Tag Archives: death

Letters from the Dead


by Lillian Csernica on July 4, 2019

 

Last Thursday my mother died.

My brother lives in Southern California. My sister is currently bound by a temporary restraining order (soon to be permanent. The hearing is tomorrow). That means it’s all on me.

All the hospital stuff.

All the legal stuff.

And, most of all, every single item of Mom’s stuff.

It’s up to me to clear out Mom’s apartment.  It’s just a studio, but still. Furniture. Small appliances. Clothing. Books and DVDs, knickknacks and photo albums. The really staggering part? Mom’s personal correspondence, files, and papers.

Mom kept everything.

I could tell you stories about some of the keepsakes I’ve found, such as the inflatable jukebox wardrobe. Or the hand-painted bamboo parasol that would be a collector’s item if it weren’t for all the rainbow glitter. While such conversation starters are entertaining, and some are quite valuable, the downside of this particular duty involves discovering a few things that I really wish had stayed buried in the clutter.

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I found copies of letters Mom sent to me years ago. Some offered sympathy about my marriage troubles. Some gave “friendly” advice meant “with love” regarding how I took care of my baby, the child who would never walk or speak or do 90% of all the cute things grandparents look forward to in their grandchildren. I also found letters Mom had written to friends, letters that talked about matters I considered private. June was a horrible month. Given that I had to get a restraining order against my sister, then take care of Mom pretty much 24/7 right up to her death, I am exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I really did not need to come across Mom’s letters and the old issues they stirred up.

Have mercy on the family members who will be tasked with cleaning up after you’re gone. Do you really want your kids to read something out of context years from now when that material is subject to lingering resentments, old grudges, and well-meaning misinterpretation? Go through your personal papers now. You can’t have complete control over how you will be remembered, but you can certainly do yourself a lot of good by cleaning out potential trouble.

I’m not going to get all syrupy about making peace and building bridges before it’s too late. If you can do that, great. If you can’t, don’t feel bad, and don’t feel pressured to reach out to people when that might just make matters worse. I’ve had to take some drastic steps lately to preserve the health and safety of myself and my children. That’s going to make things awkward when it comes to Mom’s memorial service.

Unless you have family members who conducted personal correspondence at the level of Benjamin Franklin or Ralph Waldo Emerson or Florence Nightingale or Collette herself, do not read the papers that are left behind when said loved one passes. Burn them. Shred them. Recycle them. Spare yourself the torment of ambivalent feelings stirred up by unfinished business. If you just can’t resist, here’s a good guide for figuring out what to toss and what to keep.

Let me wrap this up on a positive note. One happy aspect of Mom having so much stuff is setting aside items that I know will mean a lot to Mom’s special friends. I’ve already passed on a few pieces of jewelry to the fellow artists Mom talked about from her art class. Those women thanked me with tears in their eyes, touched by knowing Mom thought enough of them to make sure I gave them those mementoes.

There are many ways to honor the passing of our loved ones. Remembering what was best about them can bring some comfort to everyone involved.

 

 

 

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Filed under Family, family tradition, housework, memoirs, mother, parenting, therapy

In Honor of All Those Whom We Have Lost


by Lillian Csernica on October 10, 2017

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It’s that time of year. The O-bon Festival. El Dia de Los Muertos. All Hallows’ Eve. All Souls’ Day.

As the sunlight fades from the summer’s warm butter yellow into the pale light of autumn, we think about the people we’ve lost. All the tragedies and natural disasters that have struck this year have left many of us with fresh emptiness in our lives. For me, this became personal yesterday when the writing community lost someone I’ve known for a long time.

In honor of all the people who are gone now, and all those who must remain behind, I offer this poem.

Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

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The Comfort Zone: Are You In or Out?


by Lillian Csernica on September 5, 2017

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I’ve been reading a lot lately about how writers need to get out of their comfort zones. Apparently better writing is achieved once we leave our comfort zones and venture out into the wild terrain of ideas that scare the daylights out of us.

I’m not talking about horror per se. There are subjects that we all find distressing. The kind of material that people these days label with trigger warnings. Facts and stories and ideas which will hit us where we live, push on old bruises, maybe bring fresh pain to old scars. Such subjects are intensely painful and could be trauma triggers.

A trauma trigger is an experience that causes someone to recall a previous traumatic memory, although the trigger itself need not be frightening or traumatic and can be indirectly or superficially reminiscent of an earlier traumatic incident.

(Relevant tangent: If you’re interested in the debate about trigger warnings, I recommend reading The Trigger Warning Myth.)

While I can appreciate the need to test one’s boundaries and stretch one’s literary muscles, I do have two problems with all of these articles urging writers to get out of their comfort zones.

