“Sudden massive coronary events” are dominating my thinking lately.  I am reading Joan Didion’s account of her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking and recently browsed the pertinent pages of Ekaterina Gordeeva’s book My Sergei while waiting for Steve to glean salable items from Good Will on Tuesday.   I am also writing my own memoirs of my husband Jim in a Continuing Ed course.  What struck me this morning was the role of the grieving person’s best friend as hero.  Not the knight-in-shining-armor type hero, but the simple, calming presence modelling a way to be.  In a moment when shock obscures all notions of how to act, having a trusted person exhibit some caring, helpful behavior is a distinct grace.

My mother was that hero to me when my sister was killed in a car crash.  Alice and I were traveling across country together, enjoying the freedom of being 20 and (almost) 17 when it happened.  My mother cobbled together connecting flights from San Jose to reach me in Nebraska the next morning.   She got me discharged from the hospital and set us up in a hotel while she went through all the details of bringing Alice’s ashes back to California.  We went to the mortuary the next day.  I was still rather zombie-like while my mother handled the business.  Then the director asked us if we would like to see the body.  “Absolutely,” was my mother’s reply.  For some reason, I hadn’t realized that was why we were there.  I hesitated.  Mom led me into the room while the director closed the door.  “Oh, honey,” she sighed as she approached the table.  “No, she’s not there.  She’s gone.  Look here…” she began to comment on Alice’s wounds, on her swollen face and how old she looked, as if she were a battered wife decades in the future.  My mom said something about all the suffering her daughter had been spared.  Then she tenderly bend down and kissed that pale, waxy forehead.  My mother has never looked more beautiful to me in all my life than she did at that moment.  Strong, compassionate, wise and incredibly beautiful.  I wanted to be like her, so I kissed my sister’s forehead, too.

photo credit: Dharam Kaur Khalsa
photo credit: Dharam Kaur Khalsa

Gordeeva writes about her coach, Marina, prompting her to go into the ICU room where her husband lay.  “Don’t be afraid.  Go talk to him.  He can still hear you.”  She goes in and begins to unlace his skates, a normal gesture that helps loosen her words, her tears, her emotions.  I remember our priest asking me and two of my daughters if we’d like to anoint Jim with some olive oil, bathe his face, and prepare his body to be taken away.  It was a relief to excuse ourselves from the people downstairs in the living room and go up to him together, to say our goodbyes together, to touch him one more time.  I am so grateful someone thought of allowing us that right then.  We had another opportunity to say goodbye to his body at the funeral home later when my two other children came home.  By then, I could take the lead with them and encourage them to approach.  I can’t remember who started humming “Amazing Grace”, but we all joined in, musical family that we are, and swayed together, arms and bodies entwined.

In the aftermath of Jim’s death, my youngest daughter and I fought frequently.  I didn’t know how to talk to her, to listen to her anger directed at me and recognize that she wasn’t hateful, only grieving.  Steve was the one who suggested that she was hurt, not hurtful and agreed to sit by me while we attempted an honest conversation.  My instinct was to run away.  I was grateful to observe someone who could be calm and present, reasonable and compassionate in the face of powerful emotions that frightened me.  He is adamant about not rescuing me, but equally determined to be the best friend he can be.

I hope that I will have opportunities to be a great friend to someone in grief.  I would like to be a conduit of such grace.

– Priscilla Galasso

© 2013, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

004PRISCILLA GALASSO ~  started her blog at scillagrace.com to mark the beginning of her fiftieth year. Born to summer and given a name that means ‘ancient’, her travel through seasons of time and landscape has inspired her to create visual and verbal souvenirs of her journey.

“My courage is in the affirmation of my part in co-creation”, she wrote in her first published poem, composed on her thirtieth birthday and submitted alongside her seven-year-old daughter’s poem to Cricket magazine. Her spiritual evolution began in an Episcopal environment and changed in pivotal moments: as a teenager, her twenty-year-old sister died next to her in a car crash and, decades later, Priscilla’s husband and the father of her four children died of coronary artery disease and diabetes in his sleep at the age of forty-seven  Awakening to mindfulness and reconsidering established thought patterns continues to be an important part of her life work.

Currently living in Wisconsin, she considers herself a lifelong learner and educator. She gives private voice lessons, is employed by two different museums and runs a business (Scholar & Poet Books, via eBay and ABE Books) with her partner, Steve.

