Category Archives: Death and Grieving
Touring Paris with Jim Morrison – My Story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s book Angels and Miracles
When I was twenty-seven years old, I traveled to Paris alone. Shortly after my arrival, I met a local woman named Lauren who offered to show me around the city. I asked her to take me to Pere Lachaise Cemetery. She thought it was strange that, of all the sites of Paris, I wanted to see a graveyard first.
At that time in my life, I was obsessed with finding out what happens when people die, mainly because I had lost a good friend to a car accident several years earlier. She was one of the kindest people I had ever known. I was aware of the personal responsibility argument, but I still couldn’t understand why God would let that happen to her.
After she died, I started reading everything I could about near-death experiences and accounts of the afterlife. I also became drawn to old cemeteries, and even conducted a séance in one. I didn’t expect to communicate with my friend, and had been warned by more faithful friends that I might attract malevolent spirits, but I did it anyway because even if something bad happened, I would at least know that there was something beyond life, and that my friend might still be alive in some way. The need for hope made me reckless. Words didn’t comfort me. I needed a real experience.
Pere-Lachaise Cemetery was established in 1806 so many notable artists and luminaries are buried there such as Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Frederic Chopin. However, the grave I was most interested in seeing was Jim Morrison’s, the lead singer of The Doors, because I had been exploring his music and writings for months before this trip.
In case you’ve never seen it, here are a few shots of Pere-Lachaise Cemetery –
I became interested in Jim Morrison’s music and poetry because he shared my obsession with death and the afterlife, perhaps because of a similar experience – he had witnessed the aftermath of a terrible car accident as a child. His poetry and raging vocals gave a voice to the darkness in me. He wrote and sang like an animal crying out in pain. There was no self-consciousness or desire to please, just raw energy. In an era of peace and love, he crashed the party and reminded everyone that the dark side was still there.
The morning of the day we went to the cemetery, Lauren and I were at a Laundromat when a young Parisian man with long, blonde hair and denim overalls came over, introduced himself as Henri, and handed Lauren an Origami rose he had just made. He looked just like a “hippy” from the 60’s and, we would discover, had the same loving nature most of them strived for. We thanked him and complimented his artistry. After talking for an hour or so, he wrote down his address and invited us to dinner that evening. We accepted.
We went to the cemetery later that day. It was very crowded. When Lauren asked someone why, we learned that we had accidentally visited on the anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death, July 3rd. That was the first coincidence.
A large crowd was gathered around his grave in reverent silence. As I read his grave marker and calculated his age, I discovered the second coincidence . . . I was the same age then that he was when he died – twenty-seven.
As I sat by his grave, I recalled the lines from his poetry that meant the most to me at that time.
“We must tie all these desperate impressions together.”
“I can forgive my injuries in the name of wisdom, luxury, romance.”
“Let me tell you about heartache and the loss of god. Wandering, wandering in hopeless night.”
A man with dreadlocks played People Are Strange on a guitar. A young girl started to cry. Her boyfriend put his arm around her. It began to rain softly, as if her sadness was affecting heaven itself.
I wondered what Jim might say if he saw us all. I imagined it might be something like, “Cheer up. I’m only dead.” After all, he had referred to death as a “beautiful friend” and asked, “Can you picture what will be? So limitless and free.” Unfortunately for those who loved him, he wasn’t afraid of dying.
That night, we took the metro across town to Henri’s apartment. His girlfriend and another couple were there. They all looked like flower children, too. We all got along wonderfully.
It was a warm night so Lauren and I sat by a window. I looked out and noticed a mural of a man’s face on the front wall of an apartment building across the street. I wasn’t able to make out who it was at first, but as I focused, I realized it was Jim Morrison! I asked Henri why it was there. He said, “That’s where he died.” He pointed to a window and said, “That was his apartment, right there.”
That was the third and most chilling coincidence. We had not mentioned to Henri at the Laundromat that we were planning to visit Jim Morrison’s grave that day. In all of Paris, what were the chances of ending up across the street from the apartment where he died a few hours later? I imagined Jim had guided me there through Henri, a free spirit he would have liked and identified with.
I looked at the window of Jim’s old apartment again and saw the silhouette of a male figure passing behind the curtains. My rational mind knew it was just the current tenant, but my imagination had become unhinged. It was Jim, alive and well, pacing the floor, working on a new poem.
I looked at the portrait on the wall again, illuminated by soft moonlight, and it seemed to be smiling playfully at my bewilderment. But that feeling turned into comfort as I imagined it was Jim’s way of thanking me, not just for reading his work but for getting to the soul of it. I like to believe that artists who have passed on know when someone is savoring their creations, and that they smile for a moment before returning to whatever they’re doing in heaven. I hope so.
Lauren and I said goodnight to our new friends and walked down the street toward the metro. When we reached the corner, I asked her to wait for me. I walked back to the portrait on the wall and looked up at the window of Jim’s former apartment, lit with a soft, yellow light. I tried to remember the William Blake line that inspired the name of Morrison’s band . . . “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
I had been living in a cavern, but for the first time in years, death didn’t seem so final. Everything did seem infinite. I thought of the friend I had lost and finally felt a little peace. I closed my eyes, touched the mural of Jim’s face, whispered “thank you”, and walked away into the Paris night, into life.
