Wednesday, December 28, 2005

If I Only Had A Heart

Dear Rachel,

I keep thinking about your favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. You were such an Oz freak. You had Oz memorabilia all over the place: random piles of Oz figurines, plates, and key chains; posters old and new depicting Dorothy and Toto and their friends; Wizard of Oz games and wallets and coffee mugs. You had the books—original editions and countless reissues—and you even had (and had pretty much memorized) a copy of the script. We always knew what to get you for Christmas: more Oz stuff.

This Christmas there’s no Oz stuff in the house.

Oddly, after all these years, I finally know my favorite line from the movie—or at least the line that means the most to me: When Dorothy and Toto discover that they’re leaving—indeed, that they could have left at any time—Dorothy turns to her new friends and her eyes fill up with tears as she suddenly realizes that when she leaves Oz she’ll lose those she has come to love so very much. “Goodbye, Tin Man,” she says. “Oh, don't cry. You'll rust so dreadfully! Here—here's your oil-can. Goodbye.”

In response, the Tin Man says, “Now I know I've got a heart—'cause it's breaking.”

And now I know that I, too, truly have a heart, and I know it for exactly for the same reason.



Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Candy Land Revisited

Dear Rachel,

Lesley and I opened a few of our presents yesterday. Usually we wait until you kids can be there (early January, generally), but we figured we might as well open the ones that came from family. (As if our family hasn’t already done enough for us this year!)

As we sat there unwrapping our goodies, I couldn’t quite manage the joy and excitement we used to feel. There was no fun in it this year, not that I really expected that there would be. As we sat there amidst the colorful wrapping paper and ribbons, I thought back to happier times when we would all gather together and unwrap presents, some beautiful, some handy, some just silly. It was always so much fun watching you and Amy! I suppose it’ll be a while before I feel like that again.

I guess I took those happy times for granted back then. Things have changed now, of course. As Joni Mitchell said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

I hope I never took you for granted. I hope I gave you what you needed. If ever I was too busy to talk, to help with a school assignment, to play catch or Monopoly or Candy Land, I wish I could apologize for that.

Yes, even Candy Land. You loved that game. I suspect that, like many kids, it was the first board game you learned to play. I hated it; any adult of sound mind would. It was boring, pointless, overly simple, and repetitive. So, naturally, you wanted to play it for hours. Back then I’d just as soon have a root canal as play Candy Land. Now, I would give anything just to play it with you one more time. I’d even let you win.



Friday, December 23, 2005

By The Pie Safe, With Care

Dear Rachel,

Your stocking was hung with care, but not “by the chimney,” as the old poem has it. Actually, it was hung with care, and love, and with more than a few tears.

As always, we hung all the stockings—yours, mine, Lesley’s, and Amy’s—not by a chimney or on a mantel, but on an antique pie safe in the dining room. We’re nothing if not traditional, you know.

Your stocking is small and beautiful and elegant—it’s much like you, in fact. (Mine is huge and old and all stretched out of shape, so I’m not sure what that says.) Your stocking is also sadly, devastatingly, empty this year and it will remain empty this year and every year from now on.

I don’t know how to take that, how to handle the painful welter of emotions that batter and buffet me when I glance over and see that stocking hanging there limp and unfilled. I’m not sure that I would have put it out this year, but Lesley felt it would be best. Either way, of course, we lose—have lost, in fact—what we held dearest in all the world.

Not to put the stocking out would somehow be a repudiation of you and of all you accomplished, of all the love you gave to us and in turn received from us. How could we ignore you? How could we pretend that you simply never existed?

But letting it hang there empty amongst the others reminds me so shockingly, so brutally, of our loss.

Ah, but what should a Jewish kid from Chicago care about Christmas, anyway? That’s what I keep telling myself, but it doesn’t work, of course.



Tuesday, December 20, 2005

We're All Immortal, But Only Briefly

Dear Rachel,

I used to think you spent an awful lot of time “burning the candle at both ends,” as they say, and I’d worry about you and how long you could keep up with your dizzyingly busy schedule: work, mom-stuff, school, out with friends, more mom-stuff, internship, more school, more work, and on and on. I hoped you’d have enough sense to slow down before you burned out.

