelique/ Angie/ Gigi ~
I think I still have not let go, nor do I think I ever will. I cannot encapsulate in words the effect your life has had on my own. You always were my rock, my infinite source of unconditional love, understanding and acceptance. Aside from my husband and my mother, I have never confided in anyone more than you (and sometimes I think I’ve confided the most in you). You’ve taught me so much about being a good person and mother and wife and friend and teacher– the effects of what I’ve learned from you ripple through so many aspects of my life. I hear your words and feel your soft touch when I need them. Even in my dreams, you are still telling me, you love me no matter what. I know you are my angel, and I know that you’ll never leave me, too.
~ Grandma/ Great Gram ~
I have fond, warm memories of you when I was young– holidays at your house (you weren’t the best cook, but you loved family around and your family always threw the best parties), coming to work with you, and the pretend bar we set up in your recreation room or the office we pretended to work in with the old typewriters, ledgers, and telephones. Then, upstairs, in your attic, there was a secret room, we’d (me, my siblings and cousins) would always find our way into; we’d play with the old stuff, which really were antiques only I didn’t realize it then. I developed a love for antiquity from you. Then Pop-pop died. You seemed to transform so quickly from a woman, dependent and lost, to a woman on a mission to live life fully and on your own terms. I missed you then. It hurt that you became so distant, so otherwise attentive to all things not us, it seemed. No more sleep- overs. No more birthday parties. We gave up depending on you. But hindsight affords us to heal and see outside of our feelings. I forgive you because I think you did what you needed to do for you, not out of malcontent for us, your grandchildren. I admire the woman you became, a career woman, independent, so well traveled, so respected in so many circles. I think one day, I’d like to become her only with a better sense of balance. I remember the end of your life fondly, too, because I saw a lot of you, again, then. It was sad to see your mind slip because I’d remembered you as such a keen woman. You were gentle and graceful, always. I think, in a very quiet way, you were a matriarch for our family– something you never aspired to be but just blossomed into.
~ Donna/ Big “D” ~
Not only my second friend to pass, but also a life force lost. We shared a name. We shared a past rich of common experiences, interests, tastes– even in men, but we never let that come between us. At a young age, you were diagnosed with childhood diabetes, something you would struggle to keep in check throughout your life. I feared that would be the way you would someday go, but someone robbed us of you much sooner than you allowed your disease to, when you died in a tragic car accident. The memory of Renee calling me to ask me if I’d heard and, simultaneously, the image of your car accident on the television are etched in my mind forever. Your loss was devastating to me. We’d been friends since fourth grade. You taught me so much about living with courage and determination, passion and zest. We thought we’d grow old together– two old biddies talking about back-in-the-day. You reaffirmed that I must live in the present because there are so many things between us left unsaid: what a good mother and teacher you were, that there are so many events in my life that I’m glad we shared because I wouldn’t have wanted to share them with anyone other than you, and what a good friend you always were– that I always knew you were there for me (even when life got in the way). The saying Live without Regret is part of my mantra, now, because I thought we had so much time ahead of us. I miss you.
~ Aunt Julia and Uncle Frank ~
The story goes that Uncle Frank was in the armed services and stationed out in California where he met Julia. They fell love and married, which took him away from his family in Connecticut. Then they had a beautiful daughter, Mary Francis, who was about my mother’s age, and, although, they didn’t see each other often, she and my mother grew very close– like twins on separate coasts– until Mary Francis died at the age of twelve because she choked on her own blood in the night while recovering from a tonsillectomy. I heard stories about them– how close they were, how strong Uncle Frank and Aunt Julia’s love for one another was to survive such a tragic loss. I saw black and white photos of their wedding day, of Mary Francis as a little girl, and photos of she and my mother together on their visits with each other, and, lastly, of Mary Francis in her communion dress. These photographs painted a story. Uncle Frank and Aunt Julia went onto have another daughter, Ann Marie, not much older than I, who would become my pen pal for many of my formative years. We met for the first time when I was in junior high and would only meet again three other times in our lives. The last was several years ago when I visited them in California. I was conscious of the fact that it would probably be the last time I’d see Uncle Frank and Aunt Julia alive, and it was.
The two of you instilled in me an understanding of the quiet strength of a union, a love so deep and strong that it didn’t need to be stated because it was always felt. I always aspired to have that kind of love. You were my example of the way two people should love one another through the best of times and the worst of times. Everyone should have an example of a love story like yours.
I suppose I would have come upon this introspection on my own in my own time, but I thank May Harding for helping me to see something differently– a lesson I’ve applied to many aspects of my life.
I know what it’s like to go through a difficult time, but what I take away from that kind of experience is that each process is unique unto itself and the person walking through it. Each one teaches us something different, that when we’re in the vortex of it, we often can’t see, but we have to have faith and trust to know that one day we will see it and gain a better understanding of it and ourselves.
And, in the end, we all leave a legacy– hopefully, it’s a good one.