The Ironies of Grief

I’ve been working on my new book about grief, and I noticed how often I used the word “irony.” No wonder. Grief seems to be fraught with ironies.

It is devastatingly ironic that the one person we need to turn to help us with our grief is the very person who is gone.

It is ironic that it is we bereft who have to be understanding of and make allowances for the thoughtless things people say to us.

It is ironic that when we most need people, they make themselves scarce, as if grief is a terrible and terribly contagious disease.

It is ironic that while grief is not a disease, it is a dis-ease.

It is ironic that when we are at our weakest, as we are after a grievous loss, we have to be our strongest.

It is ironic that grief, which seems to be something that needs to be healed, is actually the way we heal from the traumatic assault perpetrated by the grim reaper.

It is ironic that we’re supposed to believe life is worth living at the very same time we’re supposed to believe the dead are in a better place.

It is ironic that while we are dealing with the most profoundly painful time of our lives, we have the most mundane tasks to complete.

Some of these might not be strictly ironies, but I’m padding the list.

Can you think of any more ironies of grief? I’d like to do a chapter for the book on irony, but what I have here wouldn’t make much of a chapter. Normally, I’d fill out a chapter with explanations of my various points, but there’s really no need to explain any of these ironies because the irony is evident.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

One Star Review. Eek.

I’ve been updating my various networking sites in an effort to position myself for becoming a bestselling author. (Even though my new book on grief hasn’t yet been written, I need to believe that it will be a success, otherwise my old friend futility will begin banging on the inside of my head, and the book will never get written.)

Although I try not to read reviews (that’s a lie, actually; it’s hard not to want to know what people think and it’s even harder to overcome the need to feel validated in some way) I found a one star review for Unfinished. One star? Eeek!

The woman claimed that the book was not at all what she thought it was, that there was too much about the character’s grief. I’m not surprised. We do not often read about a character going through the trauma of grief. In fact, one of the many reasons I began writing about my grief (and why I specifically wrote Unfinished) is the lack of grief I found in fiction. In one book I tried to read after Jeff died, a woman’s husband was murdered, and the widow cried for a single night, decided that was enough, and set out to find the killer. No other mention of grief in the book at all.

In a second book I tried to read around that same time, a woman’s husband died, and the only acknowledgment of her grief was a single sentence: She went through all five of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.

In the third book I tried to read, the main character was a grieving widow with a young daughter, and the only indication of their grief was a conversation about how the two needed to be strong and not cry.

Up to then reading had been my life, but after those experiences, I gave up reading for many years. There has to be something in a book that resonates, and nothing anyone wrote resonated with me as a griever. Hence, Unfinished.

Another point the reviewer made was the unbelievability of a woman having a cyber affair while her beloved husband lay dying. Actually, this says more about the reviewer and her unfamiliarity with a dying mate than it does about my writing. Anyone who has had the care of long-dying mate knows the insanity of one’s thoughts (and actions). Mostly, I was numb, going through the motions of living, though there were times I hated Jeff. There were times I wished he’d hurry up and die and get it over with. There were times I desperately needed to get a start on living my life without him. There were times I wondered who that silent graying man was, and how I ended up with him. There were times I bristled when he “lectured” me. (Although we didn’t know it, his brain was clouded with cancer metastases. Since this made him unable to hold more than a single thought in his head, the fabulous, wide-ranging conversations that formed the basis of our shared life were . . . simply gone.)

And that was our life for a year, two years, eternity — me struggling to live while he struggled to die.

A few weeks before he died, during a time of clear thinking, he reached out to me. We had a long, wide-ranging talk about us, our shared dreams that never came true, the future we’d never have — oh, so many things — and I fell in love with him all over again.

Six weeks later, he died, and grief slammed into me with a force I could not have ever imagined. (Think of grief as a proliferation of emotional, physical, spiritual, mental line drawings, one piled on top of the other so densely that all you see is solid black. Then try picking out each of those images from the totality. Grief is that immense.)

Although I thought someone (well, me) should write a novel about a widow trying to deal with the practicalities of life while undergoing such trauma, I hesitated for many years. I didn’t expect people to like such a raw book. And I knew it wouldn’t change anything. People who knew grief didn’t need to be shown what it was like. People who didn’t know grief wouldn’t believe it or would find it oppressive, so I do understand the reviewer’s comments.

What I don’t understand is her complaint of too many typos, missed words, and writing mistakes.