“This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles © 2016 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.”
17 Children This Time
I don’t expect very many people to read this. It’s going to be long. It will take a while to vent about this latest mass murder of our children by another recent child who decided being a monster was preferable to whatever he was experiencing.
I was bullied terribly in school. I moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old so I was perpetually “the new kid”, being tested over and over at each new school by children modeling unbalanced, cruel behavior they had probably learned from unbalanced, cruel parents or other relatives. The problem was I had no violence in me. I was born without an aggressive instinct or the need to dominate others to make myself feel strong, as children should be.
I don’t know why I was so passive. My father was a great provider and could be very loving, but there was also an insecure side of him that told stories of old fights in his youth on the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, as if he were describing some happy event. My older brother wasn’t naturally aggressive, either, but his desperation to win over my father was so strong, he begged him to teach him how to box in the back yard and would get into fights at school on an almost weekly basis. When he would come home with another black eye, our father would say he shouldn’t do that (because he knew he was supposed to) but then he would ask what happened and his eyes would light up when he told him he won. The message was clear – violence is manly.
God in heaven, it took me a long time to shake that belief. It took me a long time to realize that violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness.
When I was thirteen, again the new kid at a new junior high school, I was in P.E. class playing ping-pong when our ball jumped off the table and was picked up by a kid I didn’t know. I walked over and asked him for the ball. He didn’t give it to me. I asked him again. He said, “Why don’t you try to take it?”, then looked at his friends and laughed. When he looked away, I took it out of his hand, said thanks and walked away. He yelled “Hey!” and punched me as I turned around, all for taking a ping-pong ball that was mine to begin with. His equally disturbed friends then targeted me and the bullying began. The usual stuff – name-calling, knocking my books out of my hands in the halls, bumping shoulders, etc. Eventually, another one punched me for some made-up offense.
Being a sensitive kid, I had not yet built up the rage necessary to learn to fight and walk around guarded, so I just took it. The truth is I was also scared. I didn’t understand these kids who so easily punched other kids in the face, and even seemed to take great pride and glee in it. I remember thinking I was glad it was they that were able to do that and not me, even as the cuts were healing and the bruises were yellowing.
I had taken an experimental sojourn into the world of bullying earlier in my childhood, sort of like trying on a costume. Fortunately, the costume didn’t fit me and I knew it right away. A classmate in fourth grade named Ward had told on me for talking in class and I punched him in the stomach by the bike racks after school. It was so against my nature to be cruel, I made myself physically ill from the guilt I felt about it. I tried to apologize to him the next day but he walked right by me.
My best friend in sixth grade lived with a neglectful mother and had a father who was ex-military and stricken with the worst case of short-man’s complex I had ever witnessed before or since. The problem was he wasn’t short to me then, and seemed very manly. He was always bragging over beers about some poor, probably passive guy he had just pummeled, and would tell my friend to beat up a bully at school or don’t ever visit him again. He never spent a minute of quality time with my friend, but he was so desperate to connect with his father, we would walk across town to visit him where he lived with his new family. Of course, he would ask my friend to “make a muscle” and tell him about any fights he got into at school, beaming proudly when he said he won, just like my dad did. My friend became a bully. I didn’t. But then, my parents were together, and my father was a hell of a lot more loving, with a great sense of humor that balanced out the bad stuff. My mother was also more loving than his was. I just caught more breaks, and they saved me from becoming angry, bitter and resentful – all the precursors to psychotic.
I was bullied so badly at the new place we moved to when I was a very awkward thirteen year-old, I pretended to be sick to avoid school, or when I did go, I would walk toward the school until my mother drove away, then turn around and walk around town all day, returning home eight hours later as if I had been in school all day.
The stress a bullied child feels, to their minds, is equal to the stress any soldier feels going into battle. It’s all relative. A child who gets a giant zit on his/her nose on prom night is just as stressed as someone waking up in a hospital with a leg missing. Emotions are bigger to children because the world is new to them – life is new – and they are experiencing them for the first time. They don’t yet have the equal parts benefit and curse of experience and the comparative boredom that accompanies it. Some kids, anyway. A blessed few are somehow given that magical blend of wisdom that insulates them from the nonsense of high school cliques and head games.
Despite all the bullying, though, the thought of murdering someone never crossed my mind back then. Not once. It wasn’t that the stress wasn’t there. It wasn’t that I didn’t hate them. So what was it? I have plenty of theories I could pontificate about, but what would be the use? Very few people will possess the required attention span to read a long post like this, and those that do are probably not going to be troubled enough to contemplate such horror and steered away from it by something I wrote. Nor will this post influence government policy. This is writing as pressure relief. Narcissistic in a way, because I don’t know what else to do.
I have two daughters – four and six years old. I read to them and pray with them every night. My wife and I sleep in the same room with them. There are two beds side-by-side so the room is basically one big bed except for the dresser, which is bolted to the wall in the event of the California earthquake everyone says could strike at any minute. When I take them to school, I wait until the doors close and lock before I leave. I’m usually the last parent there. Some call it paranoia. I call it heightened awareness. I wish I didn’t have to worry, but how can’t I in a world with so many people hoping to become famous not by accomplishing something great but by becoming a monster.