Now that metaphor no longer works. If I need a candle metaphor, I think instead about the “candle in the wind” comparison. A beautiful metaphor, really. It expresses perfectly both our fragility and the transitory nature of our existence. (To paraphrase Neil Peart: We’re all immortal, but only briefly.)

I wish that syrupy, cloying Elton John song hadn’t ruined the metaphor. Still, when “Candle in The Wind” first came out in 1973, the phrase—although already familiar to most of us—hadn’t yet been overused to the extent that it would be after we’d heard those opening lyrics (“Goodbye, Norma Jean. Though I never knew you at all….”) the first 1,200 or so times.

At the time, I thought the lyrics were beautiful, actually; haunting and poetic and true. But I never realized just how fragile it all really is until last May. Who knew the wind would blow so powerfully, and who knew it would rage so mercilessly? Who knew it would begin to blow so damned soon?



Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas Party Redux

Dear Rachel,

Lesley and I went to another Christmas party this past weekend. Unlike the first party, this one turned out OK. Not too sure why we got through this one so much more easily than the last. Maybe because it was only six very close friends, all of whom have been there the entire time for us. They’ve made an effort to be available and to be supportive, even though I can tell that it makes a couple of them a little uncomfortable to talk about your death. In fact, they’re pretty much like family, and—just as our real family has been—they’ve been there for us when we needed them.

I wonder if one of the reasons that parties make me uncomfortable these days is the fact that the last time I saw you was at a party—your graduation party. I can’t believe I went from proud father to grieving wreck in three weeks.

Then again, I’ve never really liked parties, so maybe that has nothing to do with it.



Wednesday, December 14, 2005

An Ocean of Grief

Dear Rachel,

Sometimes the pain comes out of nowhere, sudden and blinding and unexpected. I can be driving home or sitting at my desk or quietly reading a book and it crashes into me like a rogue wave from which I thought I was safe, having—or so I thought—moved up the beach and away from the water’s edge. It washes over me and I recall how I’ve felt when pummeled by waves at the beach: thrown and turned over again and again, blind and frightened in the cold, roiling water. I find myself twisted all around, sputtering and gasping, spitting sand and salt, completely disoriented, with no conception of where “up” might be. A person could drown in pain like that.

You loved the sea—you loved everything about it: the sun, the water, the sand, the hot dogs and cotton candy from the Virginia Beach boardwalk. When you were an oceanography major, I used to love to hear you talk about field trips, dredging, dragging nets around the bay and coming up with different kinds of marine flora and fauna. (You, who were always afraid of strange animals and disgusted by slimy things!) I could picture you spending most of grad school on a rusty old boat, examining sediment and analyzing tides and tide pools. Perhaps you’d go to work for an oil company or a marine ecology group. (Two career paths that seemed to me to be polar opposites, yet you appeared to have no trouble simultaneously embracing both possibilities.)

Ironically, grief is like the sea and surviving it is not unlike surviving any perilous journey. Those who sail quickly learn that the sea is awesomely powerful: huge, rolling, implacable, and impersonal. It’s not malevolent, but it can kill you. It’s not really the enemy, though: On the sea, greed, stupidity, pride, and sloth are the enemies. The sea conspires to kill the unwise and the unwary. The prepared usually survive. Usually.

This is like being adrift on an ocean of pain. And I have absolutely no control over it; as the old mariners used to say, the sea is so large, and my boat is so very small.



Sunday, December 11, 2005

Death and the 80/20 Rule

Dear Rachel,

Lesley and I went to a Christmas party last night, where I discovered that the 80/20 rule holds true in death, as it does in business.

We’d been avoiding large gatherings ever since you were killed. Since May 28th at 9:00 a.m., when I received the call from the Virginia Beach police, we haven’t really felt like being around the largely superficial, synthetic happiness that one finds at parties. Mindless, meaningless chatter about golf; kitchen remodels; the Huskers’ chances against Michigan; drunken flirting and obvious, sophomoric overtures to other people’s spouses; and “Where did you get that dress? It’s beautiful!” Just not the kind of thing we really appreciate these days.

Dinner or drinks with a couple of close friends is about all we’ve been able to handle since that awful morning.