Huh? Typos are a fact of writing, and though we do our best, as do our copy editors, typos do creep in. But writing mistakes? I don’t make writing mistakes. If it’s in the book, it’s meant to be there.

Being the rather obsessive person I am (and rather demoralized), last night I went through the book again, and I did find a couple of typos. (One of which I already knew about.) But writing mistakes? The only thing I can think of are the letters the dying fellow wrote to his wife that she found after his death. Yes, there were mistakes, but they were the character’s mistakes, not mine. (For example, he complained about his “stupefried” brain.) In fact, I thought the letters were too cohesive considering the cancer in his brain and all the drugs he was on, but the letters needed to be understandable. (I kept a note Jeff wrote the last night he was home, but I haven’t a clue what it says.)

I do think it’s unfair of folks to complain about typos and then not list them to give me a chance to get them corrected. So, if you ever read a book of mine, and find typos, please let me know what they are. Such errors are inadvertent, and are not meant to taunt you. I promise.

If you are the person who wrote the review, I appreciate your taking time to post your thoughts. I don’t mean to be disrespectful in this rebuttal, and in fact, I don’t normally write rebuttals since it is unprofessional, but I needed to write this. Blogging is how I “unobsess” about things, and I cannot allow myself to believe what you wrote, otherwise I would be too discouraged to write my new book on grief, and it does need to be written.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Life, Death, and Dancing

I’ve gotten so used to living my uncoupled life, that I seldom stop anymore to think of what has happened to get me where I am, and yet, this past week, I did marvel at the strangeness of it all.

If Jeff hadn’t died . . .

If I hadn’t gone to take care of my nonagenarian father . . .

If I hadn’t stopped by a dance studio to inquire about classes . . .

And so there I was, all last week, in rehearsals for dance performances that would take place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Me? Rehearsals? Dance performance? Remarkable.

This might not seem strange to people who have only known me in the post-Jeff phase of my life where I have become rather adventuresome in a small sort of way, but before that, I lived a quiet life, a bookish life. I have always tried new things and looked for challenges, but never have I gone so far out of myself as I have in these solitary years. I suppose it makes sense — all comfort died with Jeff, so it doesn’t make that much difference if I am comfortable or not.

Oddly, though, I was perfectly comfortable performing this weekend, though I still remember how hard it was in the beginning to push through the discomfort and be able to even think about dancing in front of a crowd.

(I’m second from the left, costumed for “Rejoice” from The Wiz.)

I sometimes wonder what the person I was all those years ago would think about the future she is living, but I’m glad she didn’t know. It’s taken many painful years to get to this point, and it was probably better that she didn’t see what was before her.

I should remember this when I worry about the future. Back then, I couldn’t know what my life would be like eight years in the future, so any worry would have been wasted. And perhaps it is the same now. In eight years, my life could be so different, that any worrying I do today would be wasted.

For me, then, the moral is to take each day as it comes while trying to go beyond what is comfortable, and to enjoy any accomplishments that might ensue.

All that and dancing, too!

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Memorializing Memorial Day

I don’t often gear my posts toward national holidays and such, but this year I did a special post for Mother’s Day, and now I am doing one for Memorial Day weekend mostly through serendipity because this particular stop, as well as the rest of my return journey, was unplanned.

After I left Seattle and before I crossed the Columbia River into Oregon,

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I encountered a wonderfully bizarre (and touching) World War I memorial — a full size rendering of Stonehenge as it might have looked if it were made of reinforced concrete.

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In fact, Sam Hill, the founder, enlisted the aid of a whole slew of authorities on archaeology, astronomy, and engineering to make the monument as accurate as possible. It took more than ten years to build. On Memorial Day in 1929, it was dedicated to the servicemen of Klickitat County, Washington who died in the service of this country during World War I.