15 thoughts on “Affairs of the Heart

  1. My husband Jim was always the rock, the calm center as the chaos of family life with two consuming jobs and four teenagers swirled around. Now we face family medical crises and feel lost that we don’t have his guidance. The best I can do is try to conduct myself as he would have. I confess I didn’t respond positively to either Didion’s book or “Widow”: both left me with little sense of the “hero” himself. I never want my own reactions to my husband’s death to get in the way of how people remember him and think (and still learn about) his life and the unerring grace with which he lived it.

    Like

  2. Robert: Grief is such a strange country to travel, even though so many have been there. Guides are hard to come by. Our own journals become the best companions. Looking over our shoulders and wondering if “we’re doing it right” is a familiar posture, but yields no affirmation, in my experience. If you can first be honest and open with yourself, and then with one or two others, the journey becomes a great adventure of learning. Not promising it’s any less painful, just more fruitful. I’m grateful for having a regular therapist at that time who saw me both before and after Jim’s death. It’s good to have some feedback, a mirror, a touchstone. Change comes about quickly; processing it takes time. May your journey be enlightening.

    Like

  3. Priscilla: Your words have touched me deeply in my own grief, regarding my wife Phyllis’ passing last December. I am still sorting through the mixed emotions, — confusion, grief, anger, surprising moments of “grace” and openness — that have been a part of my journey with grief over the past year. Thank you so much for naming the making room for the unknown and unspeakable parts of the journey. I am so gratefull! I hope your inspiration gives me courage to write something that will echo and mark some additional parts of the journey we share together.

    Like

  4. Liz – I am so humbled and so glad that you opened yourself to these words. May they encourage your awareness, remind you of your humanity and your connection to others’, and whisper the peace that comes from knowing we need not live in fear and isolation.

    Like

  5. I did not much feel like reading here today. But I am incredibly grateful that I have done do. This is so beautifully written and so powerful as to reach into me and pull my heart out of itself, or just plain have me lose all selfish thought for the day. Priscilla, thank you so much for this piece of yourself. I consider it a real gift today.

    Like

  6. Gretchen – I don’t know if it always happens that people step in when others hurt. I think that much of it is left up to us. We must choose to take on the responsibility of being compassionate. I rather think many people do not experience grace when they need it. Maybe that’s what the Good Samaritan story is about: asking yourself “who is my neighbor?” and choosing to take on the responsibility yourself.

    Like

  7. Michael – how extraordinarily wise to cultivate a multi-generational community where life events are observed, discussed, experienced and shared together openly…in person and for real. Sometimes I wonder at all the “viral” news of life that goes around, eliciting responses and whether that attempt to fill our need for community is helpful or distracting.

    Like

  8. John – Thank you for your reception. I am exceedingly grateful that at my moment of need, someone stood in the gap. I cannot take credit for orchestrating that; I give credit to the people who opened themselves up to be aware of their moment of opportunity. I work on opening myself to the same.

    Like

  9. Jamie – It is my pleasure to share, to be in this Bardo community. These are the junctures of life that are so important, yet often hidden from a collective eye. We probably miss many opportunities to be kind in these intimate moments because our culture is so concerned with “tidying up” the more visceral places of being. It’s good to tell the stories of our humanity.

    Like

  10. Pricilla, Last night at ceremony the conversation turned to death and dieing as it probably should as we turn to the Autumn. As we sat together in circle, younger folks and we oldsters spoke about helping other pass, and our own fears and challenges as we continue the journey of life. So much suffering and joy all bumped and jostled together! We were reminded that our lives are rich and beautiful, fleeting and strong.

    Thank you for speaking with eloquence and grace, for standing firm in the circle.

    Like

  11. Oh, my word, Priscilla! This is such a powerful piece of writing, it caught my emotions by surprise. Goodness me, I’m going to have to read this again … no, I’m not. I think it has etched itself into my memory, forever; it has taken me to that point in my life when I know I’ll need a friend, with that certain touch of grace you’ve so beautifully described here. Thank you.

    Like

  12. Pricilla, there is so much grace in this story. I think in many ways we never get over these losses. The only way we get through is with the kindness we receive from others who understand. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and this lovely work with us.

    Like

Leave a Reply to Naomi Baltuck Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.