I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking about those seventeen kids who went to school yesterday morning like any other day, waved goodbye to their parents, then ended up being murdered by somebody most of them probably didn’t even know. I held my girls a little tighter and prayed harder that they would be protected from the craziness of this world when I can’t be with them. I kissed my youngest daughters little hand as she slept. It smelled like a cookie she had eaten earlier that evening.
So here’s my list of why mass shootings happen. All equally irrelevant and uncorrectable.
- Absent or disinterested parents.
- Overworked teachers.
- Mean classmates.
- Complacent social media platforms and friends (who don’t report threats.)
- Violent movies and video games that inspire real-life experience, the way a drug dosage must be increased to achieve the same high.
- The general kindness in our culture, or lack thereof.
- Celebration of the wrong things – celebrity and wealth vs. kindness and service to others.
- Incivility of speech and action. Look at the comments under any news story on the internet, even the most seemingly benign ones, and it doesn’t take long to find one with someone (usually operating under a nickname) verbally abusing someone else. Where did this lack of civility and respect come from? Certainly not from America’s Judeo-Christian background. People are getting uglier, meaner, less tolerant.
- The Internet. We tell our kids not to walk down dark alleys at night, but let their minds wander through a virtual one every day.
- Mental pollution. Watch any movie, documentary or home video prior to 1960 and you will see a different America populated by people whose minds had not been polluted by craven, ungodly imaged of depravity and violence, or the total degradation of the female that we call pornography. We accept these things as a natural part of modern life, but how natural are they, really? We’re all taking part in the largest mass experiment in history – to see what the effects of the constant exposure to depraved, violent imagery is on the human mind, particularly the adolescent mind. Have you ever wondered what your mind would be like if you had never seen a single, simulated murder? (The average American witnesses thousands of murders on TV, in movies and in video games before the age of 18.) Personally, I envy those who lived before 1960 for how pure their minds and spirits must have been. Childlike, as that word used to be defined. Many of them had survived world wars, which only made them even more committed to kindness and moral purity. Those who have seen the worst of humanity are most likely to celebrate the best of it.
- Overpopulation and the lack of accountability it causes. People think they can treat anyone and everyone like dirt, blend back into the crowd, and never be questioned about it again. The human mind is better suited to life in small villages and feels small, insignificant and unimportant in giant crowds.
- Guns. The weapon of choice of the Florida killer and the Vegas killer was the AR-15 assault rifle, to ensure the largest number of murders. No civilian needs to own one of these to protect his home. The necessary evil of pistols in this increasingly violent and psychotic world is enough for anyone.
- More federal funding for mental health and mental health awareness.
- A greater emphasis on compassion from every conceivable angle – arts and politics – even with those we disagree with politically. The greater the divide is between each other, the easier it is to justify doing harm to others.
- Pharmaceutical drugs. In the old days, kids were just called wild, spirited, or hyperactive, but the drug companies needed to name these conditions diseases, syndromes and disorders because you can’t sell a drug for something that doesn’t have a name. As a result, kids who are just different and will probably grow out of it are labeled so the pharmaceutical industry can sell them a drug. These drugs often causes “thoughts of suicide” – the TV ads for these drugs often say so – but you never hear “homicidal thoughts” for some reason, even though a lot of these homicidal kids were medicated. I don’t wonder why. It’s because Big Pharma has a stranglehold on us, in more ways than one. Any industry billions of dollars run through is rife with corruption. Some kids benefit from medication, but most can do without it. We are turning our kids into medicine cabinets and letting drug companies convince us that’s what they need – not time, love, spirituality, being heard. Nope, diagnosing them with some disorder and popping pills into their little yaps is much easier for today’s working parents.
- Severing of attachment to one or both parents through divorce, or just never having one to begin with because the parents are too self-centered to bother. A feeling of abandonment and isolation is possibly the root of all evil. My friend Amy Chesler taught me that. Her brother felt that way and ended up murdering their mother. Kids often act out the anger they feel at being cast aside.
- Removal of God from school and just about everything else. It’s healthy for kids to believe their actions matter, even when nobody (mortal) is watching.
Okay, I’m putting the soapbox away. And that’s what it is. I mean, who cares about some little blog post? The kid who is developing a murderous rage or just the desire to be famous – to go from feeling like an insignificant nobody to a horrible somebody – will probably never read this blog. They’ll probably never read anything because that would take time away from playing Bulletstorm or Dead By Daylight.
Someone once argued with me that people have always been violent. For instance, the Nazi’s never played video games. Neither did the Japanese fascists. Most Muslim fanatics never did, either. I argued that the people they’re referring to were adults, and children didn’t start becoming mass murderers until recently. When children start to act in ways that have been the unfortunate domain of only adults for centuries, we are in deep trouble. Common sense tells me filling the minds of children with depraved images isn’t very good for them.
A quick Google search of “violent video game images” immediately demonstrates how psychologically unhealthy the world of “entertainment” has become over the past fifty years.
We’re supposed to be leading and guiding them wisely, not letting greedy corporations sell psychologically damaging products to them. We’re dying at the altars of freedom (“creative expression”) and profit. The people who make these games would make a movie or video game about eating babies if they thought they could profit from it. Who will care about the minds of our children if we don’t? Certainly not them.
