Sunday, November 05, 2017

All Saints 2017

Random on All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

1. It's been a long and very full weekend. I have no hope of putting together a coherent post, especially after a couple of Lagunitas IPAs and a Chicago Classic pizza at Lou Malnati's.

2. But stuff has been splatting on the windshield of my spirit, like insects on a long night drive. Can't ignore the mess.

3. I've sung Morten Lauridsen's Lux aeterna three times in the last 24 hours. It's gorgeous. It's ethereal. It's not even all that hard to sing. I've purposely stayed away from taking in the translation of the Latin, even from thinking about it. I can't produce the space and the sound and the support for the musical line if I'm thinking about that eternal light and my dear ones who rest there. (Or in Kris's case, are playing Frisbee with Jesus--my mind went there briefly during one performance and had to be rapidly called back to the Latin.)  

4. Space and sound and breath embody Spirit in music, which lifts earth to heavenly spheres of joy and laughter and light. Is that, maybe, incarnation in reverse?

5. More than once today, I found myself wondering if we have taken the hard edge off sainthood, or have sentimentalized the inevitable grief of living with our teary remembrances of dear ones, our candles lit for "saints" now in heaven with God. For "all of us," says the canticle, "all of us go down to the dust." And then—dear God!—24 people (is that the most recent total?) are murdered at 11:30 on a Sunday morning in a Baptist church in Texas. The incense of shock and sorrow barrels across Twitter and Facebook and internet news sites, as a few prophetic voices cry, this should not be! But sadly, we feel more and more helpless each time this happens. And what other response is there then, than sentimentality over the stories of the dead. 

6. "I am not resigned," said Edna St. Vincent Millay in "Dirge Without Music." 
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
7. I'm with Edna--not resigned, though I have seen the ashes on the hard ground, even as the spirit of loved ones lost flows all around me and within me, in memory, in thought, in joys, in places, in people. 

8. Spent some time with Kris's friends, who were "krawlin' for Kris" along Madison Street in Forest Park last night, visiting the bars they'd hung out in together, before his ALS diagnosis, before the wheelchair, before he died. I'm not good at late nights in bars with funny stories, teasing, pool tables and punching bags--never was. But it was good to be with them for a short time, to hug them, to enjoy their company, even as a totally sober old person. 

9. A friend pointed out to me today that to call a maple tree losing its leaves in fall a birthday tree is to put death into a larger context, to suggest that something else is coming into being. A poet, perhaps, could say this elegantly in sixteen lines, or twenty--and would discard or hide these random notes. Me--I'm going to hit publish and pick up my knitting. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Birthday tree 2017

I've been watching the birthday tree.

That would be the maple tree in front of our house which Lon noticed, and then I saw, too, had turned brilliant red when the sun rose on Sunday, November 2, the day after our son Kris was born. Sometime in the next few years, as the tree put on its annual show for our All Saints' Day baby, Lon dubbed it "the birthday tree."

Lon liked to make legends. Some he made by living them, "Front Page" style in the newsroom. He also liked to name his cars and compare life to his favorite movies. He liked our kids' birth stories, myth-size family stories, and created them as well as kept them.

I came to believe in his story of the birthday tree. The pink glow that its scarlet leaves cast on the living room in late October and early November is like a filter on an aging actress. It lifts my spirits, gentles my soul, and probably hides wrinkles, or at least bathes them in flattering rose-pink.

But it's not a typical year for this red maple in the parkway. Midway through October its branches were dotted with red leaves, but they blew off on a windy day. The leaves still on the tree are green or dull green-grey. They were nothing to today's Halloween Batmen and Spidermen, the miscellaneous hooded middle-schoolers with gruesome greasepaint, or the tiny preschool princesses (one of whom  carried her blue princess pumps and plopped them on the porch at my feet when she said "trick or treat"--they hurt to wear, said her mom, but they were still part of her costume).

The birthday tree has not gone glorious, at least not yet. Might be the lateness of the fall, yet another sign of pervasive climate change. Might be damp weather, or dry weather, or grief.

I miss Kris intensely. (He died three months ago, at the age of 30.) His cheerful, alert, oh-fuck-it spirit is very much alive to me in photos and memories. I resist saying much about this, whether it be in simple words or in metaphor, lest the explaining take the edge off, dull the memory or diminish how much I hate that this happened.