  1. The people giving this advice have no idea what’s outside my comfort zone. I might have some very good reasons for staying in it.
  2. There’s a crucial piece of information missing. Maybe it’s just the debate team in me, but I don’t see anybody defining the term “comfort zone.” (That’s why I keep linking to the definition every single time I use that phrase.) To me the proper starting point is figuring out precisely where our comfort zones begin and end. Once that’s mapped out, we know where to find terra incognita. We can point to the spot that says “Here there be dragons!”

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Time for painful honesty. For years now people have told me I should write about my experiences with my older son Michael. Bed rest in the hospital. The terror of the day he had to be delivered via emergency C-section. Every day and night of the three and a half months he remained in the hospital, coming close to dying time and time again.

Why don’t I write about that? Simple. I’ve been too busy living it. For most of Michael’s twenty-one years on this planet, my husband and I have considered it a good week if no medical emergency forced us to call 911.

Same with John. Sure, I could write about the day he got out the front door while I was changing Michael’s diaper. I had to dash out after him before he made it to the busy street. I tore my right calf muscle doing so. Then I still had to get up and run after him. I wound up in the ER that night, and came home on crutches. That added a whole new layer of difficulty to being primary caregiver for two special needs children.

What’s outside my comfort zone?

Miscarriage. Babies dying. Whether or not to turn off the life support.

Wondering if I’ll ever know the joys of being a grandmother.

Who will look after my boys once I’m dead.

And a few other matters that I’m not ready to talk about to anybody, even myself.

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Yes, I agree that “growing our comfort zones” is a worthwhile goal. I also think people who dish out such advice should be mindful of the dangers of doing so. These are hard times. Telling people to go rummaging around in the darker corners of their psyches for really juicy writing material is not a smart or a responsible thing to do.

For me, getting my own car again was a big step outside my comfort zone. I didn’t drive for years because of a Gordian knot of anxieties surrounding the subject of driving. Now I have a car. Now I drive all the time. Oh look, here I am writing about it!

For once I don’t mean to sound sarcastic. You decide when and if you want to step outside of your comfort zone. You decide just how far, and how often. It’s good to tell the stories that only you can tell. It’s more important to respect your own pain and your own right to privacy. You’ll know when the time is right.

For some excellent thoughts on why there’s nothing wrong with staying in your comfort zone, go see what Darius Foroux has to say.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under autism, Depression, doctors, dreams, Family, family tradition, Fiction, frustration, Goals, Horror, hospital, Lillian Csernica, mother, neurodiversity, parenting, PICU, Self-image, Special needs, surgery, therapy, Writing

Time To Say Goodbye


by Lillian Csernica on December 8, 2016

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One of my favorite people is dying.

He and I have been friends for about eight years now. We’ve been in two different writers’ groups together. He writes nonfiction, a memoir of his Navy days. We’ve gone out to brunch together a number of times, and we have a few treasured in-jokes.

It’s very hard to see him and know these are his last days.

As soon as I heard he was in the hospital, I hurried over there yesterday. Fortunately, my friend was awake and aware, so we had a brief conversation. His brother and his four children were on hand, so I didn’t stay long. After I left my friend’s hospital room, I found a private corner and sat there crying for a while.

Today I stopped by the hospital. My friend’s wife and one of their sons were about to take him home. It’s time for hospice care. I don’t know how I managed to keep it together until I got out to the parking lot.

I wanted to write all kinds of profound things here about my friend, his life, and our time together. Yesterday I was in shock. Today I’m so sad.

I love you, Art. For however many days you have left, and for every day after that.

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How to Mine Your Life for Stories


by Lillian Csernica on July 23, 2014

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.

— Flannery O’Connor

You don’t have to be writing a memoir to take a look at your own life and see what might be useful in your stories.  We’re supposed to write what we know, right?  Who could possibly tell the stories we’ve lived through better than we can?  Let me offer a few highlights from my own adventures.

1.  I’ve been dead.  Yes, that’s right, D-E-A-D.  On August 29, 1987 I died in a car accident on Interstate 5 heading north.  I was driving my boss’ station wagon from Long Beach, CA to Black Point in Novato, CA, former site of the Northern Renaissance Faire.  The two right tires blew within seconds of each other.  The car went out of control and rolled two and half times, coming to rest on the roof.  My body was found on I-5 South, across a forty-five foot culvert.  Who found me?  A LVN and an Air Force Paramedic.  What they were doing driving south on I-5 in the middle of the night, I have no idea.  They called it in and tried to get an Air Ambulance, but the nearest ones were still too far away.  An ambulance from Bakersfield, CA came out, the paramedics scraped me up off the highway, and took me to Kaiser in Bakersfield.  I regained consciousness three days later in the ICU.  Do I remember being dead?  Yes I do.

2.  When I was in kindergarten, I was chosen to play Santa Claus because I was already taller than everybody else in my class with the exception of the teacher.  This was my first appearance on stage, and I liked it.  Costumes, theatrics, the performing arts, and Christmas have all played central roles in many of my more noteworthy adventures.  I trace it all back to cross-dressing as Kris Kringle when I was just six years old.