In my late 20s, I saw a robbery victim murdered. He died in my arms. I put pressure on the wound but couldn’t stop the bleeding. He was shot in the chest and his windpipe was obliterated. With his dying breaths, he looked at me with the same question in his eyes that all victims of violent crime ask – “Why me?”
For several years after that, I carried weapons and threw myself into my martial arts training so that I could kill anybody who would do such a thing to someone else if I ever crossed paths with a monster again. I was finally angry enough to be violent. The fact that the bullied kid still existed in me didn’t help. The kid was now a two-hundred pound black belt who hated thugs or anyone who looked, dressed or acted like them.
It took concentrated effort to purge that rage from my soul so I could be happy again. I still have resentment for anyone who could do harm to others and I’m willing and able to stop them but I don’t allow them to pollute my thoughts or disrupt my peace anymore.
I own two guns in case the craziness of this world comes to my door. I’m overprotective of my daughters because of my past, rising crime, and mass murders like the one that happened yesterday. That includes what I allow or don’t allow to enter their minds. The bubble of innocence will pop soon enough. I’ll protect it as long as I can.
But again, no matter what I think, those seventeen kids are gone and they’re never coming back. Seventeen kids with heartbroken parents whose worst nightmare came true yesterday. Seventeen kids who, just ten years ago, had hands that smelled like cookies.
Maybe the lesson to be learned from all this, if there is one, and if we’re capable of learning as a culture, is to be kinder, more attentive, to reach out to troubled people, to report suspicious comments or behavior. A few lines from two now obscure songs come to mind –
“Oh, people, look around you, the signs are everywhere – you’ve left it for somebody other than you to be the one to care.” (Jackson Browne)
“I’d like to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.” (Ten Years After)
After the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school, I posted the poem below. I don’t know why I persist in thinking words will help me or anyone else. Again, I suppose it’s just pressure relief. For what it’s worth, here it is again –
The Open Window
The old house by the lindens
Stood silent in the shade,
And on the gravelled pathway
The light and shadow played.
I saw the nursery windows
Wide open to the air;
But the faces of the children,
They were no longer there.
The large Newfoundland house-dog
Was standing by the door;
He looked for his little playmates,
Who would return no more.
They walked not under the lindens,
They played not in the hall;
But shadow, and silence, and sadness
Were hanging over all.
The birds sang in the branches,
With sweet, familiar tone;
But the voices of the children
Will be heard in dreams alone!
And the boy that walked beside me,
He could not understand
Why closer in mine, ah! closer,
I pressed his warm, soft hand!
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Journey to God (poem)
I know most won’t read this because it is very, very, very long, so to the one or two who do, pat yourself on the back for not being afflicted with the A.D.D. the Internet has stricken 99% of the adult world with. I really opened a vein for it, so I think it will be worth your time. Thanks.
And to those who think a rhyming poem can’t be profound, please get out your Ouija board, contact Hank Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Bob Frost and Billy Shakespeare (et al) and take it up with them.
Journey to God
An old man passed away one night.
He’d had a good, long life.
and all that he regretted
was leaving his beautiful wife.
To others, her glory had faded
as the years had claimed their fee
but to him, she was just as lovely
as she was at twenty-three.
He saw his high school sweetheart
and remembered her sweet, shy smile.
He saw his bride in a gown of white
walking toward him down the aisle.
He saw her asleep in a hospital bed
as she cradled their newborn child.
He saw her quiet and thoughtful,
then passionate and wild.
He was so possessed by thoughts of her,
he hardly noticed he had passed.
He was still alive in spirit
and all his pain was gone at last.
He was surprised at how easy it was to die,
like shedding worn-out clothes
but even more to see himself below
as his spirit slowly rose.
He felt no urge or instinct
to return and get back in
for he knew the body on the bed
was never really him.
It was always just a vehicle,
now broken down and old.
What he’d walked around in all his life
was just a vehicle for his soul.
He had to laugh for, being dead,
he had never felt so great.
He couldn’t help but realize
this was a natural state.
Death was not the end of life,
just one more stanza in the poem.
It was not a sad departure
but a return to his true home.
But the cries of his dear wife
would not let him leave this plane.
He could not bear to leave her
while she was in such pain.
He saw her cry and hold him
as he lay still in their bed
and heard her whisper, “Rest, my love”
as he floated overhead.
He wanted to hold her and let her know
that he was free from pain.
He wished he could tell her not to cry
for they’d soon be together again.
But the wall between life and death
proved too thick and strong to breach.
The woman he’d held every day of his life,
for now, was out of reach.
So he cried, too, thinking of her
so frail and helpless there,
alone with his lifeless body
in the home they used to share.
Though at first he was elated
to be free of that painful shell,
he longed to return to tell her
that his soul was alive and well.
So as he floated like a feather
through the purple, misty air,
his sorrow and loneliness mounted
and he fell into despair.
When from far away, through the haze,
a strange melody reached his ears,
sung by a chorus of angels
to soothe and calm his fears.
He followed the voices, clear and sweet,
and could hardly believe the sight.
Radiant beings with glowing eyes
were guiding him toward the light!
“Do you remember me, John?” one of them asked,
“We were buddies in World War Two.”
“Do you remember me, John?” another voice called,
“You used to call me Grandpa Lou.”
“Hey, John! It’s me! Your brother, Joey!
I came here when you were ten.
I’ll bet you never thought
you would hear my voice again.”