The weather app says it will rain tomorrow, on Kris's birthday. From the look of the tree today there won't be a scarlet surprise in my front window in the morning--no matter what the pigments do as winter approaches. Maybe next year.

I've got a snapshot of Kris, maybe seven years old, climbing in the tree in spring, red t-shirt, red buds on the branches against a blue sky. Can't post it, because the computer and scanner are resisting the commands coming at them from the mouse.

Maybe next year.

Sunday, October 08, 2017


It was a two-rainbow week.

Rainbow #1 appeared in the sky on Tuesday morning, a dreary morning. The air was heavy, too warm for October. I backed out of the garage, drove south for a block and turned right—west—and saw the full rainbow stretching broadly over the houses, the school, the school yard. The harder I looked, the more it seemed to be a trick of light. Real things waver in the wind--flags, trees, kites. Airplanes cut right through the current. The air that high above the ground was surely moving but the rainbow held steady, in one place, that was not really a place at all. I drove a half-mile before I encountered the rain that had refracted that bow, but by the time my windshield was wet, the rainbow had faded.

Rainbow #2 was spectacular. Saw it at 5:45 last evening, again while driving. The sun was bright and sinking in the west, but there was rain where I was. I looked east and there it was, stretched across the  sky, dividing the heavens from the earth, or so it seemed. It lasted the full 20 minutes it took to drive to our destination—like it was permanent—-and seemed to grow more wonderful the longer you looked. The legs, if that's what you call the parts that seem anchored in the ground, vibrated with color, and a second rainbow, fainter but still distinctly there, formed above the first one. I'm proud to say I did not rear-end anyone despite the distracted driving and managed to take a couple pictures when the car was stopped. My phone dinged with a video of the same rainbow, texted by a friend who lives ten miles northeast of me.

It was everywhere! And yet--where? This one shone so bright and strong, it looked like there must be a pot of gold somewhere nearby that you could drive to. Its sheer persistence seemed to be saying something, as if God was broadcasting an upbeat message to the world after a particularly awful week.

One can see how rainbows made it into Genesis.

Monday, October 02, 2017


I took two trips in the last week. One to Michigan for the funeral of my cousin John, who died too soon, too young, at age 57, of liver cancer. The other trip was to Washington Island, for a fall weekend with my daughter at a familiar place, full of family memories.

Now that I'm back, been to a choir rehearsal, checked my Twitter feed, unpacked the suitcase and put my feet up on the ottoman in front of my usual chair, I feel like a stranger in my home. I've thought a lot in the past seven days about being a child in an extended family rooted in Detroit and in rural Michigan and about who I am as an adult in that family. I've thought a lot about the years of being a mother to young children as they played lakeside on Washington Island.

I don't want to come back. It's not just the work week ahead, the meetings, the problems to untangle, the trip to the grocery store. It's something about lugging a load of leaden grief with me through all those things--lugging it, mostly silently, grimly.

 Both Cousin John and my son, Kris, who died in July, were extroverts, the lube in the social network, happiest when everyone got along. And joyful to be around.

 That joy resides in the past now. When it does break through into the here and now, it shows up in tears. Wet, salty, runny tears remember love and sweetness and special sons.

There's nothing to do but feel it, I guess. That's what grieving is--slowly letting in feelings that seem too much to bear at first, in anything more than the tiniest dose. And learning to love those feelings.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Perhaps by those very holy tears.

Sunday, September 03, 2017


While I was on vacation at the beginning of August I wove a basket. I've made baskets before, on and off in the last 15 years—some more successful than others—but hadn't made any in several years.  I wanted something to do on vacation besides the usual knitting and writing, something that I would struggle with a little bit, something that was a little bit challenging, even frustrating, that would take my mind off feeling sad or feeling lonely. Soaking reed, cutting spokes, weaving and trying to make the shape that's emerging under your hands conform to the one in your mind--these are things to do that are just absorbing enough to mute grief for a while on a summer afternoon.