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Why Stonehenge as a war memorial? When Hill first saw the real thing, he was told that the place had been used for human sacrifice, and he said, “After all our civilization, the flower of humanity is still being sacrificed to the god of war on fields of battle.” Even though Stonehenge is now considered to be a device used by stone age astronomers, the memorial on the Columbia River remains a powerful and intriguing statement about war.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Islands, Adventures, and Other Perfections

I feel kind of silly that after all my talk of finally going on a solo backpacking trip, I never even went camping. Partly, it was too cold and damp for my desert-acclimated bones, but mostly, the whole time I was on my trip, I was fighting chest congestion, and I didn’t want to take a chance on getting pneumonia. It worked out well, though, because I was able to spend that extra time with my middle sister in Port Townsend, visiting her favorite spots. When I returned to Seattle, my brother-in-law took me and my little sister (yep, the “little” sister who towers over me)

to dinner at a fabulous salmon-themed restaurant

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where we had Copper River salmon, truly the most luscious salmon in the world. (And the most expensive!) On Sunday, our last day together, the three of us sisters explored Whidbey Island, a delightful gem of a place in the Puget Sound. (And another ferry ride!) There was much to see, including a lighthouse,

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black-tailed deer,

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small boats

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and big ones (unfortunately, I didn’t actually sail — I just toured the boat),

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sculptures,

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trees (and me!),

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water (of course),

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flowers everywhere,

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and something we called a cheese puff bush, (because if you don’t know the name of this horticultural, what else would you call it?).

Normally I don’t post so many photos, especially not photos that include me, but be grateful I chose only the best. It was one of those perfect days where everything, including the photos, turned out to be absolutely . . . well, absolutely perfect.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Unfinished, Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

Once in a Blue Moon

One of the many treats of this sisters’ weekend was a painting class.

We started with acrylic paint, brushes, and a blank canvas

but the teacher soon had us smothering the canvas with a dark blue black paint. Then we painted a moon. Since my background was too wet even after a short break to let the canvases dry, the paint kept smearing so to add highlights and craters, I had to daub the paint, so I ended up with sort of a pointillistic style.

The few paintings I had previously done were postcard sized water colors, so I enjoyed slathering paint on a canvas that was about 12″ by 18″. To my surprise, I actually ended up with a pleasing painting. I had planned to do a series of photos that captured the experience, but got so caught up in the experience, that I forgot about taking photos. At least I have a photo of the final project!

Although I have done none of the things I planned, such as the solo backpacking trip, the days have been spectacular, not just the things I have done, but a renewed connection to my sisters.

I hope this connection continues and didn’t happen just once in a blue moon.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Unfinished, Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

 

Forged in Fire

I do so love sampling new things, whether places, food, puzzles, people’s lives or . . . blacksmithing. Yep. You read that right! As fully equipped as you think your workshop is,

my brother-in-law has done you one better. His includes a forge, a leg vise and an anvil.

I spent a totally awesome day yesterday wearing a blacksmith apron and pounding hot metal!

Mostly I tried to make a couple of matching leaf shapes for a pair of earrings, which wasn’t very dramatic,

so to show the full effect of blacksmithing red hot metal, he let me pound on a bigger piece of iron.

Way cool! Well, cool in the sense of awesome. Not cool in the sense of the absence of heat. Working with forges, fire, heated metal, and heavy hammers is hot work.

People often have bucket lists, but how could I ever have such a list? The most wonderful things I have ever done, such as learning to dance or learning to blacksmith, would not have made it onto the list because I could never have imagined such treats.

The best part of the experience, of course, was the experience, but at the end of the day, I had a pair of earrings to show for it. Or rather, my sister has the earrings — I gave them to her for a hostess gift. The background leaf is the iron I pounded out and shaped. The dome top and the pepper dangle (added for color and because they are “red hot” chili peppers) are purchased beads.

Ah, sweet life. I can’t imagine anything better than getting to try new things.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Unfinished, Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

Blue Skies in Seattle

The bluest skies are not in Seattle — it takes a lack of humidity to create the deep blue skies I often see in the western slope of Colorado and the high desert of California — but after the first rainy day, Seattle showed me its best (and bluest) side.

And my little sister — who towers over me — showed me her best side. (Well, that’s not true. All her sides are her best sides.)

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Not only did I get to see the bright side of Seattle, I got to see the dark side.

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Also the artistic side, both nature made

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and human made.

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It tickled me to see so many California poppies. I didn’t see a single poppy in California as I drove through on my way to the Pacific Northwest. The poppy people say it’s because of the lack of rain, but I bet it’s more the flowers envied the birds their ability to migrate and decided to emulate them.

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The joy of this trip is not just about the outside, but also the inside — staying with my sister is like living in a gourmet restaurant. Since my brother-in-law is a trained chef, every meal is been exquisite. From lamb shanks and watermelon/feta salad to frittatas with a side of lime-splashed mango,

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from linguine with seafood marinara sauce to a fabulous mother’s day brunch buffet, my taste buds have been feted. (That’s a private joke just for me, because I don’t think I’ve ever before feta cheese, or at least not so much.)