This went on for hours and hours,
spirits wanting to say hello;
reunions with those he had loved so well
in the world and the life below.
His emotions were tossed seeing those he had lost
in the maelstrom of earthly life
where often the good are taken too soon
and heartache and sorrow is rife.
But there were two others he struggled to see
till he finally grew panicked and sad.
He said, “Wait a minute! Somebody tell me –
where are my mom and my dad?”
His brother whispered, “John, don’t worry.
They’re here and they’re happy you came.”
Then he saw them, bathed in golden light,
and their faces were just the same.
He cried with joy as he hugged them and said,
“Oh, I have missed you so.”
For years, he wished he could see them again.
Now, he could not let them go.
He was happy to hold them, to look in their eyes,
and laugh as they had before.
He was relieved that death is no different from life.
There’s just no pain anymore.
He told them he’d grown to appreciate
all that they’d done and said,
and as nice as it was to tell them now,
wished he’d told them in life instead.
But like most, he denied the fact of death
and refused to believe they could die.
He never allowed it to enter his mind
as the months and the years flew by.
Till he found himself standing beside their graves
and it finally sank in they were gone.
He was angry at God who allowed death to be.
It all seemed so senseless and wrong.
“Why are we given these feelings?” he had cried,
“And love that grows deeper with time?
If we’re bound to lose it all in the end,
then creating this world was a crime.”
And just the way he had wished
he could soothe his wife’s dismay,
his parents heard his anguished cry
and wished the same that day.
For they had already found their way home
to the fountain from which we all spring.
They had freed themselves of their mortal shells
and their souls had taken wing.
Now here he was, with them again,
and his joy could not be contained.
If only he’d known death was only a door,
his faith would never have waned.
“If you want to swim in the ocean,” they said,
“Just think it and you will be there.
Your body can’t slow you down anymore.
You’re as light and free as the air.”
“Remember those Sunday’s down by the sea?
Those summers that seemed without end?
Just close your eyes and imagine that time
and we’ll all be back there again!”
But he worried that God would not let him stay
and that all this was too good to last.
He feared that he would be banished
for his faltering faith in the past.
But his family and friends just smiled and said,
“John, you have nothing to fear.
A few things they said about heaven down there
are far from the truth up here.”
They said you had to go to church
for God to hear your prayer
but God can hear the softest whisper
anytime and anywhere.
You search for Christ was constant.
You fought for your faith since birth.
And the kindness you always showed in life
is the sole measure of anyone’s worth.
God doesn’t demand blind submission
or condemn you for questions or doubts.
It’s men that said God was vengeful,
a dictator who bullies and shouts.
You thought you needed pure faith
or God wouldn’t hear your call
but the times God tried to help you most
were when you had no faith at all.
You thought that sins were punished
with torture and endless pain
but the threat of hell is not for God
but for the church’s gain.
We don’t need a hell to burn in
or a devil to torture our minds.
Judgment takes place in our conscience
when we’re shown God’s vast design.
It’s not only the enemy of man
who compels us to do wrong.
Good and bad are side by side
within us, all along.
It all comes down to choices –
light or dark, right or wrong,
and they make or break our happiness
in life below and life beyond.
Every sin comes back to haunt us,
no matter how big or how small
and the pain we caused in earthly life
returns to us, after all.
We each have our own individual hell
and a battle none but us can fight.
Millions of souls are still spinning out there,
trapped in perpetual night.
For until they cure their own blindness,
in darkness their souls will bide.
God doesn’t force us to come back home
but patiently calls us inside.
Some men look at evil
and label it “God’s will”
but God gave life, and death for rest.
Only men can kill.
And some say God is dead
or he was never really there.
How else, they ask, can one explain
so many unanswered prayers?
How else can one explain
the pain and horror on the earth?
This has been the central question
since the dawn of mankind’s birth.
But like a mortal parent,
raising a baby all alone,
God did his best to teach us
then left us on our own.
And like a meddling father
who a child would push away,
God can’t live our lives for us
and he can’t cushion the way.
To take every hint of pain from life
would remove our right to choose.
If you really stop to think it through,
we’d gain less than we’d lose.
Some see the misery of human life
and ask God what it means
but the only way He could end it
would be to make us all machines.
So God does not stop evil,
though it hurts Him to let it be.
He can’t both rule with an iron hand
and allow us to be free.
The place that folks call “hell”
where sinners meet their fate
is distance from the light of God
and time to contemplate.
For once you feel God’s presence,
all your pain and sorrows cease.
All your questions then are answered
and your heart is filled with peace.
Men bent the words of Jesus
To control the multitude.
They took his divine message
and made it low and crude.
Men have always struggled for power,
from the caves to the streets of L.A.
Why wouldn’t they twist the word of God
and tell us we need them to pray?
The ring kissing, Hail Mary’s, and rosary beads,
right down to the Pope’s princely nod,
at best, is only good theater,
a bureaucracy between man and God.
You see, God is not some tyrant
who needs a chain of command.
You find God in the eyes of the aged
and in a baby’s hand.
You find God in a sunset
so pretty it makes you cry.
You find God in every warm embrace
and in a lover’s sigh.
You find God in generosity,
and in the meek and mild.
You find God in any gentle soul
who kneels to help a child.