3.  I was in high school when my best friend Andrew decided somebody deserved his wrath in the form of toilet-papering his or her house.  I’d never done this particular prank before, so I was all for it.  That was my first mistake.  Neither of us had a car, so we contrived an elaborate plan that involved the two of us going to the movies and getting a ride from my mother.  We were within walking distance of our target.  How we got our hands on all the toilet paper we needed I can’t quite recall.  I remember walking out of a grocery store with my arms full of the big multi-roll packages.  I trusted Andrew to get us to our target.  That was my second mistake.  We had a high old time, festooning the trees and pitching rolls over the rooftop and draping the car in the driveway with much hygenic bunting.  The occasional car would drive by, forcing us to dive behind the nearest hedge or bush or bumper.  Now if we’d been really evil, we would have gone looking for the garden hose and soaked it all.  That makes toilet paper almost impossible to clean up.  We congratulated ourselves on a job well done and took off to meet our ride at the movie theater.  The next day at school, the story about the toilet papering was the hot topic of the day.  Everyone wanted to know who did it.  Everyone also wanted to know why that particular house was chosen.  Nobody who went to our school lived there.  Andrew had missed his target by a good two blocks.

4. From age sixteen to eighteen, I studied Turkish-Moroccan bellydancing.  My teacher was a wonderful lady from Saragossa, Spain.  As I improved and occasionally taught a class for her, my teacher would take me with her on what were then called “belly grams.”  These were singing telegrams, except of course they were delivered by belly dancers.  One night near Christmas my teacher called me up out of the blue and asked if I could come with her on  a party call.  (Nobody with any sense ever goes on these jobs alone.)  It was one of my father’s visitation weekends, so I was at his house, but it didn’t take long to get into my costume and jewelry.  My teacher had been hired for a bachelor party in an extremely high class neighborhood.  One piece of art on the walls there would have put me through college.  There were about ten men there in the game room, which featured a wet bar, a pool table, and one of those cone-shaped gas fireplaces in the corner.  It’s not easy to work a room when the best you can do is work your way around the pool table, but we had a good time.  The guest of honor and his friends were good tippers, I’ll say that for them.  At one point I was shimmying past a fellow who’d been holding a cold beer.  He chose that moment to tuck some folded money down the back of my coin belt.  I all but shot straight up to the ceiling!  When our time was up, my teacher and I made a graceful exit.  We heard later there were two more acts after us.  Those guys really were generous.  At home again, I was taking off my costume and money was spilling out all over the place.  I do not want to tell you where I found the ten dollar bill!

5. The week I spent in Yokohama, Japan for the 2007 World Science Fiction Convention has supplied me with so many stories I could write a book with a story for every chapter.  There was the wonderful security guard who helped me and my best friend find the post office where the international ATMs were kept.  The reception held by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan was the most fabulous event I’ve ever attended, complete with the U.S. Ambassador from the Ministry of Trade and the Mayor of Yokohama.  I met my friend Massimo there, the gentleman from Torino, Italy who edits ALIA and translates Japanese into Italian.  I had a conversation in Japanese with a cat, who answered me.  When we were trying to find the Yokohama Hard Rock Cafe, a nice young man offered to show us where it was once his mother came back.  Sure enough, they led us all the way through the very extensive shopping mall to the very doorstep of the Cafe.  I love Japan.  I can’t wait to go back and see what further adventures await me.

So you see?  What might seem like a trivial incident to you can become the basis for a story.  I could take the Santa Claus moment and make it the reason my heroine feels safer when she’s inside a costume.  The toilet paper incident could become a case of mistaken identity that snowballs into a horrible climax of payback.  The bellydancing lends itself to all kinds of stories.  Humor, romance, espionage, woman in danger, cultural exchange!  All of those could also arise from my adventures in Japan.

Because I lived through all the above events, I know how it felt to wear the costumes, to live in fear of the police showing up, to trust my teacher to keep me safe in what could have become a dangerous situation.  Japan was wonderful, but there were moments when I was lost, and no one around me understood a word I said.  I walked into one restaurant and the waiter said, “No English.”  I knew he meant more than just the language.  That brings to mind the weekend bus tour I took to Paris when I spent the summer living in Holland.  The tour guide we picked up in Paris didn’t like Americans.  The Dutch ladies on the bus closed ranks around me and made it clear the tour guide had better mind her manners.  The negative experiences might have more power than the positive ones.  That’s up to each of us to decide.

We cannot approach our lives with a poverty mentality.  Every day we’ve been alive has been full of sound and color and emotion and meaning.  Look for the moments that stand out, for the memories still charged with emotion and intensity.  Take that raw material and reshape it into the inciting incident, the problem situation, the change in the status quo that launches your main character on his or her struggle to solve the problem.  Use those moments for complications, for crises, for climaxes.  You will be surprised to learn how much you really do know.

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