But it is Christmas, and Phil and Carlene have been having this neighborhood party for 25 years, and it has been almost seven months now—time, we thought, to see what it felt like to get back into the world.

It wasn’t a good idea. We made it through, but it was awkward for everyone, I think: us, because, as it turns out, we weren’t really ready—and for everyone else because…well, there‘s nothing like a couple of grief-stricken parents to put a damper on a Christmas party. If Santa had come down the chimney, he would’ve yelled, “Ho, ho…uh, ho?,” looked around, and slit his wrists.

OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it was pretty uncomfortable.

I did learn, though, that the division amongst friends and their ability to handle what’s happened is about the same at a party, proportionally, as it is at work and amongst our non-work circle of friends.

In other words, the 80/20 rule applies. In business, the 80/20 rule states that roughly 20% of your product line will generate roughly 80% of your revenue. The goal, then, is to determine what products constitute that valuable 20% and concentrate more on those than on the rest; if you can do that, you’ll drive revenue up and costs down. Or so I’ve been told by businessmen, sales reps, etc.

In terms of grief, the 80/20 rule works a little differently. It seems that a small number—about 20%, in fact—of your friends will fall into one of two camps: About half of that 20% will be able to talk about what happened. They’ll confront the issue head-on, they’ll attempt to be supportive; they’ll come to you and put their arms around you and say, “Are you doing OK? I’m so sorry. I know the holiday season must be very difficult for you. Can I do anything? Would you like to just sit down and talk?” And then they do sit down and talk, or listen to us as we talk.

These folks are very brave. We can’t be much fun to be around, especially when the conversation turns to your murder and to how we’re all holding up.

The other half of the 20% won’t talk to you at all. They simply cannot deal with what’s happened—perhaps they have their own losses to deal with, or they can’t bear to consider the possibility of such a loss. It’s a pain that’s not only too great to discuss, it’s too great to even imagine.

To these people, the bottom half of the 20%, the grieving are like lepers of old: We must be avoided, shunned, ignored; if we do travel amongst the non-grieving, we should be required to wear distinctive clothing, our gloomy passage marked by a lamp-bearer who rings a bell and shouts, “Unclean! Unclean!” as we pass by. It would be best, one feels, if there were colonies where the grief-stricken gathered, forced to huddle in amongst themselves; perhaps grief ghettos would serve to protect the normal folk as they go about their lives.

The remaining 80% of one’s friends and acquaintances can and do speak to us, but not about what’s happened. They try to pretend that everything is normal. We’re up and about, after all; we seem to be able to function—and besides, it’s been several months now, time to “get over it.” They can talk to you about just about anything, usually with a bright, chipper smile and a perky lilt to their voices. (Some of them are marketing people, so they can’t help this, of course; “perk” is part of their job description. It might be an inbred thing, I’m not sure.)

Sometimes, though, someone in the 80% group accidentally asks a dangerous question. He may look up and smile as I stand at the office coffeepot. “So,” he says, “how are you doing?” He doesn’t really want to know the answer. You can tell by his furtive, hangdog look that he didn’t really mean to ask that and that he regrets that it slipped out. Like a store clerk muttering “Have a nice day” after she finishes bagging the groceries, it was just something to say, words to fill a conversational void; it was meaningless chatter that was meant to remain meaningless. You can almost hear him thinking, “Oh, crap! Please don’t let him really answer that. I just want to talk about volleyball, or this terrible coffee, or the dress code at work.”

So, at work and at parties and in the world at large, the 80/20 rule seems to hold true. The vast majority of our friends and acquaintances need—for their own peace of mind—to pretend that all is well, that life is normal, that things can go on as they are, that the world isn’t falling apart.

And why not? After all, you and I did pretty much the same thing during the last presidential election.



Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Holiday Minefield

Dear Rachel,

I lost so much when you were taken from me. And I keep discovering new things I've lost that I didn't even know were gone. It’s now officially the holiday season (a season I’ve been dreading), and I’ve just realized that I can no longer listen to what was once my favorite Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I’m not sure I have a favorite version of this song…. I’ve always liked Perry Como’s version (laid-back, softly crooned, as if the song itself were clad in a comfy sweater like that worn by the singer), but I also enjoyed versions by Sinatra, Crosby, and even slightly “countrified” takes on the song by Kenny Chesney, Martina McBride, and others.