You find God in the soft, pink light
when a new day has begun
and in the flower by the window
as it opens to the sun.
And yes, you find God in the dying
as the light fades in their eyes
and their spirit slowly slips away
to its true home in the skies.
God is in every one of us.
We can feel it when we’re young.
Then we’re snatched up by the world
and into the fray we’re flung.
We grow cynical and weary
and forget all that we once knew
when the peace and joy God gave us
has lost its native hue.
Oh, if only they knew, John! If only they knew!
What a wonderful world they might win
if they could only see past their differences
to the spirit that dwells within.”
He was shocked by these new revelations.
His mind spun around and around.
The chains that tethered his spirit in life
Lay shattered in pieces on the ground.
His parents said, “Welcome to heaven.”
He felt a peace he never thought he would know
and though his mortal life had just ended,
it seemed like a long time ago.
Then a hush fell all through the firmament.
Impossible colors filled the air, far and near.
His peace grew so deep, he sobbed out loud
and his mother whispered, “Look! God is here!”
– Mark Rickerby
Living Well, Dying Well
In December of 2014, my father died after five years with Parkinson’s and Dementia, and breaking his hip, then being tortured by a grossly incompetent medical staff at Kaiser Permanente’s hospital in Panorama City, California. I won’t go into detail but it was a real trip to hell and the staff were the demons running it.
My dad died on December 21st, his young dog died without warning four days later on Christmas Day (also from a brain problem, ironically), leaving my mother completely alone. Then, as if all that weren’t bad enough, her house was burglarized. She not only felt sad in her empty house, but afraid, too.
As I was dealing with the burglary, my father’s sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was found dead on her bedroom floor. She had been dead for four months but nobody noticed because she was an agoraphobic recluse. She lived badly and died badly. A tragic end to a tragic life. More irony (or something more) – she died within a week of my father, even though she was twelve years younger than him, and she didn’t even know he had passed. It was as if my father’s soul, free of that broken body, found her and said, “Come with me, sis. This is no life for anyone.” Maybe his dog died to be reunited with him, too.
We will all die, and usually badly, in physical terms, from some diabolical, incurable (is there any other kind) disease or combination of them. This is the inherent courage of living – knowing the end will come, but waking up, getting cleaned and dressed, smiling at strangers, and making the most of every day anyway. We all deserve a medal. There is valor in just staying positive and living life knowing the end will come, whether or not we believe in heaven and the continuation of the soul.
My father’s miserable last month of life, made infinitely more miserable by the ghoulish staff at Panorama City’s Kaiser Permanente hospital (with a few rare exceptions), would have been completely hellish except for one moment at the end, after the morphine drip that would end his life had begun, when somehow, he opened his eyes and searched for me in the room full of friends and family. A friend said, “Mark, he wants you.” I was sitting in the corner with my face in my hands, crushed that I wasn’t able to save him. I looked up and saw him reaching for me. I rushed to him and held his hand. He couldn’t speak because his throat was ravaged by numerous botched tube placements. (Another thing Kaiser stole was my father’s right to say goodbye.) He pursed his lips, pulled me close, and gave me the last kiss he would ever be able to give me. I hugged him and told him I loved him, that it was okay to go, that I would take care of mom, and thanked him for all he had done for me. I asked if he understood and he nodded yes. I thank God for that moment now, and am still baffled at how he was able to reach through his brain diseases and all the drugs flooding through his system to give me that moment. A golden moment if ever there was one. I have despaired greatly since his death, about how he died, so without that the despair would have been infinitely worse.
Which brings me to my point – dying well. That moment said everything there was to say about my father. He had a rough upbringing in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with loveless parents, crushing poverty, and almost daily fistfights, but he never complained. He came to America and started a business that flourished for 35 years while others rose and fell around him. He lost his stomach to cancer at 45 and was cut down from 200 to 150 pounds. And again, he never complained. He never complained or made the slightest whimper in the hospital despite his hip and femur being broken in four places, despite his throat being so dry his tongue cracked open, despite the hospital staff making every mistake it was possible to make out of a combination of incompetence and heartlessness. And he didn’t complain as morphine ended his life. Instead, he reached for me and gave me a kiss.
I thought of my dad when the actor Gene Wilder died recently. He was asked in an interview why he didn’t act anymore during his final decades. He was sent scripts constantly so demand for his talent was still there. He said he didn’t like all the cussing and vulgarity. Decency and integrity like that is almost non-existent in Hollywood, where money and attention are usually the only factors considered when making a decision.
Gene Wilder suffered with Alzheimer’s Disease during his final years. He said he rarely went out because children still recognized him as Willy Wonka and he had trouble smiling so he didn’t want to make anyone sad. He didn’t get bitter and hostile because life was dealing him a terrible hand. He was good, sweet and kind to the very end despite his troubles. He lived well and died well.
While writing this, a scene from the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams came to mind. A patient (played by Peter Coyote) was very angry and bitter that he was dying young. Patch was determined to help him make the transition more peacefully. Here’s the scene:
When I was in my early twenties, I climbed over the wall of a cemetery one night and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles, trying to summon up something, anything, that would prove to me that there was something beyond this life. I had been told that Ouija boards could be dangerous portals for demons, but I didn’t care. My faith in God had been destroyed by atheistic philosophers like Bertrand Russell and I desperately needed to know if we were immortal or worm food. I chose that night for this “seance” because it was Friday the 13th, and not only a full moon, but a blue moon, too. I figured the timing couldn’t be better. But nothing happened. I sat in that hole in the ground in dead silence until I felt enough like an idiot to pack it up and go home.
