Category Archives: Grief

ghost

My dad’s ghost came to visit on Saturday, in the form of his younger brother.

We live in the Louisville, KY area. If you aren’t from around here, your town probably doesn’t celebrate the Kentucky Derby as if it were a two-week national holiday, but we do. As part of the festivities, vast numbers of people who don’t choose to fight the madness at Churchill Downs hold Derby parties, instead. For as long as I can remember, a household from my church has held a Derby party and welcomed any and all of the congregation who want to socialize, eat a lot of good food, watch the races on TV, and place $1 bets.

Also for as long as I can remember, until he died in 1999, my dad was the Official Taker of Bets at the church Derby party. He always arrived at the hosts’ house before the first race on the first Saturday in May (usually around 10:00 a.m.) and stayed until after the end of the last race in the evening. Equipped with business-card-size betting tickets on which he wrote the race and horse numbers, he accepted dollar bills and divided up winnings throughout the day. Being a betting man and a lover of most sorts of gambling, he also placed his own bets and generally did well. He was A Fixture at the party.

Some number of years ago (I wish I could remember how many), the party needed to find a new home base, and we took over the role of hosts. Every first Saturday in May, we open our house to any and all church friends who want to come. My husband is now the Official Taker of Bets. It’s a fun, laid-back day.

Saturday morning, as we were getting the house ready for guests, we got the news that my uncle and aunt would be coming to the party. No big deal, right? Except that they live in Minneapolis and we haven’t seen them for at least 3 years. She’s a flight attendant, and he’s semi-retired; so when she was asked to work a flight to Louisville that had open seats, she suggested that he come along. Only when they were on their way to the airport and he was on the phone to my mom with the news did they realize that it was Derby Day. (The Twin Cities are clearly outside the borders of the Land of Derby Madness.) It was a little surreal for me to anticipate this completely unexpected visit from some of my favorite relatives when my mind was so firmly entrenched in the normal rhythms of Derby.

They arrived in mid afternoon. And my dad came with them.

My dad was 16 years older than this, his youngest brother. They didn’t look terribly alike, although they shared a body type and a fair skin tone. My dad’s voice was a little lower, and after years in southern Indiana he had lost his Wisconsin-born accent. But when you were in the room with them both, you knew immediately that they were brothers — they shared an indefinable essence of Miller Guy.

And so, on Saturday, when my uncle greeted me, I heard my dad. Not his voice, no, but the same pattern of speech, the slight clipping of words. I found myself watching my uncle closely when he spoke, because in the movements of his face — the planes of his cheeks, the shape of his mouth when he smiles, the way he opens his mouth only as far as absolutely necessary to release the words — I saw my father. Their eyes were very alike, and so were their gestures and their general body language. They’re not what I think of as big men, but when a Miller Guy is in the room, he is A Presence. You’ll hear him talking and laughing, and he’ll come over to get to know you.

When it came time for Derby bets, my uncle (who had already cashed a ticket for several earlier races) decided to buy tickets only on the 4 or 5 horses that were 50-to-1 long shots. My mother, following her standard practice to guarantee a win, bought a ticket for each of the 19 horses in the race. I chose 3 horses based on their history of running on a muddy track; and, because my mother had mentioned a couple of times that a jockey named Calvin Borel was winning pretty much every time he sat on a horse — and she is an extremely lucky woman when it comes to winning things and picking horses — I threw in a dollar on Mine That Bird.

The race was the most exciting I can remember, with the jockey threading his horse at afterburner speed along the rail and out to a 6-3/4 length victory. The horse was Mine That Bird — a name I hadn’t thought of or heard mentioned at any point during the race call, because he began in last place and charged to the win in the last quarter mile. When the caller announced the winner, I cheered — and then realized that I wasn’t hearing any cries of “I won!” from the crowd of people in the other room. Out on the deck, on the other hand, I saw my uncle and my mother celebrating. We were the only 3 people with winning tickets.

The total pot was $129, so we each won $43 for a $1 bet. Most years, even when we’re dividing the pot among 10 or 20 winners, our payout beats the payout at the track; but this year the odds were so massive against Mine That Bird that Churchill Downs paid out $103 for every $2. It was nonetheless the largest win at our church party for a great many years — we think no one has won so much since Gato del Sol made a surprise winning run in 1982 and only 2 people split the pot.

This year, we kept the winning in the family. We hugged a lot, and I thanked my mother for her outstanding tip, and we talked endlessly about the amazing, the unbelievable, the astounding race we’d just witnessed. We took pictures of us with our fistfuls of dollar bills. And we agreed that my dad would have been ecstatic to have been there and watched Mike Miller, Anne Miller, and Tiffany Miller Taylor claim the prize.

I don’t believe in ghosts, or an afterlife, or angels. But I do believe that my dad was here on Saturday. My uncle and aunt brought him along and made him alive again. Some days it’s hard for me to remember much beyond the very hard time at the end of my dad’s life; but seeing and talking with his brother brought back bits and pieces of happy memories that had been hiding.

My dad was here with me, two days ago. And thanks to that, I have a much stronger, better sense of him with me now.

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a church just like mine

Two days ago, a madman walked into a church just like mine (and only four hours away from mine) and opened fire, killing two people and injuring others.

Compared to many religions, Unitarian Universalism is a tiny denomination; we have maybe 100,000 members in the United States. So this tragedy hits extra hard — particularly because the man wielding the weapon didn’t choose a church at random. No, he deliberately planned to attack the Knoxville UU congregation because of its liberal social policies. He hates liberals, says the letter he left in his truck; he hates gays. Apparently, while he was shooting, he was shouting hatred for all to hear.

The banner at my Louisville, KY church reads, Civil Marriage Is a Civil Right.