In the end, I doubt there’s a version of the song that I wouldn’t have liked. (Unless Neil Diamond did one, of course. Or possibly The Muppets. And if I had to choose between them, I’d take The Muppets.) But I can’t listen to it now.

Of course, this particular song is just the tip of the musical iceberg. I’ve found that there are dozens—maybe hundreds—of songs that I can no longer listen to. (I can’t listen to any Judds song, in fact—you were such a big Judds fan as a kid.) The radio has become a minefield, and I never know when I’m going to stumble over that emotional tripwire and blow my heart to bits all over again.

Of course, movies are no different. Nor are television shows. Or magazines or conversations or phone calls or…. Well, I guess life is just a minefield now.

I lost so much, but I need to keep reminding myself of the things I didn’t lose: friends, family, my beautiful wife, my other lovely daughter. I lost a lot, but I didn’t lose everything.



Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Maybe It Just Doesn't Pay To Worry Too Much

Dear Rachel,

Last night I drove home in a blinding snowstorm—whiteout conditions most of the way, car sliding all over the road. When I turned on South Street to head home, I couldn’t even tell if it was really South Street.

It was a mess, and it reminded me of a telephone conversation we’d once had. You called while driving through a snowstorm in Virginia, mainly just to tell me how interesting it was to be driving in a snowstorm. Naturally, I was worried. You shouldn’t have been talking while driving, especially not in a snowstorm. (You knew that, of course, but you were 23 and indestructible.) I got you off the phone as quickly as I could and made you promise that you’d call me when you’d reached your destination.

You called 30 or 40 minutes later, but until I heard from you, I was terrified that you’d gotten in an accident.

We parents agonize about so many things. Will she get that report finished on time? Will she drop that jerk of a boyfriend and find somebody who treats her decently? Will she drink and drive? Or ride with someone who’s been drinking? Will she study for that test? Will she find a job? Will she quit that terrible job? Will she remember to call her mother? Her stepmother?

And on and on and on. There’s no end to it, even when the child becomes a young adult. The worries change, of course, but they don’t end.

I worried with the best of them, I’d say. But I worried about the wrong things. I never thought to worry that someone would someday put a gun to your head and pull the trigger. It just wasn’t something that occurred to me.

Sometimes it’s the things we forget to worry about that get us in the end. I wonder, is that something I should have thought of? Is there something I could have/should have done?

I guess that even though you’re gone, the worries continue.



Thursday, December 01, 2005

Winter Is Here, But You're Not

Dear Rachel,

When I awoke this morning, the temperature had dropped to 16˚ and the neighborhood huddled beneath a fresh blanket of snow. It was beautiful, of course, but cold. (Of course, in Nebraska, 16˚ is deemed merely “chilly.” It’s not cold unless there’s a negative sign involved. Or so say the natives.)

Standing out on the porch with my morning coffee and cigarette reminded me of when you and Amy would visit during Christmas, you from Virginia and Amy from Texas. For the week or so you kids were there, you’d be wrapped in blankets and afghans, and you’d curl up on the couch, wearing warm PJs and fleecy robes. One of you would ask, “So, tell me again, why do you live here?” and then the two of you would look at each other and roll your eyes. Neither one of you could understand why we liked it here in Nebraska, and it was always fun to poke fun at us “rubes” who didn’t know enough to live where it was warm.

I miss that so much: the bantering (“Hey, at least in Virginia we don’t get stuck behind a tractor on the freeway.”), the whispering (“You talk to him while I sneak down to the basement and wrap the present!”), listening to you and Lesley talk like the old friends that you had become (rather than the wary stepmother and surly stepdaughter you were at the beginning), the bleary-eyed opening of presents on Christmas morning. (“Can we at least have some coffee first?!”)

I can’t believe that this Christmas will come and go without you here. I haven’t had a Christmas without you in 24 years. I’m so glad that Amy will be here. I hope I don’t get all mushy and cry. Or maybe that’s OK, and we’ll all cry together.