But maybe something did happen. My brother had a troubled life filled with drugs and prison and died of an overdose at 37. My mother had breast cancer twice. My life wasn’t exactly easy, either. Maybe demons stay below the radar and do their damage instead of making flashy displays like they do in movies. Life doesn’t feel like nothing to me. It feels like a mystery. It feels like a struggle between good and evil. I can feel the devil push me one way and God push me another. We can write it off as imagination or believe in something larger than ourselves. It’s always our choice.
But no matter what the ultimate truth is about the afterlife, there’s one thing I know – life wasn’t given to us to spend it in misery and sorrow. It just feels right to be happy, generous, kind, loving. I don’t understand people who spend their one, short life buried in greed, anger and/or hatred. Such a waste. Kind of like having a sumptuous meal prepared by the world’s greatest chef then pouring ketchup all over it.
Timothy Leary said dying is one of the greatest things any of us will ever have the chance to do. He was right. How we die is perhaps the largest reflection of who we truly are, beneath all the surface behavior and easy words. Depending on how we live, we will die with integrity or despair. *
My goal is to have the same smile on my face on my final day as I do today. Death shouldn’t extinguish the light within us. It already takes enough.
- Erik Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development.
(Warning: Content may be unsettling.)
I was an insurance adjuster once, a truly unremarkable job that required a lot of driving. To make matters worse, I worked in Los Angeles, which is world famous for heavy traffic and road rage.
I was on my way to a job in the older part of downtown L.A., a burglary at a business with a very generic name, something like “Acme Industrial.” As soon as I got on the freeway, just like clockwork, some guy started tailgating me, yelling, his face all twisted up. I looked down and saw I was doing the speed limit, so I didn’t speed up and I didn’t move over. I wasn’t in his hurry. He drove past me and, as expected, flipped me the bird. I flipped him one back. We exchanged F.U.’s and he was on his way, tailgating someone else up ahead.
I reached the job and parked, still a little frazzled from the freeway. I entered through the back door. I stopped in the doorway, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. Three grim-faced men in white smocks looked at me. One was rolling out a corpse on a stainless steel gurney. The second was transferring another body from a gurney to a platform which slid into an oven, the interior glowing a searing an angry orange like a portal to hell. The third was sifting ashes in what looked like a cookie pan near the side door of the furnace, chopping it up into a fine powder.
Half a dozen corpses were lined up at the rear of the room, the last line they would ever wait in. It finally dawned on me that I was in a crematorium. I felt an impulse to turn and go back outside when one of the men spoke.
“Can I help you?”
“Uh, yeah. I’m here about . . . the burglary.”
“Oh, you need to talk to George. I’ll get him for you.”
He left me alone with the corpses and the other two men, who solemnly returned to their work. An old woman with wispy, gray hair lay naked several feet away. Her pale blue eyes were dry and vacant like dusty glass ornaments. Somebody’s mother, I thought. Somebody’s wife. I turned away and asked the other two men, “Do you guys ever get used to this?”
“Yeah,” one of them said, “After a while, it’s just another job.”
The man came back and said “George will be right out” then rolled the wispy-haired woman to the oven door. I had seen enough. I went outside and stood in the sunlight.
George came out and we talked business. When we were done, I asked him about his job, if it ever bothered him. He told me the same thing – “You get used to it.” I asked him how. I had to know. I had a feeling I might need to. He said, “It’s not really a matter of how. It’s like being a cop or a soldier. You either turn your mind off or you go nuts.”
A few minutes later, I was back on the 110 heading back to the office. I turned on the radio. I needed to hear some music. I found a bombastic classical piece, the kind you’d want to hear while skiing downhill fast with icy wind in your face. It washed my soul like morphine washes pain from the body.
I called work, said I wasn’t feeling well (which wasn’t completely untrue), and drove to the beach. It had never been more beautiful.
On the way home, I looked in my rear view mirror and, just like clockwork, some guy was tailgating me, yelling, his face all twisted up. I moved over and let him drive on past.
Art credit – Crowded Beach by Jan Matson
How We Survive (poem on film)
Just Live (poem)
I wrote this about twenty-five years ago. It’s about four stages in a man’s life. When I wrote it, I was in the second stage. I’ve completed the third now and hope to complete the fourth gracefully.
There once was a bright, young boy
who thought and thought all day
and rarely joined his little friends
when they went out to play.
Even when he would come out,
his mind would keep on turning
and while all the others laughed and played,
his questions kept on burning.
Like “Where did I come from? Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”
Very big questions for such a small boy.
Unanswered, his childhood flew by.
A young man sat on a sunswept beach,
away and apart from the crowd.
You see, he was thinking quite serious thoughts
and their laughter was far too loud.
His nose in a book, he just couldn’t hear
the young girls when they’d call out his name
and though the sun shone so very brightly above,
had no time for their foolish games.
No, there were too many doors to unlock
and so many knots to untie
like “Where did I come from? Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”
A middle aged man sat on the same beach,
a place he had come to know
as somewhere to ponder his life’s many why’s
though the answers he still didn’t know,
when a feeling of emptiness, never so deep,
filled his heart and made him afraid.