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For the first time I can understand why people think there is nothing in the high desert — for them, there is nothing. It’s pretty much a gourmet food wasteland, at least compared to a metropolis like Seattle. Except for some of the fruit, none of the food presented at the Mother’s Day brunch would be available in the high desert. In fact, despite the ever-growing population, Trader Joe’s refuses to put a store in any of the desert towns because there aren’t enough people with masters degrees. It doesn’t matter to me — my tastes are parochial. Grocery store cheddar cheese suits me fine, and I don’t need high-priced out of season fruits.

But today (and yesterday and probably even tomorrow!) I get to live the life of a well-cultured being, as if I were a kissed frog that turned into a princess.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Unfinished, Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

Honoring Mother With Turtles

The impetus for this Pacific Northwest adventure was an invitation from one of my sisters to make turtles on Mother’s Day weekend in honor of our mother.

Apparently, although the turtles were something I made as a teenager, when I went on to something else, my mother took over the hobby. (I don’t think it will come as any surprise to anyone that I was always looking for a new challenge.) Since my youngest sister often made the candy with my mother, she came to associate the turtles with Mother. Hence this venture (since there were no adverse moments, the day wasn’t much of an adventure but simply a wonderful venture) with my two sisters.

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I canot remember ever spending any time alone with my two sisters. I was too much older than the other two (they are shown above stirring the caramel and melting the chocolate) to be friends when we were young, and our lives always took separate paths. We were all a bit uneasy about the day, but came with the great attitude that no past differences would interfere with the pleasure of each others’ company, and so it was. A totally stress-free day. Well, except for the huge amount of supplies our hostess sister had purchased, so we ended up still working long after we were tired. After we packaged up turtles for our brothers and a few friends, we did have a bit of a disagreement. Since none of us are big candy eaters, none of us wanted the copious leftovers. But I ended up with them. Not a great problem if I can parcel them out and keep from indulging myself, which will be hard. They are really, really good.

One sister made the caramel.

One broke the pecans

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and melted the chocolate.

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I grated the chocolate to temper the melted chocolate and make it the right consistency for coating the candy. We all collaborated on making the naked turtles,

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and coating them with chocolate.

Oddly, none of us sampled a single finished turtle, though a couple of us scraped the caramel bowls and ate that.

This experiment was such a success, that we are now talking about doing a camping trip to The Three Sisters Wilderness Area in Oregon. Maybe next year.

Our mother would be so delighted!

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Unfinished, Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

The Wilds of Civilization

After eleven years, Sheila Deeth, a fellow author and one of my very first online friends, has become an offline friend! It was a true delight to see her in person, but the truth is, it has made no change in our relationship. We were friends who knew almost everything about each other, and we are still friends. In fact, as with other online friends who have become all line friends, there wasn’t a second of awkwardness. We simply moved from a written relationship to one with sound.

People always worry about my visiting people I don’t know, but after so many years of sharing blogs and books and publishers and moments of our lives, we do know and trust each other. (Assuming one person can truly know another.) And so it was — a simple segue into a new phase.

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I’d been following online the trauma of Sheila’s flooded basement and its resurrection, and I so wanted to see her library. Instant library envy! After seeing it, I teased her that I might never leave. A roomful of books — wow!

Although she mentioned their disappointment in not having a view, I thought they had a fabulous view. Who needs a distant backdrop when one has such great beauty beside one’s own house? I have lived in desert areas my whole life — and make no mistake, Colorado is a desert with one benefit, its white gold (snow) that makes it possible (assuming that one does not have a brown thumb as I do), with a lot of effort to carve out a colorful space for yourself. Seeing so much almost effortless green seems miraculous to me.

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One thing I love about traveling and visiting people is that for a short time I get to borrow someone else’s life, and that night I got to share in Sheila’s after dinner ritual — a cryptic crossword puzzle. I had often come across the puzzles, but the things were too cryptic for me, with a code language all its own, and they helped me crack the code. If I ever come across another such puzzle, I will attempt to solve it, and think of that lovely evening.

Before I left, Sheila took me to the Pittock Mansion

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to see a panoramic view of Portland.

Although I had planned a trip into the wilds of nature, I ended up a trip into to wilds of civilization, and what an adventure!

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Unfinished, Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)