I ordered a kit for this basket. There are two large plastic boxes of basket supplies in my attic, but rooting though the mess to figure out what I could make from what I already had would have been a bridge too far.  Basket reed comes tied into coils when you purchase it. But the minute you start to use it--either by clipping the strings that bind it, or by trying to pull pieces out of the coil without clipping the strings--you've got a wild and springy mess on your hands.

A kit, ordered at the last minute from Amazon Prime, gave me what I needed to make one controlled basket. I found the pencil box that held clothespins and few other tools and I was good to go.

The kit was for a "bread basket," oval, sturdy, medium-size. with a wooden bottom. The spokes fit into a continuous slot that runs around the sides of the wooden bottom. The first couple rows of weaving hold them in place.

Weaving is easy. Shaping the basket is hard. My oval was lopsided. One long side stood straight up, the other flared out rather more than it should have. But as it happened, I left the basket on a table in the screened-in breezeway of the cottage one night when it rained. The basket was thoroughlysoaked. I pushed and stretched and tied it together in the shape I wanted it to be, and three days later, back home and all dried out, both sides stood up tall.

Now, straight, deep and with a heavy bottom, it holds sympathy cards on my dining room table.

There are a lot of cards. It will be six weeks tomorrow that Kris died and the stream of notes and cards is only now thinning out. Each card has brought handwritten words -- sometimes just a few, often quite a lot. People are wise enough to stick to simple things for the most part, sharing memories of Kris, thankfulness for his life and his blog and his caring. They've thought about the right words, found a good pen and written them by hand. Some have waited a few weeks, not knowing what to say, or knowing, perhaps, that I will need to hear these things for a long time, not just a week or ten days after Kris's passing. I open them and read them right when I get home from work, as soon as I pull them out of the mailbox. I cry every time, inevitably, just a little bit. It's healthy—like taking a nightly glass of red wine.

I've never been a big card-sender myself. There's no box of all-occasion cards in my desk, like my grandmother or Aunt Clara would have kept on hand. I bought a sympathy card yesterday to send to someone else who recently lost a young-adult son, and I was surprised at the price. But then, I'm cheap, and not especially well-organized. When I need to send a card, I dig through the basket or the desk drawer and come up with a blank card--something dated and artsy, or leftovers from writing opening-night notes for shows I've directed. Thinking of what to write is not hard if you keep your ambition modest--something truthful and real, however small.

This collection of cards in my basket holds many messages like that--a grade-school classmate remembering Kris's friendliness or that he was the boy who didn't tease her. People acknowledging how hard this has all been. Statements of firm faith, along with statements of faith that acknowledge how little we understand of what we mean when we say "resurrection" and "life after death."

I don't seem to have a lot of words right now--beyond the ones I say to Eliza many times each day: "I miss Kris." Or I have them but can't seem to say them much less follow them into the past or into the future.

I do have the words of friends, in a very nice, though not quite symmetrical, basket on my dining room table. Thank you.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Catherine, on "the perfect partner for Michelle"

One more memory from Friday evening's memorial service, this time from Catherine Mussatti.

Good evening. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Catherine and I am one of Michelle’s best friends since grade school. My husband Nick and I were dating at the time Michelle first introduced us to Kris, and since then, we became especially close to Kris and will always remember the times we have had building our relationship alongside theirs.

I knew Kris was the perfect partner for Michelle from that first time we met him, and witnessed Michelle drunkenly throw a pencil at his eye during a heated night of board games and beer. In that moment, I figured most guys would start to have second thoughts about my crazy best friend, but in some goofy way, that was a metaphor for the kind of relationship Kris and Michelle would have. Fun, fast-paced, forgiving, and patient. They married just two years later. It was meant to be – God surely had a plan.

It’s been inspiring and humbling to see Kris and Michelle’s love grow from the very start. Nick and I have been lucky to spend time with them at bars and breweries, out in back yards and playing board games, and most memorably, on a trip to New York City last summer where we agreed Chicago deep-dish is infinitely better than New York-style pizza, which Kris called “just normal pizza”. I’ll always remember Kris and Michelle’s wedding entrance, which involved them dancing to and twerking to hip hop in sunglasses, or seeing Kris slow dancing with Michelle at our wedding, with Michelle in his lap, arms around him in his wheelchair.