He thought of the voices of friends, long ago,
but could only hear silence today.
Then he thought, “Oh, my God. Half my life has slipped by
and still, no solution is near.
I think I’ll stop trying to figure it out
and for once, just be glad that I’m here.”
That day, his eyes opened and though nothing had changed,
the world became bright, rich and new.
And as he lay back to blend with life’s colors and sounds,
the great sky never seemed quite so blue.
An old man lies on a bed, close to death,
but not worried, not sad or afraid.
He smiles at sweet faces, gathered around
saying, “Please Grandpa, don’t go away.”
He says, “Don’t be sad. I had a life full and rich –
something not many can say.”
But their young eyes were still pleading, scared and confused
so he searched for the right words to say . . .
“When I was young, I had so many worries and fears
and questions I couldn’t get by.
Then one day I stopped fighting and searching in vain
and decided to live till I die.
I traveled the world, drank in its wonders,
found true love in a good woman’s eyes,
had beautiful children, life’s sweetest reward.
Each one, an incredible prize.
Now, one journey ends and another begins
and I was right to be patient and wait
for the mysteries that plagued my troubled, young mind
can’t be solved on this side of the gate.
So do one thing more for me. Know your own beauty.
Always stand strong, proud and tall.
And think of my passing not as the end
but as the summer becoming the fall.”
~ Mark Rickerby
RIP Erin Moran
There are plenty of bad photos of Erin Moran on the Internet when she was having problems that the tabloids were happy to exploit, but I will always remember the energetic, innocent girl, the quintessential little sister, on my favorite TV show as a child.
It was initially reported that she died of a heroin overdose, then corrected to stage 4 throat cancer. However, her drug use and excessive smoking were well-publicized for years before her death. Every untimely celebrity death is another example to me of what the world can do to us if we let it. We’re all going to get old, but we don’t need to speed the process along with substance abuse. Successes will come and go, but how much we let the low points define us is always our own decision. As John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in it we make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Maybe she didn’t care enough about herself because of personal tragedies, or because Hollywood stopped calling, or maybe she was just wired that way. Whatever it was, the tragedy is that it (cancers and overdoses) are often preventable.
Her death is also a little personal to me because my brother and only sibling died of a heroin overdose. I watched his gradual self-degradation the same way I watched Erin’s over the years. He went from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy who played baseball with me in the street to a tattooed, toothless convict. It was horrible to witness. He told me he saw Erin Moran once. They may have been traveling in the same circles. I also saw my dad unsuccessfully fight an addiction to cigarettes his entire adult life. When he died of aspiration pneumonia, he couldn’t breathe on his own because of all the damage he had done to his lungs. So it’s safe to say I’m anti-drugs and anti-smoking. To me, it amounts to throwing our lives into the trash.
Erin was born in Burbank, California, which is where I live, but she moved to a place called Palmdale, about thirty miles north of Burbank, which is a cesspool of drugs and crime. That’s probably where her heroin addiction started. It’s sold there like soda pop.
Take care of yourselves, friends. Embrace life and health. Reckless living and bad health decisions only help old age and death find you sooner than they deserve to. We can’t remain children, but we can prevent the world and others from stealing from us the things that are childlike – joy, hope, trust, innocence, purity, excitement. It may be true that nothing gold can stay, not completely anyway, but we can hold on to most of it by keeping a healthy body, mind and soul. Those who allow this world to pollute and invade them ruin their lives, hasten their deaths, and break the hearts of those who remember them when their eyes were clear and bright and anything was still possible.
Rest well, Erin. I wish you were still here, happy and healthy, enjoying your status as one of America’s sweethearts. I hope your health and mind are fully restored to you in heaven. May you have an eternity of Happy Days there.
Man, what a year. It seems more celebrities died in 2016 than any year ever. For this reason, and also the most contentious election in recent memory, most of us were happy to see 2016 go.
Some wonder why people make such a big deal out of celebrities dying. “You don’t even know them,” they say. “What did they ever do for you?” It’s because they’re not just mourning that person, they’re mourning the part of their life they represent.
I remember watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show with my parents when they were young and healthy, the world was new to me, and my little family didn’t have a worry in the world. Good art of any kind can connect us to moments in our lives like a teleportation machine. Paintings, sculptures, even just tabletop knick-knacks, bring back happy memories of the event, day or moment they were bought and who we were with. Songs, books, and TV shows are portals to the past, and the artists seem like friends, even though we may have never met them.
Now that my brother and dad are gone, I regress a lot (too much, actually), fantasizing about being back there again, all of us whole and happy, the future still unwritten. Then I look at my wife and kids and realize, as hard as it is to let go of what was, of the people I’ve lost and all they were to me, my wife and children are all that matter now. So, for them, I commit to living in the moment again, and that saves me from despairing completely. With my tendency toward melancholy and romanticizing the past, I don’t know what I would do if I were alone.
So when I mourn another artist who made my family and I laugh in simpler days, I’m not only mourning that artist, I’m mourning the loss of my own past that their creation was a small part of. This is fine for any of us to do, as long as we wipe the tear away – for them and all the yesterdays we can never live again – so we can see the road ahead. There’s a lot more living to do up there.