The banner at my Louisville, KY church reads, "Civil Marriage Is a Civil Right."

High on one of the outer walls of my church hangs a banner that says “Civil Marriage Is a Civil Right.” My congregation of about 300 people are very progressive in our politics: I’d estimate us to be 90% pro choice, 95% Democrats, 100% supportive of gay rights. UUs don’t adhere to a specific creed; rather, my church includes atheists, humanists, pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and those who create their own spirituality.

Many beliefs, but one congregation. Why do we come together? Because we find truth and meaning in the seven principles that all Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
  • Although we have no common prayers or mantras, we recite a covenant each Sunday. UUs everywhere speak a variation of these words each week:

    Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

    We are liberal. We are welcoming to all. And for this, a man decided people just like me deserved to die.

    I don’t get it

    https://i1.wp.com/purpledoll.hautetfort.com/images/medium_Sadness.jpgThe week before Christmas, the mother of one of the girls in my daughter’s church youth group died of breast cancer. The woman was 49 years old and had known she was in a terminal condition for well over a year. I don’t know the details of what treatments she underwent and when exactly her treatment options ran out, but I do know that she spent the last months fighting fiercely for every possible day.

    The daughter my daughter is friends with is in high school. An older daughter is in college. The woman’s divorced husband had shared entirely amicable joint custody for more than 10 years.

    At the memorial service, held at our church the week after Christmas, a small, sturdy box made of dark wood, reminding me of a miniature treasure chest, held the woman’s ashes. The box was surrounded by greenery, photographs, and dozens of tiny candles. Numerous friends and relatives came forward to speak of the woman’s love of life, of her adoration of her children as well as any other children she encountered, of her humor, her kindness, her intense caring for those around her.

    The minister who led the service wasn’t our minister, but a pastor who, among other things, leads support groups for women with advanced breast cancer. Often, when I attend funerals, I’m offended by the lack of attention paid to the individual who has died: the clergy person puts forth a few generalities that too often indicate he or she didn’t know the deceased personally, and then proceeds to offer endless doctrine-specific prayers. In this case, the minister was both eloquent and personal; she was gentle and understanding in her guidance of the service and her dealing with the family. Her prayers were meditative and, although Christian, open enough to encompass the thoughts of mourners from many faiths.

    But (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?) she made one statement that yanked me completely out of the quiet thoughtfulness of the moment and sparked a quick flare of anger that I’m obviously not yet over. In one of her prayers, after referring to the deceased woman’s joyful life and loving family, the minister said something like the following: “And now she is with You, the one who loves her most of all.”

    Excuse me? Which part of a God loving her most of all relates to letting her suffer during her treatments and deciding that she should die? Which aspect of love is linked to allowing a still-young woman to waste away before the eyes of her children? How exactly does the God who supposedly loves her more than anyone else justify her months of pain, her too-early death, and all other aspects of removing a marvelous person who had so much to offer the world? And how does a minister dare to stand in front of dozens of grieving family members and suggest that anyone loved the dead woman more than they did?

    I’m at a loss to understand or forgive such a statement.

    stranger in a strange land

    I have just returned from an unknown place where I took part in a series of experiences that I didn’t understand. The place was West Virginia; the experiences were an open-casket visitation and a funeral.

    I have not understood, do not understand, and will never understand what has been called “the American way of death” (I’m planning to order the book by that name, to get some insight into the funeral industry). It has to do with being the only child of an only child, and attending no open-casket visitations and darn few funerals when I was growing up. My mother’s parents and my dad were cremated; after they died, we held memorial services at times that were convenient for family travelling from far away, and we celebrated their lives with music, stories, and songs. These were not “funerals”; they were deeply personal memorials to people we loved.

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    long time gone

    My dad died 7 years ago today. He’s been gone one-sixth of my life, and one-half of my daughter’s life. I find that I’m focusing on all the things he didn’t get to see and experience with me and, especially, with his grandchildren.

    I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I can’t take comfort in the thought of him smiling down indulgently from a fluffy cloud as his 42-year-old daughter gets tattooed (something he could never bring himself to do — even in the Coast Guard,when his buddies went to be decorated with dragons and anchors, he couldn’t deal with the idea of the needle).

    And it wasn’t “God’s will” that took this flawed but fundamentally wonderful man far too early, at age 67 — it was a cruel and swift cancer.

    He’s gone. And every year at this time, when the weather is swelteringly hot and the cicadas’ buzzing is loudest (a sound that will forever be the soundtrack of walking to my parents’ house during my dad’s last weeks), I’m confronted by the fact that some things just aren’t fair, no matter how many ways people try to rationalize them.

    “you have a beautiful house”

    When we built our house next to the house I grew up in, both my parents were alive and it seemed like the ultimate wonderful spot to raise their grandchildren. I was delighted with my new house, and I enjoyed going next door to visit frequently.

    Then my dad died, and all I wanted to do was run; there were days that it took all my self control not to get in the car and take off for somewhere. Anywhere.

    That was almost 7 years ago, and I still don’t like to go next door any more. My mom wants me/us there more often, and says so, but I have to force myself, and I don’t make that short walk as often as I should. I also don’t really want to live here any more; as I’ve said before, I’d love to live by water. It’s as if when my dad died, he took with him my purpose for building a house in an ordinary subdivision in an ordinary town in the ordinary state of Indiana. And now I can’t move, because my mom is here, and I’m an only child and the parent of her only grandchildren. Guilt keeps me tethered to this house and this place.

    Today, my daughter brought home a friend who hasn’t been here before. When they walked in the door, the first words out of her friend’s mouth were, “You have a beautiful house!”

    I suppose it is. I like the colors on the walls; I planted all the flowers outside, and I love the trees. I just wish I wanted to live here.