I am most thankful that he showed Michelle, who means so much to me, what it is to be a great man, husband, and friend. Michelle told me that Kris was a thoughtful listener, and I always considered him to be genuine in conversation, and able to tell it like it is. Kris’s intentions were always real and his love unwavering. Even in these last weeks, he planned ahead to his and Michelle’s upcoming 4th wedding anniversary, and surprised her with an early gift. Despite the unexpected difficulties in his life, Kris always managed to put others first.

Reading through people’s reflections online in these past few days, the words inspiration, determination, courage, strength, confidence, ambition, and optimism are used consistently to describe Kris. The one word I feel that summarizes all of these, is GRIT. The dictionary describes grit as a firmness of mind or spirit and unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. Grit is a trait based on an individual's passion for a particular goal, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their objective. Kris embodied grit, and never lost sight of his goal of ending ALS, advocating for and in the community, and to continue to be a positive, optimistic person despite facing an unimaginable challenge and battle. He lived with a purpose, and spent all his days living up to that.

To close, my vow and call to action for the Gronk’s Grace Army, is to not let our passion and the fight against ALS die with Kris. His life here on Earth may be over, but Kris’ legacy is far from settled. His legacy isn’t defined by just the times we’ve shared together, or the memories we have of him, but the impact Kris has made on us that changes who we are. Kris’s name is not etched on a tombstone, but is carved on our hearts forever. Kris, you’ve showed us what we need to do – it’s our turn to lead the fight now. Love you and God bless you.

Kamm, on Kris

Kris's friend Mark Kamm spoke at the memorial service on Friday evening, July 28, at First Free in Rockford. This is what he said.

Yesterday, in preparation for this time of sharing, I sat at my desk sifting through some 12 years of memories trying to pull a few meaningful paragraphs together. I found myself staring at the wall. My mind had gone mute, with only what seemed to be silent films of the past several years faintly rolling through my frontal lobe. The week had been a long and exhausting culmination of three increasingly difficult years.

Since Kris' passing on Monday, I've read hundreds of comments, anecdotes and messages about Kris' lively spirit, caring heart and inspirational mental toughness. While I love to read all of these things about my friend whom I've often thought of as my personal Butch Cassidy, these are not the things that caused Kris and I to grow as close as we did. Our friendship actually blossomed out of our mutual frustrations with life. We were roommates for the first time during our sophomore year at Valparaiso University. Kris was navigating a lot of personal turbulence in those days, and I was dealing with some things that caused me to feel like I was in a flat spin heading out to sea. All at the ripe age of 18 years old.

Our ability to intensely (some would call it violently) talk with one another about the things we were dealing with, and come to trust each other with such personal and private emotions and issues, not only grew us closer on a brotherly level, but allowed us to lean on each other during the dark times so that neither of us had to sleep with our heads in the mud. Each of us needed to be heard, and each of us needed someone to understand him at that time -- and the timing of our assignment as roommates couldn't have been more perfect. It was a God-thing – a divine appointment - that would prove itself and come to full fruition ten years later.

Over the years, communication between Kris and I became more seamless. We could pick up on each other's body language and understand each other by reading simple facial expressions. We could express vast ideas through a few simple anecdotes. This became more and more invaluable as Kris began losing control, first over his body and, then, over his ability to communicate/speak clearly.

I feel blessed to have had some of the conversations I had with Kris. We discussed things I've hardly had the opportunity to discuss with anyone else: deep, confusing, terrifying things. One of our last great epiphanies after a day of conversation, beers, and tears, involved uncovering what we felt was the most important part of our time here on earth. We came to agree that only one thing in this world pays back dividends when you're gone. That's the relationships we have with other people. People are the most important thing. We also came to the realization that though many people may say they believe this, few actually live it.

You see, it's become so simple to communicate with people in very abbreviated, very matter of fact, very impersonal ways. Yes, no. Up, down. Left, right. Too often we feed each other this controlled commentary of our lives rather than dare to engage in genuine intimacy. Too often, we switch our ears to passive intake and think, "Oh, it's not my business," or "It's not my problem…"

The ability to communicate and connect with and care about other humans beings is a gift – one that Kris fought to hold onto and employ until the very end. I can think of no greater tribute to the life of my friend than to do the same.